Book Review: Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock's Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) As weird, compelling, and frustrating a read as the underground rock life probably is.

I didn’t hear the music of Bitch Magnet until I was a sophomore in college (c. 1996-7) and taped the college radio station’s copy of Ben Hur (Communion, 1990) onto a cassette of poor quality. Already a fan of Seam, principal songwriter and bassist Sooyoung Park’s follow-up unit, I’d heard of the band a year earlier, but as their records were out of print, it wasn’t easy to find anyone who had them. This cassette (with Bastro’s contemporaneous Homestead release Sing the Troubled Beast on the other side) quickly wore out before being replaced by used CD copies scoured from bins in my Lawrence, Kansas, record store haunt. These bands were probably more talked-about in their absence than when they actually existed but were mentioned in reverent tones among a few collegiate music obsessives. While never a musician, I came of age toward the tail end of indie-rock’s salad days; bands like Bitch Magnet, Slint, Bastro, Codeine, and Big Black were over, but we did have Seam, Shellac, Tortoise, June Of 44 (Rodan had recently disbanded), The Jesus Lizard, and a host of others. More importantly, in a college town like Lawrence, we had our own friends and local heroes’ bands — Vitreous Humor, Boys’ Life, Proudentall, Giants Chair, Panel Donor, the Regrets, Butterglory, Vosotros, the list went on. None of those outfits reached any modicum of major recognition — a couple came close — but they were, more importantly, ours. If we weren’t playing in them, we went to see them, got drunk with them, and bugged our friends and acquaintances to drop everything and hear them.

Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), published by Penguin/Viking, is a part-memoir, part-critique penned by the former Bitch Magnet guitarist, who also led the groups Vineland and Coptic Light. The book is divided into three sections, covering his early experiences in Bitch Magnet, touring and the joys and pitfalls of the underground more generally (for which he interviewed a number of his peers), and finally the 2011-12 Bitch Magnet reunion. Fine grew up in suburban New Jersey and went to Ohio’s Oberlin College, a small liberal arts school that was a breeding ground for creativity and had a reputable free form radio station, WOBC (apparently much to the chagrin of the University at large — if there’s one thing college radio heads quickly learned, it’s how much the stations were at odds with the powers that be). Fine was recruited by Sooyoung Park his sophomore year, and they went through a succession of drummers until settling on Orestes (Delatorre) Morfin, a powerhouse who’d been in a tough, unrecorded college band called Pay The Man with guitarist Chris Brokaw (Codeine, Come) and bassist Mike Billingsley (Rex). It didn’t take long for Bitch Magnet to transcend the local house party scene and start touring, finding peers in an emergent strand of arty, aggressive post-punk music later dubbed “math rock.”

While the first Bitch Magnet record, Star Booty (a lengthy EP or short LP depending on your standards), is a little ragged around the edges, it’s generally a strong batch of Hüsker Dü- and Big Black-influenced melodic post-hardcore, with the best/most unique tunes somewhere along the lines of Hated. Released in 1988 on their own Roman Candle imprint, with the sound cleaned up by Steve Albini, it soon attracted notice from zines and college radio. After a brief label dance, Bitch Magnet signed to the British imprint Shigaku in 1988, which went bust, though not before pressing up copies of Star Booty and the sterling follow up, Umber, which added second guitarist Dave Galt. The band moved to Atlanta-based label Communion, which issued both albums stateside and follow-up Ben Hur; neither imprint seems to have paid anyone. Theirs wasn’t a big discography — also comprising a few singles and a partly live EP — but certainly more than respectable in the annals of independent music. Delatorre departed before Ben Hur hit the shelves, replaced by Pete Pollack for one last tour, after which they dissolved. By most accounts it wasn’t an easy relationship — Fine certainly admits to his faults — but they were all quite young then and, unsurprisingly, very difficult people. Fine had briefly been kicked out for various youthful bad moves (more precisely, he was in and out after Star Booty, and replaced on an Umber tour by Bastro’s David Grubbs) but he is on all of their commercial recordings.

The first third of Your Band Sucks (named after a Thrown Ups song referred to on a Bitch Magnet flyer) details Fine’s upbringing and the dearth of good music that surrounded him (aside from the salvation of a Sex Pistols/Dead Kennedys cassette he found at summer camp), followed by recollections of an emerging scene around Oberlin, where at an impressionable age he found people who could confirm his admittedly hyperactive sonic leanings. Once Bitch Magnet coalesced, adventures included a summer rehearsing and living in Decatur, GA (probably the inspiration for a Seam tune by that title); going into recording studios of varying quality to make records; playing early out-of-town gigs in Chicago and Boston; touring through class schedules and even getting academic credit for touring as an “independent project.” All the while they were trying to make a trio of very disparate personalities work towards the higher good of a very striking musical aesthetic — and by the end of the first act, it didn’t hold together. Though, as Fine tells it, the band and the environment it came from is heavy on relatable nostalgia and a bevy of anecdotes, it is short on minutiae (which could have been helpful). There are a few breakdowns of how the songs were written, but only a little about how they put together and released their small catalog. Touring partners, revered fellow travelers and venues get slightly more verbiage. Perhaps it’s hard for participants to remember — if one watches the tongue-in-cheek 1994 Louisville rock film Half-Cocked, it’s striking to note how young everyone was — but the more likely reason is that most readers aren’t so obsessed, and this book isn’t really for discographical nutjobs (guilty as charged). It is, after all, partly a memoir.

In many ways, Bitch Magnet was like a lot of bands at the time — and that’s one salient point of Your Band Sucks. It details the fact that these threesomes and foursomes toured the country in battered vans (if they were lucky — the Magnet toured in a big boat of a car and an Izuzu Trooper), usually didn’t get sound checks, slept on floors (if they were lucky), played to a few dozen people, and had their records released by small labels who didn’t pay royalties. If they lasted a few years, that was a very strong run. And despite all these headaches, enough people chose to participate that it created a community. The difference between Bitch Magnet and at least some others was that they were top-tier: they had a relentless rhythm section coupled to songwriting that could swiftly turn from rage to spine-tingling beauty, and Fine’s drunken thoroughbred guitar wrangling topped it all off. After the end of Bitch Magnet, Fine (who had relocated to New York) formed Vineland, in which he was the only constant member. Vineland existed from 1991 to 1996 and their arc hewed a bit closer to the other 98 percent of indie rock bands. They only released a couple of obscure 7-inches, recorded enough for at least one LP that never materialized, and toured relentlessly playing guttural and angular noise-rock to mostly empty rooms. Vineland may not have been as strong as Bitch Magnet, but anyone who came up around this music knows that excellent bands also played (and still do play) to very tiny, almost nonexistent audiences.

It would be easy to claim mere bitterness — like a lot of his peers, by 1995 or so, Fine was broke and living in Brooklyn, and hadn’t seen much recognition for his music, which he’d spent years evangelizing. He repeatedly riffs on the idea that he and his fellow travelers thought this music would change the world, yet at every turn is brought back to the difficult realities of being in a series of odd bands and, at the time, not having much of a fallback plan. We all thought this music was ‘it’ — “have you heard of this band? They’re playing at the Replay Lounge tomorrow night [cue band’s van breaking down causing a no-show, five people in the audience].” Fine does take a pretty major and bizarre stab at one factor he believes changed indie rock for the worse. In a chapter titled “Jonathan Richman Has Ruined Rock for Another Generation,” he details the emergence of twee indie pop of the K Records and Simple Machines schools as asexual and pointless, and those bands’ popularity as eclipsing that of odd-metered math-y bands (no matter that Ash Bowie of knotty art-rock band Polvo was also in the poppier Helium, or that Richman was, in a Freudian sense, both mocking and slavishly aping Lou Reed). This reads as misdirected, overlong, and beside the point, even if writers like Michael Azerrad may agree with him.

It seems unlikely that the emergence of “cuddlecore” signed the death certificate for Vineland, Boondoggle, or any other loud underground band from the mid-Nineties; there were larger issues at hand. Fine writes that “what had started out as free and welcoming ended up becoming as rigid and rule-bound as everything I’d hoped it would replace. (I was totally part of the problem, having been completely doctrinaire about music since forever.)” And that’s somewhat true, also not necessarily limited to the music — I recall sending a friend, who was somewhat new to the whole indie-rock scene, to see June Of 44 play a show in his college town, and he wrote me to say that “everyone dressed the same.” I’m not going to argue with that — ultimately, independence became doctrinaire. Fine goes on to point out something very real, in that major label interest and MTV rotation were seen as conspirators in siphoning off what was interesting about independent music — once a band was signed to Reprise or Atlantic or Columbia, it was all over (today that might also go for Sub Pop, Merge, Matador or any other massive “indie”). In other words, commercialism trumps independence — but if you are used to sleeping in a crapped-out Econoline van playing to nobody, releasing records yourselves or on fly-by-night labels that don’t accurately document your sound, and working temp jobs in between tours, the lure of major label support is undeniably attractive. Wasn’t independent music its own worst enemy?

Fine then moves toward exploring what he saw as a strange bit of redemption for the communal aspect of indie rock, namely the scene around Williamsburg in the early 2000s that birthed Black Dice, LCD Soundsystem, MGMT, Gang Gang Dance, and other electronics-derived party bands, whose emergence coincided with the monied class takeover of North Brooklyn. It’s almost as though electronic dance music replaced arty post-hardcore as Fine knew it, which isn’t particularly comprehensible and has always smacked of commercialism — it’s certainly arguable that James Murphy’s dance music career brought more recognition than his stints as drummer-vocalist in Pony and Speedking. While Fine tries to validate that music, he didn’t take the same musical tack — instead he formed Coptic Light, which joined his guitar with the bass of Jeff Winterberg (Antioch Arrow) and drummer Kevin Shea (Storm & Stress, Talibam!) for a high-volume, furrowed squall that was reasonably well received in a fragmented underground. Fine disbanded Coptic Light in 2006, seemingly more out of weariness than any tangible flame-out.

But the story of Bitch Magnet wasn’t over — around the same time, Fine and Park were courted by a few labels interested in a concerted reissue program, which solidified when in 2011 Temporary Residence issued a remastered three-disc set of their studio recordings. Performing followed hot on the reissues’ heels with a Christmas 2011 installment of the famed British festival All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by Battles, the project of guitarist Ian Williams (who briefly shared guitar duties with Fine in Don Caballero). They stretched their reunion a bit longer, with short stints in Europe, Asia, and the States, culminating at Chicago’s Empty Bottle in October 2012. From firsthand experience at one New York show with veteran DC post-hardcore band Moss Icon (whose catalog Temporary Residence also reissued), Bitch Magnet presented themselves as absolutely ace practitioners of their realm, brought back together for one last hurrah and obviously performing for larger audiences than those during their floruit. A cynic might assume this was a shot at making a fair amount of money, though Fine’s point is well taken that tours like these, even today, are still a dance with fiscal irresponsibility and certainly haven’t made anyone rich.

Nevertheless, in this final section of Your Band Sucks, Fine recounts the preparations and process of this brief reunion in gleeful detail — while earlier jabs at the foibles of a changing scene can slog, the exhilarating delivery of striking up the band again transmits an air of celebratory joy. Sure, it is fleeting, but why not bask in a small bit of glory after all one has put up with in the preceding quarter-century? If not household names (most people I encounter still don’t know who Bitch Magnet are/were), Fine, Park, and Morfin got an important reprieve and Fine a bit of redemption. Your Band Sucks is as weird, compelling, and frustrating a read as the underground rock life probably is, and perhaps that’s how it should be.

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