Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Writing books about music

There was one glaring thing about Nothing Feels Good that bothered me even when I first read it, but we'll get to that tomorrow. Otherwise, my main concern was that I still didn't get "emo", for which I blamed myself.

That may not have been completely fair. I had just finished Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation before. I know that I could have gotten more out of it if I had been more familiar with the music, but I still learned a lot.

What really filled in the blanks was reading Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad. Greenwald had mentioned the importance of the alternative/DIY (do it yourself) movement at the time, but only that it was important, not how. Azerrad filled that in beautifully, so reading his book about eighteen months later it was like, "Oh! Now I get it."

One interesting thing about that is Azerrad's inspiration. He was watching a miniseries on the history of rock music and it had a gap somewhere between Talking Heads and Nirvana.

That would be noticeable, but I can totally see it happening. My original theory for why "emo" got used in so many different ways was that none of the main bands got that famous. That theory has some flaws, but the producers of the mini-series might agree.

Azerrad breaks down the time period given and his organization is impeccable. By focusing on specific bands to highlight various aspects and important points, it makes listening for musical context easier anyway, but intellectually the details he includes and how he orders them brings all of the material together.

Initially that just confirmed my belief that I should have gone into Nothing Feels Good knowing more, but little things began to pop up when I started going back through it for music. I wondered if all of the band name dropping was valuable. Even as I choose to continue to go through all of it, no, it is not useful to the extent that Greenwald does it.

Sometimes there were little things that were unclear, like that Rocket from the Crypt was the complete name of a band, and not that it was a band named Rocket on a label called The Crypt. That was mostly an issue of inconsistent capitalization and phrasing. Also, when there are two bands that are both pretty important and definitely distinct, but they have somewhat similar names - like Jawbreaker and Jawbox, for example - it could be good to make a point of that the first time the second one is introduced. These started really becoming an issue in Chapter 6.

Those were still things that you could mark down to the author assuming some knowledge on the part of the reader. I guess that could work, though I don't know that anyone well-versed in emo would feel a strong need to read the book. I think it shows a difference in purpose. Azerrad was writing to fill a gap that he knew existed, and on those terms his book succeeds. I suspect Greenwald was writing to indulge (and appreciate) his interest. That could make it the definitive emo book, though in a "and that's the worst thing about emo" way.

My biggest problem came after watching Another State of Mind, which was also associated with Chapter 6 when Greenwald is profiling Vagrant founder Rich Egan. I need to quote:

"A born pragmatist, Egan still took his inspiration from the purists. 'It sounds unbelievably corny, but when I saw Another State of Mind [the influential documentary about Minor Threat, Dischord Records, and the D.C. DIY scene] ten years after it was made, I knew immediately that it was what I wanted to do." Egan was eighteen, a college student, and working in the mail room at Hollywood's megapowerful Creative Artists Agency. It was the end of the '80s and the decade's Gordan [sic] Gekko money-grab mentality was still in full effect." (p. 74)

It continues with a rather condescending description of how Egan started Vagrant. I believe on the first reading I thought Greenwald was making a leap, with that and the Gordon Gekko reference. There were so many interview subjects who looked down on anything involving making money, and who looked down on Egan and Vagrant that it fit in, but I was taking it with a grain of salt. The real problem is that is that Greenwald's aside on the movie shows he has no idea what it's about.

Another State of Mind (named for a Social Distortion song) is about Social Distortion and Youth Brigade going on tour together. They were following DIY principles. You see them fixing up a bus together and they are doing it on their own, and they have some great fan interactions, sometimes with people who feed them. They also keep having mechanical problems and money problems, and enough time spent tired, cold, and hungry lets resentments build. At least one crew member is gone by the time the bus dies for good, then Youth Brigade splits and Social Distortion loses members and the tour is abandoned. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat is in it. He gives them a place to stay for a bit and takes them shopping for tarps - which is totally DIY - but that is an aside.

I know it is much easier to look up movies (and movie character name spellings) now, but it still seems like there should have been some follow-up questions by a good interviewer: How did the movie influence you? Was there a specific scene? Because it is just as easy to assume that what Egan took from the movie was that music is great and people respond to these small, emotional shows, but it can be really miserable without funding. That may not make him a philanthropist, but it doesn't exactly make him Monty Burns either.

There was a big drop in opinion after that, but this was not the point where I wrote "TOOL!" in my notes. That can wait until tomorrow.

No comments: