In 2004, a young Purchase College electronic musician named Dan Deacon embarked on his first tour. It didn’t go very well. His car died outside Fresno and went to the scrap heap. Height, the Baltimore rapper he was opening for, decided to fly home, but Deacon couldn’t; he hadn’t brought a valid ID. What he did have was a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Our Band chronicled the struggles of first-generation independent rock musicians—Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and Hüsker Dü—as they completed grueling, not-even-enough-money-to-call-it-a-shoestring budget American tours that eventually helped create the touring, retail, and promotional circuit for the lifestyle and genre now filed under the term “indie rock.”
Deacon, whose intricate spazz attacks sound little like the music put forth by anyone profiled in Band, ended up using his last $450 to buy a 30-day buss pass so he could finish the tour’s final 25 days. He hauled 150 pounds of gear and canned food on his back “with a smile on my face thinking about the rotten and moldy apples Black Flag, a band I had never even knowingly heard, ate while they were on tour,” he recalled. “I think if I hadn’t been reading that book when the car broke down, I would have just taken a bus straight home and might not have toured again.”
Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band, hears stories like this—if not quite as extreme—often. “I realized that there was this renewed appreciation of that period I had written about,” he says. “I thought maybe we should acknowledge that great connection that the book kind of helped to foster,” he said. For the “Our Band Could Be Your Concert” 10-year anniversary celebration, Azerrad personally reached out to several future indie-rock icons and personal favorites in hopes that they would cover songs by each of the bands in the book.
The night will showcase David Longstreth and members of the Dirty Projectors (Azerrad’s current favorite band) covering Black Flag; Delicate Steve covering the Minutemen; Citay covering Mission of Burma; Ted Leo covering Minor Threat; Grooms covering Hüsker Dü; Titus Andronicus covering the Replacements; tUnE-YarDs covering Sonic Youth; Dan Deacon covering the Butthole Surfers; St. Vincent covering Big Black (the only pairing for which Azerrad let the artist pick the cover choice, a selection that made him laugh out loud); Wye Oak covering Dinosaur Jr.; Buke & Gass covering Fugazi; White Hills covering Mudhoney; and Yellow Ostrich covering Beat Happening. Eugene Mirman and “O.G. indie fan” Janeane Garafolo will host.
Sitting on a park bench in Father Demo Square, Azerrad, a man with the unkempt hair of a lifelong rock fan/freelancer and the knowing laugh of a favorite professor, says he was first inspired to write Band while watching a miniseries on rock history. After the Ramones/Sex Pistols era wrapped up, “it skipped and went straight from Talking Heads to Nirvana. I thought, ‘This is insane. Did I black out for 10 minutes?’
“I thought that someone should do something about this,” he said. “And I had, appropriately enough, a DIY moment and I thought, ‘Maybe I should do it.’ ”
Azerrad’s book not only introduced a generation of listeners to world-changing artists like the Replacements and Beat Happening, but it also detailed the do-it-yourself philosophies, practical ethics, and sustainable business practices that allowed a set of under-the-radar musicians to carve out a small but influential niche.
“A friend of mine gave me the book for my birthday. I tore through it in about two days,” said Jenn Wasner, singer-guitarist for the Baltimore band Wye Oak. “Reading Michael’s book dissolved some of the mystery surrounding what actually makes bands work, creatively and professionally, and, for the first time, made me feel like dedicating my life to making music was a real possibility.”
“Much more so than any sort of musical guidance, Our Band for me was an introduction to a whole world of ethics that I had never even considered. As a young teen, my understanding of punk was largely confined to the Sex Pistols’ fuck-everything negation, or the vague sloganeering of the Clash and their devotees, which was Greek to me,” noted Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles. “To be introduced to a whole world of American bands who had values strong enough to bet their entire lives on was a revelation that I am still recovering from.”
Azerrad was born in Beth Israel Hospital in 1961. After graduating from Columbia, he got a job at “a place that sent rock videos to nightclubs” and wrote for its in-house trade magazine. A year and a half later, he got his first assignment at Rolling Stone. He became a full-time freelancer shortly after. After pushing the slow-to-adapt RS to let him cover the then-burgeoning alternative rock scene, he eventually penned the 1993 Nirvana biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana.
But don’t call Azerrad a historian. Sunday’s concert will also serve as a way to demonstrate indie rock’s current vitality and innovation—think of Deacon or tUnE-YarDS, who are often tagged as indie despite their music being far from rock. The idea of presenting the indie scene as an ever-growing entity appeals to Ted Leo, who also notes that if you put a guitar in his hand, he could play any Minor Threat song you care to name.
“Any generation, when they see the next generation pick up the things that they worked so hard to create and find, I guess I do understand how you could feel put off by that and end up living your life stuck in the past musically,” Leo says. “What you also have to understand is that’s the cyclical nature of youth culture in general. There are always poseurs, and there are always true believers.”
Band chronicles a time when conventional wisdom believed that rock music had already peaked during the adolescence of the then-ascendant baby-boomer generation; new bands couldn’t compete with the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Replacements’ answer to this was to name their best album Let It Be. This attitude wasn’t limited to the boomer generation, though; Azerrad believes that the current nostalgia for ’90s indie acts (like, among others, Nirvana) is eerily similar to the dismissals of 25 years ago. This show serves as his retort to that attitude.
“I think if you think music sucks right now, in the deepest sense you are old. I think this is one of the greatest periods of music in my lifetime,” he says. “I was alive when the British Invasion happened, psychedelic rock, disco, post-punk. I’ve been alive during many times, and I think this is one of those watershed periods. I think another point of this concert is to celebrate that.
“Think of that lineup. It’s just sick.”