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When Michael Azerrad called me in search of background information for the Minor Threat and Fugazi chapters of his new book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, one of his queries had nothing to do with the book. “When are you moving to New York?” he asked.
I suppose he was just being polite, inviting me over to his place the way people do. Maybe he was even flattering me: Hey, you’re cool enough to live in New York.
But New York? I spent a lot of time there in the mid-’70s and count some of the bands that came out of CBGB’s then among my favorites of all time. (No, not the Shirts.) But what has New York done for me lately? What, in fact, did it do from 1981 to 1991? Only one of the 13 bands profiled in Our Band Could Be Your Life hails from New York, and itSonic Youthwas born in the 20-year-old post-punk (aka “No Wave”) boom that was New York’s last major rock-music moment.
One of the subjects I discussed with Azerrad was the nature of Washington. But he didn’t listen or understandor maybe he just didn’t believe me. There it is on the first page of the Minor Threat chapter: “It figures that hardcore would become popular in a definitively uncool city like Washington, D.C.” “Definitively uncool”? Compared with what, tiny Amherst, Mass.? White-flour Minneapolis? Drowsy, suburbanized Seattle? All these places feature in Azerrad’s book, in a way that doesn’t quite explain the author’s insistence that only Washington is notable for its “bland, stifling atmosphere,” which he believes was “exacerbated by the conservative inhabitants of the White House.”
But were these poor unfortunatesthese huddled punk rockers yearning to breathe free New York City airreally disadvantaged by the stifling atmospheres of their respective unhip hometowns? Of the harDCore scene, Azerrad writes that “if it could be done in sterile Washington, D.C., it could be done anywhere.” Then why not New York, that intergalactic epicenter of cool?
Like L.A., New York is a music-biz townwhich means that it attracts musicians trying to Make It. But musicians trying to Make It are not the story of Our Band Could Be Your Life, which, Azerrad writes, is “devoted solely to bands who were on independent labels”although six of the 13 featured groups did, in fact, eventually sign with majors. Indeed, one of the crucial aspects of post-punk/hardcore/indie/alternative rock is how it democratized and regionalized hipness. The unstated corollary to “Our band could be your life” is “Your town can be as essential as London or New York.” The result is an age when not just stifling Washington, D.C., but also supposed backwaters such as Bristol and Cardiff, U.K., and Athens, Ga., can host vital and enduring music scenes.
Some of this is pure cussedness, and some of it is hostility to the self-appointed cultural elites of Manhattan, Notting Hill, and Santa Monica. Why move to one of the media centers and submit to its worldview when you can stay at home and create your own center?
I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. D.C., Minneapolis, and Olympia, Wash.which Azerrad calls “an even more unlikely music town than Washington, D.C.”have advantages as well as drawbacks. Tellingly, however, Azerrad is more willing to discuss Olympia’s indie-rock assets (notably free-form Evergreen State College; its influential radio station, KAOS-FM; and the Lost Music Network, which began at the latter) than D.C.’s. As the Urban Verbs learned two decades ago, Washington is perceived as a particular threat by insecure New York cultural arbiters.
Writing about our town, Azerrad flubs a few details: He calls Madam’s Organ “Madame’s Organ,” doesn’t quite understand D.C.’s early-’80s liquor laws, and imagines that the Wax Museum was a “pickup bar,” that Ian MacKaye’s parents have a “Georgetown address,” and that Dischord bands broke up frequently because “much of the government workforce changed over with each new administration.” (Yeah, it was devastating when Reagan’s Secretary of HarDCore was replaced by Bush’s.) Yet he gets the Minor Threat and Fugazi stories basically right.
Still, Azerrad’s New York supremacism keeps him from digging beneath Gotham’s received wisdom about D.C. He doesn’t really want to know anything more about the bands’ Washington context other than that it’s “definitively uncool.” He’d rather not muddy his view of D.C. as a “cultural wasteland” by discovering that the city has a century-old musical tradition that includes such diverse composers and performers as John Philip Sousa, Duke Ellington, Patsy Cline, Nils Lofgren, Chuck Brown, and many other pre-punk figures. And although he briefly acknowledges that bands such as Fugazi connected to Washington’s well-established culture of civic activism, in the same paragraph he dismisses the city as a “company town.”
But Washington no more belongs to Capitol Hill than New York does to Wall Street or L.A. to Hollywood. And though I don’t know well most of the scenes that produced Azerrad’s life-changing bandsof the book’s 10 cities, I’ve only lived in three: D.C., New York, and BostonI’ll bet they all have notable attributes that go beyond such glib dismissals as “sterile,” “stifling,” and “sleepy.” One of those attributes, of course, is that they’re not New York. Mark Jenkins
Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.