Dec. 21, 2001-
By By Jason Cherkis
Fifteen days music-free, I decided to go to see Wilco at the 9:30 Club. Because it was my first rock show of the New War, I figured I would get to see how my musical brothers and sisters were taking it.
See, the frivolous and the ironic and the fringe were all supposed to be dead. It nagged me that the people who were telling us that anything outside the serious, sincere mainstream was off-limitsor worse, that music could be used to "heal" our national woundswere the same ones who had Pez-fed us Fat Joe's money love, Creed's amped-up Christ, and Aerosmith's crusty lips. Their arguments only reaffirmed their beliefs that music should be measured in sales, the Stars and Bars being just the latest marketing tie-in to kick-start the Christmas season. I had no desire to be stuck in Quincy Jones' studio with the al Qaeda blues again.
Despite its major-label parents, Wilco had spent a career on everyone's fringeindie rock's, alt country's, even NPR's. The band has never been anybody's Train or Ryan Adams, has never had the desire to put pearl-buttoned cowboy shirts on Springsteen songs. Wilco has always played too stoner, too much for the headphones; its Woody takes a walk down Abbey Road.
The band's lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, walked up to the mike in old clothes and an old voice. He said nothing, just launched into a set of spiffy and spacey new tunes. Tunes full of drum loops, guitar frags, and straight-up goofs on Elvis and the entire O Brother bandwagon. He used the moment to debut a song called "Ashes of the American Flag." A song not about terrorism.
But the crowd went with it anyway. My fellow travelers sang along to "Passenger Side" and the Guthrie tune "California Stars." This wasn't about healing. This was a much smaller but far more important fight.
Late in the set, Tweedy started to explain that the band's new album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was finished but that its major label wouldn't release the thing as is. So Wilco had bought the record backand was now an orphan looking for a home. In the meantime, the album was available for streaming on the group's Web site. It was clear that everyone in attendance, Tweedy noted, had already heard the songs, even memorized them.
The crowd had only one question, which it chanted over and over again, interrupting Tweedy's spiel: "What label?"
The singer looked genuinely confused.
To the folks in the audience, being indie really mattered. It mattered because it was an insurance policy against Tweedy's doing any American Pie soundtracks or appearing at George W. Bush's ranch yodeling "Dixie" next to Vladimir Putin and Garth Brooks. He was their weirdo, and they wanted him to stay that way.
Even after 25 years, indie rock and its DIY principles still matter. Terrorist attack or no terrorist attack, this band could be your life. So the crowd hollered: "What label?"
"You don't need a label to play rock 'n' roll," Tweedy finally shot back, in perfect indie-rock fashion. The audience had its moment of Zen.
In any year, the best listeners can hope for are these little fits of rebellion. Maybe that's what indie rock is really all about: not scenes or single bands, but incidents of rebellion. A few good shows to dance your ass off at. A few good records to make the world feel a little less cold, a little more yours. Not the big takeover, but a moment when you win, when the fringe wins. It doesn't really matter that Wilco eventually signed to a major-label subsidiary; Yankee Hotel is still the best album never released this year. Be thankful for the downloads. Be thankful that Tweedy took a stand, however brief.
No one takes a stand anymore. Sigur Rós played as background music on C.S.I. Liz Phair fell into the Gap. Glitchcore nobodies Múm bubbled through a Sony laptop commercial. The Minutemen played the Jackass theme song. And everyone's favorite free mix tape, Napster, died and no one noticed.
Instead of one big rebellion, this year was marked by tiny pissing matches. It's sad that one of the few moments I felt any sense of indie community was when the Other Music mail-order guy recognized my name over the phone. The Strokes or the White Stripes? Is underground hiphop addicted to hermetic philosophy in the same way that Tom Cruise can't let go of Scientology? Is Ken Burns an asshole?
With so many little arguments, there was no time to build a consensus about anything. It was all just moments. The closest thing I felt to an indie revolution this year was the summertime !!! show in an Upper Northwest basement. We waited an eternity in someone's back yard, downing Dr. Skippers until the band took to no stage. The !!!ers shook ass. We did, too. They pumped their fists. We did, too. And some lucky dudes got to lock lips with the lanky lead singer.
In this new indie world, !!! played for everyonea little avant-skronk, a little Clash, some Beasties raps, some James Brown funky shit. The only thing the band didn't have time for was decent lyrics. After the set, the cops showed up. They were concerned about the noise and the beer.
What's going to happen when there really is a new revolution?
We didn't get the chance to find out this year. The only things I know for sure are that the Wilson Center finally closed, that Fugazi finally didn't have to play in the rain at Fort Reno, that the Black Cat finally got a decent space for smaller bands, that the Dismemberment Plan finally made a great record, that Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins finally came out with their book. And that Ken Burns is an asshole.
The only time indie folks could actually talk about music without arguing was when somebody died. We lost Joey Ramone and Takoma Park native John Fahey. But we gained their reissues.
In Fahey's book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, he lights on the meaning of being a troublemaker, one who would fling cherry bombs at cars and generate genuine outsider status just out of fingerpicking an acousticwhat he called "American primitive guitar." The joys of mischief stayed with him through his days hunting rare 78s, drifting up the West Coast, gigging with Thurston Moore, and curating lost hillbilly and blues recordings.
Fahey ends a chapter summing up his messed-up P.G. County youth with this declaration: "I really haven't changed at all. And that's alright with me. I never wanted to change anyway. So, what the hell?"
Maybe those little flares of rebellion can become a sort of life. Fahey could have been speaking for Tweedy, one oppressive erathe '50sstanding in for a burgeoning new one. So what do we have to rebel against now? Military tribunals would be a start, along with, lest we forget, Fat Joe and Creed and Aerosmith and everything else in the mainstream. And kids who wear indie like a badge instead of a purpose.
Although there were no major breakthroughs in 2001, there were still plenty of flares shot into the great Disney darkness. By my list, plenty of new bands took real creative risks, took magical detours from the norm, made playing wild tunes something honorable and doable. And the vets proved that Fahey wasn't wrong, that you can make dissenting a career choice.
The yearno matter how difficultproved that there will always be bands that could be your life. Here are a few, in no particular order:
The Argument, Fugazi Count the band out and this is what you getegg on your face. I wrote it off after its last real full-length, End Hits, left me sour. But then Ian MacKaye wrote "Cashout," a song that sums up the gentrifying D.C. of the moment. The rest of the album holds together not as a testament to the band's politics but to its intent on exploring new sounds and making its audience feel something besides the decibels. The music serves the cause just as much as the cause itself.
Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, Prefuse 73 Imagine dropping a crate of your finest beats on the cement, taking your boot heels to the vinyl, and then gluing the busted-up pieces together and taking them out for a spin. Disjointed, broken-bones hiphop shares space with glitchy melancholia, coffee-shop clatter, and a couple fighting in the apartment next door. A DJ finally went lo-fi and found out that he could relate.
Innocence & Despair, The Langley Schools Music Project In the mid-'70s, British Columbia music teacher Hans Fenger recorded on two-track his 9- to 12-year-old students performing popular love-rock standards. Listening to the kids clamor through "Band on the Run," recast "Space Oddity" with fun-house sounds, and treat "Saturday Night" as a pep rally, you'll realize that Fenger & Co. managed to do what Almost Famous didn't: cut away the AOR cheese and turn the rawk of the Me Decade into something inspirational. When 9-year-old Sheila Behman steps up to the piano to whisper-warble through "Desperado," she makes you wish you'd met her back in summer camp.
Cold House, Hood It took a band from Wetherby, West Yorkshire, to make a guitar record for hiphop heads. Hood uses guitars as atmosphere and to trace out heartbroken melodies, then throws up twitchy beats, frozen Dr. Dre lines, and muffled bumps. Spookier than Deltron. More depressing than Def Jux.
The Glow, Pt. 2, the Microphones Studio whiz Phil Elvrum did what Sebadoh, Bright Eyes, and Papa M could not: He made a bedroom masterwork filled with acoustic weepies, sly tricks of sound, and instruments that take balls to play (steel drums, anyone?).
Tiny Waves, Mighty Sea, Future Pilot AKA Glasgwegian (and former Soup Dragon) Sushil Dade gathered 30-plus of the indie elite, including Stuart Murdoch, Norman Blake, and a Vaseline, to dig into his Indian roots. Guess what? It doesn't suck. Everyone recorded happy, dazed, and shimmery without sounding like people on a field trip. One of the few new indie-rock records that doesn't sound retrounless retro means 1998.
Seasonally Affective: A Piano Magic Retrospective 1996–2000, Piano Magic Everyone needs music to snooze by, and this is as somnolent as they come. Piano Magic serves its rhythms chilled, its vocals distilled in jiggly Jell-O, and its guitars cut-up. On second thought, Piano Magic might be too loaded with surprises for a sound sleep. Like when the drums get menacing, the guitars plug in and shriek to life, and singer Glen Johnson and a female partner wake up to mumble a twisted tale over the ambience.
Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues, Charley Patton Using his acoustic as beatbox and his voice as dirt road, Pattonthe originator of the Delta soundroughs up the blues so much he won't let you romanticize old-timey music ever again. Patton's entire recorded works are present in this seven-disc set. One of the last of the dream projects produced by Fahey and his Revenant label, the box set opens up lavishly, with hundreds of pages of text, song lyrics, and even a book written by Blind Joe Death himself. Each CD is held in the doughnut of a cardboard 78. But that's just the nerd stuff. This isn't a museum piece for indie record hounds, but a testament to one of music'sindie or otherwiseessential truths: There have always been rebel voices, and there always will be. CP