Book Review: Our Band Could Be Your Life

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad

The most depressing thing about the title of this book is that it is not far off for me in many respects (except politically and culturally). This book details the careers of 13 independent powerhouse bands during the time of my childhood, bands I was not familiar with until much later (when I went to college, for the most part) despite the fact that it describes a scene I was marginally (and unknowingly) involved in [1]. There is a major generational aspect to this book—despite the book’s dismissal of Baby Boomer failures, most of the bands themselves were made up of late-cohort baby boomers appealing to an individualistic Gen X youth audience and mostly interested in left-wing Progressive politics and the correspondingly deviant counterculture of drugs, twisted sexuality, and self-righteousness. It is those elements that alienated me from the current despite the similar concerns about consumerism, a desire to be creative, and a concern about the lack of freedom and authenticity in much of mainstream culture.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters—accounts of thirteen bands and a depressing epilogue that examines the end of the indie scene. But more than just talking about the bands themselves, the chapters examine the often-troubled history of the bands themselves, the squalid lifestyle of the indie band, and the tensions and conflicts the band members found themselves in, as well as the history of the independent labels and communities (Los Angeles, Washington DC, Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York) from which the bands sprung. Of course, many of these bands and brief accounts of their stories, influences, and music, are recorded as part of the Secret History of Rock [2]

Thirteen bands given are given chapters in this book (within which many more bands are discussed): Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. Most of these thirteen bands tell the stories of band turmoil, artistic development, the pressure to sell out, and the process of growing up and having other responsibilities.

Included among the bands are some whose childhoods were truly damaged—such as Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and Butthole Surfers–some who came from privileged backgrounds—like Minor Threat and half of the members of Mudhoney. It is fascinating, if a bit disturbing, to see the way in which the disturbed lives of the songwriters of these bands manifested themselves in their songs—something which I can well understand. Our experiences seep through our works, if we are creative people, whether we like it or not.

Additionally, beyond the experience and class divides within the groups, it appears there were some major philosophical divides as well. Some of the bands (like Black Flag, Minor Threat/Fugazi, Sonic Youth, and Beat Happening) were led by people directly interested in forming and helping the broader community of Independent Music. These bands were mostly politically-inclined do-it-yourself types with strong left-wing political beliefs but with a strong Protestant work ethic. These bands formed their own labels, like SST, Dischord, and K Records (some of which were very notable for long periods of time), and were very influential in establishing a culture of independent music in their own local areas.

Other bands, however, simply saw the independent music scene as their stepping stone to the big leagues (like Husker Du and the Butthole Surfers), jumping ship to the big labels at the earliest opportunity. Still other bands explored the big labels without fundamentally changing their approach to music (Mudhoney, Sonic Youth), while still other bands harbored no interest in major labels whatsoever (Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Fugazi, and Beat Happening). Some of the bands broke up because of deaths (the Minutemen), while one band even broke up because someone had a problem I struggle with, tinnitus (Mission of Burma), while still other bands broke up in a haze of drug and alcohol abuse (Husker Du and the Replacements).

Overall, the quality of the book’s reportage is very excellent—the author has an admirable command of his sources, a knowledge of the generational moment of Nirvana’s success, which destroyed the whole indie scene established during the 1980’s by adding big label money and temptations to the suddenly careerist goals of musicians. The book as a whole reads like one cautionary tale after another after another, making this a gloomy book for any Generation Xer who grew up in the same toxic culture these bands helped to mock, create and corrupt. At over 500 pages of text, this book is by no means a straightforward one, but it is a worthwhile one if these bands are even close to being your life. And if that is true, you have my deepest sympathies and understanding.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/26/notes-from-the-underground/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/book-review-the-secret-history-of-rock/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Book Review: Our Band Could Be Your Life

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