The Graying of Indie Rock

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

Westerberg's new Suicaine Gratification, his first album for Capitol, is a gorgeous piece of work, highlighting his lyricism and his uncannily immediate voice; you just have to get past choruses like "I'm the best thing that never happened." With no hits, no catalogue and audience to coast on the way a venerable rocker deserves, he's hitting middle age the hard way, still representing the pathos of a cohort rather than a generation. Shawn Colvin duets with him on one song and it's possible to imagine him having a late-bloomer hit like she and Bonnie Raitt did; there are plenty in the industry rooting him on. But could he bring himself to schmooze the way those two schmooze? Make his indie humanizing a bit less narcissistic?

Frank Black, on the other hand, can't even get a major record deal; the former Pixies leader has dropped two albums on SpinArt in six months, both recorded cheaply to two-track. He hasn't lost it: "Western Star," on the new Pistolero, revisits his alien boogie-woogie and weird, callow lingo: "I get my freon bingo inside your cool soft sarong." But he's got a song about connecting his sound to 1955, not 1999, a reasonable act of summation for an elder statesman— if Black had the fan base. The underground that embraced him with Surfer Rosa, before he'd fully worked out what he was doing, didn't stick around after he knew. The focus has long moved on to the next unresolved pastiche: Olivia Tremor Control, perhaps. It's the same bear-hugging of novelty and fresh young creativity that mainstream pop gets berated for.

Black had the misfortune to break out artistically a bit before alt-rock broke big. Lou Barlow timed it just right, and then dove under the desk when stardom beckoned. After his fluke Folk Implosion hit "Natural One," he continued sharing songwriting equally with far lesser lights, a legacy of his days as a frustrated sideman in Dinosaur Jr. When Sebadoh, Barlow's main band, played the Bowery Ballroom March 12, he and Jason Loewenstein each sang 10 of the 20-song main set, a joke given the disparity in talent. There wasn't even much interpersonal chemistry; Sebadoh have become a parody of band solidarity, which drains energy out of records like the new The Sebadoh. Fans eager to tousle the hair of a constipated romantic get better value with fellow fluke-hit recipient Elliott Smith.

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

These traps are hard to spring. Fugazi, documented on Jem Cohen's just-unveiled, decade-in-the-making video Instrument, boast two legitimate frontmen; they care about entertainment as much as politics, dancing around the stage, telling stories, connecting. Cohen's compilation, which shows them recording, killing time with awful jokes, personally bouncing rude drunks, and interviewed by a precocious eighth-grader, makes the case that the depth of their musicality relates to the breadth of their focus. Even so, Fugazi stagnated too; combat fatigue sets in as you view, the way it probably did in life.

The question is one of functionality: if the ideal is to remain vibrant and human-sized, what shape should the music take to resist the ravages of time? Jon Langford's Waco Brothers recently played happy hour at the tiny Lakeside Lounge. The band's country-plunk is no Mekons, but singing "You say do what I do but you won't do what I say" with a tight rhythm section and a good laugh, it hardly matters who's on mike, and playing for beer in a small club felt organic, anything but a defeat. Langford's found a way to throw his history off his shoulders. Similarly, Sonic Youth stretch their taste with side projects and personal record labels; Yo La Tengo do covers for cash every year at Gaylord Fields's WFMU fundraiser and Ira Kaplan recently sat in at an Antietam improv evening.

Such free-form moves operate as gestures of smallness: further proof of how much better-suited indie scenes are to nurture those who never rise up than those who do, or try to. Alternative rock, however corrupt and ailing, has been a more challenging place for Beck, Tori Amos, Monster Magnet, Liz Phair, Everclear, and the like to grow up. The best rockers shouldn't be known to only a coterie. It's just wrong. As Galinsky told me, "When you don't get any oxygen in the pond, the pond fills with algae."

He once played a gig filling in with his pals Half Japanese, opening for Nirvana at a huge venue in New York. There's a photo from that night up in CB's too, as much a part of the record as the Half Jap show held in the basement of a fan's house in Pittsburgh, one Fourth of July on tour when they just felt like playing. Like Jackie at the Snakesnatch Lodge in Knoxville. Or the fierceness of Buffalo Tom, playing on borrowed equipment after their gear was stolen. Or Jeff fiddling in the shopping center while the van got an oil change, while the buddy who'd just quit Bear, Stearns and drove for them hung out shirtless in the road.

The indie scene may not have always launched great artists, but it invigorated great people, the actors in their own destiny who shine out of Scraps and the gallery show. That was its weightier legacy, one that's still paying dividends: Amy Rigby discovering her voice in middlescence, Antietam's Josh Madell anchoring New York underground taste at his Other Music shop, Love Child's Rebecca Odes talking to young women on her Web site, Galinsky doing more with a camera than he could with a bass. At CBGB the night Radiation screened in New York, Come, who are briefly in the film, gave a full set. Thalia Zedek's eyes have turned into tea bags over all the years, but her outfit rock with as much commitment as ever. It was an air I hadn't breathed in quite some time.

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