For some time, music critics have been speculating about the cultural and social implications of punk’s “do-it-yourself” (DIY) philosophy. In the 1970s, when punk was emerging from its geographical epicenters — Detroit, New York City, and London — punks championed improvisation, the untrained musician or singer, crackling P.A. systems, and buzzing distortion. Punk’s credo that anyone can start a band, pick up a guitar, play it loud, and actually have a loyal following is as integral to today’s underground music scene as it was to the generation that first embraced loudness as a culturally subversive tool.
For the bands featured on Songs for Cassavetes, the DIY philosophy informs every aspect of their music. They make the flyers for their shows, post the flyers around town, make the tapes, distribute the tapes at their concerts, produce the ‘zines, and contribute to a nationwide support network of bands and fans. They revel in their independence and thoughtfully take on anyone who questions their legitimacy as artists. For Al Larson of Some Velvet Sidewalk, “[i]t all comes down to…doing what you wanna do”, which includes making music untainted by the corporate machinery of a major record label.
For fans of independent record labels and the underground indie music scene, the release of the soundtrack to Songs for Cassavetes: An All Ages Film is long overdue. The 1999 film, produced and directed by Justin Mitchell, was released to mixed reviews by film and music critics. Shot in 16-mm black and white, Mitchell’s 90-minute film, now available on VHS and DVD, documents the post-punk underground music scene in the United States. Songs for Cassavetes chronicles a generation’s musical response to what Calvin Johnson of Dub Narcotic Sound System describes as the politically conservative, “nebulous mainstream” of the 1980s. The film focuses primarily on a small group of West coast bands — much of it is shot in and around Olympia, Washington (home to K Records, YoYo Studios, and the riot grrl movement), and includes performances recorded in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The spoken-commentary snippets from the film that pepper the soundtrack reinforce the DIY spirit that drives these bands to create music that they view as an imaginative and interactive antidote to the ambivalence and ennui of commercial radio.
Songs for Cassavetes contains some real musical gems. The live performance tracks convey the energy of a live show, as shouts from the audiences punctuate virtually every song that is recorded at a live gig. Further’s performance of “I Wanna Be a Stranger” at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, for example, stands out as one of the CD’s finest examples of a live performance, capturing the energy and enthusiasm of the band and its fans in an intimate club setting. At the beginning of the song, the singer asserts his place in the world as an alienated individual who wants to put even more distance between himself and painful emotions: “I wanna be a stranger / I wanna disappear from photographs and documents and memories”. The song picks up a bit in mood, though, and by the end of it we’re grooving along to a ’60s-influenced organ solo that seems to be a more appropriate musical backdrop for go-go dancers than it does for an angst-ridden artist: “If you wanna kiss me / …might as well”.
Immediately following Further’s “I Wanna Be a Stranger”, Mitchell strategically places a spoken-word clip from Brent Rademaker of Further. Reflecting on his present situation — performing with Further at the 1997 Monterey Pop Festival — Rademaker reasons that playing “for 200 people in a place that holds a couple thousand” is better than selling out to a major label. Noticeably absent from this clip are the shouts and screams of the Viper Room’s enthusiastic audience. Instead, what Mitchell presents us with is an artist defending his band’s performance to an almost-empty venue. “What’s wrong with that?” asks Rademaker. “I think that’s pretty cool”. On one level, Songs for Cassavetes is as much about the clubs who champion indie artists — along with the independent labels who record them and the fans who pay the $2-$5 cover charge to see the bands live — as it is about the artists featured in the film.
Indeed, the artists on Songs for Cassavetes spend much of their spoken-word time defending their status as independent artists. The music itself, in fact, seems to be a kind of answer to those critics who write-off these artists as self-indulgent and self-righteous poseurs who look down on those bands who have sold-out to major labels. Sleater-Kinney’s “Words and Guitars”, for example, repeats, “Tell me what you wanna be / Tell me what you wanna be”. Apparently, it also all comes down to “words and guitars” — picking up that guitar and speaking (or singing, shouting, and screaming) your mind.
Songs for Cassavetes presents listeners with another of the indie artists’ major dilemmas: in a capitalist society, is it possible for artists to maintain the youthful enthusiasm and innocence that turned them on to music in the first place? Even more significant, can these aging artists convey this energy to their audiences? Molly Neuman of Bratmobile and the Peeches asserts that the indie music scene is about “remembering how…exciting it was to look at life without any of the…baggage that you get as you grow older”.
Mitchell reinforces this idea of the significance of youth to the creation of art by taking his cue from the late director and actor John Cassavetes: “My films are expressive of a culture that has had the possibility of attaining material fulfillment while at the same time finding itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives. We have been sold a bill of goods as a substitute for life. In this country people die at the age of 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger. My responsibility as an artist is to help them past 21”. Near the end of the soundtrack, Mitchell splices together a montage of individual musicians quoting Cassavetes, transforming Cassavetes’ words into a sort of compressed manifesto for the underground music scene that Mitchell explores in his film.
Certainly, Cassavetes’ words inspire the independent artist to stay focused on the creation of music in the face of material hardship. Songs for Cassavetes doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the general unpleasantness of not being able to make a decent living as an independent musician, nor does it explore the complexities of whether or not a band signed to a major label can avoid completely selling out to commercial interests. As an archival object, however, Songs for Cassavetes serves as a narrative remembrance of the excitement and energy integral to the survival of a vital underground music scene.