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If you want it enough, their band could be your life

26 May

wake up in the van
drink a beer
write a song
mail the fuzzy tape of it to your sound engineer- who’s your cousin
drive 8 hours to the next venue on the tour
eat a slice of pizza purchased for you by one of your few fans, knowing you wouldn’t have eaten otherwise.
blow fan’s ears and what was between them to smithereens at your show
give an interview for a hardcore music ‘zine
fight with your bandmates
get drunk together and make up (unless you’re straight edge, in which case you might just sulk) 
get back in the van
do it again

The period from 1981 to 1991 was dominated by Reaganism, new wave, punk bands knocking off one another, and musical acts that were more about style than about substance.  But for the bands profiled in Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, it was a time to incubate true independence- to learn to live as an artist and a human being without the gilded trappings of shitty mainstream music.  It was not the birth of the American Underground, but it was a damned significant period of music and scene-making for bands in the punk, art rock, noise, hardcore, experimental and downright undefinable scenes.

The 2001 tome’s title Our Band Could Be Your Life comes from a lyric in The Minutemen’s subtly funky punk song “History Lesson Part II.”  The Minutemen are a working class band from San Pedro, California, whose career was depressingly cut short by the death of bandmate D. Boon in a car accident (fuck those, man).  Their aesthetic was to “jam econo,” that is, to do everything as cheaply and affordably as possible.  They lugged and set up their own equipment for their whole careers, and kept day jobs for most of them.

That concept of jamming econo, of doing it yourself from the album art to booking the tours to writing the songs to fixing your van to starting your own record labels (see SST and Dischord, among others), is what allows the scene to get by.  Not to flourish, mind you, but to start a club of people who could get a casette tape from a friend or hear a totally new sound on a college radio station, who appreciated creativity without definitions, a club who reconvened in all the smelly clubs for all the rocking shows.

The scene was about originality.  Profiling Black Flag, The Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, among other bands, Azerrad depicts a collaborative, broke, highly artistic musical underground that doesn’t exist in the same way today.  Yet ask many musicians currently working, and they’ll tell you how much the legacies of these bands (a few of whom are still playing today) and the knowledge from this book influenced them to start bands.  Admittedly short on women, Our Band Could Be Your Life can be read well with books like Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front– in terms of timelines one leads into the next.

Which is to say, we couldn’t have the American Indie (and semi-independent) scene we have today without ’80s and early ’90s predecessors.  Thanks for forging ahead, and teaching us how to jam – and live – econo.

Recommended read, though maybe a bit too hefty for a beach read.  Have a rocking holiday weekend everyone!