Saturday, August 01, 2015

My Band Sucks or Your Band Could Be My Band

"Punk ain't no religious cult/ punk means thinking for yourself."

It was during the winter of 1992-1993. Maybe the early months of the latter. My friend Ian, my friend Mike and I got together in Ian's basement to try and play music.(We would never call it "jamming," because we couldn't do that.) Mike was always scheming to start a project with me, usually something that involved his skronky guitar and my primitive saxophone wailings. But this time, I was going to be playing bass. Ian had played drums in a trio and would later shift to guitar, but I think he was between bands at this point.

Ian and I had messed around with just the two of us a few weeks prior. We toyed with a math-y groove where we started out playing in 5/4 and he switched to 4/4. With Mike in tow, we were going to try to recreate that riff. Before we started, Ian said, mainly to me, "And remember, don't look at each other and smile if it comes together." I can't recall his exact words, but it was clear he found that "cheesy." And even when he backpedaled and said he was kidding, I still felt like he was partially serious.

Things went downhill from there. I felt like the hard bopper trying to hang with musicians high on Albert Ayler. (They are two to three years younger than me, which mattered more at the time.) Mike skronked for sure, and it didn't seem to matter what we were playing. There was no connection between us. Plus he was bugged that I was playing a modal/bastardized 12-bar structure on the bass.

That memory came back to me while reading Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock's Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), by Jon Fine. He was the guitarist and founding member of Bitch Magnet, who released albums in the late '80s and early '90s, and reunited recently for tours in the US, Europe and Asia.

It wasn't the part about the lack of compatibility that I remembered first, but the part about not smiling. Fine devotes a whole chapter to the reasons why he didn't smile during a Bitch Magnet show. Along the way, he recalls a more recent reunion show where he felt appalled to see a woman in the audience essentially rocking out to one of the catchier Bitch Magnet songs. "I immediately thought, Shit, ugh, failure. Pop songs - songs that ingratiate - elicit this blandly pleasant side-to-side bop. Songs that hit harder make an audience snap heads up and down: the headbanger's response. That's what I wanted to see."

Never mind that she might have actually liked the song. She didn't like it in the right way. Or she didn't have the right reaction to that particular part of the Bitch Magnet canon.

From what I can tell Fine and I are the same age, give or take a year. I too look back on that era fondly, because there were so much new stuff happening in music, which could only be discovered through college radio, trips to the independent record store, all ages shows (which were usually hardcore gigs) and conversations with people in between. Luckily for me, I dipped into that during my freshman year of high school. Fine didn't discover it until he attended college at Oberlin which, if we did graduate the same year as me, means that it was just a few months before D. Boon died,  and Husker Du signed with Warner Brothers. (You do the man, folks.)

And like Fine, I treasured the idea of being in a band more than having a girlfriend. (Though I wanted both, to be honest.) So his stories of how this wild new punk music shaped him, and the excitement of seeing bands in cramped, non-traditional live spaces on Oberlin's campus all strike a chord with me. When he recreates those moments that you feel when you know you're band is actually coming together, the feeling is infectious. Fine is a sharp writer, able to revisit the physical space and his mental space from that era.

What also comes across is how rigid his parameters are, and how pissed off he still seems about it 30 years on. It's fine to be a self-righteous 19-year-old. We all were. But one thing that becomes clear with time is that the world isn't really black and white, with people divided into two camps: those who understand your music and the rest of the world. Yes, there are a lot of squares out there, but if you give people the opportunity to try and understand what you were doing, maybe - just maybe - they'd see things differently. Or maybe people in Pittsburgh are, god forbid, a little more open-minded about this than people in New York.

One of the liberating things about the early days of punk rock was that there wasn't supposed to be a rule book. Anything could happen. It eventually lead to indie rock, a term which didn't really become viable until after Sebadoh released the satirical "Gimme Indie Rock" in 1991. (Humor doesn't factor into Fine's worldview unless it's of the screwed-up kind.) He takes great issue with a song by Tsunami that states, "You say punk rock means asshole/ I say punk rock means cuddle." "Actually: no, not at all," he counters. "Punk rock means - pick one - self-determined or self-sufficient or individual or steadfast in the face of opposition, not asshole and definitely not cuddle. But you already knew that, right?"

Sure, I find the word "cuddle," a little insipid too. But I did like the band Tiger Trap. And having been dissed by a skinhead dude because he thought I was Jewish, I can relate to the former.

By making his statement, Fine overlooks the idea that maybe there were other perspectives on punk rock, ones that aren't all meek dude finally proves that he's tough. I'd also say that any of those positives apply to Jenny Toomey and Kristen Thomson of Tsunami and the Simple Machines label too. One of the more appalling parts of the book comes when Fine recalls a reunion show when his slide falls off the stage and a woman hands it back to him between songs. "Yeah. Obedient," he says. He might not like Frank Zappa, but he certainly thinks like him. By the way, there's no, "C''s a joke," following that statement, not that it would excuse it. When he rants about the mid '90s indie rockers who don't rock and don't seem to care, he just sounds bitter. (Of course he already dismissed two of my favorite bands at the start of the book, Salem 66 and Big Dipper, so what do I know?)

Image is a big thing too. Without his long hair flying from side to side as he plays, Fine says he practiced not thrashing his head back and forth, thinking that when a balding guy does that, it looks bad. (Answer: if I like your band and you're pouring your heart into your music, it doesn't matter how you look.) Later in the book he talks about attending a wedding where an awkward looking guy talks about being unpopular in high school, and later starting a band. Fine's perspective on this dork changes when he realizes he's not someone from Oingo Boingo, but East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys.

I guess I kept waiting for the moment where Fine threw himself under the bus, took himself down a few notches and/or got a little sentimental about it. Maybe he felt the whole book was sentimental that it comes through a filter of whining a lot of the time. (The long stories about live in New York during the years between bands ramble on a bit.) He always seems on the defensive about things, stopping himself from talking romantically about his experiences because, well, there's a certain breed of indie rocker that takes this very seriously and would make fun of you for getting too excited. I've been derisively laughed when I've gotten too excited about music, myself.

But Fine delivers. On the last page. And actually, he set it all up in the introduction too, which I reread before writing this blog. So it makes a good read, about one guy's perspective on music.

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