By Roy Kasten
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Michael Azerrad's new book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, will come as a shock to those who believe the terms of VH1's Bands on the Run are harsh, that its aspiring rock stars are roughing it, that life on the road is just one long, happy succession of groupies, six-packs and Nintendo matches. In paving the way not only for mercenary hacks on "reality"-based TV shows but for the most successful indie-rockers ever, Nirvana, the 13 groups whose stories Azerrad records suffered unimaginable indignities to promote their art -- sleeping night after night in unheated vans or on floors caked with dogshit; collecting cans and bottles for gas money; shuttling from basement to dive bar to VFW hall for handfuls of hostile or indifferent people; dodging feces, vomit, spitballs, beer bottles, you name it. Until Nevermind exploded in 1991, few in the underground rock scene imagined that a life in music could offer much more than head lice, intestinal parasites, malnutrition, nightly fuck-overs by unscrupulous booking agents -- you know, the stuff dreams are made on. For the guys (and, occasionally, gals) celebrated in Azerrad's book, which takes its title from a Minutemen song, playing in a great band was, for the most part, its own reward.
For Azerrad -- a widely published music journalist whose first book, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, made the bestseller lists -- the reward obviously lies in exposing a new generation of rock fans to influential but relatively obscure bands such as Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and Big Black. "It started when I was watching one of those 10-part documentaries on the history of rock," Azerrad recalls. "I was waiting for them to get to punk rock. They did get to it, in the ninth part, and then there's a segue from the Talking Heads to Bruce Springsteen talking about the perils of fame -- which, of course, is a lead-in to Nirvana. Like there was nothing in between the Talking Heads and Nirvana! I was thinking to myself, 'What about Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, these great landmark bands that were so influential?' I thought, 'Someone ought to do something about this!' Then the immortal punk credo -- DIY, or 'do it yourself' -- came to me, so I wrote a book proposal," Azerrad says.
In some ways, Our Band Could Be Your Life is the prequel to the Nirvana story, a chapter-by-chapter look at the pioneers of the American punk-rock movement, who, with a rapidly growing network of fanzines, independent record stores, bedroom labels and college radio stations, helped Cobain and company go platinum by cobbling together a touring and distribution system. (We can also thank -- or curse -- these first-generation DIY-ers for Ani DiFranco.) Aware that he couldn't possibly offer a comprehensive treatment of the subject, Azerrad opted for a representative one: "I tried to pick bands that were emblematic of something, whether it was a region or a musical approach, a philosophy -- and sometimes they were simply so great you couldn't ignore them. So, rather than trying to cover every single scene and every band, which would have made the book Bible-length, I just tried to pick bands that were figureheads of certain ideas, so at least those ideas would be touched on."
Obsessive hipsters will take issue with some of the omissions, perhaps, but one thing all 13 bands have in common is an interesting story -- whether it's the Freudian wet dream that was Dinosaur Jr. (what's with all the ass-raping taunts, we wonder?), the Butthole Surfers' acid-steeped psychodrama or the complicated but tender friendship between Mike Watt and the late D. Boon of the Minutemen. By putting these stories in a coherent narrative form, Azerrad not only describes the world of '80s underground rock but derives from it an argument, identifies a common thread linking hardcore visionaries Black Flag to pre-twee naïve-rockers Beat Happening.
"The idea of thinking for yourself is the quintessential idea of the book," Azerrad explains. "All these bands did something wacked-out, confronted people, made them think -- like the Butthole Surfers with their weird stage shows or the Minutemen with their funk/jazz leanings. All that stuff was provocative, and it made the audience participate in the experience. That's why I called the book Our Band Could Be Your Life -- because you can take a lot of the principles that these people in the book apply to music and bands and you can bring it over into any field of endeavor you choose to indulge in."
Although 10 years have passed since Nevermind sounded the death knell for this particular era, the underground rock scene soldiers on, of course: Every day, in every town, a few more teenage misfits buy an old van and embark on a cross-country tour, all set to jam econo. Some of the bands covered in the book -- Sonic Youth and Fugazi, for instance -- are still going strong. But there's no denying that the world is a dramatically different place than it was in 1981 -- and, despite the fact that rock (indie or otherwise) probably isn't dead, it's not exactly galvanizing the kids these days, at least not in any significant numbers.
"The country has become much more homogenized, culturally, because of things like national radio playlists, Clear Channel, MTV and, yes, the Internet, so everyone is keying in on the same cultural trends really quickly," Azerrad observes. "Also, the media are even more expert in picking up emerging trends, so when something breaks or even becomes born in the underground, there's someone who's paid to detect it and incorporate it into the next Volvo ad. On the other hand, the culture's also becoming very balkanized as well, becoming finally gradated into demographics and subgenres, so you have people who are only into 'intelligent' techno or certain subspecies of death metal."
Regionalism, a dominant theme of Our Band Could Be Your Life, still exists, but it's no longer rooted in geography: "Like-minded people band together virtually instead of physically these days," Azerrad remarks. "The conservative in me wants to say it's a bad thing, and the progressive in me wants to say it's apples and oranges, just the same thing in a different way. There's something incredibly exciting about exchanging e-mails about your favorite band with someone in Düsseldorf, yet there's also something really great about rubbing shoulders with your mailman at the punk-rock gig down the street."
Although Azerrad's not convinced that rock is dead, he does agree that it has lost a lot of its cultural cachet. "Music was simply more important to people back then," he says. "The importance of it in general has been diluted because it's become so commercialized. At the same time, there's also a great deal of irony in these bands, and it's not something you want to hang your heart on. That's why they say rock & roll is dead. I don't know if it was ever dangerous -- hydrochloric acid is dangerous -- but it's not like it's stirring up the sociopolitical waters anymore. It's just a product. And there's only so much connection you can have to a product. The old ideas of selling out go entirely out the window if someone as cool as Iggy Pop figures, 'I want to buy this really cool vintage Cadillac, so I'll sell my great song to a cruise company.' All you have to hear is a good, bouncy beat and the words 'lust for life' -- I guarantee you, 99.9999 percent of the American public has no idea what that song is about."
It's always been that way, of course, and indie-rock audiences proved themselves no more discerning than their mainstream counterparts in many instances; Black Flag and Minor Threat found punk-rock orthodoxy every bit as stifling as the status quo. The reason Azerrad's chronicle is so engrossing is that instead of forcing its subjects into easy formulae (e.g., underground = good, mainstream = bad), it lovingly catalogs all the ways these disparate artists chose to wave their freak flags high.