Sunday, February 07, 2010

Rise Above You Bastards of Young: On a Book about Old Punk Bands and More Griping About America Today

In my long-winded decade-review, I titled part 3 in inspiration by the book Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad but had in mind Craig Finn's channeling of the book in an essay he wrote in 2008 (in which Finn took the book title's origin and turned it on its head: "A great American philosopher named D. Boon once said 'Our band could be your life'. I think that is true. But 'Your Life could be Our Band' is also a true statement."). And yet it was the case that I myself had never read the book (though I felt fine bastardizing the title for my own spin on it). Nor had I really listened to any of the bands in the book (with the exceptions of the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr). So it was time.

Reading the book in the recent days and weeks, it served as a multi-tinged document of reference points - reading it in 2010, it having been released in 2001, capturing the period 1981 to 1991 - all periods of repeated (or maybe never ending) staples of American life: the collision of the Establishment vs. the Underground. And each period could be defined by who made up (or thought they made up) the Establishment, who made up (or thought they made up) the Underground, and who stood for what in each circle. It appears over and over, the debate over identity, over who is in charge and who is the rebel, over rules, breaking the rules and then forming new rules. This collision manifests itself not just in the socio-politics of a time period but in something like the underground rock music that could spurn out of it. But unlike in the Reagan Era, the Bush era had no cabal of dangerous, free thinking bands that could shape a new sound. In fact, as Azerrad foreshadowed in the book's conclusion, the swelling of genres and scenes, combined with the revolution in the Internet, expanded and yet also killed the idea of Indie. Now everything is Indie but everything is also a package. With rules. So just like in the Reagan Era, the Bush (and now Post-Bush) era is full of everyone considering themselves to be the ultimate in whatever label they slap on themselves and alienate everyone else by slapping the antithesis label on them - and this goes for politics, music, social settings, everything.

It's a new decade. The Establishment is splintered but it is still the Establishment. The President is someone who represents both something new (concepts of change) and old fashioned (pragmatism and compromise), and people on either side of him have labeled him an enemy (for now, until they maybe like him again, you know how it is). The idea of a resistance could now be almost laughably pinpointed on the very people who hated or would have hated any sort of resistance in the 80's or the past decade. The one thing that's consistent is that the Establishment under the President are a bunch of Do-Nothing suits and skirts who either cower in fear of bullying (and cashing-in on whatever deals they can muster for other suits) or relish in the spirit of Hatred and Demonizing. And culturally these days you're either an ill-informed proud-to-be-yokel fake-blue collar-pro-white-collar-type (as is the case in every decade it seems) or a slightly-better-informed but nevertheless vapid yuppie hipster who is too busy eating bacon-covered chocolate cupcakes at some loud club with your baby in a stroller next to you. It's been this way for awhile but it seems even more pronounced, not less, in the changing of the guard at the White House.

So while there is plenty of great music to get caught up in, there is no blaring call of an underground. Because it is all underground and it all isn't. It just is. It is floating in the ether which is basically life in general these days. Society is adrift and aimless and people from all walks of life are getting lost in their own false-sense of entitlement and anger and from a lack of understanding of anyone else in the world. Parents, kids, singles, white collar, blue collar, urban, suburban, are all caught-up in their own worlds - through text messages, twitter, TV, 3D movies, etc. In other periods, this malaise could be just as identified. It is nothing new. And it wasn't going to be solved with one presidential election either. But it does seem to be a little more absurd than in generations past. We've come a long way in lot of things and yet still can't seem to fully get out of the muck when we should. People have more rights and freedoms and abilities to choose than ever before and yet through a combination of having-it-so-good, technological distraction, and broad ignorance, we always seem to be standing on the verge of having it kick-backed for awhile.

Don't get me wrong, the music I listen to and champion on this blog is about as good as it gets culturally for me (along with movies by the Coen Brothers or certain television shows like Mad Men or books by Cormac McCarthy). And I hold it along side the sounds and scenes of the past that I listened to in aplomb (and in fits and starts). But I recognize that the majority of it is part of our time, not a resistance to it, as it was not in the case of these bands that were profiled in the book - bands whose spirit we could do with (and whose ultimate baggage and caveats we need to be weary about):

Black Flag - the hardcore band who gave an anthem in resistance and then fractured over ego-indulgence.

The Minutemen - done before their time but whose ethic may be the last surviving element of the period.

Mission of Burma - one of the bands who have reunited since the book came out and have enjoyed a renaissance in reverence. If you didn't know better, you'd think they came out of the current hipster scene, not the early 80's.

Minor Threat - they broke the rules then created rules of their own and then rebelled against those very new rules of their own creation (because of the moshing asshats who poisoned that scene and still do).

Hüsker Dü - perfected the sound of their scene then smashed it to bits (like Black Flag) but who then rebelled against the rebellion (like Minor Threat).

The Replacements - maybe the best band to take the most cues from and the worst. Their absurdist view of their time period and their idea of escapism may be the best idea to get through these days of ours but as they became victims of their own devices, they threw away the chance to basically take over the world. Let's not mince words - this band is the heritage, the reason I listen to much of the music I have listened to in the last few years (along with the Ramones and Talking Heads). But they are also the damnedest shame in rock. (Aside: it continues to fry my brain that one of the Replacements, Tommy Stinson, became an ACTUAL REPLACEMENT in Guns n Roses, another band that tethered between punk spirit and mainstream excess before imploding).

Sonic Youth - the best named band ever who at times were more of an art-project than a rock band. I like the idea of Sonic Youth more than the music itself and - like I say about bands like Radiohead - while not a big personal fan, the world is much better off with Sonic Youth in it than without.

Butthole Surfers - the biggest practical joke this side of Sarah Palin. The skeeziest, scuzziest act imaginable (besides G.G. Allin) but devised and propagated by shrewd, academic, business-savy Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary.

Big Black - one of the two bands I had not heard of prior to reading the book (the other is Beat Happening) though I darn well know who Steve Albini is. I like how Albini pissed off everyone but I suspect he'd piss me off too. Someone I hate to like. Which maybe goes for the music too. And, not surprisingly also goes for a lot of the scene today.

Dinosaur Jr - not much can be said here that I haven't said previously on the blog. One has to wonder if the Dino chapter of the book, as released in 2001, inspired Mascis to reunite with Barlow and Murph by 2007. If it did, all the better. Good lord, the shred.

Fugazi - Minor Threat II but a lot more accessible. Mr. Mackaye will always be a little too soapboxy for me but at least the man isn't wearing a damn headband and legwarmers.

Mudhoney - I actually don't have much to say on the subject of Mudhoney since I have always found the story of Grunge more interesting than most of the sound of it. But if anyone says that we need a music-led kick-in-the-ass and they cite Nirvana, cite Mudhoney instead. Just because.

Beat Happening - just going by the chapter in the book, the blame for the current shticky, shallow, celebration of twee and child-like innocence can be laid at the feet of Beat Happening and the Olympia scene. At least the polished yuppie-looking kind. Then when you listen to them for the first time (like I did after reading the chapter), you can blame the scuzzy garage-sounding kind on them as well. But, like many of the similar bands of today, it doesn't mean it necessarily sounds bad. Nor does it mean that the idea of reviving certain kitschy cultural styles and tropes are a bad thing (I'm Mr. Mad Men after all). The good is where you find it.

I could now write another long-winded conclusion tying it all together. But like the Replacements or another of these bands I am going to not do what is expected. Instead here is the only one of the great original punk bands I never listened to till recently (their frequent mentions in the book proved the tipping point). The Damned:

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