Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Getting Their Hands Dirty

Before I'm overcome by the niggles, let me give Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life its well-earned thumbs-up. Here's my rave: While reading this 500-page history of '80s indie-rock, I only resorted to something lighter to avoid putting my back out. All 13 profiles are page-turners. Azerrad has done so much interviewing that the material will be fresh even for those whose lives these bands were. Though he does "concentrate on the bands' stories rather than their music," his unhedged critical judgments make the stories mean-not-be. And if you accept his precondition that only pure indie acts qualify, it's hard to argue with his choices: Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. Right, I'll take Meat Puppets, Feelies, Pylon, Camper Van Beethoven, and others over half of them. But except maybe for Camper Van, epitomes of a "college rock" Azerrad references without going into, I'd never claim my faves were as relevant, symbolic, or influential as Azerrad's.

That's only if you accept his precondition, however. And while indies-only may seem a reasonable parameter in a history of indie-rock, note that in the other excellent book on the subject, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, Gina Arnold links her attraction to R.E.M. to their "independent label." Hmmph, says Azerrad--the eight I.R.S. longforms R.E.M. put out before selling their souls to Warner Bros. were "manufactured and distributed by A&M (which in turn had a business relationship with RCA) and later, MCA." Well, OK then, although you could also say the Herb Alpert-cofounded A&M was a prototype of artist-owned labels like Black Flag's DIY SST, where five of Azerrad's 13 bands tarried. And like Richard Harte's Ace of Hearts, Mission of Burma's home base, I.R.S. was the love child of an artistic hustler with money, although Harte was a lot shorter on hustle than I.R.S.'s Miles Copeland, whose current Ark 21 imprint has no business relationship with any biz megacorp known to me. That's why Copeland hooked up with A&M, where he'd already placed his brother's band, the Police--just as punkzine publisher turned label head Bob Biggs took Slash to Warners for a quick cash-in that by Azerrad's rules disqualifies X, the Blasters, and Los Lobos.

From the early '80s, in other words, the majors heedlessly compromised indie-rock's indieness. The music so besmirched tended to be rootsy, like the Blasters and Los Lobos, or at least melodic, like Husker Du and the Replacements, both of whom quickly abandoned the indie cause for Warner Bros.--which, since corporations do incorporate individuals, mainly meant a&r goddess Karin Berg and Sire mastermind Seymour Stein, respectively. Hence Azerrad avoids "relatively conventional" bands like R.E.M., who as it happens provide the spiritual impetus for Arnold's book, a sanely euphoric celebration of a counterculture published in halcyon 1993. His indie-rockers, Azerrad says, "just made sure they weren't part of the problem and fought the good fight, knowing they'd never prevail." And if prevailing wasn't their thing anyway--those who enjoyed the kind of good fight Saturday night's all right for, like the visionary Ian MacKaye, were protecting their own prerogatives rather than challenging someone else's--neither was making nice. All the bands that meet Azerrad's criteria except the childishly contrarian Beat Happening are fools for guitar noise if not rooted in hardcore punk. They're also overwhelmingly male, and they sound that way.

In part because my vinyl chops have seen better days and in part because my fondness for piledrivers exceeds that of my loved ones, I hadn't heard most of these bands in a while, and was surprised at how much getting used to they required. Not that the guitar is dead or anything, but indie-rock as Azerrad defines it generated a much narrower soundscape than we thought a decade ago. For the most part, though, the judgments I made then hold. I still prefer Hüsker Dü's Metal Circus and New Day Rising and sold-out Candy Apple Grey to the grand but ill-recorded sprawl of Zen Arcade. I still think Black Flag made one classic and some compendia. I still prefer Big Black's piledriving Songs About Fucking to its pneumatic Atomizer--not only does it have harder beats and mock tunes, it doesn't have "Jordan, Minnesota," based on a totally groundless right-wing child-care scare that Albini believed proved "everyone in the world was as perverse as you could imagine them being." I still enjoy the Butthole Surfers' joke EPs and then vacate the van (up by there the police station will be fine, thanks). I still admire Minor Threat and Fugazi from the distance they impose. I still think J Mascis is the guitar-god equivalent of Sir Mix-a-Lot. I still want to fix Calvin Johnson up with a dominatrix who won't let him come. I like the Replacements a little less (Paul Westerberg is such a banal adult that his brattiness has aged poorly) and Mission of Burma a little more (via Sonic Youth's tunings, I think). In mourning for D. Boon, I overrated the Minutemen's 3-Way Tie for Last, but I underrated Double Nickels on the Dime when he was alive. I owe Azerrad for Mudhoney's Superfuzz Bigmuff (expanded CD, thanks Spin Alternative Record Guide), but he owes me for Mudhoney's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. And at this moment in history I love Sonic Youth to pieces. Even Confusion Is Sex gives me a buzz.

Beyond guitars and once again skipping Beat Happening--who serve as exception that proves the rule, representing the female principle and lo-fi purism on the road around Nirvana--what unites this powerful body of music is anger. The anger mutates, and with a few bands, like the passive-aggressive Dinosaur Jr., it's well sublimated. But rage is what gives the music its "edge," as they say, and if blaming it on testosterone would be foolish, crediting it as an attack on social injustice would be utter poppycock. Best just attribute it to the individualism in extremis that has always fueled bohemia--you know, bad attitude.

The storyteller in Azerrad can't resist how impossible his protagonists were. Tough, brave, ready to suffer for their art, all that--for months and years, most of these guys risked starvation in penury severe enough to silence any carping about middle-class slumming, especially given Azerrad's eye for interclass (and intraclass) advantage. But that doesn't mean they weren't also impossible. Greg Ginn was a driven ascetic, J Mascis a lazy asshole. Steve Albini was Steve Albini (always), Henry Rollins Henry Rollins (as of 1984, estimates Azerrad, kindly). Ian MacKaye was a control freak disguised as a ragged-trousered philanthropist, Gibby Haynes an M.B.A. disguised as an avant-gardist, Calvin Johnson a billygoat disguised as a pussycat. Beyond Mission of Burma, prematurely departed due to tinnitus, and the Minutemen, ditto due to death, every band here that didn't own a label fucked over friends who did, only sometimes the friends got there first. The cavalcade of egos redefines the concept of the nice guy--D. Boon and Mike Watt debating ideology till they come to blows, for instance, or Thurston Moore & Associates reinvesting specie from their favor bank to become the godfathers of indie.

Azerrad's gift is detail, not overview. Scan his introduction and conclusion and you might never get to the good stuff. So although he unflinchingly specifies the failings as well as the virtues of the indie labels he chronicles, he seems unaware that majors also differ from each other. And although chronology compels him to outline the disappearance of explicit politics from the scene, he can't shake the bromide that "the indie underground reclaimed rock's standing as the sound of a rebellious youth culture founded on deep and far-reaching beliefs"--beliefs that, unsurprisingly, he neglects to articulate. Better if, like Gina Arnold, he'd put himself into the book, describing the hopes, passions, alienations, and disillusions of a fandom that for some manly reason he never fully admits. Indie was a bohemia, like punk and hippie and beat before it--only note how each is more bound up in the business of music than its predecessor. The history of bohemia is full of promoters and self-expressers set on turning art into rent. But the bohemia Azerrad describes is unprecedented in its penchant for entrepreneurship--from small-time impresarios to subsistence road warriors, everybody gets their hands dirty selling music. What he leaves out is who it's sold to--the complex social relationships between seller and buyer that created a new counterculture where, especially toward the bottom of the pyramid but even today, one would often change one into the other. Instead Azerrad falls into the oldest bohemian cliche--the assumption that utopia stopped short when yours ended.

On the other hand, what can you expect of E-popping ignoramuses with no idea who (Black Flag guitarist and SST bossman) Greg Ginn even is? Seeking CDs to make my listening easier, I asked a clerk at Other Music where I might find Mudhoney and the Minutemen. He racked his brain briefly, then ventured that the Minutemen might be over there. He pointed to a bin displaying prominent index cards for the Kinks and Neil Young. I had much better luck at Tower.

Village Voice, Aug. 14, 2001