· A New York Times Summer Reading List selection · A Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2015 · A Business Insider Best Summer Read · An Esquire Father’s Day Book selection · A New York Observer Best Music Book of 2015 ·
A memoir charting thirty years of the American independent rock underground by a musician who knows it intimately
Jon Fine spent nearly thirty years performing and recording with bands that played various forms of aggressive and challenging underground rock music, and, as he writes in this memoir, at no point were any of those bands “ever threatened, even distantly, by actual fame.” Yet when members of his first band, Bitch Magnet, reunited after twenty-one years to tour Europe, Asia, and America, diehard longtime fans traveled from far and wide to attend those shows, despite creeping middle-age obligations of parenthood and 9-to-5 jobs, testament to the remarkable staying power of the indie culture that the bands predating the likes of Bitch Magnet--among them Black Flag, Mission of Burma, and Sonic Youth --willed into existence through sheer determination and a shared disdain for the mediocrity of contemporary popular music.
In indie rock’s pre-Internet glory days of the 1980s, such defiant bands attracted fans only through samizdat networks that encompassed word of mouth, college radio, tiny record stores and ‘zines. Eschewing the superficiality of performers who gained fame through MTV, indie bands instead found glory in all-night recording sessions, shoestring van tours and endless appearances in grimy clubs. Some bands with a foot in this scene, like REM and Nirvana, eventually attained mainstream success. Many others, like Bitch Magnet, were beloved only by the most obsessed fans of this time.
Like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Your Band Sucks is an insider’s look at a fascinating and ferociously loved subculture. In it, Fine tracks how the indie-rock underground emerged and evolved, how it grappled with the mainstream and vice versa, and how it led many bands to an odd rebirth in the 21 st Century in which they reunited, briefly and bittersweetly, after being broken up for decades. Like Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Your Band Sucks is a unique evocation of a particular aesthetic moment. With backstage access to many key characters in the scene—and plenty of wit and sharply-worded opinion—Fine delivers a memoir that affectionately yet critically portrays an important, heady moment in music history.
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Jon Fine is the executive editor of Inc. magazine. As a guitarist—in Bitch Magnet, Coptic Light, and Don Caballero, among others—he’s performed around the world and appeared on MTV. As a writer, Fine’s long-running BusinessWeek column “Media Centric” won both American Society of Business Publication Editors and National Headliner awards, and his work for Food & Wine won a James Beard Award. He has served as an on-air contributor to CNBC, and his work has also appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Details.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A toddler, still small enough to strap into an infant’s car seat in his father’s white Plymouth Fury II, a vehicle so huge that, when he was a newborn, his parents fit his crib in the backseat.
He is a jumpy child, easily bored, always seeking new stimulation, and his parents have been murmuring to each other for many miles before noticing he’s unusually quiet on this rainy and dreary day.
The father’s head tilts up as he glances in the rearview mirror. Flashing a big movie star grin, he waggles his eyebrows and calls out, “How are you doing back there?”
But the boy is oblivious, eyes vacant, lost and dreaming. He did not hear the reassuring rumble of his father’s voice. All he knows is the sound of the wipers as they squeak and rub across the slick windshield, chasing each other across the glass in an endless, perfect rhythm above the drone of the sighing motor and tires on wet pavement:
Kkwssh—nn—a—gaah—kknnn . . .
Melody, drone, and percussion, entrancing in their repetition, onto which he fixates this rainy day, staring, stupefied and in absolute fascination, at the windshield, hearing a song that blocks out everything else.
Kkwssh—nn—a—gaah—kknnn . . .
Despite everything I’ll say in the next few hundred pages, I really liked this stuff. Still do, even.
My first real band, formed in late 1986, was Bitch Magnet. It’s always kind of gross to have to characterize your own band, but: we started out playing loud, noisy punk rock, then soon started stretching out song lengths and playing in odd time signatures. We were steeped in the American independent rock underground of that time, we released three critically acclaimed records, we enjoyed a dedicated but not particularly sizable fan base, we toured Europe and America, and at no point were we threatened, even distantly, by actual fame. Though a video we made in 1990 for about $100 on expired black-and-white film made it onto MTV once, in the ghetto at the end of 120 Minutes, where they played short snippets of weirder and more aggressive stuff. To varying degrees, my other bands—among them Coptic Light and Vineland—share that same story. Books like this generally tell stories by or about the luminaries. This book isn’t that.
Anyway, massive record sales and videos on MTV and whether or not your uncool cousins would have known us are the wrong yardsticks. Bands like ours didn’t give a shit about any of that, because we all understood immediately that most of it was out of reach. An incredibly liberating realization, one that went hand in hand with our general instinct to play only what we wanted, leave all edges unsanded, and never modify anything in a bid for a bigger audience. We were lucky to be teenagers in the eighties, futzing around with instruments we didn’t quite know how to play, during a rare and oddly open moment when a scruffy crowd of like-minded souls gathered, far from the gloss and waste of the big-time music business, and an underground network arose that spanned the globe: venues, bands, zines, fans, record labels, record stores, college radio stations. It seems accidental and frankly miraculous that we all ended up in the same rooms at the same time, but we did, and in those rooms a culture was built, by hand and often from the barest of raw materials. On tour, our bands crashed on fans’ floors, not in hotels, and rode in rattling vans, not fancy buses. We loaded and unloaded these vans by ourselves each night. We rarely had managers or other middlemen; we often dealt directly with club owners and labels. Or we released our records on our own, selling them to the companies that distributed them to record stores, hand-packing promotional copies into cardboard boxes to mail them to the hundred or so college radio stations that cared and all the fanzines we knew.
We built this thing—our own circuit—because we had to, because otherwise it wouldn’t have existed, and because it felt like a life-and-death matter that our favorite bands and our own bands got heard. Just enough people erected just enough of an infrastructure to make possible the foundation of a parallel music industry—one that also entailed three-record deals and international tours—while still remaining a tight and (mostly) welcoming community. It was a swimming hole small enough, and secret enough, for you to know everyone in it. It wasn’t hard to float atop its surface for a couple of records and tours if your band was good, and sometimes even if it wasn’t.
There was always something provisional and flimsy about all this, before the likes of Pavement and Nirvana started selling records in greater than five-figure quantities, and even afterward. Labels and distributors and clubs and promoters were always going out of business, so money that was owed frequently disappeared outright. (As I write, Sub Pop Records is still around, twenty-eight years after releasing its first records. Congrats! It has also almost gone under at least four times, and—who knows?—may well be gone by the time you read this.) All this happened long before the Internet was anything, which meant that while we lacked a key communications channel for tightly knit outsider communities, our generations weren’t distracted by a mythology of getting filthy rich young in a sort of cool and Web-by way. If you got out of college in the post-Reagan economic doldrums, as I did—well, why wouldn’t you play in a band and live off temp jobs?
So, beginning in my late teens, many of my most cherished experiences took place in dusty practice spaces crammed with barely functioning equipment, inside cramped and overfull vans, and in small clubs that stank of cigarette smoke and yeast from old spilled beer and featured absolutely horrifying bathrooms. (You learned, eventually, to bring soap and toilet paper with you on tour: you couldn’t count on either being there when you arrived at the venue.) Once I found this world, I found my home. The people who remain my closest friends to this day. My tribe. Or, rather, our tribe, because I was not the only one looking for these people and the small patch of land that was ours and ours alone. I threw myself upon it with a great and almost tearful relief. And, above all, I loved the music. I loved it so much it made my whole body hurt. (It also fried my ears and left them ringing, but sometimes love extracts a price.) The bands I most liked—the bands I was in—were guitar-based; quite loud; aggressive; eager to explore varying degrees of complexity and compositional ambitiousness; and instrumentally oriented, even though most had vocalists. I mention many in this book, but some of my favorites are Scratch Acid, Slovenly, Gore, the Ex, Meat Puppets, Slint, Swans, Mission of Burma, and Bastro. The best known among them are probably Black Flag and Sonic Youth. None would exist were it not for punk rock, but none were just punk rock; apart from that distinction, allow me to give up right now on trying to classify this stuff. Many times in this book I just say something like “weird bands,” which is somewhat imprecise and insulting—but they were all a bit off-center, in one way or another, and often that was why I loved them.
Some guys lunge toward cultural moments to meet girls and drinking and drugging buddies. Not me and my friends. If you’re looking for recitations of rock depravity, let me say right now I saw cocaine exactly once before I turned thirty, spent a great deal of my adult life working in cubicles, and can count on one hand the number of times I had sex as a direct consequence of being in a band—and still have fingers left over. Kurt Andersen once wrote that the eighties were America’s manic episode; if so, indie rock was its depressive phase. But that was fine, because for me and many of my friends, the music pretty much blocked out everything else. It was shocking how much better this music, and its antecedents, were than any current music on the radio—than most of anything ever recorded, even. Realer, more visceral, and more direct. Smarter and more adventurous, too. It clearly expressed the emotional extremes all outsiders know. And, since the musicians and fans in our underground weren’t exactly high school football stars, these extremes were especially keenly felt. This music was unafraid to color outside the lines unimaginative people thought defined what was acceptable in rock music. Because there were so many things you could do with rock music, once you started ignoring all the rules: What if a song had only one part? What if a song had only one chord? Why do we need choruses? Why not write songs where no parts repeat? What if we never play in 4/4 again? What if we distorted the bass and made it the lead instrument? Why do we need vocals? Everyone’s playing really fast, so why don’t we play really slow? I thought this music was the most important thing in the world. I probably would have died for it.
Sometimes I try to explain playing in such a band to people unfamiliar with this era, and, in trying to understand it, they grope for words and say something like “Oh, so you had a cult following.” That awkward term—which I will not use again—makes me think of musicians and bands that never had a big hit and never will but still have enough fans to eke out a living. Someone like Richard Thompson. Bands like Bitch Magnet weren’t even that. Nor were we the kind of band whose name my less obsessive co-workers might know, like Arcade Fire or Yo La Tengo or Dinosaur Jr., the ones that attain what Ted Leo likes to call “indie tenure.” The diehards of this culture encompassed a couple hundred thousand people scattered across the globe—and “diehard” does not overstate the case, as its adherents generally organized their lives around the music. Our fans were a significantly smaller subset of that crowd. We were beloved by ten or fifteen thousand people worldwide, more or less. As to our record sales, that’s probably a good guess, too. (I’m not being coy: thanks to how disorganized our early labels were, we really don’t know the numbers.) Not many people cared—but a good chunk of those who did care were really into it. They cared enough to make Bitch Magnet reunion tours possible in Asia and Europe and America twenty-one years after our final album was released. They drove several hours or got on planes to attend those shows, even if they were often as fortysomething as we were, and as worn out from the demands of parenthood and careers, and also had to be at work the next morning.
Back when he was a writer, the baseball executive Bill James came up with a fantastic sentence: “It is a wonderful thing to know that you are right and the world is wrong; would God that I might have that feeling again before I die.” In the eighties and early nineties I was certain we were participating in something important. Something that would change the world, or the world of culture, at least. I was, of course, completely wrong, and neglecting to consider how the world would eventually change the music and the people who made it, but that’s a common mistake of youth. I also didn’t know at the time that all your bands would eventually break your heart, albeit in slightly different ways, or how the insularity of this world would eventually make you insane. But there was great power in being young and not knowing those things. As there was in being certain that if you pointed your van or car toward any city or college town, you could find the people who didn’t know those things, either.
And, despite my complicated relationship with this time and its many aftermaths, what I’d do to have that feeling again before I die.
Thank You, New Jersey. Good Fucking Night
In the woodsy New Jersey suburb where I went to high school in the early eighties, the idea of a band as a unit that writes and performs its own material did not exist. The term “cover band” wasn’t used, because that’s what all bands effectively were, playing some version of the hits, and their names generally signaled the ground they plowed. Rapid Fire was metal, and ambitious, which meant they sometimes rented a lighting rig. They wore denim and black leather and played songs by Judas Priest. Leather Nun, who apparently didn’t know the Swedish band that first used the name, was a more poorly accessorized version of the same idea. Scufl (pronounced “scuffle”) wore bright colors and lots of hair mousse. You know: new wave. Some of the guys in Scufl and Rapid Fire ended up in a band called Fossil that had a blink-and-you-missed-it moment on Sire in the early nineties. General Public—which wasn’t the dull English Beat offshoot that had a minor hit with “Tenderness”—probably had the highest percentage of honor roll members. One guitarist was even a class president. The one time I saw them, he carefully applied a pair of Ray-Bans just before going onstage with his new-looking Strat. General Public played songs by Genesis and Men at Work, and, to paraphrase Raymond Carver quoting Charles Bukowski, here I am, insulting them already.
Other bands had headache-inducing early-eighties names like Feedback and Steeler, and a few of them actually wrote a song—like one song. The only punk rock band in our school was the Pukes. (Could I make up that name? No.) Their singer had spiky hair—still a novelty in the suburbs back then—a rubber face built for bugging eyes and bared teeth, and a stick figure’s physique. I thought they played extraordinarily fast, but I saw them before I’d heard much hardcore. They, alone, may have written their own material, since I can’t imagine that the song titles I think I remember—“Puke Now,” “Mercenary Life for Me”—were covers.
The idea of making your own record was completely inconceivable to us, even though, by the mid-eighties, it was a reality rampant throughout the world. How did you even do it? No one knew. Teenage bands in our stretch of suburban New Jersey didn’t even have a place to play. There were no rock clubs near us. Bars were out, since the state drinking age was raised to twenty-one in 1983, and, as far as I knew, you had to go to a city for any all-ages hardcore shows. But once a year local high schools staged a battle of the bands, and bands crossed town lines for them, to perform for other students amid humid atmospheres consisting of hair mousse and longing and hormones. Our school hosted its battles of the bands on a Friday night in late fall, when the days were cooler but not yet cold, and dark arrived in the late afternoon. Under inky skies parents’ cars nudged through the parking lot, brake lights flashing on and off, disgorging clots of teens. Returning to school after hours made you think that the normal rules were somehow suspended. Everyone searched for someone to fumble with in a dark corner, or for some small bit of contraband to make the evening.
Yeah, those nights. Even outcasts like me were susceptible to whatever hung in the air.
All the girls in makeup, in skimpy tops, in short skirts, in leg warmers, and doused in perfume; the scent they trailed was unbearable. A girl from French class...
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