Ten Bazillion Years: The Tony Rettman Interview

Bazillion Points, the heavy metal publishing house founded by Sound of Beast author Ian Christe, turns 10 this year. To celebrate, Decibel has corralled 10 authors from the BP stable to discuss their own works and what it’s like to part of the world’s heaviest publisher.

If you possess any interest whatsoever in hardcore music or the strange and revolutionary culture that it fostered — a “counterculture within a counterculture,” as Ray Cappo aptly dubbed it — then Tony Rettman’s NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990 (2014) and Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History (2017) literally could not be any more essential. Smartly conceived and deftly executed, Rettman is both a dogged reporter and a wise archivist summoning truth and flow out of his subjects and subject matter even as he constructs highly readable narratives.

Decibel recently spoke with Rettman about his old school zine scene days, his present work, and all breakdowns in between…

I’ve seen previous interviews with you where you’ve covered the “What was the first show/7-inch/song/album that really connected with you?” questions in detail, so I thought I’d take a different tack here: Do you recall the first piece of writing or a particular author that started you down this path toward becoming a well-respected journalist and scribe yourself?

When I started reading Hardcore Punk fanzines around 12 years old, the writing was pretty utilitarian. It was meant to inform, not entertain. So I would say it wasn’t until I stuck my head out of the Hardcore bubble in my late teens or early 20’s that I started to admire and notice certain writers’ style. Byron Coley’s review of the Meat Puppets’ third album Up On The Sun was the first record review that really stuck with me because it checked all the boxes of being personal, entertaining and informative. When I read Joe Carducci’s book Rock and The Pop Narcotic somewhere in the early 90’s, it made me want to draw these obscured connections through rock history in his wry style. There’s also the obvious ones like Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Giovanni Dadomo and others. I would never say my writing is as enlightening as theirs, but I do a decent job of ripping them off.

One interesting thing about hardcore and punk — to my mind, anyway — is that it has always contained within it a level of respect and encouragement for writers. The people who helmed or wrote for the best DIY zines maybe weren’t held in the same regard as frontmen of the band du jour, but they were admired figures whose names were known and mode of communication was valued. Does that perspective jibe with your experience? Did you feel as if being a part of this scene opened the door for you to begin writing?

You were definitely encouraged to be a part of the Hardcore scene by any means necessary. I couldn’t play an instrument, so I started doing a fanzine when I was 14. I wasn’t looking to win a Pulitzer or anything. I just wanted to belong to something cooler than the mindless party scene the ding-dongs in my school loved so much.

What were the most important lessons about writing and storytelling you took from those early years doing [80s zine co-edited by future Mouthpiece frontman Tim McMahon] Common Sense?

I honestly don’t think I learned anything from doing fanzines as a kid. I had zero foresight and was just caught up in the excitement of the moment. And this stupidity pretty much continued on for most of my adult life. I mean…if I actually did learn anything, would I still be in the freelance music writing loser camp? No, I’d be on a solid gold boat counting my residuals for pointing the label heads towards the flavors of the months weeks and minutes.

Once you began interviewing artists — and doing the requisite research beforehand — did you gain a deeper appreciation for the music you loved and the organic/intellectual/artistic matter from
which it sprung?

For the most part, yes. It was cool to find connections with some of the artists in regards to what they were into prior to punk. When I was interviewing people like Tesco Vee of The Meatmen and Richard Bowser from Violent Apathy for my first book Why Be Something That You’re Not — Detroit Hardcore 1979-85, it was cool to find out they were into Prog Rock like Caravan and ELP prior to hearing The Ramones, etcetera. Watching Alice Cooper videos with John Brannon of Negative Approach was another highlight from putting together that book. Although I came to these artists in the reverse order of how they did, it was still fun to bond on stuff outside of the Hardcore Punk realm.

As a corollary, did the process of writing and telling stories about others teach you anything about yourself? Put another way, was becoming a writer important to your evolution as a human being?

Whether I like it or not, being a writer is what I identify as, so I guess so. It’s the only thing in my life I’m comfortable and confident in doing. But in all honesty, sometimes I wish I just took up a good union job when I was in my late teens and forgot about any of this shit. The pay sucks and all you get is grief from a good portion of the people you interview. I doubt a welder is ever told he misquoted a piece of thermoplastic.

When did you begin to think about expanding into book-length treatise on various aspects of the hardcore scene?

I wrote an article for a magazine named Swindle in 2007 or 2008 — I forget the year — about the early 80’s Midwest Hardcore Scene. People really seemed to enjoy it and suggested I try to expand it into a book. And for some godforsaken reason, I listened to them! That became Why Be Something That You’re Not which came out through Revelation Records in 2010. From there I continued on with the two books I did for Bazillion Points.

Were there any particular books or writers you looked to as touchstones for what you wanted to accomplish?

With the books? No, not really since there really wasn’t any decent books about Hardcore Punk at the time I started my first book. Now it seems Hardcore Punk is the subject for every book or documentary coming out. Some of them are great. Some of them stink. But that’s nothing exclusive to Hardcore. Crap is crap wherever you step in it.

Your books all contain quite a bit of revelatory material — even for those readers who fancy themselves well-versed in scene arcana. Have you been at all surprised by what you’ve uncovered and how open certain interviewees have been with you?

With all three books, I found out about a lot of shit I wanted to know about for years. Some of it was stuff I never knew about at all where some of it was things I had heard about over the years but needed to hear from the horse’s mouth. And then there’s the stuff that never made it into any of the books due to respect for the interviewees. Since I don’t indulge in massive binge drinking anymore, it’s highly unlikely I will ever reveal these stories to anyone anytime soon.

Can you talk to me a little bit about working with Bazillion Points? How did you end up working with the Ian? Were you a fan before?

My first book with Revelation came out at the same time Ian released the Touch & Go anthology. Since they were about the same subject, I piggybacked onto a lot of their events. I guess Ian saw I had hustle in the self-promotion department so we went back and forth for what seemed like a couple years on book ideas that could fit in the Bazillion Points mold and the idea of NYHC finally stuck. I really liked how his books came out — especially Touch & Go and We Got Power — so I definitely wanted to be a part of what was going down over at Bazillion Points. Ian is very understanding of the subject matter and I don’t need to explain myself too much, which really helps since that’s not one of my strong points.

I assume you’re pleased with the presentation of your books, which is gorgeous.

Yup, they look really purty.

What is your favorite Bazillion Points book?

The Touch & Go anthology is my favorite. To have all those issues in one handy-dandy tome is something I could have never imagined in my youth when I was painstakingly trying to assemble a complete collection of them all. Sitting down and thumbing through it and taking in the evolution of that ‘zine is such a godsend for a nerdboy like myself.

Finally, what’s next for you?

The toilet.