I’ve been reading Michael Azerrad’s miraculous book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which is less a collection of “music writing” than a Plutarchian collection of sketches of the lives of poet-philosophers who exemplify different possibilities for being-in-the-world. Where Plutarch’s Lives was a study in the vice and virtue of individuals, however, Azerrad’s book focuses on the small group. From a different angle: the focus of the book is not so much the person, but the institution. While reading, I find myself asking—and finding answers to—certain practical questions about the life of institutions. How do the relative strengths and weaknesses of a band’s members contribute to—or detract from—the success and flourishing of their small institution? How do personality, interpersonal harmony, and the pressures of necessity affect this success and flourishing?
In Azerrad’s telling, Black Flag were a motley collection of guys who hardly knew each other, united initially around the mysterious brilliance of Greg Ginn and, later, the brooding masculine intensity of Henry Rollins. This pattern—of personality as unifying principle—was repeated by bands like Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Big Black, and Dinosaur Jr, all with roughly the same conclusion: a few years of intense creative output followed by a precipitous decline once interpersonal conflict set in (fomented by, say, a bassist who yearned for recognition on his own terms) to or the power of the frontman’s charisma wore off.
Against this, a few bands found themselves united around an idea. The two principle cases—diametric opposites to one another—are the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi. The former was committed to self-destructive abjection, and whoever might be willing to subject their blood-brain barrier to a psychedelic assault while writing naked on a stage might be welcomed into the fold. The latter, on the other hand, refined the proletarian frugality of the Minutemen and united it with the Stoic ethical seriousness of MacKaye’s earlier Minor Threat, becoming less a “band” than a roving artistic institution that served as a symbol for how any future DIY endeavor might be done excellently.
The chapter on Fugazi is the climax of the book, and reading it one can feel the Idea of DIY punk rock unfolding toward its fulfillment. What begins in the self-destructive dysfunction of Black Flag ends in the passionate but workmanlike earnestness of Fugazi. This is, I think, the model for how to do almost anything.
See also Chris Morgan’s essay on punk rock, youth culture, and Girolamo Savonarola:
American punk rock has been reliably infused with the creedal. In the decadent southern California scene of the late-1970s, Black Flag was off-putting not for their chaotic performances but for their “Calvinist” ethic of daily rehearsal and seemingly perpetual touring schedules. Big Black’s salacious and dissonant sound was girded by Steve Albini’s rigid commercial and aesthetic asceticism. Greg Sage of The Wipers took the asceticism further, going so far as to abstain from touring, even with Nirvana. This was a disparate idealism driven by a vague notion of “politics,” not unfamiliar in the United States, which prized autonomy from the stultifying effects of mainstream uniformity. Yet the advent of Fugazi reasserted the idealism, both in expression and example, with an unprecedented consistency and accessibility too timeless to be confined to mere political fashion.