Writing about a subculture for a mass audience is, almost inevitably, a lose-lose proposition. Whatever the topic, insiders will be quick to nitpick, while outsiders may wonder why anyone cares at all. When it comes to the notoriously self-protective world of American underground rock, the pitfalls increase geometrically. So the first thing to be said about Michael Azerrad‘s new book is that it’s brave even to attempt to tell in a single volume the story of what might be called the heroic period of this music. He knows what he‘s up against, as his introduction makes clear: The only alternative to passing over worthy artists, he apologizes, was ”turning this book into an encyclopedia.“ What he’s written instead is something more limited, a collective biography of several key figures in the interconnected network of bands, record labels, venues and zines that sprang up across the U.S. over the course of the Reagan-Bush era.
Azerrad is best known for Come As You Are, his book on Nirvana, and Our Band Could Be Your Life is in large part a prequel to it, beginning as far back as the early days of L.A. and D.C. hardcore and following the trail that peaked (or petered out) with the success of Nirvana‘s Nevermind. He devotes a chapter apiece to 13 of the period’s most influential bands, from the stylistically diverse but resolutely punk-identified trio of Black Flag, the Minutemen and Minor Threat to those that spearheaded the underground‘s reclamation of classic-rock elements (Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney). The hook seems to be this: You may not know Husker Du (for example) from a husking bee, but their role in creating the aesthetic (and audience) that Nirvana capitalized on automatically accords them cultural significance.
This may not be everyone’s version of what made this music important, but it‘s Azerrad’s, and he tells his story straightforwardly and more responsibly than many rock writers. He avoids speculation and invented conversation, and largely stays out of his subjects‘ bedrooms. He’s usefully clear on the bands‘ often complicated early histories, as members join and quit with alarming regularity. But the book’s real strength lies in Azerrad‘s interviews; he’s obviously earned the trust of the likes of Big Black founder Steve Albini and Mark Arm of Mudhoney, and often steps back, allowing his subjects to reveal themselves as articulate, petty or foolish, as the case may be. There are few surprises for those already familiar with the scene‘s dramatis personae: Fugazi come off as both self-righteous and self-questioning; various members of Black Flag as deeply confused about their aims; and Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt as cynical and sincere, sometimes in the same breath. A chapter on Dinosaur Jr devolves into a snipefest between guitarist J Mascis and ousted bassist Lou Barlow, even a decade after the fact.
When Azerrad turns from transcription to description, though, the results are weaker. An uneven prose stylist, he leans on stock descriptions (”the lanky, bespectacled Steve Turner“) and mystifying generalizations (”Perhaps because Seattleites tend to be a bit uptight, they need a few more belts than most in order to unwind“). Though he admits early on to focusing on the bands‘ ”stories“ rather than their music, this doesn’t entirely excuse his strained attempts to describe the intensity of an early Black Flag show: ”Dukowski tore sounds from his bass with utmost vengeance . . . while his fingers pummeled the strings like pistons.“ It‘s a watered-down version of the Lester BangsJoe Carducci school of ”intense“ rock writing, minus the metaphorical invention that made those writers palatable.
In fact, the book’s major weakness is its obvious debt to the contentious, ”heaviness“-centric version of the period‘s history offered by Carducci’s Rock and the Pop Narcotic. (The latter is singled out in the acknowledgements.) Azerrad pays lip service to the notion that the ”indie“ is as important as the ”rock,“ but bands that emphasize volume, power and machismo win the day. ”Effete,“ ”wimpy“ and ”new wave“ all mean ”not punk“ in Azerrad‘s idiolect; even influential pre-punks Pere Ubu are saddled with the condescending epithet ”pointy-headed.“ Though a chapter on the seemingly naive (but profoundly confrontational) Beat Happening offers some balance, before this, one gets the impression that the glue holding together the musical and sociopolitical versions of the dictum ”Think for yourself“ can be most potently cooked down from distortion pedals, male bonding and throat-stripping screams. But during the same years that Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth explored the limits of one form of intensity, bands from Camper Van Beethoven to the Feelies to Trotsky Icepick were making music that challenged both pop and punk convention in ways that included a broader range of human experience. Of course, Azerrad hedges his bets here as well: ”There are plenty more books to be written about this subject.“ Let’s hope the next book appears before this one becomes gospel.