The relativity in writer Jon Fine’s new memoir about his life in music begins with the subtitle: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear). Whether or not indie rock was supposed to be a revolution, and whether or not it failed, is not clear. It seems impossible to reach a reasonable consensus on what “indie rock” is, or was. This is great for starting conversations – both those that are worthy and those that are simply button-pushing – but it’s not exactly helpful when it comes time to draw any sort of conclusion. Your Band Sucks will not settle any such arguments. Indeed, as the book goes on, Fine seems less and less certain about what such a revolution, if it even existed, would have achieved.
Fine was the guitarist in Bitch Magnet. As he himself might acknowledge, that fact means a lot to a very few people, and very little, if anything, to a lot of people. Still, you don’t have to be one of those very few people to take something worthwhile away from Your Band Sucks. In fact, it might actually help to not be a Bitch Magnet fan when reading some of Fine’s disparagements of his own level of success in music, because you probably won’t feel the urge to reach through the page, grab him by his favorite Thom Browne shirt (“Super-slim, perfect fit, and look great rumpled, which means they travel well.”) and say: ”Your band made freaking Umber, Jon. What more do you want?!”
An explanation, then, for the majority: Bitch Magnet was a post-hardcore trio that got their start in 1986 when they were all students at Oberlin, in Ohio. Before the three went their separate ways in 1990, they toured around North America and Europe, and recorded and released three albums. By then living in North Carolina, vocalist/bassist Sooyoung Park went on to form the band Seam, with Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan on drums, which achieved a higher profile in the ‘90s than his first band did in the previous decade. Bitch Magnet drummer Orestes Morfin went on to play with the Minnesota band Walt Mink, while Fine, who grew up in a New Jersey suburb, moved to Brooklyn well before the rest of the world arrived and plugged away at his own project, Vineland, when not going through the day job motions.
Your Band Sucks is divided into three ‘books’ that lay out Fine’s journey in mostly chronological order. Book 1 covers his childhood and high school experience in a leafy and lifeless New Jersey populated by Heavy Metal Parking Lot extras, followed by his escape to Oberlin and the story of Bitch Magnet. Book 2 blends together tales from Bitch Magnet’s last days, Fine’s long and detailed list of “What I Liked” about being in a band, interviews with other musicians (each book includes these, but Book 2 relies on them more than the other two sections) about the follies and hardships they have faced in pursuit of their dreams, some choice Vineland stories, and Fine’s attendance at all the right parties and bars in ascendant Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Book 3 begins with the end of Fine’s third and final band, the experimental rock trio Coptic Light, and from there gives a thorough recounting of Bitch Magnet’s unlikely 2011-2012 reunion tour and the reissuing of their three albums by the impeccable Temporary Residence Ltd. label, as well as some acknowledgement of his successes in journalism and love later in his 30s and beyond.
Bitch Magnet fans will find their meat and potatoes in Book 1, while anyone with an interest in the reunion tour phenomenon of the last decade or so will get an interesting perspective from the inside with Book 3. Meanwhile, the narrative in Book 2 may not be as straightforward as in the other sections, but in a way, it’s where the real heart of Your Band Sucks lies. Finally, what we have is a rock ‘n’ roll memoir just as much about disappointment as success. Not about the clichéd pattern of glitzy highs and gutter lows found in so many rock memoirs, but the minor victories and long in-between drudgeries that a life pursuing independent music is more often than not likely to give you.
Recalling his experience with Vineland, and the experiences of so many musicians like him, Fine writes:
Some bands fail more spectacularly than others, and some fail very quietly, with no witnesses. But the failure doesn’t feel quiet if you’re in such a band and you find yourself confronting something tougher than the general outcastness of playing weird music: blank stares from those who actually like weird music. I don’t mean “no widespread recognition” or “no pots full of money.” I mean nothing. No labels putting out your music. No fans coming to your shows. Because there are no fans. (147)
Fine isn’t throwing a self-pity party, as others are definitely invited. He brings up the story of Zack Lipez, who wrote an article for the Talkhouse a couple of years ago about the commercial shortcomings of Freshkills, a band he poured his heart into for years only to come face-to-face with the disappointing sales figures of “336 physical copies sold, 27 digital tracks sold.” Fine can certainly relate:
Vineland self-released – by which I mean I self-released – a thousand copies of our second single in 1995. About four hundred of them remain entombed in a bedroom closet at my parents’ house. Maybe there are more. I could count them, I guess, but to what degree must I quantify how many fans we didn’t have? (150)
Still, Vineland isn’t entirely without its place in the legacy of independent music. For one, it turns out that none other than Jerry Fuchs “dropped out of the University of Georgia and moved to Brooklyn to join the band in 1995, when he was a very young twenty, still sporting a bit of baby fat and a great deal of social awkwardness.” Before his tragic, accidental death in 2009, Fuchs would go on to play with bands such as !!!, MGMT, Maserati and more, becoming the best drummer many people would probably ever see with their own two eyes. (This reviewer included: in 2007 at the long-gone Studio B in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Maserati opened for !!!. Fuchs played with both of them, and stole the show.) Fine dedicates the book in part to Fuchs.
More details about Fine’s experiences in Vineland, as well as the scene in New York in the ‘90s, would have actually been welcome. It’s understandable that pervasive ‘90s trends like grunge didn’t land as hard in Fine’s self-selecting corner of the independent music scene, but much of the decade in NYC seems to whiz by here with only scattered impressions of the diverse array of artists that were playing in lower Manhattan and nearby environs in that decade. A feeling of relief comes when Fine begins to make a decent living wage from his writing work around the same time as folks like the DFA crew and other electronic and dance-oriented bands were beckoning the city’s indie crowds out to the dance floor, as he could thus afford the occasional recreational drugs required to stay up for the after-after party. Celebration, though, can’t help but be naturally less compelling than struggle.
In their brief four years, Bitch Magnet were no strangers to struggle, either. Fine was even temporarily fired from the group. He foreshadows this moment well by discussing the two-against-one dynamics that often develop in bands with three members, but up until it happens, it’s not necessarily clear that it’s Fine who is going to get the boot, delivered by Park, who had become a close friend:
We finished our separate dinners – we no longer ate together, as we once did – and ran into each other en route to our meeting, made small talk, joked about musicians and students we knew. There was a table on the union’s terrace, overlooking the expanse of grass between the library and the academic buildings, and as we sat down I cried out – a single strangulated cry, the kind a kitten makes when someone sits on it by mistake, and the kind of sound a boy in a punk rock band never wants to hear coming out of his mouth. I quickly insisted it was nothing, but maybe I had sensed something coming, even though there had been no hint beforehand.
And then, Park lays it out:
“This is something we should have talked about a while ago, but Orestes and I want you to leave Bitch Magnet.”
Jesus, here it is. A gasping, airless feeling I’d prefer never to feel again. I did manage to shudder out ‘Why?’” (77-78)
The young Fine’s shock is understandable. Bitch Magnet was never a lucrative venture — they barely broke even on tours, if they didn’t end up in the hole – but it was something much more important than a way to make a living. It was the outlet by which Fine processed and transmogrified years of distaste and disillusionment with the popular music and culture that surrounded him. Making the kind of angry, intelligent music that the three of them produced together was a consistently transcendent experience for Fine. Losing that, even for a short time, was crushing:
Sooyoung and I graduated in May of ’89, and immediately afterward we recorded Umber in Hoboken, with one of Orestes’s best friends, Dave Galt, on second guitar. That fall Orestes and Sooyoung toured Europe with two guitarists: Galt and Bastro’s David Grubbs. I moved to an apartment hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and took an idiot temp job. On lunch break I read rave reviews of Bitch Magnet shows in the British music weeklies. At least Linc was still my roommate. He owned a copy of I Against I, but I was getting slightly better at overlooking it. (79)
Park ended up asking Fine back into the band in 1990, saying they had another album to make, one which would be Park’s “last record before retiring from rock forever.” Bitch Magnet’s story is full of such youthful impulsiveness and blindness to one’s own future, but that condition – a constantly unstable mixture of egos, post-teenage angst and physiology, and sometimes other chemicals — is where much of the beauty and bile that fuels their records comes from. Their story also has its share of fun facts, such as in 1989, when they had to unexpectedly cancel a studio session booked with Steve Albini. In their place, Albini ended up giving the time to Louisville, Kentucky, post rock legends Slint, who used the weekend to record their self-titled two-song EP, which became their last official release years after they split up.
As Slint did in 2005, 2007, and yet again in 2014 (raising the question: at what point is a band back together?), Bitch Magnet heeded the call of the indie reunion circuit in 2011, spurred on by both Barry Hogan’s beloved, if also sometimes financially insolvent, All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival series, and Temporary Residence Ltd.’s interest in giving the band the fond reissue treatment their music deserved. There are a number of amusing anecdotes here about what it’s like for three men in their mid-to-late 40s (though if you find tour footage on YouTube, Park looks eerily un-aged) to pick it back up with one another after 20 years apart and head out to play scattered cities across the globe. It turns out there are still misadventures to be had, and sometimes humbling audience turn-outs to play for, same as when they were hitting the road for the first time in college. This time, at least, they got to sleep off their hangovers on airplanes, not in the back of a van.