Getting Their Hands Dirty

Michael Azerrad Chronicles Indie Rock His Way

Beyond guitars and once again skipping Beat Happening—who serve as exception that proves the rule, representing the female principle and lo-fi purism on the road around Nirvana—what unites this powerful body of music is anger. The anger mutates, and with a few bands, like the passive-aggressive Dinosaur Jr., it's well sublimated. But rage is what gives the music its "edge," as they say, and if blaming it on testosterone would be foolish, crediting it as an attack on social injustice would be utter poppycock. Best just attribute it to the individualism in extremis that has always fueled bohemia—you know, bad attitude.

The storyteller in Azerrad can't resist how impossible his protagonists were. Tough, brave, ready to suffer for their art, all that—for months and years, most of these guys risked starvation in penury severe enough to silence any carping about middle-class slumming, especially given Azerrad's eye for interclass (and intraclass) advantage. But that doesn't mean they weren't also impossible. Greg Ginn was a driven ascetic, J Mascis a lazy asshole. Steve Albini was Steve Albini (always), Henry Rollins Henry Rollins (as of 1984, estimates Azerrad, kindly). Ian MacKaye was a control freak disguised as a ragged-trousered philanthropist, Gibby Haynes an M.B.A. disguised as an avant-gardist, Calvin Johnson a billygoat disguised as a pussycat. Beyond Mission of Burma, prematurely departed due to tinnitus, and the Minutemen, ditto due to death, every band here that didn't own a label fucked over friends who did, only sometimes the friends got there first. The cavalcade of egos redefines the concept of the nice guy—D. Boon and Mike Watt debating ideology till they come to blows, for instance, or Thurston Moore & Associates reinvesting specie from their favor bank to become the godfathers of indie.

Azerrad's gift is detail, not overview. Scan his introduction and conclusion and you might never get to the good stuff. So although he unflinchingly specifies the failings as well as the virtues of the indie labels he chronicles, he seems unaware that majors also differ from each other. And although chronology compels him to outline the disappearance of explicit politics from the scene, he can't shake the bromide that "the indie underground reclaimed rock's standing as the sound of a rebellious youth culture founded on deep and far-reaching beliefs"—beliefs that, unsurprisingly, he neglects to articulate. Better if, like Gina Arnold, he'd put himself into the book, describing the hopes, passions, alienations, and disillusions of a fandom that for some manly reason he never fully admits. Indie was a bohemia, like punk and hippie and beat before it—only note how each is more bound up in the business of music than its predecessor. The history of bohemia is full of promoters and self-expressers set on turning art into rent. But the bohemia Azerrad describes is unprecedented in its penchant for entrepreneurship—from small-time impresarios to subsistence road warriors, everybody gets their hands dirty selling music. What he leaves out is who it's sold to—the complex social relationships between seller and buyer that created a new counterculture where, especially toward the bottom of the pyramid but even today, one would often change into the other. Instead Azerrad falls into the oldest bohemian cliché—the assumption that utopia stopped short when yours ended.

Illustration by Paul Corio

On the other hand, what can you expect of E-popping ignoramuses with no idea who (Black Flag guitarist and SST bossman) Greg Ginn even is? Seeking CDs to make my listening easier, I asked a clerk at Other Music where I might find Mudhoney and the Minutemen. He racked his brain briefly, then ventured that the Minutemen might be over there. He pointed to a bin displaying prominent index cards for the Kinks and Neil Young. I had much better luck at Tower.

Michael Azerrad will be signing and reading from his book at See Hear (59 East 7th Street) on August 9 and at Rocks in Your Head (157 Prince Street) on August 16.

Robert Christgau can be heard Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. on Voice Radio.

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