Rock, sweat & fears

Two alterna-page-turners cover the indie-bohemian waterfront.

Oct 24, 2001 at 12:00 am

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to sell all my records, cancel never-ending dentist appointments and just float for a few years. I’ve always envied the mobility and seemingly carefree instability of the laid-back musicians I write about every week. How did I get so stable, I ask myself, especially when a year ago I questioned whether I was responsible enough to have a cat?

Throughout all this uncertainty, bands have, on way more than a few occasions, become my life. When certain songs come on the CD changer, no one in the room is allowed to speak. I use my vacation days to travel to faraway cities to see artists who won’t come to mine. I read everything, write everything, search for anything and listen to whatever I find — over and over and over again. If you knew who these obsessions were, you’d probably laugh. Chances are, they’re sitting in their crappy apartments right now too, watching “Friends” reruns and picking their noses. But that’s what I love about them and it’s why it seems strange that they’ve been enshrined in an actual hardcover book and not some stapled Kinko’s creation.

But really, why not? Just because indie rock is often equated with sleeping or eating — something you just do — it doesn’t mean it doesn’t make for a mad page-turner. It’s exactly what does make for one. These bands are our lives. And anyone who’s ever felt the same way should relate to something within the pages of Michael Azerrad’s latest book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.

Azerrad wrote Our Band after watching a 10-part television documentary on the history of rock ’n’ roll. The series skipped from Talking Heads to Nirvana, leaving out the ’80s indie movement as though it never happened. Shocked by the oversight, Azerrad assumed he must have blacked out for 10 minutes and missed the section that covered Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and Fugazi.

If I were watching the series, however, I’d be more shocked if those bands were included. They were underground, unique, individual and punk rock — thus, not for everybody, and certainly not for a documentary that tries to cover the history of rock ’n’ roll in 10 parts. If they had been there, they wouldn’t be what they are. The DIY philosophy is based on a different definition of success. In a sense, the traditional definition of success is almost equivalent to failure.

Disheartened and determined to document a “lost history,” Azerrad (also the author of the best-selling Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana) recounts the humble beginnings of some of the most revered heroes of the indie underground. Detailed anecdotes and engaging interviews give great insight into various indie communities as they formed and developed in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Seattle and Olympia, Wash. He talks not only to the bands, but the editors of fanzines, college-radio DJs, label heads and the kids who carried equipment and let the bands sleep on their floors — many of whom are musicians themselves.

While very informative, his severe objectivity lacks a certain passion that you’d expect from a book that has Our Band Could Be Your Life (a line from the Minutemen song “History Lesson (Part II)”) stamped on the cover. It’s by no means a dry encyclopedia — Azerrad covers in detail only 12 bands in 522 pages — but his style resembles that of an anthropologist more than a fan — or even a journalist. It’s as if he was an ethnographer, studying the culture and habits of this rare American indie-rock species: Variations occur depending on geography and sociopolitical surroundings. They set up complex familial networks. They develop regionally and attempt to conquer globally. The skill with which they use their tools of survival isn’t so much important as the creativity behind it. Barriers between artist and audience are broken down. Substance abuse plays a role in certain tribes and is nonexistent in others.

You mean they don’t want to sign to a major label? You’re telling me they travel in vans? What a discovery! Azerrad writes as though he were a silent observer in the studios, the venues, the DJ booths. Or else he’s one hell of a researcher. But he leaves the enthusiasm to the reader. If you’re familiar with these bands or connect with their beliefs and know others who do, the characters will remind you of your own life and your cynic indie self will gain a renewed appreciation for your own community. But if you don’t know and don’t care already, chances are this book won’t “become” your life.

But you will learn how a “kind of nerdy guy with glasses” called Henry Garfield became Henry Rollins. How the members of his band, Black Flag, learned to not make any noise until they started playing, but once they did, they’d go hard and long (usually about 20 minutes) until the cops arrived. And how they’d go just as long and just as hard even if only two people came to the gig. Those two people came to see Black Flag and it’s not their fault no one else showed up.

You’ll hear about Fugazi’s first tour in January 1988, a trip from Washington, D.C., to Michigan to play Flint, Lansing and Ypsilanti. The trip was “a 12-hour drive just to play someone’s basement,” but when Guy Picciotto passed a compilation tape up to the front of the van and they were “rocking out to the Queen tape,” as Ian MacKaye explains, “that’s when I knew we were a band.”

And you’ll read about how Beat Happening widened the idea of a punk rocker from a Mohawked guy in a motorcycle jacket to a nerdy girl in a cardigan. And countless other stories from Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney. Azerrad uses Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, as a bookend to when “we won,” as rock journalist Gina Arnold so eloquently proclaimed. But also, as a time when we lost. As Azerrad puts it, “The revolution had been largely successful, but as it turned out, the struggle was much more fun than the victory.”

And while it was harder to pick out the real punks in those days — as prime-time commercials claimed, “this car is punk rock!” and the Gap stocked flannel shirts — it was in my mind, by no means, the end.

As I read these stories that occurred 10 years before Nevermind, now 10 years after that band’s explosion, I see my own surroundings in each of them. And it’s not a copycat phenomenon of something that only really existed in the “ancient” ’80s and ’90s. When I stand inches from one of my favorite artists in a sweaty basement, I don’t think of what I’m doing as nostalgic. I think of it as very now. I was under the impression that all of this was still happening. I’m still trying to convey this music’s importance to older rock fans who think that nothing good was made after 1979.

Chances are there’s a band down the street that you think is just as good, and quite possibly better, than any of these so-called popular acts on the radio and MTV. And they’re incorporating many of the same philosophies as each artist described in the book. Everywhere you look there are small pockets of inspiration. Sure, it kind of lends to an oversaturation, but the community is evolving to adapt to these changes.

Ann Powers wrote her book, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, about her own alternative lifestyle and those around her who helped to create it. The characters in her memoirs aren’t even slightly famous. And like my take on Our Band Could Be Your Life, my first reaction is to question why she wrote it at all. The New York Times rock critic has spent her career writing about other people’s lives. Who cares about hers? But there’s a certain Peeping Tom pleasure about dipping into her life and finding many aspects of my own life within her stories.

Both Powers and I were students amid dropouts and never-wents, trying to create family within our surroundings, taking what we wanted from established notions of the institution, discarding others and inventing some of our own. Many of her stories and comments about the “indie years” overlap with those of Azerrad. And both books allude to an idea that the movements are over.

Although Azerrad never really comes out and says it, the quotes in his epilogue lead the reader to believe he sure thinks it. He recalls a conversation among the members of Fugazi. “The conversations changed after ’91,” Ian MacKaye told Guy Picciotto. “Before, people talked about ideas and music. And then after that, people talked about money and deals.”

And just because Powers “sold out,” doesn’t mean everyone else did too. “When the most popular male talk-show host in America is a libertarian who wears assless pants and the biggest pop star is a deliberately single mom who has repeatedly taken on the Catholic Church, living an alternative lifestyle seems more like a smart bit of self-promotion than a righteous venture,” Powers claims. She talks about how “bohemian enclaves usually blossom in overlooked corners of society” and how freedom exists in the knowledge that no one’s watching. But then these enclaves become tourist attractions, yuppie destinations, and soon enough the property values skyrocket and there’s a Starbucks on every corner.

But her “Selling Out” chapter is some of the most profound reading in the book. The earlier chapters — when she was a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants obvious bohemian — read just like that, with new roommates spinning in and out, love affairs starting and stopping. It’s a little exhausting keeping up.

But when she admits that “there is no better example of a sellout than me,” she starts really analyzing the evolution of her own behavior and philosophy. She works for the biggest newspaper in the country and contributes to Spin, Rolling Stone and Vibe. She didn’t use the money she’s made to start a record label. She bought a house and has lived in it with a “straight white male with whom I’ve had a monogamous relationship for the past decade.” She spends many nights with him in their mortgaged living room watching TV and eating pizza with sausage. Powers says it happened once she stepped off the plane into “mean-spirited New York, where the smell of money and status overwhelms the senses like napalm every morning.”

But of course it was more than that. It stems from her childhood and corrupted even her most rebellious moments. And that is because, truth be told, while everyone has a little weird in them, there’s some square in there too. And it’s why you won’t have a hard time finding even the strictest indie rock ’n’ roller listening to Top 40 on the way home from a corporate 9-to-5.

Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times staff music writer. E-mail her at [email protected].