If you haven’t read Jon Fine’s book, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), you probably should. It’s an engaging memoir of Fine’s time with his band Bitch Magnet, but that’s not the whole story.
The real story is Fine passing through and experiencing an iconic moment in American music history: the rock underground of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. This is more than just Fine’s tales of the highs and lows of being a touring musician (which don’t get me wrong, the book is great at), it’s about capturing a moment in time that can’t be recreated.
This was a time that born bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, and that’s only the biggest “names”. There were countless other important and influential bands that recorded and toured at the time – a real moment of blossoming excitant in the underground rock circle. Fine recognizes that while this is his story, the book captures something bigger.
“This was a time that was very meaningful to me personally and was a really important American cultural story, but it’s something I really felt connected to, Fine said. “As complicated as my feelings are, I feel really connected to this time and to be able to write my version of it is ridiculous. I’ll be happy about that on my death bed, no matter what else happens with me. And happy doesn’t even quite capture it.”
After starting Bitch Magnet with friends at Oberlin College in 1986, Fine observed firsthand the organic growth of not only his band, but the music scene in general. Shows incrementally grew in cities upon repeat visits and could tell something larger was bubbling to the surface.
“This (era) is basically how I sold it to my publisher,” said Fine. “You haven’t heard of my band and probably 10,000 people worldwide care deeply, that’s fine. But, starting in the early 80s, this became a thing. You were able, on a small scale, to put out records, go from town to town to tour and be a musician. Eventually, if you started early enough, you built it. I came along later in ’86 when it was still growing, but relatively formed, and it was amazing to see it happen. To watch that grid extend itself, the organism gets bigger and the networks form was really unbelievable.”
“This was not my moment, said Fine. “I had a great time and I passed through but this is a big American cultural movement that’s decades long. And this story should be told a million times from a million different perspectives and I’m lucky to be one of those.”
Those early days at Oberlin College and Bitch Magnet taking up shop in Atlanta for a summer were my favorite moments in the book. That first third of the book about the growth of the band showed the furious energy, incredible drive, and delusion (that was obviously proved to not be delusion) that Bitch Magnet could be something exciting was an invigorating read.
I (poorly) have attempted to play instruments in bands before. I have seen ambition pollute young minds with unbridled optimism. To read the energy in the account of Bitch Magnet’s early days makes you feel like you were there rehearsing with the band in Atlanta, shirtless in the sticky heat.
“A lot of things kind of came together and there is nothing like being a loud mouthed 20 year old who is obsessed with music and ending up in a band where you are willing to stack this band against almost anything that’s going on in music right now, Fine said.” That might be foolhardy but I am proud of those records and I think we were a really good band. It was the one aspiration I had, to be in a really good band playing this kind of music in these kinds of clubs. Then it happened pretty quickly.”
This fall, Fine is hitting the road for speaking engagements. While he says it doesn’t measure up to the rush of playing live music, and how could it, he enjoys going out and to share his experiences, talk about the book and chat with the moderator in each city.
“Book readings are just really awful and nobody wants to just see someone sitting down reading from their book for 40 minutes, Fine said. “So what I’ve done is find someone in each city who is either is a really knowledgeable writer or a musician from that time. I read for like three minutes and then just talk to this person and take questions.”
Whether you have read the book or not (and you really should, it’s good), you should make it a point to hear Fine speak. When I had a chance to talk to Fine on the phone for this piece, the majority of our chat was just that – chatting. Often getting off the rails and sharing candid thoughts, Fine is engaging and an interesting if you want to know about this era, or just underground music in general. I expect his speaking events to be more of the same.
Jon Fine’s Speaking Dates
Each include a conversation, Q&A and signing
Ann Arbor, MI
Sunday, September 27th
With Mike McGonigal, the music editor at Detroit’s Metro Times
Monday, September 28th, 2015
With Jonny Dovercourt of Wavelength Toronto
Tuesday, September 29th, 2015
Magers & Quinn
With Ana Marie Cox, MSNBC commentator and Daily Beast writer
Wednesday, September 30th, 2015
Happy Dog West
With John Petkovic, columnist for the Plain Dealer, singer for bands like Cobra Verde and Death of Samantha and sometime member of Guided by Voices
NOTE: Must be 21+ to attend
Chapel Hill, NC
Thursday, October 1, 2015
With Laura Ballance of Merge Records and Superchunk
Feature Image Photo Credit: Gary He