Stupid & Contagious

13 ways of listening to indie rock with Michael Azerrad

Do you suddenly have 20 hours to kill? You’re in luck. Last year Hachette released an audio version of Michael Azerrad’s classic survey of ‘80s indie rock Our Band Could Be You Life. The book consists of 13 profiles of indie acts that tell the story of underground rock music in the United States from approximately 1981 to 1991. 

When the book came out on July 31, 2001 – a decade after Nirvana demolished the indie/mainstream dichotomy with Nevermind – fans like me rejoiced because it meant the music that had served as the soundtrack to our youth was now part of rock and roll history. 

It was weirdly validating to see names like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth and Fugazi on the cover of a hardback book in chain bookstores. (Remember those?)

But I was also suspicious. 

As someone who wrote (and writes) for punk zines, I knew there were dozens, if not hundreds, of bands who were just as deserving of having their stories included. (Bad Religion, to name one example, gets a brief mention in the epilogue.)

When Our Band Could Be You Life came out, Razorcake was just getting started and I was heavily involved in the Southern California punk rock scene. I was listening to music, going to shows, interviewing bands, making a nuisance of myself, and having a blast. These bands were my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

The audio version of Our Band Could Be You Life came out last year in May of 2019, and listening to it while driving around California the last few weeks has given me a whole new appreciation for the book. A different musician reads each chapter and some of the pairings are mind-boggling: Fred Armisen and the Butthole Surfers? Jonathan Franzen and Mission of Burma? 

I wanted to know more so I thought, Why not ask the author? Even though we have the same publisher, it didn’t occur me to go that route. Instead, I slid into Michael Azerrad’s DMs last night like a thirsty rando, and here’s what he told me:

“The idea behind the readers was to show what we call in the biz ‘the enduring legacy’ of the bands in the book, to demonstrate that they continue to influence or inspire some of the leading musicians of today — so much so that those musicians would be willing to sit down and read into a microphone in a tiny little recording studio for most of a day. And those musicians represent a wide range: from Slipknot’s Corey Taylor to Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. I don’t think you could get much wider than that.”

So here’s a brief review of each chapter of Our Band Could Be Your Life with Michael Azerrad weighing in on why the reader was chosen. 

1. Black Flag by David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors 

I’ve been reading OBCBYL for years. I’ve consulted it each time I’ve taken on a major music-writing project, sometimes for insight, sometimes for inspiration. There isn’t another book like it. But of all the chapters in OBCBYL, I’ve struggled with this one the most. 

I collaborated on a book with Keith Morris, Black Flag’s first singer. Keith grew up in Hermosa Beach and was integral to the band’s formation and sound; but since Keith quit the band in 1980, Black Flag’s founding guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn has tried to erase Keith from Black Flag’s history.

I’ll never forget the afternoon I walked around Hermosa Beach with Keith and we checked out a mural of prominent scenes from the city’s history, which features not one, but two punk rock vocalists. Neither one of them was Keith. That was a sad moment. 

Azerrad devotes significant real estate in this chapter to the formation of SST Records, the label Ginn founded on the back of the electronics company he started when he was a 12-year-old ham radio geek. When Ginn couldn’t find a label to release Black Flag’s first EP, he put it out himself, launching the most influential indie label of the 1980s. SST is the thread that weaves through OBCBYL.

The chapter required someone who appreciates Black Flag’s complicated history, and Azerrad found his man in Dave Longstreth.

AZERRAD: Back in 2006, Dirty Projectors made a brilliant album called Rise Above which was based on Black Flag's album Damaged, and then members of Dirty Projectors covered Black Flag for the tenth anniversary concert for Our Band Could Be Your Life — and freakin’ killed it — so it was pretty obvious to ask the band's leader Dave Longstreth to read that chapter.

2. The Minutemen by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco

The Minutemen were a punk rock trio from San Pedro who had ties to Black Flag and released most of their records on SST. When D. Boon, the band’s singer and guitarist was killed in a tragic automobile accident at the end of 1985, the band broke up. Since then, Mike Watt, the Minutemen’s bass player, has served as the band’s irrepressible mouthpiece. He’s a legendary character in the scene, who speaks in his own quirky cant and makes up words as he needs them. When I called him up to interview him many years ago he answered the phone, “Watt!” Of course he did.

Jeff Tweedy does an excellent job of channeling Watt’s energy and enthusiasm in his reading, which emphasizes the Minutemen’s econo ethic and corndog approach to, well, everything. 

AZERRAD: I knew Jeff Tweedy is a longtime, passionate Minutemen fan, so that was an easy call. He was really into it and did a great reading.

Azerrad splits the book into two kinds of performers: those who embody a way of being in the world that’s outside the mainstream (like Fugazi) and those who simply play in a band (like the Replacements). Watt not only belongs to the former, he broke it down in a way for others to follow. In fact, the title of the book comes from Watt’s song “History Lesson, Part II.” Here’s an acoustic version with the late, great D. Boon singing:

3. Mission of Burma by Jonathan Franzen (B)

This chapter is one of the more entertaining of the bunch. While the writing in Our Band Could Be Your Life is very good, the prose in this chapter is powered by Azerrad’s admiration for Mission of Burma. I think it’s hilarious that one of the most effusive chapters in the book is read by one of its most restrained readers: novelist Jonathan Franzen.

Phrases like “But what really stuck out was the volume – huge, body-shaking mountains of it that made the band’s sound literally palpable” are read like entries from Franzen’s birding journal. 

AZERRAD: A funny little story how I got a literary heavyweight like Jonathan Franzen to read the Mission of Burma chapter: back in 2013, someone sent me a screenshot of an electronic press kit for the novelist Gary Schteyngart: it was a shot of Jonathan Franzen with a bookshelf behind him. And one of the books on the shelf was... Our Band Could Be Your Life. When I was trying to think of who could read the Burma chapter, I somehow remembered that photo from five years before. And, to top it off, there happens to be a Mission of Burma allusion in Franzen's famous novel The Corrections. So we reached out to Franzen about reading that chapter and — amazingly enough — he said yes right away. It's so flattering, it's ridiculous. He did a wonderful reading too — he’s an old pro at this.

4. Minor Threat by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me

One of the tragedies of my rule-following youth in Falls Church, Virginia, is that I didn’t find out about Minor Threat until after I joined the Navy. Right when I was getting into the Ramones, Devo, and Pat Benatar (yeah, I don’t know either), I could have crossed the Potomac River into Washington, D.C. to see one of the greatest hardcore bands of all time. 

Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! is one of the few readers with a bona fide punk background and she nails the band’s bratty antagonism. 

AZERRAD: I was really stuck for who could read the Minor Threat chapter. Then I thought of Laura Jane Grace from Against Me!, whose music descends from hardcore and is herself an author who'd done a great job reading her own audiobook. I asked her and she was down for it.

(That book, Tranny, co-written with Dan Ozzi, is also a can’t miss.)

Frontman Ian MacKaye is one of the OBCBYL’s prime movers (Henry Rollins left D.C. to join Black Flag after MacKaye encouraged him to do so) and the label he co-founded, Dischord, plays a pivotal role in the story. It’s Azerrad’s attention to indie labels that provides the book its connective tissue. In other words, it’s not just a bunch of tour stories and band break-ups; it’s the story of like-minded people who came together to create something new. 

Dischord continues to thrive and a few years ago released Minor Threat’s first demo tape, which you can buy on vinyl for $5. There’s no reason on earth why music recorded in a basement by a bunch of teenagers who didn’t know what they were doing should sound anything but awful, but it’s pure magic.

5. Hüsker Dü by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists

Another great chapter driven by a stellar performance, in this case by Colin Meloy, who perfectly captures the smug derision of frontman Bob Mould. There’s a very good reason for that… 

AZERRAD: I knew Colin Meloy, who leads the Decemberists, is a huge Hüsker Dü fan from working with Bob Mould on his autobiography See a Little Light, so I asked Colin and he was totally in. And that's a great example of the crucial difference between inspiration and influence: Colin was deeply inspired by Hüsker Dü and yet his music sounds nothing like them. That's just so great, to be inspired by someone else to do your own thing. I know Bob is very proud of that.

This chapter inspired me to spend more time with Hüsker Dü’s masterpiece, the double concept album Zen Arcade, which is always time well spent. Not only did the album inspire the Minutemen to create their double album masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime, it sold extremely well and spurred SST to sign more bands from outside of Southern California. It’s influence can’t be understated. I often wonder what my life would be like if I found this record when I was 15. I probably wouldn’t have joined the Navy like a fucking corndog, that’s for sure.  

6. The Replacements by John Wurster of Superchunk and the Mountain Goats 

Confession time: I’ve never been a big fan of The Replacements and John Wurster’s reading didn’t change my mind about them. Because they’re both from the Twin Cities and were making music at more or less the same time, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements are the Stones vs. Beatles of American post-punk. I’m happy to be on team Hüsker Dü; John Wurster is solidly in the Replacements camp, which is why he was tapped to read this chapter: 

AZERRAD: Jon Wurster doesn't just play drums with Superchunk, Mountain Goats and Bob Mould's band, as well as co-hosting the hilarious online radio show "The Best Show" — he's a walking rock encyclopedia. Jon just devours every rock book, podcast and doc there is, and retains the information at Nardwuaresque levels. He's a massive Replacements fan, so that was a total natural.

7. Sonic Youth by Merrill Garbus of the Tune-Yards

When I read OBCBYL in 2001, I skipped around and focused on the bands I loved. I think that’s why I missed many of the connections between these bands, and few bands were more connected than Sonic Youth. They were extremely savvy about cultivating relationships that would benefit them. Some of this was shrewd business practice, and some of it was an extension of Thurston Moore’s passion for reading, writing, and sharing zines, which connected him to musicians and music lovers all over the country. This ultimately led to Sonic Youth signing with SST. This video of “Death Valley 69” with Lydia Lunch and directed by Richard Kern and Judith Barry is like a Raymond Pettibon drawing sprung to life. 

AZERRAD: I became friends with Merrill Garbus from Tune-Yards eleven years ago when she told me how much Our Band Could Be Your Life meant to her,” Azerrad explained, “and she's been really supportive of the book (and me) ever since.  Merrill recently said that Our Band... "truly altered the course of my life," so she had to be in there.  She covered Sonic Youth at the Our Band Could Be Your Life tenth anniversary concert, so that was a a natural match-up. Also, Merrill has splendid diction.

If you don’t know Merrill Garbus or the Tune-Yards, this NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert is delightful

8. Butthole Surfers by Fred Armisen 

Easily the strangest pairing in the book, yet somehow it makes sense, like giving booze to someone on a bad acid trip. The actor’s amused yet enthusiastic tone makes the Butthole’s relentless depravity seem almost quaint.

AZERRAD: The Butthole Surfers chapter has a lot of funny stuff in it, so I figured I'd ask a longtime fan of the book and very possibly the funniest person I know: Fred Armisen. And he said yes!

Incidentally, the Butthole’s frontman, Gibby Haynes, recently published a YA novel called Me & Mr. Cigar. I asked the publisher who wrote it. That didn’t go over well. 

9. Big Black by Corey Taylor of Slipknot 

Depending on how old you are and/or whether you’ve personally interacted with him, Steve Albini, frontman of Big Black, is either a toxic asshole or one of the few people who actually gets it. Uncompromising, outspoken, and ferociously intelligent is a recipe for making lots of enemies. So why is Corey Taylor, the founding vocalist of nu metal atrocity Slipknot from Des Moines, Iowa, telling this story? 

AZERRAD: For the Big Black chapter, it had to be someone whose music was inspired by Big Black, could handle some pretty dark, coarse subject matter, and is a good reader. Corey Taylor, who leads Slipknot, is a really bright guy, a great talker and a Big Black fan. So I reached out to him and he was really stoked to do it. He knocked it out of the park too.”

10. Dinosaur Jr by Sharon van Etten

All bands have drama, but few bands in the indie milieu were as dysfunctional as Dinosaur Jr. Somehow Sharon Van Etten’s reading makes the ugliness go down smoother. 

AZERRAD: Sharon Van Etten is a friend, and I knew she's a really big Dinosaur Jr fan. It’s interesting to think about what connects her music to theirs — I think it’s another example of being inspired by something but not being influenced by it.  But also Sharon is a huge music nerd and she likes good stuff.  That was a no-brainer and I got her in the nick of time — she recorded her chapter just before her excellent new album came out and, in the best way, all hell broke loose.

11. Mudhoney by Phil Everum

Nirvana casts a long shadow over OBCBYL, and in the chapter set in the Pacific Northwest, you can hear the footsteps of fate approaching. For all the darkness of the Seattle scene, Mudhoney comes across as an eminently likable bunch of blokes.  

AZERRAD: For Mudhoney, Dave Longstreth suggested his friend Phil Elverum, who is the Microphones and Mount Eerie. Phil has deep, longstanding roots in the Northwest indie scene, so that was a great call. I love his music too. I didn't know Phil at all before this, but as you can tell from his songs, he's a very sweet and soulful person; that quality comes shining through in his reading, and it's such a great contrast with Mudhoney's rambunctious shenanigans.

12. Fugazi by Michael Azerrad

Azerrad declined to say anything about his reading of the Fugazi chapter, but it’s one of the best in the book. One doesn’t write about the virtues of the indie movement without having a high opinion of Fugazi. More than any other band, Fugazi shifted the direction of indie rock, and not only did the band do it in its own uncompromising fashion, Fugazi united the scene like no band had done before. Check out this video of “Waiting Room” recorded at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. in late 1988. Every person in the room knows every lyric, every note, every beat of this song. 

Fugazi fans take note: Ian MacKaye, Joe Lally and Amy Farina have a new band called Coriky and their debut 11-song LP is scheduled to come out later this month. You can listen to the first single, “Clean Kill” here

13. Beat Happening by Stephin Merritt

I’m not gonna lie. I skipped this chapter the first time I read the book and have only skimmed it since. But Stephin Merritt’s reading is thoroughly entertaining, and not for the reasons one might expect. 

AZERRAD: Stephin Merritt is an old friend, and I knew he had some kind of admiration for Beat Happening, even if he's kind of well known for disdaining indie-rock, which comes through so hilariously in his reading.  He's a brilliant fellow and I was so touched that he agreed to narrate.  I love the fact that the guy from Magnetic Fields and the leader of Slipknot are in the same audiobook — not just because of the perversity of it, but because it shows the stylistic diversity and wide-ranging legacy of the music from that era.

While Our Band Can Be Your Life can be read in any order, and can be consumed in small doses or all at once, my appreciation for the book was enriched by listening to it over the course of a few weeks, they way one would read any other kind of book. Although each chapter adheres to the same template (band forms, band hits plateau, band breaks up) the diversity of the readers makes it engaging from start to finish. 

I also found it immensely inspiring. There’s something energizing and exciting about people who, for whatever reason, stray from the path that others have marked for them and say, “Nah, I’m gonna go this way.” These are stories of people who made things not for money or fame or prestige but for the sake of doing them and discovered not only how to do them in a way that was terrifically exciting, but taught them a new way of being in the world. There’s tremendous power in that. 

Many thanks to Michael Azerrad for sharing his insights with Message from the Underworld! I look forward to his next project: an annotated version of Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, which will be released next year in concert with the 30th anniversary of Nevermind. That’s right, 30 years. Let that little nugget rattle around your chowder bucket for a minute…

Razorcake Por Vida

Speaking of zines, I’m really excited about the latest edition of Razorcake. It’s got the interview of Keith Morris I conducted with Todd Taylor, incredible photos from Edward Colver, Deb Frazin, and Anthony Mehlhaff, and layout by Eric Baskauskas. 

What else can I say? Keith is Keith, a goddam national treasure.

Plus, the latest installment of Lazy Mick has a mostly true story from the sixth fleet about a secret society of sailors obsessed with steering the ship in a complete circle.  

Not a subscriber? Get you one at Razorcake.org. It’s an honor and a privilege to write for America’s only non-profit independent music magazine, and now the longest-running punk zine in print.

Lit Pics for March 18-24

Remember literary events? Remember books?

Last week I pivoted away from showcasing readings around Southern California to books that had their releases blown up by COVID-19. This week I’m pivoting back to readings that will be taking place online. 

Will this work? I don’t know. Is this a good idea? I don’t know. But here we are now. Entertain us.

Barrelhouse is launching two new online programs designed to help writers and the literary community remain connected in the age of social distancing: the Read-In and the Write-In. Both are free, community-focused programs that will provide a virtual space for readers and writers to continue to gather. 

The Distantia Remote Reading Series is unfolding at Off-Topic Poetics YouTube channel: pre-recorded readings you can enjoy any time with more videos being added regularly.  

Wednesday, March 18

Today marks the launch of Tolstoy Together: a reading group that aspires to read 12-15 pages of War and Peace every day. If you’ve ever wanted to tackle this behemoth now’s your chance.

Friday, March 20 at 5:30pm PT

Decameron Reading Series organized by Mark Sarvas features Sarah Watson who will read from her new book, Most Likely, and take questions at the end. Interested in attending? Registration is required. 

Sunday, March 22 at 10am-1pm PT

Young Jean Lee will host a free online playwriting workshop. The only requirement is a desire to come up with an idea for a new play. Be sure to log in on time as the class locks at 1:01pm ET.

If you know of other online literary events please share and I’ll add them to the list. 

I hope you’re staying safe and sane during this time of uncertainty. I’d love to know what you’re doing to keep yourself entertained.