"No matter what you do, you're probably going to be lost in the annals of music, so you might as well play what you feel like." —Brendan Canty, Fugazi
Recently, I've been paring down my record collection primarily to bands that don't deserve to vanish in the mists of time, and my compulsion to get rid of superfluous music has spread to other areas. When I turned my attentions to my bookcases, my first impulse was to toss out my promo copy of the new Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown), by New York writer Michael Azerrad. I need to be reading more Flannery O'Connor, not anecdotes about Thurston Moore.
But then I looked at the bands listed on the jacket: Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hsker D, Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. And I recalled a comment a friend made several years ago, after I admitted that what I knew about a certain chart act wouldn't fill a shot glass. She said that as a critic, even if I hated an artist, I had a responsibility to familiarize myself with anyone that influential.
Looking at Azerrad's book, a wave of embarrassment came over me. Even though I spent more time listening to albums in the decade that defines Our Band than any other period of my life, I couldn't hold an authoritative discussion about a single one of those 13 bands.
The artists who carried me through high school and college were poncey British bands or industrial dance acts such as Frontline Assembly. After reading Our Band Could Be Your Life, I wish I'd paid a lot more attention to these seminal bands from my own country. Even though I lived just outside Washington, D.C., the epicenter of a thriving hardcore scene, I might as well have been in Kansas. Why was I scouring import bins for the latest Kissing The Pink 12-inch when I could have been seeing Minor Threat? As one of Azerrad's subjects points out, apropos of some mind-boggling act of insanity, it is far better to regret something you did than a wasted opportunity.
Amid all the hoopla surrounding the 10th anniversary of Nevermind, Our Band is a detailed account of the decade that ramped up to that monumental moment in pop culture. (Appropriately, Azerrad's other books are Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana and Screaming Life: A Chronicle of the Seattle Music Scene.) These bands believed so strongly in their music that they braved near-starvation, police harassment, and enough broken-down vans to fill the Mall of America parking lot, just to find ways to play shows and sell records outside the narrow established channels of the day.
What emerges from these collected stories is something that should speak to anybody in the Seattle music scene: a sense of community. Time and again, we're told of one band helping another. Black Flag takes the Minutemen out as their opening act, Mike Watt releases Hsker D's Land Speed Record on his own tiny label, Hsker D helps the Replacements get gigs outside of Minneapolis, and so on. Jello Biafra and Sonic Youth are always making introductions, and everyone butts heads with cranky old John Lydon.
Azerrad fashions countless interviews—not just from artists, but tour managers, producers, fanzine editors—into an entertaining narrative that isn't afraid to be occasionally unflattering. The multiple points of view are especially enlightening with the likes of Dinosaur Jr, where internal tensions were essential to a band's successes and failures. As in the oral history of the group featured in the Punk Planet anthology We Owe You Nothing (Akashic Books), the story of Black Flag is a lot more compelling when told via other voices besides Henry Rollins'.
Our Band is funny (Kim Gordon presents J Mascis with a pair of mud-encrusted panties as a birthday gift at a European rock festival), passionate, and difficult to put down. Like any music book worth the trees that died to provide the paper, it makes you want to hear the records in question—but this one will also compel you to buy them at an independently owned store.
For better or worse, the groups championed within these pages made it possible for many of the forgettable contemporary artists who until now clogged my record collection to get as far as they did. They also made records that irrevocably changed the course of pop culture, rather than just dressing up the same three chords in some glad rags featured in The Face. I haven't thrown over the Blue Nile for Black Flag completely, but for now, when it comes to prioritizing shelf space, Mission of Burma beats The Mission hands down.