Via Revelation Records
When the iconic New York hardcore band Gorilla Biscuits would roll into town in the late 1980s, they were often met with groups of pissed off racist skinheads looking for a fight. Frontman Anthony “Civ” Civorelli would get on stage in front of dozens of people sieg heiling and spitting at him while he introduced “Degradation,” a song that aimed to rid the scene of the white supremacists it was infested with. The shows would often end in brawls, with Civ having to throw punches and take a few himself.
“There were Nazis, there were racists, we would go into places where there was a Klan vibe,” he remembers of his tours of the middle of the United States and Europe, areas that were not always as inclusive as his melting pot home of NYC. “So when you were standing on stage talking about unity, talking about being ‘one family,’ talking about how race doesn’t matter, you were literally putting your ass on the line.”
This is the battle for equality Civorelli has been waging, sometimes physically, for three decades. So when he woke up the morning after the band’s reunion set at This Is Hardcore festival in Philadelphia this weekend to find that people on the internet had labeled him as a racist, naturally, it came as something of a surprise.
Word had spread on social media that Civ went on an “all lives matter” rant during the band’s set, right before launching into “Degradation.” Many young festival-goers present tweeted that it turned them off enough to walk away from the show, and many who got the news secondhand expressed that they could no longer support the beloved band. Noisey Australia took things to a critical online mass by using the phrase “all lives matter” in a headline about it. The band even trended on Facebook.
“What bugs me the most is that my name is attached to trigger phrases that never left my mouth, being misquoted by an unnamed writer,” Civorelli tells me. Video of the set soon surfaced online, showing that he never actually used the phrase “all lives matter,” but was adjacent in sentiment enough to trigger people:
“In 2016, people still have to wear shirts that say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ No shit. Brown, white, yellow, black, we all fucking matter. Everybody here matters. Do not let the media, the schools, institutions, influence you. We are one family, one people."
Overall, this was intended to be a positive blanket message of colorblind equality. Simplistic and naive, sure, but in line with what Gorilla Biscuits has always stood for and has preached in the face of resistance, from a time when such a statement was deemed incendiary to crowds where swastikas were present.
“The whole point of it was how I thought it was a sad state of affairs that, as a people, as the human race, we need to remind people that black lives matter,” he says. “That’s what it was about—not that black people are wearing those shirts, but that they need to.”
But Civorelli unknowingly stepped on a cultural landmine with his speech which totaled less than 30 seconds. While “all lives matter” is, sure, technically a true statement, the phrase and the sentiment around it have garnered a stigma as it has been adopted as the official response phrase used by irate white people blind to their privilege and seeking to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement. The inherent defensive nature behind it minimizes Black Lives Matters’ core message that people of color in America are disproportionately targeted and killed by police. (A recent Washington Post study showed that over the last year and a half, while more white people were fatally shot by police, relative to the population, black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans to be shot and killed by police.)
Over the past few months, just about every celebrity who has waved the “all lives matter” flag has ended up trending on social media and felt the internet’s swift wrath. Jennifer Lopez tweeted the hashtag #alllivesmatter before deleting it; rapper Fetty Wap tweeted “My kids are Mixed #AllLivesMatter” before issuing an apology; and a member of The Tenors held up a sign reading “all lives matter” while singing the Canadian national anthem at the 2016 All-Star Game, prompting The Tenors to issue a statement that called his actions “extremely selfish” and noted that he would not be performing with the group until further notice.
Civorelli is a 47 year old vegan dad who admittedly doesn’t closely monitor internet conversations. So when he was not up on the nomenclature du jour, it blew up at him. Many interpreted his speech to mean that he was, at best, just an out of touch old guy, or at worst, another punk turned ultra right winger (there seem to be a lot of those among punks approaching 50 these days) and an “all lives matter” sympathizer. But it was more that Civorelli is a product of his time, still fighting to eradicate racism in general terms, and underestimating how much his words would be scrutinized in the smartphone generation.
Many fans took to Gorilla Biscuits’ Facebook page to defend Civorelli against political correctness gone wrong. Some likened it to an incident that happened at the the first show of a reunion tour for the band Chokehold last year when guitarist Jeff Beckham spoke against police brutality and pigs “taking advantage of their fucking authority and their power, and it’s not just with black people, it’s not just black lives matter,” prompting someone in the crowd to shout, “Cool racist shit, grampa!” and accuse him of “voicing off some white supremacist shit” in a heated back and forth that allegedly ended in a scuffle. It’s an example of what happens when eras of the scene overlap.
New York hardcore is not a genre that has aged particularly well. Many seminal records that came out of the scene in the 80s have advanced with the grace of a bologna sandwich on a beach. To a new generation of hardcore fans, this early era of hardcore—bands like Judge, Warzone, and Madball—often comes off as the literal grunts of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. You can hardly put the needle down on a record that came out of this period without landing on something that now reads as problematic.
In the most mild cases, some language used casually in those decades-old songs—words like “retarded” (which Gorilla Biscuits is guilty of on “Finish What You Started”)—understandably sounds off and cringeworthy to the ears of today’s uber-progressively minded listeners. But in the worst cases, bands like Agnostic Front promoted a nationalist message early in their tenure, rallying against immigrants and those on welfare on songs like “Public Assistance”: “You spend your life on welfare lines or looking for handouts / Why don't you go find a job? / You birth more kids to up your checks so you can buy more drugs / Cash in food stamps and get drunk.”
It's not surprising that the songs seem crass and blunt in retrospect. This was, after all, a scene that was a product of the Reagan 80s, populated by proudly working class, predominantly large men, who got their message across literally by beating people with their bare fists. It was, as Born Against vocalist Sam McPheeters once described it, “a world marinating in poverty and violence.”
But in the case of Gorilla Biscuits, the band that wrote the scene’s anti-racist anthem, this week’s backlash is not only misguided, it takes for granted the platform on which it’s spoken. The fact is, without Gorilla Biscuits and their peers paving the groundwork, even despite their flaws, there would be no hardcore scene today. Without them preaching about unity—a concept which seems basic by current standards—the door would have been closed to the next generation of bands to voice their opinions. Without them making it cool to tell white supremacists to fuck off, the scene would be less welcoming to diversity, something it still struggles with. (While the first person to stagedive during “Degradation” at This Is Hardcore was a woman of color, the audience was predominantly white.)
“[Fighting] is looked down upon now, but we were literally fighting for the right to be heard, for the right to change things," Civorelli says of his days combatting Nazi skins. "I’ve walked through the fire and put my own life at risk. So now to be judged by people who have never met me or walked a mile in my shoes, it’s very sad and disappointing, it’s really depressing.”
Ultimately, the reaction to Civorelli’s speech will wash off of the legacy of Gorilla Biscuits and it will soon be forgotten. But the scene’s readiness to jump down the throats of those whose views or wordings do not align precisely with its collective mentality, and the carefree nature with which it labels people racists, is what’s truly problematic here. At a time when there are legitimate dangers facing the country, including a basketball-colored narcissist seeking to strip away rights and rule the nation like a fascist, this eagerness to ignore intent and context in the name of PC hysteria is producing a new generation of punk and hardcore bands that avoid sociopolitical issues altogether and instead focus on frivolous subjects like drinking, moshing, and fashion trends.
“I think people are getting sick of the climate of fear—fear of being judged for saying what’s on your mind,” says Civorelli. “We have to be able to not be afraid to get into a dialogue or conversation for fear that we’re going to be labeled something. I never in a million years thought this would happen to me, especially with a song like ‘Degradation,’ where there is no grey area.”
In fairness, there were young and old bands at This Is Hardcore speaking out on political issues. Rob Fish, of the 90s band 108, gave an impassioned speech during Turning Point’s set that was a bit more in line with the modern discussions of racism within hardcore, noting that while the skinheads are gone, racists still permeate the scene in other ways.
“Parts of that fucking disease are alive and well,” Fish said of the skinhead culture of the past to a cheering crowd. “It just looks different, it’s a little bit more fucking subtle. But you can find it if you look for it. Just have someone say something like ‘black lives matter’ and watch someone fucking recoil and give you some bullshit like ‘all lives matter.’”
(Fish later clarified on Facebook that this was not directed at Civ or Gorilla Biscuits. “Over the years I have said things that didn’t come out right and I think it is fair to assume that Civ may have had one of those moments,” his post read.)
But Fish’s timely and on-point message proves that there is an onus on older bands to update their files if they’re going to step back into the fray. While Civorelli’s intentions were good—and again, to his point, he did not use the phrase “all lives matter”—intent and message are two different things. If defunct punk and hardcore bands are looking to resurrect themselves to play reunion shows, they cannot always lean on their histories, and do have a responsibility to familiarize themselves with current affairs. Otherwise, they risk forever tarnishing their legacy.
When asked if, given the chance to do it over again, he would forgo the reunion shows and just leave Gorilla Biscuits to rest in peace, Civorelli shakes it off.
“If you’re in a punk band or a hardcore band and you’re not willing to stick your neck out and be heard, then what the fuck are you doing?” he says. “Like we say in another song: Why play for us if your heart’s not in it?”
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi