Indie rock is something I’ve blogged about before. The DIY mindset that permeated the period between say 1979 and 1995, pre-interwebs, was a unique one. If you happened to have tapped into it in some small way—simply as a fan, or perhaps a DJ, let alone as an actual band member—you know that it’s something we’ll never replicate again.
Jon Fine played in what he’d call one of the “weird bands” of that period, first with Bitch Magnet, then later with some bands even less well-known (like Coptic Light and Don Caballero). It’s not like Bitch Magnet’s a household name, but in the world that counts Black Flag and Sonic Youth as the best-known of a group of bands that were all a bit off-center, the period was worth recounting in some detail.
Thankfully for fans of that era, Fine did just that with, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw At Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), his 2015 memoir for Viking/Penguin. Fine played guitar in bands from the late 80s, while a student at Oberlin College (which is where Bitch Magnet formed), until just a few years ago. During his two decades of living the life of a rock musician, bands like his never hit the charts, or inked huge deals with music conglomerates. Instead, they usually worked crappy temp jobs, lived in apartments in the part of cities that most people never visit, and practiced in spaces that have since been condemned (or just as likely, have gentrified).
Your Band Sucks reads like a who’s who of acts that I was intimately familiar with from the time I first latched onto indie rock (as a way to counter-balance and react to time spent as a fundamentalist Xian while I was in my 20s) in 1984. I’m still keeping up with what’s happening on the indie side of things, too. Many of these bands that Fine touches down and offers snapshots of, I had the pleasure of seeing live, like Silkworm, a band I referenced last week and have written about before.
I never saw Fine’s band, but they had the kind of indie rock cred that would get them played on one of my radio shows at WBOR in the mid-1990s, especially since their musical modus operandi was guitar-based, angular, and aggressive. Later, Bitch Magnet bassist, Sooyoung Park, left and formed Seam. Seam was one of the bands that most of our college-age deejays were gaga over, especially when they came out with their second record on Touch and Go, The Problem With Me. It was one of those records that all the “cool kids” were playing at the station.
Fine is a gifted writer and he writes evocatively about a time that’s fading in my rearview mirror. I’m not surprised that his post-musical career path has led him to serving as an executive director at Inc. Magazine, who also writes for BusinessWeek, and that he has won a James Beard Award for work of his that’s appeared in Food & Wine. He uses his ability with words to capture a snapshot in time that was special to me and thousands of others who relished music that was as independent and unadulterated as anything during the rock and roll era.
With social media dominating all aspects of the day-to-day of many, it’s easy to forget that you could book a national tour in 1990 without apps like Yelp, Facebook, or Airbnb on your smartphone. In fact, in 1990, if you were touring the country in a beat-up Econoline van or something similar, you were forced to search for pay phones, and the kindness of fans, putting you up for the night. Bands would swap information and an entire national network was developed, first as merely mouth-to-mouth, and eventually, bands began writing numbers and addresses down in spiral notebooks. Then, books came out detailing how bands were booking tours, playing clubs from Boston to Seattle, with smaller cities and towns interspersed, in-between. Think of it as what could be called the indie rock underground railroad, of sorts.
While Fine accomplishes a Herculean task of documenting his own recollections of what happened and what made it magical, he never mentions whether the changes that occurred from the late 80s, to our Balkanized, screen-obsessed present day, with Twitter and Facebook replacing rumpled notebooks and tips from other band members, has affected music, negatively. I particularly liked this passage from the book, on page 87:
Timing is everything, even in punk rock, and starting in the latter half of the eighties, it became much easier for weird bands to do band things: play shows, make records, go on tour. The hows and whys that had been so elusive just a few years earlier were now shared through surprisingly effective samizdat and word-of-mouth networks. The bands that had done the most in a previous generation to start wiring those networks together were Black Flag and Dead Kennedys. (I am compelled to note that I still love the former; the latter, not so much.) They were the first underground bands to not just play shows on the other side of America—they were both from California, and Dead Kennedys made it to New York first, in late 1979—but to tour nationally, and do so steadily, because they made a crucial conceptual leap: they deceded that playing in a band was their job and started doing it all the time. What they faced and overcame in the process—Black Flag, in particular, a story best told by Henry Rollins in his memoir, Get in the Van—is rather mind-boggling. But these bands, and others, made it clear that you could do it yourselves, and put particular clubs and cities on the map, and helped audiences grow accustomed to different kinds of music—first hardcore, then everything else.
I picked up Fine’s book because I saw it referenced somewhere. I knew I needed a break from some of the heavy shit I’ve been thinking about and reading. Call it “escape from reality,” I don’t care. I’m glad I read it, as it offered a look back at something I remember fondly.
As the snippet above clearly captures, this kind of effort to make music required spunk and gravitas. It wasn’t about digital musical enhancements and shooting out emails and posting to social media. It was a real physical slog requiring sweat and toil and even going without.
Fine details the summer (1987) that he and band mate Park decided to spend their summer vacation in Atlanta, simply because that’s where their drummer, Orestes Morfin (aka, Delatorre), was living with his girlfriend. They knew not a soul in this urban Mecca of the South. Again, Fine:
Absolutely no one knew us in Atlanta, but since maybe two hundred people anywhere knew us at this point, one place seemed as good as another. The prior summer I lived with my parents and made $4.88 an hour working in a Dun & Bradstreet print room. Anything was better than that.
Neither Fine nor Park’s parents were keen on the idea, but the two were adults, so they didn’t have much choice. Instead of living at home, playing video games all summer, they were on their own. With Atlanta’s exurbs growing exponentially, the two budding rockers found a job landscaping, sodding lawns for new houses.
Working long, hot hours in the sun, at a job that was physically demanding, and then coming home and practicing every night, and then get up and do it again the next day, Bitch Magnet forged their own signature style and sound. That speaks to the determination that this band and countless other indie bands had, chasing a dream that never promised riches or fame. Fine mentioned that they got nice tans and put some muscle on their then, wiry frames.
If you dig books about music, I’m pretty sure you’ll appreciate this one, even if it offers up a bit more “inside baseball” about bands like Fine’s and others like Scratch Acid, Truman’s Water, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, than non-indie fans might prefer. Those are pretty obscure names, actually. How about Boston’s Mission of Burma, or Husker Du from Minneapolis?
Man, I miss those days when music was physical and visceral, and not something you downloaded and played through a crappy pair of earbuds.