It's a cloudy day at the end of May and I'm in the back of a 1985 Chevrolet G20 van on the way from Oklahoma City to Lawrence, Kan., on day 10 or 11 of a month-long tour. The view is, shall we say, extremely panoramic as we barrel across the isolated and very flat landscape of Kansas. In a few hours, we'll learn that our "show" in Lawrence that night was never confirmed by our "booking agent"--really just a scenestress from Austin, Texas, with a cell phone, a clever Instant Messenger name and an obnoxiously hyperactive Jack Russell terrier named ... Booker. Needless to say, she doesn't do much in the way of actual booking. But we're not concerned with these details, yet.
At the aforementioned moment, I'm sitting between Casey Burns (our merchandise hawker and pseudo-Bon Scott when we decide to cover AC/DC's "Highway to Hell") and the van window, reading about Sonic Youth's rise from early-'80s New York art-rock to create something new by becoming one of the first punk rock bands moving beyond the blunt weapons of volume and frustration. A few days earlier, I'd been immersed in the sad tale of The Replacements and their guitarist Bob Stinson, doomed by alcohol and popularity's inertia to a young death--creatively and physically. As the tour progresses, our singer, Steve, will read aloud to us the truly disturbing antics of Gibby Haynes and the Butthole Surfers in the Netherlands. These band anecdotes are found in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad. John Valentine, the Regulator Bookstore's philanthropic co-owner, had given Schoolkids Records, my former place of employment, an advance copy of the book a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to convince my co-workers to let me bring it with us on tour, knowing that it would help to kill some hours on the long drives ahead of us.
Our Band Could be Your Life is an addictive read: My copy of it was dragged thousands of miles across America, stepped on, dropped in a puddle, and silently fought over in the van. Over the course of a month that took us from the David Lynchian atmospheres of Mobile, Ala., and Wilkes Barre, Penn., to the beautiful mess that is New York City, reading this book gave me a strong sense of perspective on what it means to be in a rock band.
Spanning the period between the birth of hardcore in the late '70s up to Nirvana's chart-topping coup with Nevermind in 1991, Azerrad details the experiences of 13 bands, including Black Flag, Husker Du, Mission of Burma, The Minutemen, Mudhoney and Fugazi. Subtitled Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, this is indeed a story of a true "underground" movement. What we call indie rock and punk owes its very existence to such pioneering musicians and idealists such as Ian Mackaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi), Greg Ginn (Black Flag), Mike Watt (The Minutemen), and Bob Mould (Husker Du). These artists had the guts and the resolve to do something different, something that revolted against the sterile environment created by the Reagan years. They started their own labels, released their own records and booked their own tours, suffering the inevitable hardships borne from standing up for principles not shared by many at the time (Mission of Burma didn't even become popular nationwide until years after they'd broken up). There was no precedent for what they were doing; it was the birth of Do It Yourself--DIY. Only three of these bands are still making music, but the power of what they created resonates across three different generations of listeners, including myself and the other four guys I crossed half of America with earlier this year.
Which brings us back to the van. With five people cramped in a pretty small space, it's easy to generate a substantial amount of clutter. Everyone's CDs and books get stuffed in various nooks and crannies--under seats, between the many pairs of shoes that we seemed to acquire for some reason, and in the overflow of random crap that always ends up between the two front seats (usually where my feet were supposed to rest). On more than one occasion, I'd vainly search for this particular book, only to find someone else reading it.
Definitely, the book became the most communal item on tour, and for good reason; it was almost impossible to put down. Azerrad's impressive attention to detail and bands' own words make for amazing stories: Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis and Lou Barlow, using their respective instruments, attempting to beat each other senseless during a show; Fugazi's Ian Mackaye trying to prevent a group of neo-Nazis and another of militant Jews from killing one another in front of the abandoned warehouse the band was playing in; and the aforementioned Gibby Haynes running naked through the venue of a Dutch music festival throwing trash and beer bottles at concertgoers after ingesting a bottle of Jim Beam and countless tabs of acid.
It was comforting to have this book on tour. We had some rough days, driving for hours to show up at places that weren't even clubs (we actually played in a place called the "Loftin Carpet Center"), often playing for handfuls of people. Some days it was obvious that making any money was out of the question, so reading that some of the bands in Azerrad's book had even worse tour situations put things in perspective.
These days it's fairly easy for a band to go on tour; all it takes is a bunch of e-mail addresses for people who set up shows in basements, Elks' Lodges and clubs. But back when Black Flag started touring, not only weren't there many places to play, but making money was out of the question on all days: In 1982, two people showed up to see Black Flag in Tulsa, Okla. Henry Rollins, then singing for the band, was disappointed, but bass player Chuck Dukowski set him straight, telling him that "although there might only be a couple of people there, they came to see Black Flag and it's not their fault anyone else came. You should play your guts out anytime anywhere and it doesn't matter how many people are there." Ethics like these reiterated to me why I was touring in a band, sacrificing all sense of financial/social stability; there's a strange sense of honor in it, and the bands Azerrad writes about created that.
Today, musicians who release self-recorded albums on small labels owe an enormous debt to Black Flag's Greg Ginn and Minor Threat/Fugazi's Ian Mackaye, who started SST Records and Dischord Records, respectively. Before the birth of independent labels, artists were (and still are, to some degree) at the mercy of corporations whose watered-down soft rock (Hall & Oates, Air Supply, and the like) dominated pop culture in the '80s (and still do now, to some degree). Plenty of small labels sprouted in the late 1970s, but none faced the challenges that SST encountered on their way to becoming the indie label of the '80s. Releasing albums by Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, the Meat Puppets and The Minutemen, SST founded the first generation of indie rock, but both Black Flag and SST were harassed continuously by police and major-label lawyers alike. And Dischord, started by Mackaye and his Teen Idles bandmates in 1981, simply aimed to put out friends' records and make enough just to exist, not to profit. "'We were working our asses off', says Mackaye. 'I was working all the time trying to pay for everything. But it was all about documentation.'" (Dischord, now 20 years old, has released some of the fiercest, most influential rock in American history).
Much like the music they were releasing, there was no precedent for independent labels like these, and they created a template that has since been employed by literally thousands of like-minded brave souls. The principles that set many of these labels apart from companies such as Capitol, CBS and RCA were not based in profit or greed (those staples of the Reagan years), but to create a community for themselves apart from the inanity that infected America in the '80s.
Once we got home and actually spent time with Black Flag's Damaged and Husker Du's New Day Rising, I found a terrifyingly raw sound, one that puts the histrionics of many of today's "punk" bands to shame. That this music came out without any sort of precedent to it makes its impact that much more significant.
It would be easy to christen Our Band Could Be Your Life as an "indie-rock Bible": The egocentric Greg Ginn and his narcisisstic protégé Henry Rollins would probably love to be painted as God and Jesus Christ, respectively; Ian Mackaye would be Moses, bearing the tablets of stone declaring what ethics should be embodied (his "straight-edge" followers of today are to some degree just as ludicrous as fundamentalist Christians); and the Butthole Surfers would be the infidels that rule Sodom, eventually playing Judas by signing with Capitol Records and suing their former indie allies Touch & Go Records.
But ultimately, it's just a book about some bands that made a lot of noise 15-20 years ago. Without that noise, however, my life (and the lives of a lot of other musical hopefuls) would have a lot less direction--I would have been thanklessly earning a steady income at an insignificant job instead of spending that glorious month with my four friends, making just enough to eat plain tortillas and put gas in the fucking van.