Cannonball Read IV: Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad
This book is difficult for me to review objectively. I'm one of those socially maladjusted humans who filters pretty much everything through music. I remember my life experiences based not on who my friends were, or where I was in school, or where I lived, but rather by what records I was listening to at the time. Since I was in high school during the 80s and working as a college radio DJ in the early 90s, this book really is my life in a lot of ways; these bands, as whole, probably mean more to me in some ways than some of my actual human relationships. Hell is other people, but Doolittle will always fill me with glee and make me think the world is a better place, no matter what.
Azerrad starts with the birth of hardcore in the late 70s and tracks the development of the independent music scene up until the rise of Seattle's Sub Pop records in the early 90s. He focuses on 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, which pretty much covers everything from hardcore through no wave to so-called "college rock" and grunge. Along the way we see the scene grow incrementally. Early Black Flag sets often seemed more like going to a brawl and having a concert break out than anything else, with concerts often ending in massive melees that had to be broken up by police. (Singer Henry Rollins's massive physique came about as a self-defense mechanism against assaults by concert-goers; fights between Rollins and the audience became so routine that the band wouldn't even skip a note as he gave some young punk a thrashing.) Concerts were often held at VFWs, Elks Lodges and even abandoned buildings because the regular venues either weren't interested or refused to hold all-ages shows, which is something many bands insisted on.
From these chaotic seeds a truly national scene began to develop. Because major labels wouldn't sign them, band members began forming their own labels. They bypassed mainstream radio and went straight to college stations. Bands built a reputation based on endless, grueling touring and a direct connection to their fans via privately produced fanzines. They often spent the night on the floor at their fans' houses because there simply was no money to spare for hotel rooms.
I was stunned by how little some of these bands made, even when at their critical peak. The guys in Black Flag only made about $20 for every show they played; sometimes the choice was between eating or buying gas to get to the next town and the next show. Often the musicians stole food off of yet-to-be-cleared tables at restaurants or went dumpster diving so they could eat. The staff at some of the early independent record labels slept under their desks because they couldn't afford to rent both an apartment and an office space. The level of commitment and the work ethic displayed amazed me.
This is not to say that the book is a hagiography. Far from it. To his credit, Azerrad doesn't tiptoe around and doesn't spare any sacred cows. He shows the reader everything, warts and all, and, as a result, many of the band members come off as jerks at best and total dicks at worst. I know, I know, it's not exactly a revelation that rock musicians are jerks. But there's being a jerk and then there's Paul Westerberg walking up to Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson, an alcoholic who was trying really hard to dry out, and - in the middle of a gig, no less - handing him a bottle of champagne and telling him, "Either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage." (A few weeks later Westerberg fired him anyway. Stinson would later die of an overdose, unemployed and virtually homeless, at his girlfriend's apartment. He was 35.)
All in all I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the evolution of indie rock. Azerrad does a stellar job capturing not just the social landscape of the time, but also the personalities that are involved. That being said, it's not really for the casual fan; I can't picture someone with only a passing interest being willing to wade through a solid 500 pages of music errata. But if you're willing to invest the time, it's a fantastic book.
(Header photo: Author Michael Azerrad at the Our Band Could Be Your Life Tribute @ Bowery Ballroom, NYC, Credit: Natasha Ryan)