Saturday, March 17, 2018

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground - Michael Azerrad (2001)

Published in the waning years of nu-metal and the TRL teen pop revolution, and shortly before the NYC rock renaissance, Our Band Could Be Your Life charts the progression of 13 legendary, lesser-known bands in the US in the 80's. It's one of my favorite books and I hadn't read it since the mid-2000's. A lot of it was memorable, a couple minor paragraphs revealed themselves anew, and overall it cemented itself into its rightful position on the Best Books list. [Ed.-Or maybe not?]

It is pretty much impossible to write a thorough review of this book without skirting over a few of the bands, so it will be the subject of one of our first (and hopefully not only) podcast episodes. For now, it will suffice to mention a few quotable paragraphs and briefly run through the subjects.

Black Flag

Greg Ginn founded Black Flag in the late 70's and they cycled through a few different singers until Henry Rollins emerged and recorded their landmark debut LP Damaged. Damaged is definitely in the top 100 albums of all time and is frequently cited as the essential hardcore document...I'll just excerpt it:

"Released in January '82, Damaged is a key hardcore document, perhaps the key hardcore document.  It boiled over with rage on several fronts: police harassment, materialism, alcohol abuse, the stultifying effects of consumer culture, and, on just about every track on the album, a particularly virulent strain of self-lacerating angst--all against a savage, brutal backdrop that welded apoplectic punk rock to the anomie of dark Seventies metal like Black Sabbath." (33)

Ginn and Rollins are polarizing figures but time has been more kind to Rollins. Ginn has reformed Black Flag and released an execrable comeback. Even though What terrible, it's still worth hearing. Ginn is a guitar virtuoso, probably the 2nd most iconic featured in the book after J. Mascis.  His best work is in the past, but there are still moments on the new album where he unloads that same vicious squall. 

Ginn also founded SST records which is probably the only entity that pops up in every single chapter. Apparently, he is kind of an asshole. Regrettably, Henry Rollins cannot bring himself to sing with them again, because it would undoubtedly be one of the best reunion shows out there. Rollins is loaded and has become an almost saintly figure. Everybody loves him now but he was definitely an asshole too at one point, as this chapter conveys. Ginn probably comes off more sympathetically back in 2000.

The Minutemen

The Minutemen are the 2nd weirdest band profiled in terms of sound. They're not a punk band, but they are. They're a jazz band with really short songs. They are pretty out there. Their philosophy is righteous, however, and they cut inspiring historical figures. D. Boon unfortunately left us all far too long ago in an accident that appears to have been unnecessary and preventable, but what a mark he left on this world. Mike Watt continues on with their legend and retains cache as one of the leading elder statesmen (dinosaurs?) of the scene. Of course he later played with the Stooges and Iggy is the ultimate dinosaur (after the Rolling Stones front duo). 

Double Nickels on the Dime is another SST classic album. It's not as tight as Damaged though. The Minutemen probably have some of the best lyrics of any of these bands but they also have the most threadbare sound. That may be intentional. They're not one of my favorites but they're worth a listen. "This Ain't No Picnic" is amazing, as are at least a dozen others. It's also very amusing to hear their first couple albums when they do like 10 songs in 7 minutes (Paranoid Time or The Punch Line, see "Fanatics" off the latter).

Mission of Burma

Founded in the late 1970s by the same trio that would never shift (their "fourth member" Martin Swope would eventually get replaced by Bob Weston), this band came out of Boston and was never "big." They're noteworthy in that when their story ends in this book, basically no one still knows who they are--a final tour stop in Chicago yields an audience of six. 

And yet they were one of the very first to reform, almost immediately after the publication of this book (some 17 years after their demise due to Roger Miller's hearing loss). They are Next Level, but I think their post-2000's albums are weaker than their first two (Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs. are pretty much impossible to top, in their defense). They're not the most interesting personalities. Roger Miller had tinnitus and Clint Conley had a slight drinking problem and Peter Prescott just seemed rambunctious.  Azerrad refers to Prescott screaming like a "traumatized drill sergeant." (106) This is not the only time he compares a punk vocalist to a drill sergeant, but there's a different adjective the second time.  Conley's comments on how he doesn't like talking about his own lyrics are most interesting.  But overall this is just kind of an encyclopedia entry about a band that more people should hear and know.

Minor Threat

Re-reading this book led me to revisit a lot of this music, and Minor Threat's first two 7''s (15 songs) are, I think, perfect. Damian Abraham recently commented that the Bad Brains were "uncoverable" (because no band could do a better version of their songs) and maybe that's the case for Minor Threat, but it doesn't stop me from wanting to start my own tribute band, Mid-Age Threat. 

Ian Mackaye reappears in the Fugazi chapter, but that is probably the least necessary in this book because the whole story is here. Fugazi is about doing things their own way. Minor Threat is about DC hardcore and straight edge. Also, "Straight Edge" is awesome.

Husker Du

When I first read this book, Husker Du were one of the bands that I hadn't heard, that I got turned onto, and that I loved instantly. Zen Arcade is another classic SST album (actually released on the exact same day as Double Nickels). They were heavily referenced in Try, which I had read in Fall 2003, and I came to them with some expectation of their grandeur. 

They're 1/2 of the Minneapolis scene detailed here (I would say 1/3 but Prince is only mentioned in an aside or two). They're the less accessible, more serious and visionary band of the two. I liked them a lot more before but I kind of got worn out after a while. Also Michael Azerrad wrote Bob Mould's memoir with him so this chapter sort of eventually became it's own book.  

Sadly, Grant Hart died last year, so there cannot be an actual reunion, but it seemed like there was plenty of time to do one, and who knows why they didn't. Maybe Bob Mould was like, "just see us solo, we'll play a few old hits." His new stuff is very good in its own way too, and his band can execute the old ones well too, but it's just not the same.  I hadn't heard "Eight Miles High" or "Sorry Somehow" until after I read Mould's book and my life is more complete because of them.

The Replacements 

The other Minneapolis 1/2 is probably the most accessible band in the book (or "most mainstream-sounding"). Not the case for their early work, but Azerrad notably gets off the train when they go major.  I'm reading Trouble Boys right now so I'll have more to say about the Replacements later. Suffice to say this is a good quick primer on them. An argument can be made that all of their work, save perhaps their last two albums, is almost perfect (in a very imperfect way). Let it Be is classic, but for me, "Kids Don't Follow" is their best song. 

Sonic Youth

Here we get to one of my favorite bands of all time. Admittedly, I haven't listened to them very much since their demise, and I had plenty of material to explore in the post on Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band. Who would know what the future had in store for SY back in 2000?

No one! They hit a low point with NYC Ghosts and Flowers and only went up from there, eventually imploding in divorce and sad vibes. THEY COULD STILL GET BACK TOGETHER, but I don't think anyone would find that necessary. I saw them more than any other of the bands featured here, and they played enough shows over their 30-year history to satisfy most of the listening public.

This is actually one of the most boring chapters because none of them have drug problems and though they are avant-garde and outre and experimental and no-wave and "pigfuck," this does not always translate into a compelling story. I think an argument can be made that they're "boring" musically also. Anybody who has seen them live knows that seeing them drone on a feedback jam for 10 or 30 minutes is essentially witnessing experimental free jazz-induced aural torture. Yet their power cannot be denied and they will always be one of my favorite bands, as well as one of the greatest of all time.

Butthole Surfers

Not really sure what to say about this group.  I got Locust Abortion Technician on something of a whim a long time ago, and it's okay.  They're more of a performance art experiment than a rock band.  Musicianship sounds rudimentary, and seems to take a backseat to the lyrics and overall message of the sensory experience conveyed by the songs.  They really do seem more like a traveling circus or freak-show than an indie band, and this chapter is consequently an outlier.  It is undoubtedly the most outrageous part of the book, and occasionally compelling.  

It seems like drugs are a pretty essential accoutrement to consumption of the Butthole Surfers music.  Moreover, like many of the bands in this book, their full majesty may only be adequately understood by those that saw them live.  Without getting too deeply into their personal mythologies, Gibby Haynes is their front man and his professional situation imbues their narrative with a sharp philosophical bent:

"'I can't believe we lived through that,' Leary [co-founder] continues.  'Man, I'll tell you what, I'm glad to be alive--it kind of seemed like we were in a constant state of suicide the whole time.  It wasn't like, "Gee, we're going to become successful and make a lot of money."  It was more like, "Man, we're going to have a lot of fun before the end comes and we all hit the can." I didn't think there was any way out.'
They were eventually reduced to scavenging for cans and bottles so they could turn them in for the nickel deposit.  It was quite a comedown for Haynes, who was all set to be a successful accountant just a couple of years before.  One day some prankster ran up and kicked all the bottles out of Haynes's bag.  'Gibby and the rest of us were on our knees, scurrying to collect the bottles again,' says Coffey [drummer].  'And I looked in Gibby's eyes, and he was about to cry.  It was just so pitiful--this big, strong guy like Gibby being reduced to tears because here he was on the streets of New York, groveling for bottles.  But good god, we needed those bottles.'" (287)

They do go on to command a pretty sizable fee for their concerts, and it is amazing they are one of the bands whose latter history is not covered because they got signed to a major label.  They're a curiosity for sure, and we all probably need a good dose of them given how "safe" so much artistic expression has become in recent years.

Big Black

Along with the Butthole Surfers, Big Black explored dark lyrical territory with an added dose of meanness.  Musically, however, they are much more listenable.  Big Black is basically Steve Albini, who is an island unto himself.  It is also Santiago Durango, who played in Naked Raygun and later went to law school and now works as an appellate defender in Ottawa, IL (once I used his name as a pseudonym for a legal writing assignment).  Jeff Pezzati and Dave Riley each did stints on bass. "Roland" (the drum machine) supplied the beat.  Notably this is the only Chicago band in the book.  

Most people know Albini without knowing they know Albini by virtue of the albums he's produced for other bands over the past 30 years.  The rest of us know him for his way with words and the sound he can wring out of his guitar.  I never got into Big Black until I had a friend play me his vinyl copy of AtomizerAtomizer is probably universally-recognized as their high watermark, but it's far from accessible.  Their first EP, Lungs, is weaker, but if you listen to Pigpile, their posthumous live album, the songs are given a new life.  Pigpile is probably their most accessible release and serves as a kind of greatest hits collection.  Its versions of "Passing Complexion" and "Cables" are highlights.

I saw Big Black play four songs back in September 2006, I think, at the Touch and Go block party.  They played last, and then segued straight into a Shellac set.  I don't remember much about it.  I go through periods of rediscovering old bands I used to like.  This happened with me for Shellac in 2014 when they came out with Dude Incredible.  I think a lot of the characters from this book have changed over the years, not just from the early 80's to 2000, but also from 2000 to 2018.  Albini is just as intimidating as ever, but he seems to have toned it down.  He still clearly does not care if you like him or not, but appears less outwardly confrontational.  He and his wife do amazing work for the homeless.  If I had to point to examples of lives well-lived, his would be up there. 

For what it's worth, of the book Albini said, "It was written by a guy who wasn't there when any of it happened.  I naturally think Azerrad's perspective is skewed by hype, publicity, and reputation, and he swallows some pretty burnished bullshit regarding motives for various embarrassing episodes.  A lot of what he says sounds like mistaken critical perspective to me, but that's inevitable given the sentences I typed right there.  It's never taken well when somebody tries to school a monkey about bananas."    

Dinosaur Jr

This is one of the few bands I knew pretty well going into the first reading.  They are just J. Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph (Lou Barlow gets fired after Bug and Azerrad skirts over pretty much everything after Green Mind).  Lou Barlow started Sebadoh pretty early on, and they had their own impressive run of albums, but they were not exactly primed for arena rock in the same way as Dinosaur.  I saw Sebadoh in 2004 at Maxwell's and interviewed Lou Barlow for an imaginary zine that I would never put out and I asked him about reforming Dinosaur and he said they had a friend that was trying to make it happen.  SO I KNEW.  It didn't happen for another year or so, but I would get to see them at Lollapalooza in 2005 and several other times over the next ten years.  

I thought this was a kind of boring chapter on previous readings, but this time it struck me for the inter-band tension.  In view of their reformation, the anecdotes seem almost quaint.  Dinosaur stand out musically in this book because of J. Mascis and his guitar pedals: 

"And after Dinosaur's tour, a whole wave of English groups, dubbed 'shoegazer bands,' sprang up in their wake, playing folk chords through phalanxes of effects pedals to make swirling, deafening music; they uniformly adopted a nonchalant demeanor and paid lip service to Neil Young and Dinosaur Jr." (366)

I think My Bloody Valentine had been formed around the same time as Dinosaur, but their sound did evolve, and it is not unlikely that Dinosaur were an influence.  Mascis is the #1 guitarist featured in the book (and there are many great guitarists in this book).  You're Living All Over Me is classic, and Bug is pretty good, but Mascis admitted that it was the album he was least happy with.  Now, everybody says their later albums are good (Pitchfork has gone 8.4 on Beyond, 8.5 on Farm, 7.9 on I Bet on Sky, and 7.5 on Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not) and while I agree they are good, I don't think they're quite as good as those two.  I think they are better than their debut, but they're not better than Where You BeenI think they're on par with Green Mind and Without a Sound and Hand It Over.  Then again, Barlow's presence as a songwriter elevates them into higher territory.

It's also worth noting that they are featured in The Year Punk Broke, but post-Barlow.  Their two songs were always the highlight for me.


Somehow I hadn't realized that Guy Picciotto had another band besides Fugazi and Rites of Spring.  This reading turned me onto the pleasant curiosity that was Happy Go Licky.  Apart from that, it was much of the same, and not much of a revelation for a person who owned the Instrument DVD.  Fugazi certainly belong in this category, yet this chapter seems about half as long as most of the others, probably because we already know all about Ian Mackaye.  It seems to end rather abruptly.  Most of the chapters end when the band signs a major label deal or break up.  Fugazi released their last album in 2001, and there may or may not have been intimations of that experienced by Azerrad during his interviews (it feels like there were not).  This is the way the chapter ends:

"Despite the alternative gold rush, Fugazi didn't release a follow-up to Steady Diet of Nothing until June '93, when they released In on the Kill Taker, which actually made the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 200 album chart.  
Although Fugazi's legend grew even larger in the Nineties, Brendan Canty feels the band's early days tell its truest story.  'People might look at us and think we're this icon,' he says, 'but at the time there was just a couple hundred people coming to the shows and it wasn't huge and nothing had potential.  It was just important to do it.  And the fact that we all wanted to go on the road and work as hard as possible, and that we were able to, is in itself its own success story.  It doesn't necessarily have to be about getting anywhere, but about getting through the process of fulfilling your own possibilities.'" (409-410)

Way to skirt over Red Medicine, End Hits, and the current state of the band (The Argument) as of 2000.  Okay, this is definitely one of the best books, but that doesn't mean I don't have criticisms, or think maybe the writing's a little clunky at times and it's purely in the Best Books category just because it's a bunch of great anecdotes.  It reads like it should be an oral history.  Azerrad's exposition is often stark and humorous.  Sometimes he sounds like an imitation Lester Bangs when describing the particular feeling a certain song can make.  At times, these are perfectly on point.  Take this description of the guitar sound in Black Flag's "Depression":

"The songs took fleeting but intense feelings and impulses and exploded them into entire all-consuming realities.  So when Ginn wrote a chorus like 'Depression's got a hold of me / Depression's gonna kill me,' it sounded like the whole world was going to end.  'That was Black Flag: when you lose your shit,' says Rollins.  The music was the same way--blitzkrieg assaults so completely overwhelming, so consuming and intense that for the duration of the song, it's hard to imagine ever listening to anything else."  (33)

Other times, they sound obtuse, such as this description of Flip Your Wig:

"Except for the two instrumentals tacked on to the end, every song sounds like a hit in some alternate world where the rivers run with an equal mixture of battery acid and honey." (189)

What?  I digress.  Anyways, late era Fugazi is great.  Still this gives the feeling that they're a boring band that didn't really change because they're pretty much all stable, upstanding, principled and sober individuals.  

I wrote a paper in college for a Writing about Popular Music class about Ian Mackaye and Calvin Johnson and read it out loud to the class.  They all seemed to like it (it drew from material in Our Band Could Be Your Life and other things in its bibliography).  However, one or two of them suggested that Ian Mackaye was no longer straight edge, that he had allowed himself to drink alcohol.  It's pretty amazing that we still don't really know.  Ian Mackaye and Guy Picciotto today are mysterious figures that have laid low, though I believe the Evens are still active and Guy has been spotted at a Washington Wizards game.  Everyone wants them to play together again (even if it was just like what the Replacements did), and it feels almost a little bit cruel, like they don't want to capitalize, or they think it's boring and regressive to play old songs.  Maybe there's another reason.  In any case, they are notable in that they stopped pretty much when the book was published and haven't done anything since.  Almost every other band had some sort of life after 2001.  The Fugazi Live series of bootlegs perhaps counts.       


Mudhoney might as well be considered a chapter on Sub-Pop.  This chapter is as much (or more) about Sub-Pop as it is the band.  Mudhoney is Mark Arm and Steve Turner, and others.  The chapter starts off being about Green River.  A lot of people talk about Green River because Jeff Ament was in it and later in Pearl Jam.  Mudhoney is framed as the precursor to Nirvana.  

The chapter is as much about Mark Arm and Steven Turner as it is Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman.  Actually the most dramatic moments involve the label and not the band.  They are treated as the sort of flagship Sub Pop band.  There is high drama in their relationship:

"'I remember seeing Steve the next day and trying to talk to him and being so at the end of my rope that I broke down and started crying,' says Pavitt.  'What hurt me more than anything was that he felt like I didn't respect him.  I didn't care if they went to a major--whatever.  But the fact that he would misread what I was trying to communicate...I was simply trying to be honest.  It was such a low point for me, just standing there crying in front of this guy.  I just said, "I'm sorry"'" (450)

At the end, Mark Arm remarks that Mudhoney may be regarded as a footnote in history.  They're probably the only band in the book that has remained active all this time.  The Lucky Ones is one of the earliest posts on this blog.   So perhaps that estimation has changed as their longevity has shown, yet they are still probably best known for "Touch Me I'm Sick."  In an interview a couple years ago, when asked how it felt to have inspired a generation of up-and-coming bands, Arm replied, "I think it would be presumptuous of me to claim that we inspired anyone."

Beat Happening

The last band in the book is one of the strangest and most influential.  Beat Happening is Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford.  This chapter is mostly about Johnson and K Records.  They have a lot in common with Dischord, but their bands tend to have more of a twee sound.  None of them really knew how to play their instruments very well and they rarely rehearsed.  

I used to listen to Beat Happening a lot and I don't as much anymore.  Johnson's style is confrontational and magnetic.  I was luckily able to see him once solo in a showcase of K bands.  I think I bought a copy of a Halo Benders album from Phil Elverum.

Because Beat Happening prove that you just need passion to start a band, not talent, they are one of the most inspiring bands featured.  Several of their songs are sung acapella, and Johnson once recorded an album of a bunch of random people around Olympia, WA singing.  Their musical skills were rudimentary, yet they managed to record several classic albums that became increasingly complex.  By the end of their run at You Turn Me On in 1992, they hit a musical peak and sound almost like masters of their style.

So that's it.  I really love this book.  However, I just finished reading Trouble Boys.  That is going on the Best Books list.  This took Azerrad three years of nonstop work.  Trouble Boys took Bob Mehr eight years, though he must have been doing other things too.  This is more of an overview than a deep dive, and it will be as educational to most readers as it will be entertaining.


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