[Originally posted 7/16; Updated 7/18 to include Butthole Surfers audio by popular request]
I’ve been told for years that I absolutely had to read Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad. No fewer than a dozen people have recommended it to me since it came out in 2001. I finally relented when there were two recommendations in the same week: another thumbs up from a friend and Largehearted Boy’s review. I found a used hardcover first edition for under $2 the same week. Game on.
I think that my initial, years long reluctance to read the highly recommended book was based purely on ego. My high school and college years fit neatly into the book’s time frame with some cushion of either end. In college, I was a DJ at my university’s station, and I was Music Director my senior year. The reasoning, I think, was that I would quibble, find fault, and otherwise be underwhelmed. What could this book teach me that I didn’t already know? Plenty, as it turns out. Perspective for starters.
The book begins in 1981. It was the first year of that sumbitch Reagan’ s presidency, and the year that the first records were released by what would become seminal bands. The history ends in 1991, because that was the year that Nirvana’s Never Mind came out and the indie music scene was validated beyond its wildest dreams. In between those years, a handful of bands blazed a new path and created some very influential music. Azerrad chronicles the stories of thirteen bands in this rich music history.
The highlighted bands are diverse in the styles of the music that they created (though they are all, essentially, guys with guitars), but all had a strong do it yourself ethic. They formed their own bands, and often, rather than wait for the big record deal that was never coming, they formed their own labels. Then they signed their friends’ bands. Many of these labels (SST, Sub Pop, Dischord, K Records) are still around.
We didn’t want to be just a rock band,” says singer-bassist Mike Watt. We wanted to be us – our band.” In the process D. Boon, George Hurley, and Watt proved that regular Joes could make great art, a concept that reverberated throughout indie rock ever after.
They did their own promotions, booked their own gigs, lugged their own equipment, and anything else that rock stars usually delegate to underlings. They also believed in themselves enough to pile into a van full of equipment and sweaty guys to play their music wherever they could.
One of the things that I didn’t realize before reading OBCBL is that before these bands came along and started knocking on doors, there were almost no venues for small indie bands to play. They shared their contacts and names of friendly venues across the country. I’ve always taken it for granted that there were always places in my town for small, mostly unknown bands to play.
As it turned out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. There was even a band that I had never really heard before. Through Azerrad’s telling, I was able to enjoy the bands that I was familiar with in a whole new light. I read this book at the beach with my iPod in hand. I highly recommend that approach.
OBCBYL is an exhaustive (and it must be said, sometimes exhausting) history of the movement, weighing in at over 500 pages. More than anything though, OBCBYL is inspiring. It presents one case study after another of people who decided that they wanted to created their own scene – and did it with varying degrees of success. The take home message of this book is that if you love something, get out there and do it. Get whatever you care about out in front of as many people as you can. If you’re truly in it for the love, the doing will be its own reward.
Do I need to say that I loved this book? If you are an indie music nerd, this is required reading. Buy the hard cover so that you can put in on your reference shelf.
Of course, this post screams for some streaming audio. Below are selected tracks from some of the bands featured in OBCBYL:
Minutemen – History Lesson Part II (provides the title of the book)
Mission of Burma – Academy Fight Song
Replacements – Bastards of Young
Husker Du – Could You be the One
Sonic Youth – 100%
Fugazi - Waiting Room
Beat Happening – You Turn Me On
Butthole Surfers – I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas
Minutemen – D’s Road Song/Anxious Mo-Fo
If you’re a fan of the music, the book, or both, I highly recommend the documentary We Jam Econo – The Story of the Minutemen. Many of the key players of OBCBYL show up to tell their stories. Many thanks to Shaft for putting it in my hands until I finally watched it, minutes after finishing this book.