Don’t Call It Freedom Rock

Bitch Magnet

I’d been looking forward to reading ex-Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks, his memoir of his life in the indie rock scene, for some time. I’d been fascinated with (the stupidly named) Bitch Magnet ever since I first heard Ben Hur in Thirty Ought Six front man Sean Roberts’ basement in Portland a couple of lifetimes ago. They’d broken up by the time that I actually managed to hear them, an occurrence that was common in the pre-YouTube era.

But, purely by serendipity, I met bunch of people in Portland who’d actually overlapped with them at Oberlin. I remember saying to one of them how great it must have been to have seen the band in their glory days. “Yeah,” he said, “I saw them at a lot of parties where they were drunk enough not to give a shit how they sounded.” Well, fair enough.

There is a lot to enjoy about this book for someone like myself. Jon Fine and I shared a lot of cultural and biographical experiences. We both grew up in places where not much was going on in the 1980s (he: suburban New Jersey, me: eastern Washington state), we both went to slightly loopy small liberal arts colleges (he: Oberlin, me: Reed), and we both discovered punk rock in our early teens in ways that marked us for the rest of our respective lives. We both played in bands, his admittedly a lot more successful than mine, and we both hoped that people who heard our music would feel some sort of disorientation rather than the kind of mindless enthusiasm that mainstream rock was pushing.

But there were some important differences too, not the least of which was that at a certain point Fine decided that punk rock was passé and I never quite got there. Although, on the basis of which he writes, we appreciate a lot of the same bands, for Fine, the magic of punk had waned by the mid-1980s and he sought other, if related, artistic avenues. This is a time that I remember well. The grunge scene was cranking up in Seattle, while in the heartland noisier acts like Jesus Lizard and Killdozer churned along modeling a new, post-punk approach. I heard bands from those scenes and enjoyed them, but I had come to punk (as many people did in those days) via the metal scene, and at that point math rock (and the particular nerd aesthetic that accompanied it) never really caught my attention.

This, and my fundamental lack of musical talent, goes a long way towards explaining the ways in which my personal trajectory and Jon Fine’s diverge. Fine, as he notes in the book, became committed to the indie rock scene as a thing. I remember hearing this term in the late 1980s and assuming that it must refer to college radio acts like The Replacements or The Smithereens, but for Fine it denotes a particular and very narrow subset of the underground scene.

Talking accurately about what that was is extremely difficult, because it involves describing how it grew out of the punk scene. But, of course, there was no punk rock scene per se, if by that one means a coherent artistic cultural formation about the main elements of which most of the participants agreed.

What was referred to as “the scene” actually comprised myriad groupings of bands, ‘zines, and fans, some of which overlapped, some of which bled into mainstream culture (or had mainstream culture bleed into them), and some of which existed in almost complete isolation. Still, at the time you sort of see its outlines. It was one of those things which one couldn’t define, but which one recognized when one saw it. And it engendered endless discussions of what qualified and what did not (viz. the extensive debates in issues of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll in the early 1980s about who was a poser, who wasn’t, and whether the term even made sense.)

More importantly, its very existence made it itself something against which one could rebel. This is the niche in which Fine locates indie rock. While conceding that the term also touches on bands that started out in the underground scene, but tried to use it as a springboard to major label professionalism, Fine thinks of indie rock as that bands like Bitch Magnet, Slint, Jesus Lizard, and others who played loud, noisy, commercially hopeless music in weird time signatures. And, of course, the 35 people in any given town who would come out to watch them play.

At that point it’s worth noting that, diffuse as punk rock actually was as a social phenomenon, people involved in the punk scene (and this is my personal experience mind you) tended to share a very discrete idea about which it involved. Whatever else they believed, and to whatever degree they actually realized this, punk was about creating a space for people to form identities outside the hegemonic norms of mainstream society. Indie (at least in one sense) seemed to take itself so much more seriously, even at the bottom ends, and I think that this was because most of the practitioners had dispensed with the idea that signing with a major label was a bad thing in and of itself. It might be a dangerous thing, since doing so more often than not ended up with the bands that did so getting screwed, but doing so wasn’t itself some kind of betrayal.

In any case, there is lot of generalization based on personal experience in the preceding paragraphs, and others who experienced it will probably see it differently. Fine’s description of that life, and the ways that it developed and degenerated in the 1990s, has a lot of resonance for me. A big problem with life in the rock scene was that it was hard to find a non-catastrophic mode of exit. After Fine was essentially kicked out of Bitch Magnet, he ended up living in New York, which was a pretty rough place to slack through, even pre-gentrification.

For all too many people that Fine (and I) knew, the start of life outside of rock was the point at which being a hoser ceased to be good fun and unmasked as actual alcoholism. Drugs took their toll too, both at the time and in the years afterward. It seemed like all those expressions of rock and roll nihilism might have actually had something to them, and maybe it was all the worse that people had somehow thought that life in the underground scene meant that perhaps one would not fall victim.

Fine spent a decade or so after the demise of Bitch Magnet spinning through a series of progressively more obscure bands until he finally put down the torch on his musical career and became a full time technology journalist. But it’s clear that even when fully engaged in this new life, he still felt that he had unfinished business with music. And thus he and his former bandmates became part of the wave of band reunions that got going in the late 1990s and continues to this day. Of course, defunct bands are always getting back together, sometimes because they (rightly or wrongly) sense that there is some cash to be made from nostalgia or changes in the stylistic zeitgeist, less often because there is still some vein of their earlier artistic production which has not been stripped clean.

There are people who gag on this this as a reflex. I tend to be ok with it, at least within certain limits. I always think to myself, “How much money would the Wipers have made if they’d come around like fifteen years later than they did?” Of course, you could also argue that part of what made the later scene was the existence of bands like the Wipers toiling in dumps like the 13th Precinct in front of two dozen people.

It’s really impossible to know. What I do know is that having the chance to actually see Slint, or Bitch Magnet, or any one of a number of other bands that weren’t big enough, or that I wasn’t smart enough, for me to see in their heyday was an unexpected pleasure. Inevitably, the reunited Bitch Magnet ends up playing shows in Japan, which costs them a lot of money, but everybody is big in Japan at some point.

Your Bands Sucks is a cut above the average rock and roll memoirs. Fine is a better than average writer, and a more than averagely introspective individual, and he does a great job of conveying the authentic flavor of life in the underground scene in the mid-1980s. But this history has to be approached with the following caveats: this was mostly middle class white guys rebelling against a system in ways that was built for their convenience and in ways that were mostly harmless in systemic terms.

Still, the goal of creating a less constricting ego space does have value, and for some people who got involved the underground scene, it was, in fact, a gateway to some truly consciousness-raising experiences. Too, it is worth remembering that the divergence between bands and scenes committed to existence outside the corporate mainstream and those that were not was (and continues to be) a key moment in the formation of autonomous cultures that can function as incubators for political awareness. Perhaps this is not where Fine ended up, but the story he has to tell is valued as a part of the larger picture.