The punks won. Dismissed upon emergence as an aberration, a mindlessly destructive tantrum at the expense of legitimate rock music, the “punk aesthetic” has been assimilated into mainstream American culture to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine rock without it. The usual narrative claims that punk provided an injection of energy missing from a jaded and moribund mainstream. This isn’t entirely true, of course; Aerosmith and Ted Nugent had all the energy and raw rock power anybody could want. But when compared (and this is the officially-sanctioned comparison) with Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the Electric Light Orchestra and Elton John, punk starts to seem like an absolute necessity. This is the stance offered by Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Azerrad’s narrative picks up after the initial “punk explosion” of the late 1970s had come and gone; the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and the Patti Smith Group, and all their New York City contemporaries, had made an abortive, and failed, run at commercial success. The few people who had picked up on those groups’ albums, though, had sensed the opening of a previously hidden side entrance into rock, and were beginning to shove their way through. These are the bands Azerrad profiles, the ones who came in the second wave. He’s chosen thirteen, each of which seem to represent, for him, something important about “the American indie underground” in the 1980s: Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, H�sker D�, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. Some of these choices (the latter two in particular) are debatable; a few omissions (the Bad Brains, the Meat Puppets) seem inexplicable.
Each band gets its own chapter, with some necessary overlap (the Replacements and H�sker D� were the main rock acts of the Twin Cities, and were often painted as rivals; the Minutemen and Black Flag shared a label and a philosophy; other examples abound). The bands often worked together, informing one another of venues hospitable to their new, seemingly unpalatable music. They vouched for one another to upstart labels looking for artists. They took each other on tour. In many ways, the music was a community—so few people were listening, especially at the beginning, that it was easy to indulge the rock fan’s delusion that musical taste says something vital about character. In fact, it’s this delusion that makes Our Band… both a valentine to indie rock, and a solipsistic memoir disguised as history. In the introduction, Azerrad states that in the year 1984, which saw major releases by the Meat Puppets, H�sker D�, the Minutemen, the Replacements, and Black Flag, “[it] was abundantly clear that the best rock music in the world was being made in this circumscribed little community.” A similar tone is expressed in a back-cover quote from actress Janeane Garofalo, who writes “I am sorry for anyone who never got the chance to discover indie rock or, worse, chose to ignore it.”
As music history, this book is important. None of these bands got much coverage in mainstream rock magazines while they were doing their most innovative and vital work, and Azerrad has done a great job of gathering ex-bandmembers up for revealing interviews. (The chapters on Black Flag and the Minutemen are particularly important in this regard. At the time, Black Flag was a tight-knit unit more akin to a paramilitary commando squad than a rock band, but they’ve since exploded, and recriminations fly back and forth across the pages until the chapter resembles a punk-rock episode of the Jerry Springer Show. The Minutemen had no less fractious an internal dynamic, but the early, tragic death of frontman D. Boon has given them a legendary sheen not unlike the Doors. Their chapter keeps all the nobility of their story intact, but it humanizes them quite a bit as well.)
However, the book collapses under the weight of its own in-crowd cool. Azerrad is too impressed with himself for having been around at the time, and like so many rock fans before him, he’s convinced that the music of his burning youth was the best music ever or since. In his epilogue, he writes that once Nirvana took the “alternative” sound to the top of the charts, “confrontation was largely gone from the indie world; in its place was a suffocating insularity…So yes, we won: indie rock was well established, and musicians could now earn a decent living making music even for highly specialized audiences. And yet the vitality of the music and the community was severely diminished. The revolution had been largely successful, but as it turned out, the struggle was much more fun than the victory.” Azerrad should have gone back and referred to his own chapter on the Butthole Surfers, where the Texas band’s drummer describes singer Gibby Haynes being literally on the verge of tears while collecting bottles and cans on the streets of New York. Azerrad’s romantic stories of debauchery and endless tours, while entertaining, beg the question of whether he’s ever scavenged cans for food money. He also fails to see that the familial atmosphere he conjures can quite easily seem, to an outsider, like the same “suffocating insularity” he decries in his epilogue.
Like the music it chronicles, though, this book isn’t particularly aimed at, or concerned with, outsiders. It’s a “hey-remember-when” story, with all the self-congratulation that implies. The early 1980s weren’t just about Michael Jackson on one side, and Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins on the other, however hard Azerrad tries to prove that they were. Heavy metal and rap, forms equally scorned by the mainstream, are ignored in Our Band Could Be Your Life, because they weren’t the music that college students with a wild streak were listening to back in the “good old days.” And now matter how much rock critics insist it can, rock cannot, and does not, change the world. This is a history of the music Michael Azerrad listened to when he was young, and it’s a well-written and well-researched history, but it’s not any more important than that.