The period between the first wave of punk and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind saw the rise (and fall) of many bands whose influence continues to loom even while their stories threaten to fade. Michael Azerrad, author of Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana and Screaming Life: A Chronicle Of The Seattle Music Scene, takes a large step toward rectifying that with the mammoth Our Band Could Be Your Life. The book profiles 13 bands that offered thrilling, frustrating, and occasionally all-too-brief counterpoints to the Reagan/Bush era. Azerrad's subtitle is carefully worded: Our Band isn't meant to be a definitive look at the American music underground. Instead, its histories focus almost entirely on the years bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth spent struggling under independent labels, living out of vans, and traveling from town to town, unsure whether the next venue would offer hostility, a rapturous reception, or an empty room. The approach proves that crafting a definitive history would have been difficult. While the stories often share common elements—living in filth, for instance—the characters do not. In one scene, Henry Rollins, frustrated by some onstage prancing, grabs the crotch of Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, only to have Johnson chide him by asking, "Didn't your mother teach you any manners?" That says a lot about the broad umbrella under which Azerrad's book works, and about his subjects' diverse approaches. The members of Butthole Surfers seem like nothing short of modern-day pirates, moving in a drug-addled haze from one town to the next, and at one point deciding to settle in R.E.M.'s hometown of Athens, Georgia, just for the comedic value. That band's history contrasts sharply with that of Minor Threat, whose members became virtual cult leaders, lyrically preaching abstinence from chemicals and casual sex while also expressing the virtues of an occasional good fight. Many of the stories end badly, sometimes by accident, as with the death of Minutemen frontman D. Boon, but usually through bad chemistry or commercial indifference. Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Mission Of Burma, and others probably had a lot more to offer than their recorded legacies, which were often cut short by the temperaments and naïve-to-nonexistent business strategies of volatile twentysomethings. Most of the acts that lasted, like Sonic Youth and Fugazi, seem to have studied rock history to see where past bands went wrong. In spite of the pessimistic epilogue, in which Azerrad posits the post-punk era as a never-to-be-repeated happening, the time seems right for something new. Anyone hoping to start a revolution would do well to spend time with this book.
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