Review of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991
Just got back from the beach, where I read Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad. I picked it up because it features the photography of my friend, Jim Saah (that’s his cover shot gracing the trade paper edition), and also because I had heard good things about it from fellow music freaks. But good doesn’t begin to describe the impact of Our Band. I was truly blown away by this book.
The author chronicles the history of thirteen influential, independent, punkish American bands who spearheaded a genuine movement. Among the bands: Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, The Minutemen, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, and Beat Happening. All originally recorded on small labels, all toured relentlessly under low-rent conditions, and all managed to reach their young audiences on some kind of deeply personal, emotional level. After a decade of struggle, Nirvana’s Nevermind brought “punk” to the masses, effectively ending the era. Indie rock had won, but it was, in retrospect, a hollow victory. In the end, as Azerrad points out, the destination was far less satisfying than the ride. But, Lord, what a ride.
The musicians chronicled here, outsiders in a profession of outsiders, harbored outright contempt for the lifestyles of the established rock gods of the time. They weren’t looking for acceptance from the industry and they had no desire to distance themselves from the kids who were buying their records. In some cases, they did not come from a musical background at all. They wanted to make music and they felt they had something to say. No one was going to tell them that playing in a band was for “someone else.”
These bands fired my own ambitions. My background and state-school education told me I would never be admitted to that group of writers whose privileged lives were described on countless book flaps (“He divides his time between Martha’s Vineyard and a brownstone on the Upper West Side. This is his first collection of short stories.”) I had never taken a writing class when I attempted to write my first book. Hell, I had never even met a novelist. To me, authors were “other people.” But bands like Fugazi and The Mats and Hüsker Dü told me, by example, that my lack of pedigree meant nothing relative to my potential for creativity. These people picked up guitars and played, and in the process made a kind of organic, volcanic art. I didn’t have the aptitude for instrumentation. But I thought I could do something similar with a pen. At the very least, these bands assured me I had the right to try.
Our Band Could Be Your Life moved me because I was there, as close to the stage as I could get, for many of the bands mentioned in these pages and for countless bands like them. So I know what it meant. But you don’t have to be from that era to get something tremendously important out of Azerrad’s work. Read very carefully, and be inspired. This book, no question, could change your life.
One more thing: It’s no accident that some of the most exciting, anarchic, egalitarian music—rock and hip-hop alike—in modern history exploded during the Reagan years. So keep your mind open to all possibilities, and look around you. Maybe it’s time for a new revolution.