Music We Love.

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.
Michael Azerrad.
review by W. Gillespie

This book was something I applauded, and not just because the year in the subtitle and the year of publication are both palindromic.

This book comprises the interlocking histories of influential indendent rock bands and the small labels associated with them: Black Flag, the Minutemen, Minor Threat, the Butthole Surfers, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Big Black,Dinasaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening

This is the first time a rock scholar has sculpted boundaries that make sense to me. From the murk of genres and subgenres and time periods and fashions within the musical microcosm of rock, Azzerrad has revealed an authentic movement. This is not about an ill-defined marketing label like "protopunk," a trivial microgenre like "speedcore," or a hypocritical, wishy-washy, pose like "alternative"—instead, he's infused the overused diminutive "indie" with authentic meaning. And not via art criticism, but economics. In other words, while it's not clear to me how a pop band like the Ramones could be considered punk, whether a band appears on a small label or one run by a major media conglomerate is a tangible difference, and an important one. This book is for the small label bands, some of whom went on the big labels, usually self-destructing in the process.

Well? In economics, though the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, when the poor get uppity, one way to take the fire out of them is to douse it with cold cash. Even just the threat of luxury is sometimes enough to confuse the idealistic artist.

Thus REM, PIL, and U2 loom over the entire book, like corporate acronyms in the sky, though this is not about them. These major acts started independent or punk, and easily shed whatever counter-cultural moxie they may have once possessed. Of these ubiquitous sell-outs, only REM seems to honor their roots. For example, to the disgust of their own management, and sometimes their audience, they invite both the Minutemen and Replacements to open for them (and Peter Buck would champion Robyn Hitchcock). U2 does nothing but get famous and throw everything into confusion. And John Lydon manages to show up in many of these bands' stories as a spoiled wanker no more punk than Casey Casum, in the wings of the stage tapping his watch at the Minutemen when they are two songs into a lightning-fast set, or getting out of a limo having missed his own opening act who had just played their hardest thinking their Sex Pistol hero was listening.

The author has accomplished a rare and necessary work that stands alone in my experience with the fluffy genre of rock journalism. This is a history of the unchronicled. While he fails to convince me that I want to listen to much of the music he writes about (and, unfortunately, like most rock writers, myself included, he doesn't seem to know very much about music theory), he does succeed in writing about something other than excess. Indeed, as the book's title's allusion implies, there is a history lesson here, not just emphatic poetic transliteration of distorted three-chord rock. He's writing about the triumph of art, music, performance, and publishing over inhospitable political, social, and economic conditions. He's writing about the B side. Top 40 sucks, but here's what isn't and doesn't.

It is an open and potent question whether an independent label such as SST could be considered a stepping stone or springboard to the implied goal of breaking into a major label, or whether it is instead an end unto itself, a parallel universe, or even a higher plane. It's an open question the book, for me, answers.

Because not only does the abrasive, repellant Steve Albini have worthy values, but Ian MacKaye is a saint. These two provide the answer to this clash of metaphors—indie labels are not a "farm team" for emerging bands; they are the right way, the true spirit of rock. If the independent scene is a parallel universe to corporate media, it can be a universe people inhabit by choice, because it is their universe, as an ethical decision. Here is where I start to understand why being an unsuccessful writer is important to me: the purpose of independent media is to behave ethically, free from the ugly pressures of big commerce. Far from a desperate measure, it is the way to make art safe from a greed-driven corporate system that exists only to disempower artists and mute their message.

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