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Welcome to the pit at the Hudson Duster.

Hardcore Issues
By David King

The Hudson Duster provides Troycore a home, but some who claim to be defending the scene may have put it in jeopardy

In the dark humidity of the Hudson Duster, teens sporting baggy jeans and shirts that read “Snitches get stitches” crash into stocky kids wearing blue shirts with white lettering that reads “True to Troy.” Fists flying through the air crack on sharp shin bones that in turn collide with a dull thud on the top of someone’s crew-cut skull in front of a sign that says “Dance at your own risk.” Minutes later, men who were pummeling the tar out of each other interrupt the rubbing of a fresh bruise or headbump to embrace.

Half an hour before this storm of flesh and fury, a young man watches as Mike Valente, Ralph Renna, Joe Keyser and DJ Turnstyle, the four men who make up the promotions company Stupid White Boy Entertainment, which calls the Duster its home, pose for some pictures. Without prompting, the young man begins proclaiming his love for the Troy club.

“This place is just sick!” he bellows into the frigid December night. The young man stands with a group of tattooed buddies dressed in hoodies, who take abbreviated drags off cigarettes as their hands are nibbled by the cold. “I’m here all the time,” he explains. Then, as if to back up his claim, he lifts his baggy pant leg. “See, I got this knee brace on and I’m still fucking here, man.” Then he raises his shirt to reveal a scar between his top few ribs, the remaining mark of what was probably a fracture or a break.

With his biker goatee, bandanna-wrapped head and goliath frame Valente, the Duster’s owner, towers over the rest of the crowd gathered outside awaiting the show. Softly, as if almost in disbelief, he chimes in, “Yeah, there’s kids who even have Duster tattoos.”

Scott Jarzombek, who has run an upstate New York hardcore fanzine and is a respected member of the hardcore scene, says these scenes and clubs give disenfranchised kids something to believe in. “When you’re dealing with economically depressed areas like Cohoes, Troy, Albany, there is really not too much to be proud of. So, you have to be proud of what you have, like the hardcore scene.” Jarzombek says the Duster stands out to him and others for a couple of reasons: “The people who run it are great guys. They aren’t in it to make money. Mike wants to make a living but he wants to give something to the kids. The Duster reminds me of when I first went to a show when I was 14 and hardcore was not such a commodity.”

As if on cue, Jeff Gabriel strides shirtless across Third Street, his muscled torso covered in spider webs of tattoos. He steps onto the sidewalk with hearty handshakes and greetings. His tattoos flex, writhe and distort as he greets his friends. Then he sticks out his arm to reveal his Hudson Duster tattoo. “See, everything is just good here,” says the young man with the knee brace.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately, you might not realize that his statement is a defensive one.

The Hudson Duster opened in 2003, and owner Valente (a veteran of such well-known local bands as Attica and Bruise Bros.) started hosting hardcore shows in 2004. With that decision, one of Troy’s most notorious and popular exports, Troycore, got a proper home within its patron city after a long absence. From the late ’80s to the mid ’90s, area hardcore bands such as Wartime Manner, Flat Broke, Politics of Contraband, Section 8 and Straight Jacket packed venues throughout upstate New York. However, after the breakup of major bands and closure of the QE2 in the late ’90s, the scene slowly faded away.

Says Jarzombek, “Everyone wanted a QE2, again and Mike has given everyone a QE2 again.” However, he says, “[The QE2] scene was a lot tougher. The scene has not been as tough in the last few years. It’s become a less violent scene. The Duster brought back the old vibe that Albany and Troy used to have.”

But early in 2005, the beating death of Matthew Carlo in front of the bar after a fight spilled out onto the street put the scene under unwanted scrutiny. Lionel Bliss allegedly elbowed Carlo in the forehead and kicked him in the head while he was already on the ground. Bliss, who faces negligent homicide charges, told police, “I got good elbows. People don’t know about my elbows.”

The six men who were arrested months later by the Troy Police are associated with a nationwide hardcore “crew”—some would say gang—called FSU. Bliss has a large FSU tattoo on his neck.

Police do not say they think the killing was gang related. Detective John Kooney of the Troy Police says they hadn’t had a problem with FSU prior to the murder. But FSU has a strong presence in the upstate hardcore scene, and its members may be worrying other fans more than they worry the police.

In front of the Duster in the blustery wind, the hardcore fan with the knee brace furrows his brow, and his eyes go from enthused to serious. “We had some trouble,” he says, “but those people are gone now. . . . They don’t come here no more.”

‘Those guys,” “that clique,” “that tough guy BS” is how people at the Duster refer to FSU. FSU has become known to the younger hardcore generation as Fuck Shit Up, but it started as Friends Stand United or Fight Strong United, and it has also been known as Fistfight Support Unit. Its adherents call themselves a “crew.” Most critics, however, think of them simply as a gang.

Says Jarzombek, “Violence and gangs have always been a part of hardcore. It’s a music that attracts people who come from a background where violence is sometimes the only option in life.”

FSU was started in Boston in the late ’80s by a group of friends who wanted to protect themselves from violent bouncers, racist skinheads, and others. The group takes credit for driving racist skinheads out of the Boston hardcore scene.

Since then, however, FSU has itself become synonymous with gang violence in the hardcore scene. Hardcore shows are now few and far between in Boston, as there have been numerous FSU-related stabbings and fights. In Seattle, FSU members have repeatedly tried to disrupt shows by hardcore band Danger and beat up its lead singer for singing an anti-FSU song. In Portland, Maine, FSU members are known for walking the streets looking for fights.

Locally, FSU-related violence has disrupted numerous shows from the Duster to Saratoga Winners. While there has been only one death, show attendees who have found themselves on the wrong side of the group have suffered bloody noses, black eyes and lumps on their heads. And despite their supposed nonchalance about FSU, there are other indications that the Troy Police may have targeted the gang during its arrests; for example, at least two FSU members were arrested who since provided alibis and have been released.

By no means is Troy the only hardcore scene to come under intense media and legal scrutiny thanks to FSU-associated violence. The Arizona Daily Star reported that on Dec. 7 in Tucson, Skrappy’s, a club billed as a safe haven for teens, was invaded by groups of adults wearing FSU crew shirts. The band playing, Shattered Realm, had strong associations with FSU, and some members bear FSU tattoos. The adults who raided the club allegedly carried machetes and hammers. The show ended abruptly. As the brawl spilled out into the street, a man who was reportedly hitting people with a hammer was shot dead by a man he had been threatening with his weapon. The man killed, Ray Pierson, reportedly was a member of FSU.

A documentary video titled Boston Beatdown goes a long way toward explaining how the culture of a Boston crew could spread as far as Arizona. The video depicts violent street encounters with gangs of youths attacking lone individuals, interspersed with interviews with FSU-associated bands such as Blood for Blood and founding members of the FSU crew. The video does not identify who is doling out the beatings and who is receiving them. However, during an interview on the disc in which he tries to explain the reasons for FSU and hardcore violence, Colin, of hardcore band Colin From Arabia, admits to having a started a fight simply because he knew he was being filmed by representatives of Boston Beatdown.

Boston police were taken aback by the video, which calls attention to the levels of violence around Boston clubs, and decided to go after those who made it. The DVD was released in June 2004. Headlines in the Boston Herald read, “Ouch! Revenge of the Nerds: Violent DVD Has Cops Prowling for Victims.” Quickly, the media and the police were following every move of FSU and those responsible for the Boston Beatdown video.

On Dec. 7, 2004, the Herald reported an incident in which witnesses said they saw a man being jumped by a half-dozen men wearing FSU T-shirts. Police found the accused, who were indeed dressed in FSU shirts, later that night, but because they denied involvement, only one arrest was made, and that was for disorderly conduct. The individual arrested was a resident of Troy.

Repping the club: Ralph Renna, Mike Valente and DJ Turnstyle.

Amid the controversy, the Beatdown video quickly gained distribution to national chain stores such as Tower Records and Best Buy. Ronin Morris, producer of the video, used his Web site to deny allegations about it made by police and the media, writing (in all upper-case letters), “Neither Beatdown nor any of the parties represented in the documentary instigated any act of violence for the sake of video footage.”

Members of the hardcore scene are quick to point out that every group of people has its bad apple, and that not everyone who calls themselves FSU is actually a representative of the group. Local hardcore/metal promoter (and Metroland sales representative) Ted Etoll says no group is to blame for violence in hardcore scenes. “There’s no way [cliques are] doing it,” he says. “It’s the intensity in the music that’s doing it. It’s the intense emotions that are created.”

Others aren’t so sure. Although not many insiders or scenesters want to speak about FSU on record, a number of them insist that the original idea of FSU has become perverted by the introduction of “mainstream,” “jock” fans who have no interest in protecting a social and musical legacy, but instead are interested only in getting into fights.

Scott Jarzombek says that something has been lost in the younger generation of hardcore fans. “One thing we’ve lost is that the whole idea of punks and skins being unified, a united front against a world we don’t necessarily feel we belong to. It’s gone from that message to, ‘I’m a 16-year-old kid and I want to show how tough I am and I’m gonna start all this trouble.’ ” It is this sort of attitude that many members of the hardcore scene think is corrupting the scene they so desperately want to protect.

>From whom does the scene need protecting? Morris claims that the violence depicted in his video is the sort of violence perpetrated by “drunken bar patrons, drunken college students, and drunken Red Sox fans.” His statement gets at the heart of what hardcore and FSU appear to have in common: strong feelings for their hometowns and a resentment of those they feel do not belong.

Says Valente, “The people that play [hardcore] and support it don’t exactly come from the best background or have the best lives. That’s where it stems from, reality.”

At the start of the Street Sweeper show on Dec. 23 at the Hudson Duster, a voice impersonating a child listing what he wants for Christmas rings out over the PA system. Then the gruff voice of Santa Claus breaks through to inform the child that he “ain’t getting shit for Christmas, ’cause your parents can’t afford it.” The tape plays on, with more and more children being berated for expecting presents and Santa Claus reveling in their ignorance and their obliviousness to the fact that their families aren’t well off enough to provide the Christmas they want. Then, as the dirty growl of a guitar bends into a stabbing Troycore riff, Street Sweeper begin their set.

But it’s not just poverty that’s behind the hardcore scene. Valente points out that hardcore fans in cities where hardcore is strong usually feel like their cities have abandoned the natives in favor of better-off college kids. “Troy doesn’t care for the people cause of the way they look,” he complains. “They are very prejudiced against how certain people look.”

The strongest scenes for hardcore and for FSU seem to be in cities that have a strong college presence. Boston, of course, is dominated by its many prestigious universities. The liner notes to Boston hardcore band Blood for Blood’s album Wasted Youth Brew explain what brought them together: “So our friends could have an excuse to beat up Allston scenesters at the Rat.” The group are credited for perpetuating FSU.

On the sidelines: A hardcore fan takes a break with a pair of brass knuckles on his knee.

Connecticut, where FSU also has a presence, is also known for universities and centers of wealth that seem to taunt the worse off. And in Troy, dominated by RPI and Russell Sage College, RPI students notoriously refer to Troy residents as Troylets.

Valente says his bar gives Troy’s natives a home in a city they are made to feel no longer belongs to them. “I’ve seen places cater to college kids. I’ve seen a lot of Troy kids get shut out. ‘No locals ’til midnight.’ And I said, these are all my friends. I’m not gonna shut them out. I’m gonna cater to them. College is a flash in a pan, and let me tell you, a college crowd is more trouble than any mosh pit.”

The members of Stupid White Boy Entertainment know what its like to be hardcore fans and in hardcore bands. “A lot of the bands we book, they’ve been in the scene for years and they know hardcore kids ain’t got money,” says Valente. “So I try to bring down their guarantee to hold $5 shows.” He also notes that “national bands come here and they are shocked . . . ’cause we actually pay them.”

Troy has been known for its brand of hardcore music for years. Members of many national bands know and appreciate the Troy scene. Metroland has received a slew of e-mail messages from national bands voicing their support for the Duster and Troy’s scene.

Jason Bittner, a local drummer who came up in the local hardcore scene and now plays for uber-successful national metal act Shadows Fall, says in an e-mail, “I just played [the Duster] the other night with STIGMATA, and I myself didn’t experience any negativity while I was there, aside from my singer getting a bloody nose. . . . But hey, that’s what happens when you sing inside the mosh pit!! Sure, there were a few Hell’s Angels there, but I talked to most of them, and they all seemed like pretty down-to-earth, friendly people. The club took care of us well, and everyone had fun.”

(FSU reportedly has developed an association with Hell’s Angels rival gang the Outlaws.)

“I feel that a place like the Duster is important to our music and culture, and especially in keeping the kids out of the streets,” says Roger Miret, of hardcore progenitors Agnostic Front.

FSU may have started as a way to protect the hardcore scene from outsiders and to defend individuals from rowdy drunks. But it has certainly evolved; though the question of into exactly what is hotly debated.

The upstate New York FSU has its own Web site and message board. The site functions as a hub for members to learn about shows and make donations in return for merchandise such as shirts that read “Friends don’t let friends fight alone.” On the bulletin board, members give out the latest addresses of imprisoned friends and members and encourage people to write them and send them things to make their jail stays more comfortable. Posters’ mottos include “Shoot straight stab up. If I don’t see you out I’ll see you in,” and “What’s a little blood between friends?”

Beyond the Web site, cards that read “F.S.U. Upstate N.Y./Friends Don’t Let Friends Fight Alone” and “Support Your Local Fistfight” have been distributed in local clubs. The cards function as an enrollment form for potential members. The mailing address is a post office box in Troy.

Although local FSU members declined to be interviewed for this article, friends and family of FSU members (who declined to give their names for fear of retribution) paint a disturbing picture of what happens to people joining the group. They claim the group has an initiation process along the lines of a gang that requires members to give up their normal lives. Some friends of members tell of initiates who abandoned their families to be allowed to take part in some of the group’s more sinister activities, which, they claim, include dealing and running drugs.

This is hardcore: A Duster devotee displays his battle scars.

Rumors swirled around the upstate FSU’s message board in Spring 2005 that local metal/hardcore venue Saratoga Winners was banning all crew shirts. The rumor created a furor on the board, where members insisted they were being singled out for initiating violence and instead blamed brawls they had been part of on violent security guards who aggressively grabbed fans out of pits or threw them out of the club. Some members threatened to go to shows dressed in as much FSU gear as possible to show their support and possibly cause a confrontation.

However, before the policy actually went into effect, Step Up Presents promoter Etoll rescinded the crew-shirt ban for his shows at Winners. He also tried to mollify those who were upset. He wrote in an e-mail that was reposted on the board, “We will no longer have any security at shows who are not Step Up Employees and Step Up hired you will see all familiar faces when you now enter a show at Saratoga Winners. . . . I can assure you all these issues will not be an issue again. Saratoga Winners stance on crew t-shirts will also be recinded. I do not believe in this kind of discrimination and I thin [sic] the club realizes it erred in that judgement.”

User BigRonin, who claims to be the Ronin Morris of Boston Beatdown videos fame, responded on the board by saying, “As a show promoter I understand the many thought processes that are called into effect to cover ones own ass and that of the club. Everything is good as long as he follows through on his statements, if not he should be crushed.”

According to Etoll, the ban was created by Winners owner Salam in reaction to regular violence involving those wearing crew shirts. Etoll, however, says he has never had a problem with any crew. “There are always tags in this scene that people try to pin the scene’s problems on,” he says. “Whether it be DMS [a NYC hardcore crew], FSU, Troycore, Albanycore, 518, whatever. The kids that come to shows have shown me and the venues nothing but respect. I find it hard to believe anyone goes to a show for any other reason than to have a good time.”

However, Etoll notes that he has never had to deal with “the kind of stuff” that has happened at the Duster, and he has moved away from booking the underground hardcore scene.

Others do see a problem. Miret of Agnostic Front acknowledges in an e-mail that groups such as FSU grow from a desire to protect a music scene, but wonders if things have gone too far. “There has definitely been an evolution of [hardcore] cliques nationwide. . . . What was once our protective police are now our aggressive dogs. I have always believed in unity for our scene. Unity begins with understanding and respect for each other. We are not supposed to fight among each other but fight (and not just physically) those who oppress us.”

Rocking the balcony: The masked men known as Street Sweeper rain down the riffs.

Jarzombek insists that blame for violence in the hardcore scene should not rest solely on the shoulders of crews who respond to aggressive interlopers. He echoes a common theme in the scene that FSU’s victims often are asking for it. “The people involved in the violence at the Duster are people I have never seen at a show there,” he says. “You can’t go to a bar and get fucked up and start with people and not expect something to happen. And it’s terrible that someone had to die, but at the same time there is personal responsibility.”

Valente will not directly address the issue of FSU or the death because of ongoing legal processes. However, he makes it clear that members are not welcome in his bar. And though Valente insists that the “tragic incident” that took place in front of his bar should not be tossed aside or thought of lightly, he also feels somewhat betrayed by his home city. Troy police say they have seen a stream of people coming in to their precincts with black eyes and bruises sustained at the bar, and they expect it to be closed.

Valente points out that since the bar opened in 2003 on Third Street, storefronts that were once abandoned or boarded up are now full of activity. “We threw a big block party when we opened, and it was a big success. We heard from people after that, ‘That was great. That’s the sort of thing the city needs!’ ” Valente says attempts to have another block party have been ignored by the mayor’s office.

Valente says that seeing his bar portrayed in the media as the dangerous heart of criminality has hurt him and shaken his faith in his community. “There are bars where terrible stuff is going on, but they don’t go after them ’cause they aren’t in the middle of their brand new shopping district,” he complains. He says that since his bar started getting the bad press, he has seen a great increase in what he calls “strangers” who come looking for trouble.

“You see them,” he says. “They come in with this look on their face. And they might get into the pit and start throwing punches or just acting stupid. That’s not what the Duster is about.”

And Valente insists that his regulars aren’t protecting their scene by means of a tough-guy act or gang-type violence, and that thanks to their understanding and respect, problems actually have been avoided. “Our regular kids will just step aside and let the guy just tire himself out,” he says, “and as soon as he’s done they are back in there showing off their stuff, having a great time.”

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