Thursday, October 12, 2017

Built to Last: How a Jersey Kid in Ukraine Found Strength in NY Hardcore

Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I became aware of New York hardcore quite early. There were thriving music scenes all over New Jersey (Asbury Park was just a few beach towns north), and I was surrounded by all sorts of punk-related influences. But, at that point in my life, I found the stuff coming out of New York to be a bit too gritty, too intense.

Albums from Agnostic Front, Sick of it All, Warzone and others intrigued me, but I couldn’t quite relate to the anger, the desperation, the pain. Punk and ska seemed more appropriate. After all, I was a happy-go-lucky surfer kid from a beach bum town with a loving, caring family — I didn’t need hardcore anthems about resilience and persistence in the face of crisis.

That all changed after I moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, in the mid-90s.

“Will you stay with those who will only drag you down? Or do you cut the ties and open yourself and hold your moral ground?”

I was a young teenager, but I didn’t have to look for trouble — it looked for me. Drunk adults trying to pick fights. Gangs of Ukrainian teenagers trying to rob me for anything of value. Neo-Nazi scum with no patience for Americans. Cops looking to snatch up Westerners and shake them down for cash. Mafia types with short tempers, strutting around like they owned the streets. 

I saw a man’s body face down in an apartment complex with his throat slit, the floor puddled with blood. I saw homeless people with rotting sores, packs of wild dogs roaming the streets, a drunk man get his skull crushed by a car.

It frightened the shit out of me. At the time, I didn’t have the coping mechanisms I needed to process it all.

“Side by side we wave the flag of discontent and faith… We stand defiant, we can’t be silent. We might never change the world, at least we’ve had our say. The wheel’s been set in motion as we slowly chip away.”

So I bought a pair of brass knuckles and a cache of switchblades, and I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t leave the house without at least one knife (preferably two in case I lost the first.) At Gidropark, a dystopian fairgrounds located on an island in the Dnipr River, I found a sand dune where people had constructed a crazy outdoor gym. I began bench-pressing tank treads, curling pipes, deadlifting old truck tires. When I got jumped or chased by Ukrainian dudes calling me a faggot, I was always outnumbered. But at least I could up my odds.

“Brother, I’ll always look out for you… Sister, we’ll brave the outside world…”

To pass time, I would frequently buy cheap Ukrainian cigarettes and beer and roam the streets of Kyiv, looking for places to explore or hunker down. One afternoon I found a sketchy-looking basement with a Slayer poster in a cracked window. Inside, the light was on, and I saw a bunch of music, so I assumed it was some primitive Ukrainian version of a record store. I took a deep breath and entered.

The guy behind the small counter had a cigarette in his mouth, tattoos on his hands, no hair on his head. He said something to me but I just smiled and nodded, hoping he wouldn’t realize I was an American. Most of the albums were thrash metal or bootleg tapes of Michael Jackson and other American pop stars. But one cassette jumped out at me with its simple design of an old, rusty American truck and a dragon logo on the front. Sick of it All’s Built to Last was the first New York hardcore album I purchased, and I paid that scary dude a handful of Ukrainian koupons for it without saying a word. 

“When it’s us versus them, you can always count on me.”

I ran that cassette tape into the fucking ground. Now I could relate to NYHC. Now I understood what these motherfuckers were yelling about. Perseverance, pride, strength, yes, but also devotion, honor, friendship. I didn’t have many friends except for my younger brother, but Sick of It All sang about unity, self-respect, resilience. I needed all of these things in my life.

As a lonely American teenager in Ukraine, those anthems gave me inspiration and strength. The intensity of the sound, the power of the lyrics, the positive aesthetic, it empowered me to spit in the face of chaos and uncertainty. I was still scared as shit, but I told myself I could refuse to let fear control me. 

My brother, three years younger, was in similar situations, and as we listened to the music together, I saw it take a similar toll in his mind. He soon let my sister give him a Mohawk and — holy shit! — random Ukrainian dudes lost their minds over that.

Today, to be honest, this album is not one of my favorite hardcore albums, although I think it holds up quite well. But when it comes to naming the album that has had the most significant impact on my life? No question: Built to Last.

“You’re not in this all alone, just look around and you’ll see. The answer’s right before your eyes. I’m here for you, and you for me… True friends will always be there.”

I made it back to the States after high school and moved to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I was broke, working at Kinko’s, and paying my way through college. At night I slept in a basement that cost me $500 a month (under the table, of course) and frequently flooded with sewage. What little cash I had I spent going to CBGBs to watch bands like Agnostic Front, TSOL, Youth Brigade, Sham 69. 

When I heard Sick of It All was playing at CBGBs, I told my boss at Kinko’s I got food poisoning that left me suffering from “violent diarrhea.” She didn’t ask any follow-up questions. Fuck yeah — I had the night off.

Per usual, CBGBs was packed and sweaty as hell. And Sick of It All killed it. The chaos of the crowd combined with the precision of the music, the insanity of Pete Koller’s guitar jumps, and the sincerity of Lou Koller’s belted lyrics. And when they played the song “Built to Last,” of course I thought back to Ukraine in the 90s. 

I had made it out, relatively unscathed, and I was at the home of New York hardcore, watching the band that had helped me power through.

I screamed with Lou until I lost my voice.

Built to Last turned 20 years old this year. And, fuck, I feel old. When I realized the album was turning 20, I had an intense flashback to the specific time and place where I bought that tape. It had been a few years, but I listened to the album and the memories came flooding back in visceral fashion. The music that had inspired me as a 13-year-old still had power.

And you know the best thing about this album and countless other NYHC albums like it? Scared misfit kids from all over the world have stories just like mine.

Long live NYHC.


  1. Really enjoyed the post! Wow, I had no idea your time in Ukraine was so...awful! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading! Ukraine is a great place full of great people, but it was a failed state when I showed up, so it was chaotic for sure. I didn't mean to give the impression that it was a hell-hole, it wasn't - but the level of sketchiness was quite high. So was NYC when NYHC arose, so I think that's what connected with me. Cheers!

  2. I definitely connected with your description of the fear in Ukraine, and feeling the need to be able to protect yourself -- it's really interesting that the music helped you reject fear-- my approach was intense and ambiguous anger (also an MK from Kiev). I am excited to read some of your other posts and stories!

    1. Thanks, Ray! I relate to the anger aspect for sure. I think it was the righteous anger of hardcore that helped me gain what I needed to reject fear. It's a process of course, you can't just decide not to be scared, but I think there's serious value in facing fears realistically and facing them. Glad you made it out OK!