A view from the back of the van
Long, long ago in a time now known as the early ’80s, long before Pandora, file sharing and even compact discs, to find new music you trudged to a record store and sifted through bins of LPs. If you lived in the suburbs, your options were limited to a few national chains that sold only the latest corporate-approved offerings from commercial radio. Jon Fine grew up in just such a musical wasteland in New Jersey, but a fortuitous summer camp encounter with the Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols shoved Fine into the punk-indie-alternative music wormhole.
Now executive editor at Inc. magazine, Fine looks back, in “Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear),” at the forces that propelled him — a shy Jewish kid on the nerd-freak-loser fringe — to learn guitar, start a band, and embrace a marginal musical culture. His band’s abrasive name, Bitch Magnet, points to his early knowledge that he wouldn’t end up on MTV and in a Malibu mansion. As Fine puts it, “Bands like ours didn’t give a … about any of that.”
What the trio did “give a … about” was the music and a “parallel music industry” that required its members to tour relentlessly, flog their own records and play their guts out in front of audiences that numbered from the low three figures to the low one figure. Evolving out of hardcore punk, Bitch Magnet, alongside bands like Slint and the Boredoms, pioneered “math rock,” incorporating complex rhythmic structures and odd time signatures while remaining as brain-numbingly loud as hardcore.
Bitch Magnet’s intense run, from 1986 to 1990, resulted in three albums, some 7-inchers, hundreds of shows and a net financial loss for everyone involved. Yet the same community that embraced Bitch Magnet’s particular obscurity would also provide it with a second act; Fine would just have to wait for two decades.
In vivid prose, Fine details the process of touring and self-promotion — wheat pasting, mass mailings, crappy food, sleep deprivation — as well as the exultation of rocking out before the occasional packed house. He recalls shows in living rooms and kitchens, remembers girlfriends lost and stolen, and apologizes for leaving a semen-soaked sweat-sock in the back of a van.
As with so many bands before and after, poverty and personality clashes brought Bitch Magnet down. Despite his current straight job, Fine continued playing in other smart rock bands: leading the Pynchon-referencing Vineland (1991-96), playing bass with Alger Hiss (1996-98), guitar with Don Caballero (1999) and guitar in Coptic Light (2000-06). Now Fine has graduated to an adult life.
What the Internet taketh away, however (and it has taken so much), it also giveth, and Fine discovers that Bitch Magnet lived on in the vaporous realm of bits and bytes, of YouTube and websites devoted to the genre that his band helped pioneer. This ephemeral survival led to an invitation in 2011 to play a reunion show at All Tomorrow’s Parties: a festival that presented the outsider bands of their youths to indie rockers trudging into middle age. So Fine, who’d never lost his rock ’n’ roll heart (although his hearing was a different story), set out to reassemble Bitch Magnet 21 years later and take to the road again.
Fine’s cantankerous humor and relentless self-criticism save this reunion from a cheap sitcom ending. Presenting himself as motormouthed, opinionated and generally hard to please, Fine makes it easy to understand why his more reserved bandmates could weary of him in the tour van. The reunion goes on for almost a hundred pages — about 50 pages too long — as Fine recounts every venue, meal and emotion along the way. A cautionary note threads through the last chapters as Fine grapples with the auditory damage caused by his addiction to volume.
As engaging as Fine can be, “Your Band Sucks” fails to do justice to its subtitle. Although Fine enlivens his narrative with anecdotes from musicians who worked the same circuit – including Ed Roeser of Urge Overkill, Doug McCombs of Tortoise and Lou Barlow of Sebadoh — he ultimately shortchanges his failed revolution. Fine writes that, “… at Oberlin I got disgusted with lefty politics almost immediately,” a flip dismissal that blinds him to what made the indie scene more than just another musical trend. If music was the most visible (and loudest) segment of that indie underworld, the music sustained itself on the possibility of a functioning culture outside of the commercial mainstream — one hip to feminism and international politics. That Fine doesn’t make room for these other currents helps to explain why the revolution failed.