Condition: Jawbreaker

41o2-subljl-_sx364_bo1204203200_I recently read Ronen Givony’s book on Jawbreaker’s 1994 album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Bloomsbury 33 1/3 series), which I highly recommend to anybody interested in the pre-internet circulation of underground music. While it’s so easy to wax poetic and nostalgic about 20th century pop culture, Givony illuminates the dark side of that era. The backlash that Jawbreaker faced for signing to a major label was downright savage. As many of their friends and colleagues have implied, it would likely not have mattered if it had happened five years earlier or later; the conditions in 1995 were just right for righteous indignation among their fans.  The Dismemberment Plan, who I’ve focused a lot of my music writing on, followed a similar early-to-the-party/first-to-leave timeline (though it took Jawbreaker 21 years to reunite, whereas the Plan reunited in earnest within 8).

Givony’s Jawbreaker story made my jaw drop exactly twice.

1979970_700682193307329_4809697842692758554_oFirst, I was genuinely amazed to discover that their bassist Chris Bauermeister went to high school in my hometown. He grew up in a German-speaking household in Connecticut and attended a prep school in Madison that closed down in 1991. I only have vague memories of the school; my mom recently told me she voted in the town’s referendum on whether to purchase the property (with the school building on it). I didn’t have any real overlap with Chris, who graduated and moved away to New York in 1985, the year before my family moved to town. Still, it’s a remarkable coincidence considering how (1) I always considered Jawbreaker to be a quintessential San Francisco band, and (2) I tended to assume nothing cool ever came out of my hometown. It’s taken half a lifetime away, a PhD dissertation, and some sprinkled-in hindsight to realize how wrong I was about that. Also, the youngest person to graduate from Hammonasset is in their mid-forties now.

Second, in the middle of a “get off my lawn” screed about the contemporary state of the music industry, Givony drops an incisive observation that I think bears block-quoting here (emphasis mine):

In the music and media industries today, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a band in possession of a good single must be in want of a fortune. In a time when almost no one still buys albums, and tens of thousands of streams will earn a band pennies, the reasoning goes, artists deserve to get paid any way they can manage, and rightly so. Who are we to blame them if the only people still paying musicians their true worth are corporate advertising and branding companies? It’s a difficult claim with which to argue, which is why almost no one ever still does.

As much as I balked at the assertion that “almost no one still buys albums” (pressing plants wouldn’t be backed up to hell if that were true), this bold statement hit me like a ton of bricks. The idea that musicians can only make a healthy living through licensing (title idea: Better Living through Licensing) has been analyzed comprehensively at this point. Todd in the Shadows broke it down beautifully in this video late last year. However, the specific angle that corporations were the only ones either capable of (or willing to) pay musicians their true worth has been banging around in my head for days. I am steadfast that Google and Spotify have both been instrumental in institutionally and purposefully devaluing music to create a paradox in which artists would be beholden to them. I’m aware that music piracy on the internet long pre-dates either of those companies, and label heads were freaking out over cassette tapes much more in 1987 than they were over MP3.com in 1997 (Thanks, Telecom Act!). Regardless, whether people want to pay for music is not the issue. That so many people feel entitled to not pay for music, or even own it, is noteworthy. Then again, this is nothing new, and people have still not slowed at creating art. Artists, as Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964, always have the advantage since they are sitting at the point of creation:

In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs.

We can’t travel back to the point in time when 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was created, but fortunately the internet has enabled the next best thing: virtual flânerie! Here is some Super-8 footage that Adam Pfahler found of the trio driving around their adopted neighborhood in 1992. Just like Jawbreaker encapsulated the pre-internet era of underground America in their music, this video does well to provide a peek into pre-Google, pre-Facebook San Francisco, when the Mission was cheap and bursting with potential. Also, it gives “Boxcar” the long-overdue music video it deserves.

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Recommended Reading: ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Alex Niven

17933884I just finished the 33 1/3 volume on Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven, and I’m adequately floored. With all due respect to many talented authors in the series, including my buddy Mike Fournier (who wrote the volume on the actual best album ever made), this may have been the best installment I’ve read so far. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t expecting to agree so frequently with someone who took the time to write a book about Oasis, save for some occasional (admittedly understandable) remarks about Blur and an uncool dig at “Digsy’s Dinner.” Like many of the books in the series, it’s a breeze of a read, so I’m not going to withhold ‘spoilers.’ It really helped this Yank bloke understand just why Oasis shot to super-stardom in the time and place that they did, making their working-class sensibilities intelligible through analyses of their compositions coupled with appropriately scathing takes on the aftereffects of Thatcherism. I’ll share one of my favorite passages here, in which Niven contextualizes the socialist building blocks of Oasis’ music:

Oasis took the detritus that surrounded them in the dole culture of eighties’ and nineties’ Manchester and cemented it together to create one of the most accomplished works of archaeological summary in pop history, a work that ranged widely over rock influences in a way that seemed effortless.

… The socio-economic conditions of the period gave rise to a climate of scarcity, resourcefulness and heritage-mining in post-industrial Western urban areas. Without money and access to higher education and metropolitan taste-making culture, it is extremely difficult to make the leaps of innovation that are deemed to be progressive by the music industry establishment

… When society becomes hostile, when access to novel mainstream developments is difficult, it becomes practicable to draw on any resources that are to hand – classic records, borrowed riffs, recycled materials of all kinds. In periods of economic downturn, a kind of folk culture develops that values ingenuity with heritage over conspicuous innovation. This culture of grassroots classicism was very much Oasis’ home terrain in the early nineties.

Niven also shines a light on the overlooked (sloppy) genius of Tony McCarroll, the band’s original drummer who they sacked after recording “Some Might Say” (which just so happens to be the best song on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?). I vaguely remember Kurt Loder mentioning his name on one of those post-“Wonderwall” MTV News features on Oasis back in 1996 where they gave the Gallagher brothers subtitles for the US audience. The book ends on a somewhat sad yet incredibly educational note about success and class politics. I look forward to incorporating Niven’s lessons into my Britpop unit (yes, you read that correctly) this semester for GEOG 371: Exploring Europe.

Here’s a video of vintage Oasis (with McCarroll) on MTV in 1994 performing what’s probably my favorite song of theirs, the first four minutes of “Rock n’ Roll Star.” The way that Liam Gallagher sneers “I live my life in the city, and there’s no easy way out” as the opening line of Oasis’ debut-opening track makes me think about Paul Westerberg yelling “Raised in the city, runnin’ around” as the opening line of the Replacements’ first demo tape. There’s probably some connection there that I’ll wake up and draw out at 4 AM one of these nights. Anyway, enjoy.