by Michael Azerrad
(Little, Brown and Co.) $25.95
By choosing an episodic structure for this incomplete history of 1980s indie rock, author Michael Azerrad surmounts the obstacle that derails most books about music: the temptation to impose an overarching analytical thesis onto a defiantly inarticulate strain (punk) of an inherently inarticulate form (rock). That's not to say that he doesn't attempt to draw comparisons between the 13 bands chronicled here, or that he fails to capture the crucial sense of community and networking among them. Nor is it to say that the musicians themselves are inarticulate: The book is most alive at the points when the bands are talking about their fellow travelers--Fugazi's Ian MacKaye talking shit about Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr. talking shit about Dinosaur Jr., Black Flag praising the Minutemen, everybody praising Black Flag. But Azerrad hangs back as a theorist, allowing the bands' interweaving stories and their roughly contemporaneous chronologies to stand in for a Grand Narrative; in so doing, he honors the individuality of each group's gesture while suggesting the context which allowed the aggregation of those gestures to constitute a movement.
Though each chapter is like a rock mag feature loaded with glowing adjectives, the semi-chronological order in which they appear offers a strong clue to Azerrad's view of each band's relative significance. It goes like this: Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. Aside from the collection of unique personalities that drive the book, the stories don't differ much: Young punks, in various stages of disillusionment and inspiration, come together to make music, tour in vans, and make cheap records for the growing community of listeners whose disdain for the offerings of mainstream '80s culture forged a legitimate underground, proving to the bands and labels that it was possible to reach an audience--and sometimes even make a modest living--by sticking to your guns. The bands then either sign to majors (at which point Azerrad pointedly loses interest) or break up... and on to the next chapter.
Though all 13 bands chronicled here are worthy, there are countless others whose exclusion is unfortunate. But that's just gerrymandering. If there's one lesson offered by the bands represented, it's this: Pleasing everyone is not the point.