Welcome to the first installment of Aux.Out. Book Club, where a group of us tackle a new or renowned book of the music canon and lay down some of our thoughts. For our first book, we wanted to pick one that many people were familiar with, so we chose Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. Please read along with us in the future (our next book is at the bottom). Our clutch of readers are:
– Jeremy D. Larson, managing editor of Consequence of Sound
— Matt Melis, senior editor at Consequence of Sound
— Paula Mejia, General Manager at WRGW Radio, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Evan Minsker, Associate Staff Writer at Pitchfork, freelance writer for Aux.Out. eMusic, MTV Hive
— Rachel Bailey, Associate Editor at Georgia Music Magazine, freelance writer for Paste, Aux.Out.
Jeremy D. Larson: Hey here we are! Our first Book Club, holding this giant DIY tome, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life – Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.
If the title doesn’t fully clue you in, OBCBYL details 13 bands from the ’80s, from Minor Threat to Mudhoney, and uses Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 as the sort of de facto ending for the DIY underground punk era. The ending seems like a good place for this discussion to start, because not only is that where the book starts, it’s also a good frame of reference to get to know everyone here: When you heard Nevermind for the first time, did that “change everything” for you?
Matt Melis: Well, sure. But when you’re nine, just about everything changes everything for you. So, yeah, there was Nevermind, but there were also those metal snap bracelets, Lik-m-aid Fun Dip, and the topless tribal women in our school’s collection of National Geographic — all of which had a profound and lasting influence on who I am today.
The first time I heard something from Nevermind was in Ms. Miller’s Friday afternoon music class. Sensing that we had tired of singing “Buffalo Gals” and “Oh, Shenandoah”, Ms. M. began allowing us to bring in our own CDs. On the second or third Friday, Joe S. brought in Nevermind and played “Lithium”. I can’t say that I gave a damn about the actual song, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying watching Ms. M.’s fingers digging into her wooden desk as she sat in her chair petrified for four minutes and seventeen seconds. I decided then and there that anything that could make a normally calm, cool, and collected authority figure squirm must have some merit, if not magical power, to it.
Of course, I now empathize with Ms. Miller when my own students try to play 2 Chainz for me.
Paula Mejia: When I first heard Nevermind, it changed everything for me in the way that I thought about alternative music’s sheer reach. As someone who had grown up on a steady diet of Glenn Miller Orchestra and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, I didn’t care much for whatever played on Houston’s lukewarm top 40 station, 104.1 KRBE. When I first heard Nevermind, I remember thinking it was special in a way that other records I had heard weren’t. I had felt proud for discovering Nevermind and thought of it as a dirt-encrusted gem.
Evan Minsker: In a word, no. I always had a sense that Nirvana were important, but I’d somehow avoided listening to their albums until high school. By that point, I’d already given myself an education on the founders of punk. I could recognize that it was a great album, but it didn’t stick with me as much as the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia did, so it never remained in any significant kind of listening rotation.
That was also a time when I was a popular music contrarian, refusing to “get” bands like Radiohead or Nirvana, instead favoring more brightly colored stuff like the Flaming Lips and Andrew W.K. Obviously, “pfft they suck” was a brittle position that easily fell apart with any serious critical consideration. I went through a Nirvana phase in college and felt shame in my initial reaction to Nevermind.
JDL: I heard Nevermind from this kid in my 6th grade acoustic guitar class whose name was, no joke, Eric Johnson. Eric Johnson gave me Nevermind and I learned “In Bloom” and “Come As You Are” on guitar. I think those were obligatory songs to learn when you started. The best part was trying to get a a middle school drummer to do Dave Grohl’s fill into the chorus of “In Bloom”. I can still hear it in my head and man it still makes me laugh.
I had no idea what Nevermind “meant”, I just knew I liked it when I heard it in the mid-’90s. I was six years old when Nevermind came out, and wasn’t born when most of these bands from OBCBYL were active.
So, does learning about the “importance” of a band — or a genre or scene — after the fact make the music better? Do you feel more of a connection to it? I think that’s an important thing that I took away from OBCBYL.
EM: I’m not sure “importance” has ever affected my ears or sense of connection to something. For example, I probably said Nirvana and Radiohead “sucked” because I knew they were important. Even today, I’d prefer listening to Raw Sewage Roq by Timmy’s Organism to Nevermind, and that album has neither historical context nor widespread critical acclaim on its side. So for me, a “connection” has to come from a spontaneous reaction of excitement.
That said, I think learning about a band’s history totally amplifies my appreciation and curiosity in their body of work. I knew some cursory anecdotes about the Butthole Surfers, for example, but learning about the individual characters from Azerrad made me way more interested in delving into their body of work. For me, that’s the biggest strength of this book.
MM: Knowing middle-aged people who grew up in, say, the D.C. scene and remember seeing Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat and many of these other road warrior bands live (The Minutemen, Black Flag), I quickly get the sense that those shows were a you-had-to-be-there thing. Azerrad, determined as he might be, can’t possibly translate those experiences to my Ticketmaster generation.
But one of the most beautiful aspects of OBCBYL is that it comes with a built-in soundtrack. I often found myself reading each chapter with the albums that Azerrad name-drops pumping out of my iTunes library. So much of it still blows me away or at least fills in the gaps on how we got to where we are (like a fossil record for indie rock). And then you see someone like Bob Mould rip through a new song like last year’s “The Descent”, and you realize that these scenes, in some ways, never died.
JDL: The Butthole Surfers’ story was probably my favorite section of the whole book. I like how he never once refers to The Replacements as The Mats, but liberally uses “The Buttholes” which makes sense I guess once you get to know them. Knee-jerk favorite chapter?
EM: It’s the Minutemen chapter for me, all the way, and that’s even after watching We Jam Econo (cheap plug: great documentary). The stories about young Mike Watt and D. Boon were completely entertaining, plus Azerrad offered so much context for what informed the band’s music– their love of CCR, that D. Boon’s name was a take on the Blue Oyster Cult dude, that they were history buffs, that the title Double Nickels on the Dime was a play on “I Can’t Drive 55″, that they came from working class homes, etc. Their narrative, to me, was more relatable than a lot of the other bands in the book, and it made me want to really dive into their discography in a serious way.
Related: Did anybody else utilize Spotify/Rdio/etc. as a reference tool while reading this?
JDL: Yes! I used streaming sites religiously while listening to this — that was probably one of the hardest parts about reading this book because I just wanted to listen to the band and stop reading about it. Like once I got the gist of it I was like “Yeah yeah ok I got it let me drive, Dad!”. The HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ section was especially hard because man I fell into a Bob Mould k-hole and just listened to everything he did.
PM: Mudhoney, otherwise known as the disembodied tales of Mark Arm. Kidding. Although reading about the oscillating rises and falls of Sub Pop was pretty fascinating.
I knew more about Sonic Youth probably than any of the other bands when beginning this book, although I never realized how savvy they were until the chapter about them. Always with an eye on the Voice journalist, building a solid European fan base. I feel like a lot of the bands featured in OBCBYL had their grassroots efforts become realized through a cult following, or a stunning record like say, Zen Arcade that propelled them into critical and popular acclaim.
Sonic Youth was so smart about navigating through the industry though, and their chapter was definitely my favorite to read. Maybe it’s due to the fact that they were a bit older than the rest, I loved Sonic Youth’s position as the sort of cool, noise-addled big brothers and sisters of the bands immersed in DIY efforts of OBCBYL.
Also — Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon forever and ever and ever and ever.
MM: It’s hard to single out just one, because each chapter reads like a slightly different take on the same story. I’d go with Black Flag, though. The tension between Greg Ginn (portrayed as the ultimate control freak) and Henry Rollins (portrayed as, well, a lunatic) stands out as probably the most strange and volatile relationship in the book. Passages like this one: “Instead of traveling in the band van, he [Rollins] preferred the back of the equipment truck, where he lay in total darkness for hours on end, alone with the PA equipment and amplifiers.” I get this image of a chained beast riding in a cage, waiting to be unleashed on the next city of unsuspecting hardcore assholes.
Rachel Bailey: Hi all. Sorry, I’m late joining in here. I’m writing from the passenger seat of a jeep bound for Athens from languid-ass south Georgia.
Where to start? Favorite chapter, I’m with Evan and The Minutemen. There was something so endearing about the relationship between Watt and D. Boon, and their attitude toward art and punk is so accessible. I think it’s telling that their lyric became the title for the book – they captured the ethos of what this book is about in perhaps the purest way.
As far as Nevermind, I guess Nirvana was one of those things I felt like I grew up kind of like how you grow up with other stuff you never stop and think about, like forks and McDonald’s and the way your parents’ house smells. I’m shamefully uneducated about punk, and I remember spending most of high school sort of baffled by Evan’s tastes and his enthusiasm for punk and arty music ( we’ve been pals since I was 8). I’ve definitely tried along the way to peek into punk a few times, an it usually left me kind of cold and wondering what I was missing. I think it was easy for me to fixate on my impression that it was a judgmental and snobbish sort of scene.
It was so interesting to read about how the bands in OBCBYL combatted that in their own scene by recording something like Project: Mersh. I think for the first time, this book pulled back the curtain for me on what punk was really about. I hit Spotify hard along the way, because the music is largely still unfamiliar to me and found a totally newfound appreciation for, say, Husker Du, who one of my coolest, smartest friends has been telling me for years is his Number One Band of All Time.
I sort of trailed off there on the Nirvana thing, but I guess the point was that, when I started taking guitar lessons in high school, it seemed natural that I would learn “come as you are” as one of my first songs. But it took me a long, long time to figure out why Nirvana was so important. I was not into any kind of counter-culture until a good few years into my twenties.
I had no idea what it was to want to rail against any kind of system. I wanted very very badly to be in the system and fit in and have all the cool clothes from the mall. So to me, a guy like Cobain singing out against some of the things and ideas that I bought into so much, I thought he was a jerk. By the time I got into anything alternative, I was in Athens, GA, so my musical and artistic life was monopolized by bands like Dark Meat and labels like Happy Happy Birthday and local heavy hitters like Party Party Partners (Quiet Hooves, Bubbly Mommy Gun). And here, it wasn’t cool to spend a bunch of time thinking about Nirvana, because it just becomes this pissing match to see who knows the most about it and can manage to have an original thought about group who people and thought and talked and written about ad infinitum. The drawbacks of living in a town that is nothing if not a music Mecca – everybody’s an expert.
Which is all, I guess, a long way of saying that I don’t think I ever really heard Nirvana until I read this book and approached them moving forward in time from their forebears instead of trying to wade through all the cultural baggage around them that exists today.
JDL: Hello Rachel — thank you for the fully disclosing your relationship with Evan. He never ceases to baffle!
So I think we have people who are from varying degrees of familiarity with everyone here. Evan, you said that the Butthole Surfers chapter turned things around for you with the band, or at least made want to give them more consideration. What was the biggest 180 for anyone, either from going from never hearing a note to marathoning their catalog, or from never really liking them to kind of liking them now that you had context?
RB: Mission of Burma, for me. But I also was left wondering whether I would have liked them at all live, judging from passages like this: “but that was the nature of the beast,” says Tristram Lozaw, a longtime Boston rock critic and musician. “Because they took chances, you never knew whether you were going to get one of the most spectacular experiences o your life or it was going to be a ball of incomprehensible noise.”
And this: “["Max Ernst"] didn’t sound anything like the band, Miller says, adding with a chuckle, “And if it sounded like the band, you know, we might not have been so popular.”
MM: As much as most of us probably revisited or initiated ourselves to certain records while reading OBCBYL, for me, the book still comes down to the underpinning relationships and personalities behind these bands, scenes, and labels. For example, I already knew where Let It Be stands with me, but I got a much better sense of Paul Westerberg’s self-deprecating sense of humor (though, it’s in the music, too) through anecdotes about his handwritten liner notes, which offered comments like, “We ain’t crazy about it either” and “Don’t worry, we’re thinking about taking lessons.” It doesn’t really change how I feel about my Replacements records, but it’s another window looking in. That’s how I feel about most of these bands.
PM: What Matt said about the underpinning relationships is what most stood out to me. In that sense, much of the aggression and rawness that is so wonderful about these records, I think, can be traced back to the strains in those relationships, the difficulty working together, and especially touring. Now I don’t think of Black Flag as much as Henry Rollins’ pent-up angst but also testing the strings of his relationship to Greg Ginn, Dukowski and SST. Mostly I was stunned at the claustrophobia that the book manages to wrap you up in. Man. Did anyone else feel at times like you were reading these accounts from the back seat of a van, while scrunched up between a sweaty band mate and windows that won’t shut?
RB: Yeah, it was the tense relationships that we’re the most interesting to me, the ways these guys found to stick it out together in service of their art, like the example cited earlier of Rollins in the equipment trailer.
Oddly, it was Ginn who came off as the real jerk in the Black Flag chapter. His control freak nature was galling to me. I mean, I know some bands work that way, with one person more or less as creative director. But I felt like I sympathized with Rollins more in that situation. On the other hand, if they had been more fond of each other, I doubt their songs would have been so taut, their performances as full of tension. There was a lot of suffering for art in this book, but that kind of suffering – working with each other when they clearly differed in so many fundamental ways, put my teeth on edge in a way that reading about nightmare tour vans and diarrhea-filled pants never came close to.
JDL: I’m #TeamGinn.
RB: I probably wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with either of them. Their expressions on page 30 told me all I needed to know about that.
How ’bout the inclusion of stuff like the art associated with the bands – K’s broomstick riding kitty on pg 475, mission’s Dadaist collage, that Pettibon poster on 52. Even the way he introduced Swope and his contributions to MoB. I thought those were some of the details that added real richness to the book. What were some of the little tidbits that really stood out for you guys and made these legends more three-dimensional?
JDL: I love that Boston bands had official colors. Bring that back, please.
P.S. I like that Dukowski tried to get Rollins to take LSD, saying “It will help you not be such an asshole.” I kind of feel like if you got all the members of Black Flag together in a room, Rollins would talk the whole time while everyone else would just sort of steal glances at each other while he’s talking. When he comes into the story in the beginning, that moment where he starts going off on the band’s history before he was in the band, that was when I could totally picture him and Ginn not getting along.
But Rollins’ tour diary? No thank you. “His mowhawk made a good handle to hold on to when I beat his face into the floor.”
MM: It seemed like there were a lot of ideologies ratcheted up a few notches above normal. Ian MacKaye’s refusal to sell band merchandise or price tickets to his shows at more than $5 spoke to a type of integrity that’s practically non-existent in any industry. (Albini had a similar sense of purpose both as a musician and a producer.) And when cops prevented a show from occurring at a certain venue and cleared the building, wasn’t it MacKaye’s Fugazi who opened the windows and doors of the building and played inside for the fans stuck outside? Fan-friendly perhaps, but even MacKaye was still ready to fight anyone at any time. There were more punches thrown in this book than in an afternoon of playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
For me, Sonic Youth is the band that absolutely gets buried in this book. They get lost among the larger-than-life personalities and childish shenanigans of so many other bands. Meanwhile, it seems like Sonic Youth, at some point, along with Jello Biafra, stepped in and aided almost every band that came up with them or followed. They might be seen as indie rock’s grand facilitators.
One of the coldest moments of OBCBYL had to be J Mascis napping while Murph spent hours breaking down and crying after a blowup with Mascis.
PM: Have to ask: Would you rather go out on a dinner date with J Mascis or Steve Albini? Faking sick is not an option.
MM: Steve Albini. If only for the reason that I don’t think he would stiff me on his half of the bill.
RB: Alyssa DeHayes, music PR PRincess and my roommate, says she would pick J. Mascis because he reminds her of the Mystics from The Dark Crystal.
EM: Give Alyssa a hug from me for that one. But seriously, J Mascis. King Tuff told Chunklet that he smells like guitars.
MM: He does look like a Mystic
MM: Never forget:
JDL: For all its wealth of information, anecdotes, and context, in general, one thing that really stained the book for me was the formulaic nature of the chapters: Childhood, humble beginnings, first album, mini review of the album, grueling tours. I think for people who really love music this kind of thing wouldn’t get old, but if I were to hand this to a friend who’s not in the industry (but loves books!), they would not dig the structure of the book.
I will say, I liked how each band dovetailed nicely into the next band, either chronologically or stylistically. I thought that was a nice aspect.
RB: I agree with you, Jeremy, but I also wonder how else it could have been structured. They’re all variations on the same story.
I did find some of the storytelling choppy and abrupt. I think you made mention of that in reference to the Mission of Burma chapter, how it just sort of dropped off. The tinnitus comes up at the beginning and isn’t mentioned again until it becomes the reason for them to call it quits. And they have comments from people around the band that they were about to break, but I didn’t see any evidence of that in the paragraphs on how poor the turnout was on their last tour, how often people were telling them to stop. There were some statements throughout the book that he just did not support with evidence.
There were so many great tidbits, but the overall storytelling techniques could have used a little more finessing at some points.
EM: I think by its nature, the book depends on you being interested in its characters. So while I can completely understand what you’re saying, I think the format is easy to forgive when you consider the strength of each band’s personality.
This might just be me making too much of a nerd overreach, but each chapter feels like an individual comic book from the same series. New heroes (or anti-heroes, or villains) are introduced, but there’s an underlying thread, theme, and formula that connects all of them. Plus, every now and then, they pop into each other’s storylines. Not all the time, but sometimes. It’s like how the Justice League and the Avengers each have, like, 100 members, but sometimes, you get to have some quiet time with Booster Gold or Moon Knight. (For me, that’s Mark Arm and Mike Watt, respectively.)
I’ll stop now, because I could go on for way too long with this flimsy analogy.
MM: OBCBYL‘s formula definitely makes it a one-chapter-per-sitting read. If you were stranded in an airport with only one book to plow through, this would not be the book for you.
At the same time, you have to keep in mind Azerrad’s purpose. He’s documenting a scene. There are many ways he could’ve done that; for him, looking through the lens of a few bands made the most sense. But it was a scene — a nation-spanning attitude in time — that he was capturing. Sure, part of the commonality between chapters is the author’s hand at work, but there are also a number of normative experiences that went hand-in-hand with being part of the American Indie Underground in the ’80s. It was a similar journey, made unique from situation to situation by the personalities of various band members and also by how much an eye-witness was willing or able to divulge years later to Azerrad.
I’m thankful he documented these histories as he did, and I can take them in whatever dose I deem appropriate for me. Not all books are meant to be read the same way.
EM: OK, shit, Mike Watt is clearly Hank Pym. I’m going to sub in Lee Ranaldo for Moon Knight and just go ahead and say Thurston Moore is Plastic Man.
Now somebody do us all a favor and reign this back in. K thx.
JDL: No no, the comic book thing makes a lot more sense to me, actually. I was still really upset (offended?) with how The Replacements section ended — just sort of saying Bob Stinson died like that. Is that — am I missing some sort of thing there? Did I miss Daniel Day-Lewis sitting in a bowling alley saying “I’m finished”?
EM: I think the complete omission of Tim is also pretty reprehensible. I know he’s side-stepping these bands’ major label years, but come on.
PM: That is something I thought about extensively the more I got through OBCBYL. Many of the chapters ended a little abruptly, even when the bands’ stories weren’t over, or lack a sense of closure for the reader. The one I’m thinking of, besides The Replacements, is Sonic Youth in particular.
EM: Obviously a fine line here, because both of those bands warrant books as long as OBCBYL.
JDL: Yeah and to Azerrad’s credit these weren’t meant to be full biographies, but rather a way of getting people to understand what indie/DIY was.
I think a really important quote from the book, and one that I’m considering getting a tattoo of on my torso, is when the drummer for Mission of Burma Peter Prescott said “There were moments where you realize that certain kinds of music will never be accepted by certain people.”
If you were to get a quote tattooed on your torso from this book what would it be?
MM: “Not Amish, omniscient.” –Mark Arm correcting Dan Peters during an interview.
JDL: OK sorry to be the guy who keeps bringing up the parts that I thought didn’t totally work but can we talk about Beat Happening? Full Disclosure: I really don’t like Beat Happening, like at all. I don’t know if I’ll ever get into them, and their chapter didn’t help at all.
“They could barely play or sing. Implicit in Beat Happening’s music was a dare: If you saw them and said, ‘Even I can do better than that,’ then the burden was on you to prove it. If you did, you had yourself a band, and if you didn’t, you had to shut up. Either way, Beat Happening had made their point.”
And then also whoops, Henry Rollins being more of a dick (and molesting them??) on stage. I think Butthole Surfers’ chapter made me respect them more and go back and listen to more than Electriclarryland but Beat Happening I’m still just kind of indifferent toward?
Beat Happening? Yay or nay?
MM: Well, the point isn’t to get anyone into them, which is fortunate, because most people won’t get into Beat Happening, much in the some way that I can’t get into Daniel Johnston, no matter how many people have seen that documentary and told me he’s a tortured musical genius. Azerrad is showing that this scene could make room for the unlikeliest of DIYers. And could it get any more DIY than Beat Happening? Three non-musicians who couldn’t sing managed to find a niche and make a dent. They possessed no discernible talent except for, perhaps, a slight ear for melody (not that they could replicate that melody with instruments). It was just them onstage–the ultimate DIY. Three people plucked out of the crowd and told to, “Entertain us!” And sometimes they did.
And I think it goes back to the idea that music doesn’t have to be “good” to be moving. You can find beauty in even the least aesthetically pleasing places and sounds. And this band managed to move a couple of people while up there tinkering and laying it on the line.
JDL: How much did Calvin Johnson pay you to write that?
MM: Probably less than Gibby Haynes paid you.
JDL: I’ve been acting like I’m teaching a class. I’m only the de facto leader and if someone wants to overthrow my ironclad rule on this discussion, please — take the reins.
MM: Well, I’m going to give a shout-out to the parents found in the pages of OBCBYL. When I came home with an acoustic guitar one day as a pre-teen, my dad took me aside and implored, “Just don’t join a band.” Needless to say, I never mastered a chord.
But here you have parents loading up coolers with turkey sandwiches and duffel bags with bundles of Salvation Army t-shirts and socks, all so their kids can travel across the country in metal deathtraps to get drunk, beat up, and spat upon. God bless!
I think my favorite moment of the entire book is J Mascis’s mother knitting J a band sweater. It has the band’s name, “Deep Wound,” on it and a puddle of blood. That’s a special lady right there.
PM: OVERTHROW JEREMY
Just kidding, I think you’ve been doing swell leading the discussion. I think it’s important to bring up the weaker points of the book, but I have mixed feelings when it comes to Beat Happening. I never got into them, and after the chapter in the book I thought I maybe should? The bit about them being unlistenable and unable to really play their instruments stuck with me. But hey, if we want to talk about people who were instrumental in creating a sort of image, or at least fronting a sort of movement, Sid Vicious couldn’t play the bass for shit, and the Pistols would unplug his amp during shows. The evolution of K records in the Beat Happening chapter was pretty instrumental when speaking of DIY movements. We can agree or disagree on Calvin Johnson, but I think he has to be mentioned regardless.
And oh man, the Deep Wound sweater sounded absolutely glorious. J’s mom must rule. Motion to hand-knit some for the Book Club? Can anyone knit?
EM: We should definitely have matching Deep Wound sweaters. Also, what are we calling ourselves? I vote The Aux. Out. Best Friends Book Club.
MM: With bowling-style club shirts… The Page Turners… The Bookmarks…
Actually, if I started a band, I’d name it The Bookmarks–a band in my own mind, which I’m starting right now, inspired by Calvin Johnson. My new band’s anthem.
We don’t tour / We don’t record / We don’t sell shirts / We don’t play if it hurts
We don’t lug gear / We don’t swill beer / We don’t ride in vans / We don’t have any fans
We don’t take the stage / Or express teen rage / We don’t have angst / We don’t shoot blanks
We don’t play at all / We hate The Wall / We don’t wear matching vests / We don’t take requests
We never rehearse / Or write a verse / A chorus is so passe / Songs are cliche
There’s absolutely positively almost nothing that we do that could classify us as a band in good conscience…
I smell a hit.
MM: Here’s a question. If you could add one chapter to OBCBYL, who would it be?
PM: Bringing this back to what we started out talking about, I think I’d have to say Nirvana. Of course, you could write an entire book about the mystique of Cobain, grunge taking off, etc. They were mentioned briefly in the Mudhoney chapter, but since they really were the bridge between DIY and mainstream acclaim, against all odds, I think that would have been a valuable chapter to include at the end.
RB: I think I would have liked to see a chapter on the Bad Brains. They pop up a lot in passing and clearly influenced a lot of these bands.
Ian MacKaye’s mom sounded pretty rad, too, simply by letting her kid and his friends be who they were and not getting all worked up about their shaved heads and Mohawks and stuff.
Can we talk about the violence in this book? I found it especially strange to read the bits where MacKaye talks about his own self-image. On the one hand, we see him making reference to what good kids he and his friends were, how they had manners and didn’t steal and didn’t drink. And yet he didn’t seem to be bothered by beating folks up. There’s a section where he talks about playing a club that hired extra bouncers for the night and sendin them home all bloody. “justified aggression” is what he called it, but I don’t see how that is justified, beating up guys who are doing their job. He just seemed hypocritical to me. I don’t think you can be that violent and still hail yourself as a “good kid.” Are punk and violence inextricably linked? I understand where they were coming from in terms of fighting back against the people who were roughing them up, but at some point the lines seemed to blur between who was and wasn’t a deserving target.
Why can’t we all just get along?
MM: All I could think while reading was, “Why?” A lot of these guys, though, seemed to either feel the need to lash out at others or to roll with a group in order to even out the odds.
Oddly enough, a lot of these fighters came from educated families and the right side of the tracks. There was definitely an angst coming from somewhere over something, and I’m not quite sure I ever figured out why. The old “backlash against the Reagan years” explanation doesn’t answer many questions for me. Perhaps because I was in diapers during the Reagan years. Then again, at least for one show, so was Mike Watt.
RB: MacKaye tells an anecdote about some jock or the like giving he and his friends shit on the street for how they looked, and how the six of them jumped him, saying it was a revelation that they could stand up to these guys with their strength in numbers. To me, that makes sense, coming from the perspective of a teenager who’s had to take a lot of shit for being different. It’s reactionary and puerile and exciting.
What I don’t get is institutionalizing that as part of your scene. It seems self-defeating and, at Matt pointed out, it proves the point of all the people you want to prove wrong. Not to mention becoming what you hate, as the kind of verbal and physical abuse they suffered in high school, they basically decided was okay to dole out to certain kinds of people.
Becoming what you hate was a big theme for me in this book — there was definitely an archetype of guys starting a band to stand out against the norm and people’s tendency to blindly follow. So many times, what they wanted to say was, “Hey, be who you are and make your art and just THINK.” And they kept winding up the dudes being followed, having to change things up to stay ahead of the kids who wanted to emulate them.
It left me with the impression that it’s hard to make art that’s about inspiring people to embrace their individuality, because most of the folks hearing you are just gonna go “Yeah, what HE said!” and fetishize what you do and make your art their fashion statement. And it just goes round and round. Is it possible to be noteworthy and not gather a posse of hangers-on? I doubt it. But in the context of so many bands in this book, it creates an interesting dichotomy between the people who want to make a musical life out of spreading the “Be yourself” word and the people in the audience who want to model themselves on the very people spouting that message of individualism. And I guess maybe that tension, among other kinds of tension, made violence easier and more comfortable to come by.
JDL: I agree with the unnecessary violence, but I think it comes out of destitution, exhaustion, and survival. I talked earlier before about whether this model could stand up today, whether the violence, the chauvinism and what these bands were about could function as a model. I think OBCBYL was split into the haves and the have-nots. There was R.E.M. and there was The Replacements. There seemed to be no other option but to fight. Like MacKaye said there were two groups of people you could be in D.C., and when he realized he wasn’t in either of them, he made his own. Today the industry is so stratified, everybody fits in somewhere.
But I also think the violence was a reaction to the hippie movement too — and not wanting to be co-opted into a marketing scheme by record labels. They didn’t want to “sell” hardcore so they showed up with barbed wire around everything so unless you knew the inside language, you would not be invited in. They saw the hippies fail, and I think they just didn’t want to fall down the same path.
Honestly I would have loved for R.E.M. to have their own chapter at the very end. I think it would bring a lot and for you know how influential they were, too, get in to talking about college radio.
I will knit us all Book Club sweaters. Did we tell people that you have to read this cross-legged while holding a mug with two hands?
Ok guys parting thoughts. Azerrad basically proved to me that context can do a decent job at replacing nostalgia when comes to listening/loving music of the past. Also, if anyone wants to ever gift me any first-pressing SST records that’d be killer.
RB: Jeremy, that’s a good point about setting themselves apart from the hippie movement, which I gather people were still having a hard time letting go of as these early bands emerged.
Along the lines of context vs. nostalgia, I think what this book also did really well, something I was trying to capture in my earlier on-the-road iPhone emails, was the way OBCBYL seizes these scenes back from the people who have romanticized and co-opted them over the years. I mean, my introduction to the hardcore X’s on the backs of people’s hands was my middle school friend who worshipped AFI and thought Davey Havok invented straightedge. Understanding where stuff like that came from (i.e. MacKaye figuring out you could get young kids into shows if they sported those conspicuous black X’s) sure can enrich the experience of listening to contemporary bands who owe debts to the musicians featured in OBCBYL.
I think there’s another reason we can’t have a moment like this today, and it may sound cynical and cranky, but — I just think we’re too lazy. Even in a musical Mecca like Athens, there’s plenty of pretense and staid ideas about music and tyranny about what’s cool imposed by those who’ve positioned themselves as tastemakers. In other words, plenty to rail against. Sure, we can all find something on the internet to relate to, but that’s nothing like the visceral, real-time experiences described in this book. As my boy David Foster Wallace was so fond of pointing out, we live in an age of unprecedented irony. The people making this music were nothing if not earnest. And I just think these days people find it easier to scoff and niggle and go back to their screens.
And you damn kids need to stay off my lawn!
PM: Looking forward to that sweater to stave off the last frost of this most cruel month, Jeremy.
I don’t think it’s cynical, Rachel, it’s realistic. Word of mouth and scribbled kitty drawings on flyers isn’t going to do as much for a band’s outreach anymore as an endorsement from a blog on Twitter would. As incredible of a reach that the Internet has, it can make people considerably lazier with just its sheer accessibility, but can’t it also lend itself to a 21st century version of DIY?
The reality is the need to land a spot on a major label isn’t quite as instrumental anymore. Anyone can self-release music via Soundcloud, share their thoughts about music on a blog they start themselves and subsequently share that within their own communities an on a global scale. People like Kitty (Pryde) and Grimes’ sky-high popularity stems much from their self-endorsed Internet presence via Tumblr and Twitter. To boot, cassettes and vinyl sales have arguably increased, especially in recent years, championed by labels such as Burger Records, Third Man, and Sacred Bones.
So it’s not the same as, say, zines. But DIY hasn’t died, it’s merely evolved.
EM: There was something behind all of these bands that reminded me of something sort of strange: an essay John Cusack wrote to promote the film Hot Tub Time Machine. (Stay with me, here, this won’t be quite as esoteric as that stupid Justice League analogy.) It was about him going to the 1985 Super Bowl, the one where the Bears won, and seeing the enormous head of Ronald Reagan projected on the relatively newly invented Jumbotron. He writes:
“Reagan was a bona fide motherfucker (politically speaking) who—among many other horrible things (see Central America’s massacres and bloodbaths)—launched the deregulation craze that began America’s descent.”
Cusack’s disgust seems amplified by Reagan’s comforting tone and smiling visage — by the saccharine pap that was the Up With People halftime show. Azerrad implies as much in the intro, but it seems like for most of these people, the political climate ignited them with a feeling of unrest. The status quo was this smiling Hollywood cowboy president who wasn’t being taken to task for all the horrible shit he was doing. So they used that anger. They didn’t just say “fuck this”– they made art from that feeling. Sometimes it came out in political lyrics about the working class, and sometimes, it came through with cracked skulls
Obviously that’s very simplistic — not every band in this book thought twice about politics or Reagan or anything like it. Though the most “popular” elements of pop culture in the 1980s, in retrospect, look glossy and vapid when you stick them next to EVOL or New Day Rising or Westerberg’s entire purview or anything Dinosaur Jr. did before Barlow and Murph left the band. So every one of these bands felt like a necessary reaction to the bigger picture. (I remember a dude I went to high school with asked me to name him one good band from the ’80s. I said HÃ¼sker DÃ¼. “Doesn’t count, man, I need to have heard of them.”)
While there’s a part of me that wants to read chapters on bands from the fringes of OBCBYL, like Pixies or the Flaming Lips or Pavement, there’s something vital about the bands curated for this book. Some were aggressive, some steeped in “art”, and some fueled by an elusive sort of alcohol-fueled greatness.
I guess what I’m saying is that I liked this book a lot. Recommended. Would read again.
MM: Final Thoughts: It’s not the most compelling read that you’ll stumble upon. But I appreciate Azerrad documenting these stories and getting so many band members’ words down for posterity. Your average person — even a music fan — may only have heard of a few of these bands. But esoteric as the subjects may be, it’s still a history worth putting down. Now, thanks to digital music (and print), you can access most, if not all, of the music in this book, and that music could conceivably be around forever, as could Azerrad’s account. I like that if a kid twenty or thirty years from now still finds something worthwhile in Zen Arcade or Damaged, he or she will be able to learn a bit more about the life and times of those DIYers.
Next month on Book Club… Soulacoaster – The Diary Of Me by R. Kelly