A view from the back of the van

Los Angeles Times - - F6 - By Robert Anasi Anasi is the au­thor of “The Last Bo­hemia” and “The Gloves.”

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.

Vik­ing

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