The Bands that Made Nirvana

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For people old enough to blow all their money on the stock market, the `80s might have ended in 1987; but for people young enough to blow all their money at the record store, the `80s ended in 1991. Ten years ago this September, Nirvana's alternative rock opus Nevermind hit the racks and its first song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," went into heavy rotation on MTV. When it knocked Michael Jackson off the number one spot on the Billboard charts and went platinum many times over, it appeared to brush aside single-handedly the peppy Reagan-era pop that had lingered for years after the junk bond party was over, the way Boris Yeltsin had appeared to brush aside the antiquated Communist Party only months earlier. It seemed part and parcel with the end of the cold war, and the illness of the economy: an inevitability.

It wasn't, of course. A new book by rock journalist Michael Azerrad, "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981 - 1991" (Little, Brown) catalogs the labors of 13 `80s bands with whom Nirvana and countless other `90s acts shared an aesthetic (distorted guitar with a minimum of studio effects, flannel), and without whom "alternative" would never have become a household word. It narrates, down to the homemade posters and tour van repairs, how they gradually built up an audience large enough to make record labels and critics take notice, so that Nevermind and other `90s albums could have a shot at mainstream acceptance.

Azerrad, who wrote the 1994 Nirvana bio "Come As You Are," well knows how indispensable Kurt Cobain's band was in alt-rock's rise to prominence, but "Our Band Could Be Your Life" is a lesson in the impossibility of reducing the revolution to an individual (or a trio). Its story goes like this: in the early `80s, a bunch of kids in unknown punk bands, like L.A.'s Black Flag, figured out that "calling up a pressing plant and getting their own record manufactured wasn't the mysterious, exclusive privilege of the giant record companies on the coasts." Black Flag's guitarist and co-founder, Gregg Ginn, used the business acumen he picked up from a surplus radio equipment business he operated out of his home to market his band's records by mail. Soon he began to put out albums by other bands who, like Black Flag, were too rough-hewn and eccentric to attract major record labels. Solid State Tuners, or SST, as it became known, was the name of both the radio parts enterprise and the tiny record label he used to release whatever obscurities he pleased.

SST was one of many "indie" record labels at large in the '80s, but it had the foresight to sign Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr., bands whose followings both eventually dwarfed that of Black Flag and those of their `80s punk contemporaries, like Boston's Mission of Burma and Washington D.C.'s Minor Threat. The shows they played were booked at venues older proto-alternative bands had already played, but they had their work cut out for them selling America and Europe on innovative, unpolished sounds.

It was only after long years of miserable day jobs and masterful schmoozing that they were picked up by David Geffen's DGC label and became internationally-recognized rock stars. Azerrad quotes former Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert on the band's prowess at working the room: "You'd go to a party and Kim [Gordon, singer and bassist] would know who the Village Voice writer was in the corner of the room and she'd make sure she went over there." By 1991, that kind of fastidious networking had put Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr. in the enviable position of being able to pack large fields full of muddy, hormonally unbalanced teenagers, and drag along an obscure opening act called Nirvana.

All the same, nobody made any money to speak of until the major labels came calling. "Do you make a profit?" a reporter asks Black Flag's Ginn in one of the many `zine articles Azerrad excerpts. His response: "We try to eat." While members of Sonic Youth now drive Volvos and divide their time between Manhattan and country homes, the people who accumulated real wealth as a result of the American indie rock saga of the `80s were either in Nirvana or married to people in Nirvana. For that reason, the tenth anniversary of Nevermind comes attended by unceremonious squabbling. Courtney Love, Cobain's famed widow, is engaged in a court battle with bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl over the rights to the Nirvana catalog, and that lawsuit looks as if it will prevent a Nevermind box set from being released this year. Such high- stakes legal brawls are worlds away from the scene profiled in "Our Band Could Be Your Life," in which SST, the most influential of indie labels, could scrape by despite its "stoner administrative quality," as Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo puts it; and, as Bob Bert alleges in one story, Sonic Youth could absent-mindedly sign contracts with two labels for the same songs. As Cyndi Lauper once observed, money changes everything.

Now the moment alt rock first hit the big time is a decade passed, and the Nevermind box set debacle appears destined to overshadow any public discussion of its anniversary. "Our Band Could Be Your Life" offers a timely reminder that Cobain and company were merely a key regiment in the motley alt-rock army. With no beacon of commercial viability in sight, that far-flung herd of musicians, label heads, college radio DJs and `zine writers slowly but steadily introduced a new kind of rock `n' roll to people who, in Azerrad's words, "would seek out the little radio stations to the left of the dial that didn't have such great reception, who would track down the little photocopied fanzine, who would walk past the sprawling chain record store with the lighted sign and go across town to the little mom-and-pop." Music fans who wonder precisely how the next big sound is going to wend its way into the hearts of the boomlet kids who are, as you read these words, snapping up copies of the bottomlessly awful new record by `N Sync, will find some answers in Azerrad's book. Somewhere out there, it makes one believe, could very well be brilliant rock bands nobody's heard of, least of all the 15-year-olds at Tower Records, trying to catch some sleep on dusty floors before they have to lug their amps back to their Econolines. And one of those bands might, one day, persuade a few kids to make the trip across town to the mom-and- pop in search of its rare EP. A band that could be your life, or, at long last, the death of the upbeat pop groups who already sound like the music of a bygone, prosperous era.