The Graying of Indie Rock
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tim Foljhan of Two Dollar Guitar was there too, playing with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, members of Come and Sleepyhead, Janet Wygal. Typing quickly, he writes in Scraps about the stages of a journeyman musician's existence: innocence, burnout, renewed vows, and a mysterious fourth rung, where it's simply become your life and you see your friends "writing songs from out of their physical memory that they can just breath out. rock face and all. And , just like in the beginning, you think, 'man. I wanna do that.' "
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