Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Constructed Social Scenes

If 200,000 ain't all that, it's outreach aplenty by most artists' standards. Maybe their work is done, maybe it isn't, but they've changed something.

The smartest thing Kevin Drew has ever done is name his band Broken Social Scene. That redolent phrase sums up most bohemias--fragmented subcultures led or inspired or hustled or merely coalesced into functional identity by loose cabals of prime movers. Soon enough, they succumb to entropy, sometimes leaving offspring and once in a while something grander--in art, ideologies, methods, styles, and canons; in society, even more. You don't have to like hippies to concede that the '60s counterculture remains with us in folkways large and small, the rock band included. But it mushroomed so fast that it wasn't as local as bohemias generally are. Though Detroit, Austin, and other cities produced seminal musicians, San Francisco and Los Angeles generated the only major rock scenes; despite the Village folk clubs feeding the pop market and the Fugs and the Velvets taking it underground, even New York lacked a meaningful network of rock venues back then. It was the hippies' opposite numbers, the punks, who created the N.Y.C. scene. And with prime movement from offspring in D.C. and L.A., the punks seeded the Amerindie bohemia.

That bohemia has just now been documented in three photo-bedecked oral histories: Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's No Wave, about New York's anti-punk contrarians of the late '70s; John Cook's Our Noise, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Merge Records; and Stuart Berman's This Book Is Broken, the-story-so-far of Toronto's Broken Social Scene. Since these books are supposed to sell a little--commensurately with the music they chronicle, anyway--they don't risk much sociocultural analysis. But by allowing participants in three semi-structured collectivities to speak for themselves, they help outsiders feel how local scenes vary and grow.

"Speak for themselves" is an overstatement, in part because nowadays "oral" history is often written--my own two quotes in No Wave were emailed back to Moore in response to his emailed request--and in part because writer-compilers use third-person synopsis, explanation, and commentary to contextualize and segue. Alt-weekly editor Berman introduces This Book Is Broken's 11 chapters and then sits back and makes his subjects talk among themselves. Recent Gawker hire Cook--a former Radar contributor and Chicago Tribune TV reporter who shares author's credit with Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance of Merge and Merge's flagship act, Superchunk--provides not just narrative but criticism and biz analysis. Moore/Coley--mostly journalist Coley, though sonic elder Moore pitched in plenty--restrict their part of their "photo essay" to sardonic just-the-facts summary that plays up the no wavers' eccentricity, cantankerousness, and sense of humor.

As a New Yorker I'm prejudiced, and I'm admittedly acquainted with quite a few of Moore/Coley's saner sources. But Coley did suggest calling a Sonic Youth B side "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick," and Moore did concur, so perhaps I retain some credibility when I say that No Wave is easily the snazziest of these books (and should not be confused with Marc Masters's much inferior effort of the same name). Published by art-book titan Harry Abrams, it's enormously enhanced by the strictly b&w photography of Julia Gorton and many others--even when professionally done, the competition's pix are keepsakes by comparison. And the interviews are consistently sharp-witted.

Except for Arto Lindsay's squashed, pulsating DNA and sometimes James Chance's idiot-funk Contortions, I never cared for No Wave as music--Lester Bangs wasn't just jiving when he called it "horrible noise." Even Soho Weekly News-based booster Roy Trakin concedes that "it really felt like it was momentous, but it never panned out into anything commercial." Yet Brian Eno's four-band No New York showcase always had its charms, and it sounds less horrible than it used to--because its sonic ideas have been normalized elsewhere, and because a few of these contrarians were original in ways that signified. Just as Trakin says, they had "a tongue-in-cheek aspect," and at their best, which imagewise would be Lydia Lunch, they really were "commenting on the whole irony of being a self-destructive rock star." Where in Chapel Hill and Toronto, locals banded together and reached out, not one of the 16 No New York musicians was a native New Yorker. Though a smattering went on to more conventional careers, these were intensely alienated, inchoately arty outlanders who, in the classic bohemian pattern, emigrated to Weirdo Central in search of other dissatisfied troublemakers with zapped pleasure receptors. As much post-hippie as post-punk, Amerindie scenes rose up in the provinces--Minneapolis, Boston, Austin, Seattle, and Athens G-A were early hot spots--with no help from a bunch of bands reluctant to leave their tight little island.

A decade after No Wave, the indie-rock of North Carolina's Research Triangle still hadn't come together like any of the above. And though Merge did begin local, releasing singles as a public service, it didn't thrive for the next two decades off Chapel Hill bands. The only significant ones beyond Superchunk were the Archers of Loaf, who signed with California's Alias--disastrously, claims Cook, who emphasizes that many indie labels are as bad about money as the evil majors--and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who cast their lot with Atlantic-distributed Mammoth, a label based in nearby Carrboro that Cook never mentions (just as he never mentions retro-Amerindie Yep Roc in nearby Haw River). Adapting the idea of a 50-50 profit split from Chicago-based indie Touch and Go, which kept 30 percent of Merge's take as its legendarily conscientious distributor, Merge handed over a heroic 70 percent of the remainder to its bands, an act of valor that eventually attracted the non-locals who turned it into a serious moneymaker: the Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, the Arcade Fire.

It's tempting to attribute Merge's decency to Chapel Hill's laid-back vibe. But that vibe didn't humanize Mammoth, sold off to Disney in 1998, and failed to produce a similar enterprise in laid-back Athens G-A. The difference was the prime movers: McCaughan, the sociable, dreadlocked, music-mad son of an attorney at Duke who in 1987 took a year off from Columbia to catalyze a Chapel Hill scene and fuse it with the grimier one in Raleigh, represented by reserved, comely UNC goth-punk Balance. Long a couple and partners to this day, Mac and Laura are a paradigmatic biz double-team, with his inspirational enthusiasm reined in by her even more impressive caution, work ethic, and head for business.

Cook sketches in the pair's inner circle, but it's Mac and Laura themselves he cares about--their bohemia the reader is compelled to infer. One glimpse is the saying "Chapel Hill it," meaning don't beef with your neighbors because you have to live with them--hard to imagine "Lower East Side it" or "Seattle it" being used the same way. Or consider Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster: "Superchunk will always be remembered more for how we did it rather than what we did." But the sharpest insight comes from an outsider: D.C. musician Jenny Toomey, who has moved on from fronting the influential Future of Music Coalition to doling out grants at the Ford Foundation: "The twenty people who understand what you're talking about are the twenty most important people in the world. Maybe that's the difference between professional culture and outsider culture. Our antennae were tuned very specifically for like minds, as opposed to sending out a signal to convert people."

But as Toomey's own professional progress demonstrates, self-contained communities of like minds either change or pass into oblivion. By now North America sustains hundreds of rock bohemias, supported by student populations and throwing crumbs to tiny complements of musicians, impresarios, helpers, slackers, and hangers-on. You haven't heard of most of them because you wouldn't remember if you did. That wasn't Mac McCaughan's way. Merge may have been "a lark," as Balance reports, but Superchunk wasn't. It was a good-not-great garage-punk band songful and spirited enough to rule its hometown and pick up backers on tours spearheaded by a lead yeller who never learned how to record his own voice. Only then, gradually, the band lost steam and the lark became a vocation. Twenty neighbors evolved into the hundreds of thousands of paying allies who loved the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, thus turning Chapel Hill into a beacon of indiedom.

This Book Is Broken's claim to fame is strangely similar--wowsers, You Forgot It in People sold 200,000 copies! But because Drew--a dilettantish, charismatic, go-getting drama major and, as a bandmate observes, "marketing genius"--conceived Broken Social Scene as the distillation of a bohemia, an amalgam of players and singers who'd come and go around a four- or five-person core, Berman gets down to subcultural cases. Although Drew's collective incorporated seekers from across his sparsely populated land, many in its cast of principals were Torontonians and at least five attended the same alternative high school. For this younger crowd in a notoriously genteel magnet city, punk was irrelevant. Instead, wedding-DJ-turned-producer Dave Newfeld melded singer-songwriter types into an arty substratum of instrumental "post-rock"--a term (and sound) that still merits scare quotes. Abetted by hyperbolic Pitchfork major domo Ryan Schreiber, who overrated their songwriting and underrated their cultural originality, BSS became a minor phenomenon. Their discursive music and catch-as-catch-can stage tactics epitomized their community of like minds--impermanent yet companionable, impoverished yet secure, a modest bastion against a moribund music biz and what Drew once called the "piece-of-shit president" to the south, who was just then launching his horrible little war.

Like Cook, Berman ignores factors an outsider would like to understand--the "Torontopia" trope, emigre urbanist Jane Jacobs, Paper Bag Records, K-Os and K'naan. But Drew and his core bandmates did manage to assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle of players, and even Toronto musicians who never chipped in a cameo benefited from the cohesion. Though BSS's sales far exceeded Superchunk's, fellow Canadians Arcade Fire could tell them that even today 200,000 per album ain't all that. But between 2003 and 2006 they toured the world. No longer were they local, impoverished, or even, as the road imposed set lists and a steady lineup, impermanent. Though they released the last of their three albums in 2005, their Arts & Crafts label has thrived not just on outsiders like the Stills and Los Campesinos! but on a procession of side projects, most prominently the cool-chick chanteuserie of Leslie Feist's The Reminder. Says Drew: "My goal is to see a tree in some rock magazine, of who plays with who, showing all these people who lived within thirty-two blocks of each other and all their albums."

The inevitable contradictions--the way, as Berman puts it, "the success of a local music scene [is] measured by the amount of time its leading ambassadors spend away from it"--don't come close to invalidating what Superchunk and Broken Social Scene did for their hometowns. Neither do one's personal reservations about their music--it's only right for bands to signify more vividly to folks they gig among, and if 200,000 ain't all that, it's outreach aplenty by most artists' standards. Maybe their work is done, maybe it isn't, but they've changed something. The Magnetic Fields' Claudia Gonson praises Merge: "If you treat people in a human way, we can come to understandings on almost anything." Feist believes that "Broken Social Scene will be a band even when we're old and grey, even if it's just a potluck, because it was never something that needed to be defined." Did the Magnetic Fields scurry off to Nonesuch after 69 Love Songs made them an item? Does one wonder when the Calgary-raised Feist will follow Joni Mitchell to Cali? Sure--entropy happens. But both observations are truths anyway--truths that leave something for the next bunch of disaffected locals to build on.

Barnes & Noble Review, Sept. 7, 2009