There has to be a word that describes the mixture of vindication and embarrassment peculiar to reading weighty tomes about secret pleasures that used to feel like they were yours and yours alone, but now seem to belong to everybody. German is full of words not easily translated but ring clearly across linguistic and cultural barriers. There’s a word in Russian that comes pretty close: razbliuto, the feeling a man has for a woman he once loved passionately but doesn’t anymore. Not in a bad way, or so I like to imagine, just some friendly embers where there used to be a raging fire.
Anyway, if there’s an English word like that, then that’s what I felt while reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which profiles the following OG indie bands at between 30 and 50 pages per band: Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr and Fugazi. First published last year, the book has just come out in paperback form, and hence this belated review. Fifteen years ago it would have been a sacred text for me, but now it’s just a great book on a topic that was long overdue for a behind-the-scenes/between-the-lines treatment by a rock journalist up to the weighty task.
However much the alt-rock elite talk about albums like Zen Arcade and You’re Living All Over Me as being huge influences, and however often the albums themselves turn up on critics’ all-time lists of the most influential indie records ever, the thing that always sticks in my mind is how few people seemed to give a rat’s ass about them when they came out. How few people I knew, anyway. Growing up in notoriously un-hip Billings, I hated the prevailing clime of Van Halen versus Van Hagar debate, crappy hair-metal bands and the fake rebellion of “I Can’t Drive 55.” So I lost my mind for some of the bands in Azerrad’s book.
Forget the free-to-be-you-and-me party line; what you listened to in junior high and high school was a big part of how you got viewed by your peers. So for better or worse, these bands were the consolation I had for making myself a musical outcast. For having people sneer and snort derisively when I dared to suggest that Hüsker Dü’s version of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” demonstrated a grasp on a pop song that cocaine poster-boy David Lee Roth couldn’t conceive of in his platinum-selling limp-and-mug through “California Girls.” I’m sure I didn’t put it quite as elegantly as that, but that was the gist of it. And yet, by popular consensus, I was the one who had shitty taste in music.
In those days, there were few indie authorities to look to for vindication. Rolling Stone never cared about any of these bands while they were still together, and the arrival of Spin was too late, if not too little, for at least half of them. Zines like Maximumrockandroll helped me to not feel quite so alone with my punk rock records. But by the time I really started reading zines, I was mostly past caring what anybody else thought.
So in some ways, years later I read Our Band Could Be Your Life as much as a latent apology by a seasoned rock journalist to all of us teenage dorks as a work of general-interest music writing. I distinctly remember how frustrating it was not to be able to find any information about these bands, how it felt like there was no chronicler to celebrate their music while they were around or mourn their passing when they broke up. So thanks, Michael Azerrad. Your book is far from perfect, but at least you went for it with real gusto, did the research and didn’t stop at hearsay while trying to sort out fact from rumor. I think it’s a little disingenuous to talk about “Johnny-come-lately” critics when Our Band Could Be Your Life is nothing if not Johnny-come-lately (it’s a eulogy more than anything), but thanks all the same. As soon as I read his clarification of the name Hüsker Dü (not Swedish, as is parroted in 99 percent of the other Johnny-come-lately articles I’ve read about my favorite band ever), I knew I was in good hands.
On the subject of overdue praise: The best music magazine in the world right now is the British publication MOJO. You should cancel your subscriptions to everything else this very minute and pool the money you save toward getting this music bible, packed cover to cover every issue with reviews, hot tips, fun stuff and thoughtful, impeccably researched articles. Instead of beating you over the head with their own coolness, MOJO’s writers seem genuinely eager to share the things they love. So, like everything else the magazine puts its name to, The MOJO Collection is a superb discussion of more than 600 albums, some found in one out of five American households and some rare as hen’s teeth. It’s been in print for two years now, but it’s never too late to learn about something that’s guaranteed to improve your life.