The SPIN Alternative Record Guide
SPIN ALTERNATIVE RECORD GUIDE, edited by Eric Weisbard with Craig Marks. Vintage, 468 pages, $20.The SPIN Alternative Record Guide is the final brick in the wall. Since the ascent of R.E.M. and the commercial revolution fomented by Nirvana, so-called "alternative" rock has been gaining more and more commercial and cultural cachet. Nirvana's Nevermind (followed shortly by Pearl Jam's Ten) sent the record companies reeling the way Easy Rider overturned the movie business nearly 30 years ago. Now, the Melvins are on a major label, the Raincoats have been revived, and the latest biggies from Springsteen, Billy Joel, Elton John, and even Michael Jackson have been disappointing fizzles. Radio stations across the country have been switching over from the Zep and Who and Aerosmith of "album rock" to the grunge guitar buzz of "modern rock." The alternative is mainstream. Or, as the saying goes, there is no mainstream anymore, just a lot of alternatives. The SPIN guide codifies this sea change. As editor Eric Weisbard says in his introduction: "Old-style rock was defined by a mass appeal you didn't have to sneer at." But the alternative, or indie-rock, aesthetic is founded on the desire to sneer. Old-style hippie rock-and-roll taste operated on the assumption that we all love the same beautiful things. Alterna-kids ask, as Lou Reed is said to have asked old-rock impresario Bill Graham, what beautiful things? And SPIN is the appropriate conduit for pushing the literature of alterna-rock. Before we had the SPIN guide, we had the invaluable Trouser Press Record Guide, which is now being prepared for a fifth edition. But the Trouser Press guide was an indie-rock book published under the auspices of a small indie-rock magazine. SPIN is the first national music publication to step forward and declare its music as not mass music. In ancient times (1968), Rolling Stone spoke for that one big, beautiful rock-and-roll nation. SPIN has since its inception pitted itself against the rock-and-roll journal of record, immediately declaring itself more "hip" than Stone. In the early days, "hip" seemed to mean nothing more than poor editing. But the alterna-revolution transformed SPIN's marketing fate. These days, the magazine bristles with subversive snottiness, and it gets to be mean to records the way Rolling Stone has never dared. (Did you see Charles Aaron's recent dis in his "Singles" column of our beloved Jen Trynin? Ouch!) Of course, there have been capitulations. Both Stone and SPIN popped a cover story for the very un-hip Alanis Morissette, but how could they not? She's new, she's hot, and even though she claims in the Rolling Stone interview not to be a cleavage kind of gal, SPIN got the steamy photo shoot while Stone got the same old new Alanis. Out-hipped again! And Rolling Stone's own Album Guide would claim to be nothing less than completely comprehensive. So what is alternative? Weisbard tries to answer but mostly comes up with brilliant rationalizations and concessions to the arbitrariness of it all. All he can hope to do is justify what's in the book and what's been left out. "Bands that once seemed alternative, Squeeze and Metallica for instance, aren't here because somewhere along the line they merged back into rock." He also talks about including stuff aside from rap and rock that's listened to by people "with alternative sensibilities." Which is another way of saying, people who are hip. People like you and me. One key distinction is generational Ñ between the tastes of baby boomers (whose cultural/musical lives were defined by social issues like Vietnam and the civil-rights movement) and baby busters ("no indisputable defining experiencesÓ), allowing for some crossover. So Neil Young is "alternative" but Joni Mitchell is not. "The world selections," Weisbard points out, "lean away from the staples of baby boomers looking for new roots music variants to emphasize dub reggae and reggae dancehall" because they're major influences on punk and hip-hop. Other than that, the SPIN gang is simply out to mine a tradition that began with the Velvet Underground, "dissenters from the rock norm," admitting that with its growing popularity, alternative as a genre may be arriving at the last moment where it may be defined as "a musical genre apart.Ó With all that hoo-hah attached to the concept itself, the SPIN guide is setting itself up for some nasty swipes from the rest of us in the rock-and-roll trenches Ñ crits and fans alike. The selection itself will raise hackles. Guns N' Roses aren't alternative, but Frankie Goes to Hollywood are? The answer: "Hundreds of decent bands, from Game Theory to the Ex, didn't make it because that would have turned a good, diverse read into an encyclopedia.Ó After all, exclusivity is part of the deal in "alternative." As Weisbard says, unlike old rock, alterna-rock presumes fragmentation. "It's built on an often neurotic discomfort over massified and commodified culture, takes as its archetype bohemia far more than youth, and never expects that its popular appeal, such as it is, will have much of a social impact." Thus, the commercialization of the genre means the end of alternative as we know it. But the SPIN guide is finally a good and diverse read. Rather than dispassionate and encyclopedic, it's personal and idiosyncratic. At times, given the various Top 10 lists by contributors and others that are scattered through the book, it is, as indie watcher Matt Ashare says, "a guide to records that are cool to own rather than listen to." The writer of the N.W.A entry writes that their name, "as surely everybody knows," stands for Niggaz With Attitude. He's practically embarrassed to have to reduce himself to the encyclopedic. But that phrase stands as the exclusive key to the alterna-world: "as surely everybody knows." In that sense, it could be called "The Indie Rock Insider's Record Guide.Ó You could also call it "The Guide to Alternative Rock-and-Roll Writing," a genre somewhat easier to define. It's writing that leads with attitude, often subordinating historical context and musical description to secondary importance. In that sense, if all alternative rock is descended from the Velvets, all alternative rock writing is descended from the late Lester Bangs. (Robert Christgau is probably his most notable living acolyte.) Which isn't to knock Bangs and Christgau (who really are brilliant writers), but merely to point out the dangers of the style when practiced by lesser hands, especially beginning rock writers, of which there are an estimated five billion. When these puppies get going, alternative rock really isn't about music at all; it's about writing. At the other extreme is Jon Pareles of the New York Times. In the midst of all the hype Ñ MTV, Rolling Stone interviews, SPIN profiles Ñ I sometimes think the rest of us should just cede the field to Pareles, fold up our tents and go home. Criticism Ñ heck, sportswriting Ñ assumes a certain knowledge on the part of the reader. Read a sports story or a concert review and you're dipping into an ongoing conversation. If you don't know what "proto-punk" means, pretty soon you will. Pareles can bring in the uninformed reader (the Times-reading opera-goer), make incisive critical points with those in the know, and provide some of the clearest, most jargon-free non-technical descriptions of pop music around. But when the Children of Bangs get going, if you're a curious outsider who's always wondered who those Sonic Youth guys are, then the writing isn't going to help you any. That's because, to the un-ideal alterna-critic, what Sonic Youth mean is more important than what they sound like. Fortunately there aren't that many egregious offenders in the SPIN Guide. And the book makes it clear that rock needs as many different chroniclers as there are strong writing voices. True, the Smashing Pumpkins entry is emotionally effusive and objectively useless. (Oh, the guitars! The drums! The wonder of it all!) And others disregard history completely for the sake of their own idiosyncratic take. The otherwise wonderful Rob Sheffield talks about the Police as an aberration of '70s mainstream rock Ñ as surely everybody knows. It's okay to debunk the Police. As surely everybody knows, they're not hip. And Sheffield is very funny and acute. But what's curious about the career of the Police isn't that this pretentious little new-wave band ever got attention (which is the tone of Sheffield's piece), but how they've descended from absolute rock-and-roll supremacy. At their height, these guys defined cutting edge while maintaining a huge commercial wallop. I mean, they were Pearl Jam at least! Otherwise, the world-music entries and jazz entries are the most user-friendly. These, after all, are written like normal music reviews, meant to lead literate, generally informed pop-music listeners into the land of the strange or vaguely familiar. Open up kids, Henry Threadgill and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan might be good for you! Elsewhere in the Guide, Andy Newman is completely unembarrassed to explain who the Shaggs are. And the mysteries of New Zealand indie rock are revealed at last. The SPIN Guide doesn't have the encyclopedic usefulness of the Trouser Press (once summed up by anti-alterna dance-music critic Michael Freedberg in five words: "You had to be thereÓ). But page by page you won't find a more compelling anthology of rock writing. When Sheffield (who, along with Weisbard, contributes the most pieces) acknowledges Evan Dando's abilities after pointing out that he "looks and sounds like Shaun Cassidy after a few dozen bong hits," all is forgiven. Likewise when Jonathan Gold traces all Motorhead's songs back to the song "MotorheadÓ: "distorted bass amped up to the point of insanity, [Lemmy] Kilmister's throat-cancer roar, drug-marathon imagery, incomprehensible soccer choruses, and thrashy, trebly speed-freak guitar crusted over the top like a ripe scab.Ó The same goes for Ann Powers's deep-think (but still useful) essays on alterna-fems like PJ Harvey and Sinead O'Connor, or Renee Crist's loving but descriptively precise rendering of Marshall Crenshaw. In the end, the SPIN Guide isn't an encyclopedia, and it won't replace Trouser Press. But it's good reading. In that light, it succeeds on its own terms. I guess you could call it an alternative triumph.