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Michael Azerrad 4
Nine Songs
Michael Azerrad

From punk rock and ragtime, to seminal jazz and beyond, the acclaimed American rock journalist, musician and author talks Brian Coney through the songs that have both soundtracked and changed his life

08 April 2020, 08:00 | Words by Brian Coney

Hearing the Sex Pistols, Steve Reich and Nirvana for the first time wasn’t just eye-opening for Michael Azerrad. They were mind-swelling, Technicolor encounters that would alter the course of his personal and professional life.

In the intro to his seminal guide to the American indie underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Azerrad proposed that the generation-distilling music of Black Flag, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr et al was a reclamation of what rock music was always about; a strong, personal connection. It wasn’t the be all and end all - culture and community operate on their own vital plains after all - but those rare, epiphanic moments, where an anti-consumerist refrain or a minimalist tom-tom beat hits home hard for you? That’s something else entirely.

From drumming in bands including the King of France, contributing to Spin, The New York Times and Rolling Stone, to penning the aforementioned indie bible and the definitive Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, the trajectory of Azerrad's life has long been indistinguishable from his yen for the connection in question. Having spent four decades capturing the life-giving, soul-filling isness of it all, he is well placed to speak with a genial authority that could only ever be shaped via first-hand experience. If one must go to know, the way that he describes the pivotal songs in his life suggests that Azerrad has gone further than most.

In the here and now, Azerrad is spending his downtime annotating Come As You Are. “I’m adding amplifications, corrections, cultural context, reminiscences, pointing out revealing patterns and inconsistencies, and so on,” he tells me. "It’s led me down some interesting paths. It’s pretty dense, I think I’ve doubled the word count of the book. I don’t know who will publish it or when, or exactly what form it will take, but I hope to get it out next year sometime.”

“I was inspired by Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye, a 2014 book about The Rolling Stones between Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street" Azerrad adds. “The author Robert Greenfield intersperses his original text, based on his Rolling Stone articles at the time, with contemporary notes. It doesn’t just add information, it gives insight into the band, his relationship to it as a journalist and a human being, and about music journalism in general.”

Befitting the author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, the selections here are wonderfully episodic. As well as offering parallels between funk and the syncopated themes of Scott Joplin, a through-line between a Ramones classic and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Azerrad signposts epiphanies and leaps of faith with vivid, dolly zoom-shot-from-Jaws insight.

That some of these songs are standards or “over-played” is neither here nor there. The Wipers, The Who; “Anorexorcist,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? It’s all the same. So long as the strong, personal connection is there, any distinction between the underground and the overground is an afterthought - a reconsideration - where music means the most. Besides, when the last word is written and the final chord is rung out, the fact remains. A killer jam is a killer jam.

"Elite Syncopations” by Joshua Rifkin

“This album, Scott Joplin Piano Rags by Joshua Rifkin was the first music that I was really fascinated with. I had to be probably five or six - just barely old enough to figure out how to put a vinyl disc onto a record player and play it - but I would play this over and over. It was really the whole album, but this particular tune really jumped out at me.

“It exemplifies what I was so fascinated with. It’s intricate, it’s incredibly syncopated and it’s actually really funky. I think Ragtime is a straight-on precursor to funk; maybe that set me up for enjoying funk music and all kinds of other syncopated music, but this was the first song that really jumped out at me and that made me fascinated with music as a whole. Later on I made music my career, so it seemed like an important song. I love that whole record, it’s a classic.

“For some reason, around our house we had this little, skinny bamboo cane. If you can imagine a little six-year-old boy, dancing to this music, trying to imitate all of those guys with the straw boater hats and the striped suits, doing their little soft shoe dance to this kind of music. I spent many an hour doing that! So that was really important music for me.”

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles

“My father was a guy who was curious about stuff, especially artistic things. He read about this masterpiece new album by The Beatles called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in one of the big American weekly magazines. It was either Time or Newsweek and he picked it up on a lark and brought it home.

"I was immediately fascinated with it. I commandeered that record and, again, I played it over and over, as kids will do. I heard that and I decided, 'I’m a rock person. I want to be involved in this world.' That was it.

“The thing about “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was it was just such an entrancing thing, it was those three tom-tom thumps that introduce the chorus. It’s such a lick, it’s utterly minimal and yet so powerful and I realised that I could do it too. Every time the song came around to that part I would thump a table-top or something like that, right in time to the beat. So I thought ‘I could be a drummer.’

“I asked for a drum set and it was just a snare with a 10” cymbal attached to it. I would turn off the snare at the bottom and put a towel over the top, so it would sound just like the thump in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”. And then I formed a band with my friends Bruce and Chris from down the road, it was utter noise but we really enjoyed it.

“The other funny thing about those three thumps is that, nine years later you hear four thumps in “Rockaway Beach” by the Ramones. Now, four thumps is just excessive, it’s over the top and Ringo did it in just three. That was really funny to hear those four thumps and think back to the three in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”. I definitely sensed a thread there.

"Baba O’Riley” by The Who

“That whole album Who’s Next was huge for me. My parents had divorced and my mother had moved my sister and me out to Northern California, which I did not relate to at all. The town we lived in was bleak and the kids were pretty dull. So when Roger Daltrey sings those immortal two words “teenage wasteland” in the middle of this anthemic, heraldic song, I was ‘I’m in. This guy knows how I’m feeling.’

“It was expressed in these heroic terms and yet it’s also sensitive - it’s not hectoring and it really hit the nail on the head. I felt, ‘Wow. I am not alone.’ In the middle of a ‘quote unquote’ teenage wasteland, I am not alone. Someone out there understands what I’m going through. That was huge for me.

“But it’s also the sound of that hurdy-gurdy synthesizer thing - it may also be harking back to Ragtime piano. It would make sense, seeing as Pete Townshend was in that art school scene in London and it was super hip to be into what they called trad-jazz. It’s quite possible that he went just a little further back.

“I first listened to this record in 1975 and that was just a few years after the album had come out in 1971. Nowadays, of course, it’s a completely overplayed classic rock staple, up there with “Stairway To Heaven”, “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up”, but back then it was still new and it sounded futuristic. Here was this rock band playing to this synthesizer track; that was really unusual and it made a huge impression on me.”

"So What” by Miles Davis

“Jazz was a foreign language to me. I was a rocker kid and jazz just did not compute. But I had this older friend, a family friend called Armand, and one day we were just talking and he mentioned Kind of Blue and offhandedly said ‘"It’s great make-out music.” To someone who was 15 years old and looking for any way to facilitate making out, my ears were wide open. It was like, ‘Alright, I have to check out this album.’

“So I actually went out and bought it. I made myself understand it because I trusted Armand. He said it was a great record so by golly, I’m just going to listen to it until it makes sense to me. And it finally did. I gradually understood that they play a theme at the beginning, then they play these solos over the changes that kind of relate to the theme, then they come back to it at the end. That’s not rock. Rock is verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, chorus again. It was a whole new way of hearing music. It’s the first song on the album so I think “So What” was the first song that I grasped in that way.

“It’s also that feeling of swing. It’s such a different feeling from the more binary, heartbeat-like aspect of rock music that Captain Beefheart so famously disdained. So, again, it was the improv, the structure, the swing of it, the minimalism, the lack of vocals, the way you listen to a song - all of these things were, in an almost literal way, mind-altering. It forced my mind to think about something familiar - music, generally - in a new way. That’s a great leap and it’s tough, but when you make it, it’s very satisfying.

“There’s a cymbal crash about a minute-and-a-half in. I guess he (Jimmy Cobb) introduces the first solo with a crash. It’s so subtle, but it’s huge at the same time. There’s a sense of minimalism to that - less is more - that blew the mind of someone who absolutely revered Keith Moon.”

"Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols

“I moved back to New York State, where I grew up, and I made friends with a guy called Andy Krivine, whose cousin ran a clothing shop called Boy. It was one of the first punk clothing shops, along with Malcolm McLaren’s place. Andy went over to London one summer to hang out with his cousin and he made friends with a cashier there called Don Letts. Don would make him these mixtapes of all this cool music - punk rock, reggae and all this kind of stuff.

“Andy came back at the end of that summer with armloads of punk rock singles and posters, as well as mixtapes that Don had made. He said, "Come over, you have to hear this stuff" and It was this punk rock that I’d heard about, but had never heard, because where would you hear it? It existed only in my imagination. Sometimes you’d see pictures and you would try to imagine what it sounded like, but I didn’t know what it actually sounded like.

“I’ll never forget it. Andy put “Anarchy in the UK” on the record player and played it. It was like an explosion. I was like ‘This rocks so hard. It’s not like The Who. It’s not like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. This is music by, for and about me. About us.’

“It was the first time in my life that I heard music by someone my age, I think. It was just explosive. It rocked super hard. It was also pretty crudely played, although as it turned out, rather masterfully recorded. It was freakin’ intense and it changed my world. I was like ‘I’m down with this. I’m done with Steely Dan and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.’

“Anarchy in the UK” changed the course of my life and prompted me to think outside the box. If there’s another way to do music and think about music, there’s certainly another way to do lots of things, including living your life. I thought about everything after that with a healthy scepticism and I was always asking, ‘Is there another way to do this?’

"I wasn’t an outsider, but I was a non-conformist and suddenly I felt really good about that. I found other non-conformists and it turned out they were into punk rock too. We formed a punk band called The Monads and that little crew of people got me through the ordeal of being a teenager.

“That one song kicked it all off. That idea of ‘Well, you don’t have to follow the beaten track. You can think outside the box. Think for yourself. Do it yourself.’ All of those things freed me up later on to realise ‘I don’t have to be a lawyer or a doctor or work in an office. I could maybe write about this music’ and that galvanised me. A part of it was that it re-stoked my excitement about music, but it also helped me think outside the box about how to live my life.”

“Music for 18 Musicians” by Steve Reich

“I listened a lot to a progressive FM station in the New York area called WNEW. This was before formatted radio and the DJs just played what they wanted to play. Mostly it was rock, but once in a while they would branch out and do something strange.

“One day I was home alone, sitting in the living room and looking out the picture windows. It was raining at this perfect 45-degree angle, streaming down in parallel lines. Anyway, the disc jockey on WNEW said, "Now I’m going to play something a little different. Just kick back, look out the window and watch the rain. Just get into it." And he stared playing “Music for 18 Musicians”.

“I had this epiphany. The music was like a beaded curtain that was billowing in the breeze - you could either step really close to the curtain and look at the beads, or step back and see the curtains as a whole and how they waved. That was the way that music was but it also reminded me of New York City and how it’s a beautiful, teeming thing. It’s on a grid and there’s variations, but it’s all on a grid. The music synced up with these beautiful 45 degree parallel lines of rain coming down outside the picture windows and I just had a moment.

“The DJ faded it out after about seven or eight minutes and said "That was “Music by 18 Musicians by Steve Reich” and at that moment, two things occurred to me - ‘I have to get this record and I have to live in New York City’, because the sound of it just sounded like New York, where my father worked and where I would visit. I was always enchanted by New York City, but now I knew that I had to be there. I made sure that I went to a college in New York City and I’ve never left.

“I think I've seen “Music for 18 Musicians” live in New York City any time it's been performed here, at Carnegie Hall, The Museum of Modern Art and other places. I believe I reviewed one of those shows, it was a performance not by Steve Reich and his ensemble but by So Percussion at Le Poisson Rouge, the nightclub in Greenwich Village. And that was really cool because it was the first time that I had seen it not by Steve Reich’s group.

"I was a little cynical, ‘Hmph, it’s not the original line-up”, but it was great. They played in the round, so they were in the middle of the floor of the club, with people sitting at tables, drinking beer and watching “Music for 18 Musicians”. I thought, “Clearly, I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

"Merchandise" by Fugazi

“I selected this song partly because it’s a killer jam, but the thing that also really jumps out at me is the line, “You are not what you own.” That was really important to me.

“I had been kind of set up for that idea by Gang of Four, especially that first album, Entertainment! I probably could have chosen a song from there, too. Gang of Four and Fugazi really helped to set up my political orientation. This idea of “You are not what you own” is pretty definitive, what a pithy and powerful statement of anti-consumerism - everyone should know that.

“It’s not like I was a particularly materialistic person before, but that really crystallised in six words something that I felt. I think that’s one of the great things about music, it can crystallise something that you haven’t been able to articulate. That’s why people make romantic mixtapes for their lovers, because the songs say things that they can’t say. This was along the same lines, but it wasn't romantic, it was political.”

"Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

“I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when I was working at MTV News. One of the producers there had an advance tape and was blasting it in her office, over and over. I thought ‘Wow, this sounds really great, who is this?’ At one point I opened her door and said, "What is this?" and she said, "It’s Nirvana." I was like, "That band on Sub Pop?!" I was blown away by the breakthrough they’d made. The previous album was good, but this was next-level, as they say.

“The song sounded like a hit, but it was also so powerful. The amazing thing about it was that you didn’t really know what he was singing about and yet you absolutely knew what he was singing about. Every step of the way through that song, it’s all killer, no filler. It’s a devastatingly kick-ass rock song.

“Again, it was a similar feeling to when I first heard “Anarchy in the UK” - here is music for, by and about people like me. I felt that on a visceral level. It was ‘This has been missing for so long. All of a sudden, there’s someone speaking to me passionately and with great hooks.’ I had this overwhelming feeling of being spoken to and heard, but this time it was a little different because I could sense that this guy was maybe just ever so slightly younger than I was. So, yes, I related to it, but I almost had the merest whisper of “getting a little older” when I heard that song, it’s a complicated feeling.

“You could probably encapsulate Kurt’s feeling about the song by the fact that he never referred to it by name. It was always “the hit”. I’d sometimes be with them as they put a setlist together before a show and he would often say, “Where should we put the hit?” I saw them play many times and he never played it correctly. He just wanted to destroy it, he felt like a performing monkey playing that song, because everyone expected them to play it. You know, he loved all of his own songs, but he didn’t like feeling like a performing monkey.”

“New New Attitude" by Dirty Projectors

“I keep using this criterion but this song just rocks, it rocks really hard, and there's so much joy in it. It’s a song that really encapsulates what Dirty Projectors could be like live around that time. I chose this song because a friend of mine had gone to college with David Longstreth, who leads Dirty Projectors, and back in 2007 she said, “You’ve got to check out Dave’s band. You really do.” I went to see them play in a little club, the now sadly defunct Glasslands in Williamsburg, and I did not get it. I don’t mean I didn’t like it; I just simply couldn’t parse it.

“I went back to my friend and said, “I saw them, and I couldn’t make head or tail of it.” and she said, “Go see them again.” So, I saw them again and it just fell into place. All of a sudden, I got it. Remember in the ‘90s? When they used to have those books of weird, computer-generated patterns and if you stared at them long enough you would see a 3D image pop out of it? It was like that. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, I see.’

“New New Attitude” was the song that was my gateway, that was the first song that I actually understood. That was another example of the brain expansion that I experienced with “Music For 18 Musicians” or “So What” or even Scott Joplin Piano Rags. It was that shift - that quantum jump up into some other level of consciousness, practically.

“That song also has a special significance for me because after that I got so into the band, I would see them any time they played New York City. After a while I eventually introduced myself to Dave after a show and he said, “Oh, I know who you are. First of all, I see you at all our shows, but also I gave a copy of Our Band Could Be Your Life to everyone who joins the band.”

“I got to be friends with everyone in that band and they’ve become dear friends. This song and this band truly changed my life. I now have friends of friends of friends from meeting Dirty Projectors - it jumps out that far, it’s pretty wild. And they’ve introduced me to all kinds of artists, like this beautiful singer named Dead Western, he’s this lugubrious, bass-voiced singer-songwriter and he’s no longer recording, but wow. There’s also Phosphorescent and Tune-Yards.

“Dirty Projectors were the gateway not just to a new social life, but also a renewed musical life too, I’d given up music at that point. It was right at the tail-end of the whole post-post-punk thing in New York, which I found really tiresome because I was into Joy Division, Gang of Four and Echo and the Bunnymen back in the day, and here they were, just aping all this stuff. I had checked out, then Dirty Projectors came along with something new that really gave me that mind-altering feeling again.

“It gave me a whole new lease on life and so the song's impact on me is right there in the title. I’m glad that I checked them out that second time. The moral here is, always listen to your friends.”

The audiobook of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 featuring Dave Longstreth, Sharon Van Etten, Jeff Tweedy and more is out now via Hachette
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