Last month I finished my third-ish read in twelve years of Michael Azerrad’s 2001 history, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 and found more to challenge in it than I expected.
This is a book I love for its nerdy minutiae and its big historical sweep. For its glory-days stories, too: 18-year-old me was over the moon to hear how Husker Du recorded “Reoccurring Dreams” on acid in a desanctified church, how Ian MacKaye ran Dischord Records out of his mom’s house, how Black Flag was so broke early on they ate dog food rolled up in white bread.
Stories of firsts are also always a thrill, even if they were miserable for the subjects: Mission of Burma playing empty bar after empty bar without a radio station in the country that could even make sense of their music, without a community, without anything like a “scene” beyond Boston. I appreciate, too, in a culture as anti-hierarchical as indie, the chance to acknowledge forerunners, the folks whose sweat sprouted into crash pads, friendly basements, left of the dial stations, and make-it-work clubs even if their bands didn’t live to see it.
The book’s decade-long arc is a story of groundbreaking and, simultaneously, cooptation. Bands (especially those like Dinosaur Jr and the Replacements, who liked classic rock just fine) jumped ship to major labels and crumbled. The scenes grew up and split on drugs and rhetoric. Sub Pop was too smart for its own good, creating a scene to sell records that resulted in a nationwide crop of horrible knockoff bands.
Azerrad examines these paradoxes but he leaves others unexamined. I would love to read a history in full of indie rock’s change from being “new redneck” (in, I think, Joe Carducci‘s phrase) music, created by working-class suburban kids in Minneapolis, D.C., L.A., etc., into being the turf of urban, arty, cool-conscious, middle-class kids (like, sort of, me). In passing, Azerrad gives Sonic Youth much credit/blame for the shift. But I want to hear a historian’s perspective on the consequences: the leveling-down of regional scenes, the increasingly collegiate and referential tone of 90s-00s indie (to be fair, this has gone much farther since the book’s publication), and the continued devaluing of the role of working-class and small-town folks in creating culture in general. (The prestige of online need-to-know cultural meatgrinders like Pitchfork, again post-publication, have far exacerbated this as well.)
Though indie rejected rock-god-hood and emphasized a horizontal, collaborative, community-building approach to art, the format of Azerrad’s book (lengthy profiles of thirteen of the biggest, best-known American indie bands of the 80s) goes along way toward building an alternative canon of scene Heroes that, yet again, diminishes certain scenes, groups, and artists, and shortchanges the communities which made these scenes possible. These thirteen groups were overwhelmingly white men; plenty of hardcore punk’s earliest fans were, too. But how would the book have looked different if it had included a chapter on Lydia Lunch, the poet and bandleader, instead of just quoting her concert review of Big Black? Or a chapter on Barbara Manning, the mercurial, outrageously gifted songwriter whose Lately I Keep Scissors has been a touchstone for dozens of later groups? Or, for that matter, Bad Brains? The all-black virtuoso hardcore, thrash, and reggae group from D.C. broadened the musical palette of East Coast punk considerably, smashed the color line around hardcore, and mixed religious and revolutionary exhortations as few other indie groups did.
There is little about the sexism and occasional sexual violence of the 80s indie scene (though we do hear that part of the draw of the Replacements was that “girls liked them”), and Minor Threat’s ugly reactionary rant “Guilty of Being White” (“I’m sorry / for something that I didn’t do / I hurt somebody / I don’t know who”) is defended by Ian MacKaye as being an “anti-racist” song misinterpreted as racist– this from a group who shared the stage with Bad Brains.
Our Band Could Be Your Life is loaded with inspiring stories and gives storytelling room to artists who lived out their political-aesthetic values and make incredible music. But, on reflection, I also see in the book a missed opportunity to tell the story of indie through the lenses of class, race, gender, and local community. Maybe that book is out there, who knows? (Any recommendations?)