The Graying of Indie Rock

What do you do for an encore after the spark is gone?

When the guy in Fuck announced his 37th birthday, people thought he was joking. The occasion was too cruddy: the rumpus-room attic of a gross bar near the airport, a crowd of less than two dozen. But so what, they played, had a good time. Only the show's kid organizer was disappointed. From a band called Fuck he'd been expecting something badder. At night's end he ripped up a sign with the band's name, stomped the remains, and shouted, "that wasn't punk--this is punk."

A woman forms Speed McQueen with her glammy girlfriends and plays for years on the North Carolina strip, shopping for "Evel Knievel dada" costumes in lieu of rehearsal. Learning of an NYC boy band, same name, they invite them down to play, put them up in their rock'n'roll house— and hear from their guests' lawyers later that week. Her group lets it go. The other Speed McQueen sign to a major. "We were lazy. THERE. I SAID IT. WE WERE LAZY." Deciding "I wasn't a rock star, I was a loser," she takes off for San Francisco. Later she decides that Speed McQueen had been the best band in the world.

You can hear these stories at CB's Gallery between now and the end of March, on a Walkman cassette that accompanies an exhibit of Michael Galinsky's photographs. Galinsky played in the little-known Sleepyhead for eight years, his camera documenting bands he knew, the America he toured backside up, the indie-rock quest for what he calls "a life that had a romantic spark." For this show, he asked friends he'd photographed to reflect. The results capture the on-and-off flickering of that romantic spark better than anything I've ever experienced. If punk and Amerindie's motto was Do It Yourself, the theme here is James Brown's: Doing It to Death.

Jeff Cashvan fiddles at the strip mall, 1994.
Michael Galinsky, From Scraps, Sugarfree Records
Jeff Cashvan fiddles at the strip mall, 1994.

There's a book, too, Scraps, just released by the record label Sugar Free, featuring a portion of the photos plus essays by the same crowd. And two films he made with his wife Suki Hawley about the touring life, 1994's Half-Cocked and 1998's Radiation, which played Sundance and the New York Underground Film Festival. Galinsky, who lives in Williamsburg, just turned 30, but his parents, Chapel Hill professors, supported him the past year. "I have so much work to do, I haven't had time to get a job! I work like 20 hours a day!" He and Hawley shot Radiation on their 1997 honeymoon in Spain, funded by showings of one of Half-Cocked's three prints.

Half-Cocked, acted by indie denizens, is about beginnings: a southern girl and her friends steal her obnoxious brother's band's van and equipment and try to become them. Pulling into a Chattanooga scene where any genuine effort, no matter how atrocious, is tolerated, they get away with it (though setting up the drums is hard). Then they go on tour and fight starvation. Radiation is about endings: a grizzled but inept Spanish promoter (Sleepyhead's real one), whose cash gig is selling speed on the road, bottoms out escorting an American performance artist around.

The CB's show and Scraps address deeper endings: the waning of the scene Galinsky grew up in and indie rock's demise as a subterranean dream, what a speaker on the tape calls "a train running on parallel, invisible tracks." Yes, alternative rock commodified things down. But there are new underground trains to ride, new sounds. The real enemy is time; bohemia feeds off youth as much as any ad exec. What can't be recaptured, Galinsky says, is the "explosive, young excitement" that comes with starting out, the imperviousness. One of his photos shows two newbie musicians improbably snuggled inside a drum case. It's labeled "Crappy show in a church— no one there." As if, for those two, that mattered. A decade ago, the long forgotten Xtal raised a question that the scions of indie now ask relentlessly: "What you gonna do for an encore/Now that you're not so young anymore?"

The independent record label scene that evolved in America out of punk during the Reagan-Bush years lived almost entirely off its own energy. Bands helped other bands, swapping floors, gigs, and uncritical support. The U.S. was huge, but local scenes served as way stations and the rest as an amusement park. In a reactionary time, with the charts closed off by boomer dinosaurs and antipunk hysteria, indieland turned "rock" from a proselytizing spectacle into a ritual of commitment requiring constant renewal. "Things rock in the context of what they promise to do, and how they betray that," Sam Lipsyte writes in Scraps. This from a guy who operated as Sam Shit in some-thing called Dungbeetle.

Powerful mythology, it came with strings attached. "We didn't have the skills or the desire to make any kind of high art," Sleepyhead's Chris O'Rourke notes. "We needed something to do, something to be." Indie achieved many of its successes by presupposing a larger failure, recasting rock on a human scale by maligning an outside world that couldn't be converted. Artists who did have the skills or desire to make high art have been handicapped ever since. Paul Westerberg, for instance, a natural-born Springsteen when he fronted the Replacements, recorded his best album for an indie, in 1984, the now out-of-stock Let It Be. He signed to Warners, and from then on found it difficult to write about anything but how he was shooting himself in the foot.

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