An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn by Alan Licht
I just blasted through this little 76 page book this past weekend. Some of you may know Alan Licht from his music released under his own name or as Text of Light with Sonic Youthster Lee Renaldo or many of his other collaborations and bands. Anyhow, the low down on this book is that it has nothing to do with the MTV VJ Martha Quinn. Rather, it attempts to investigate how musical taste is formed early on, how it morphs as we age, and especially how music we hated in our youth (in Licht’s case 80s pop) sometimes has an eerie appeal. Licht begins his musings inspired by chance encounters with pop tunes in the grocery stores, restaurants and bars, and only later he subjects himself to a multi-disc decade retrospective collection where he attempts to comment track by track. He makes a valiant effort to comment on these tracks, but somewhere along the way he seems to loose steam, which may be more due to the collection in question.
So the book chugs along like this for the first couple of chapters before Licht changes gear to address the story of indie rock, and in many way the story of New York City, being co-opted by the mainstream in the 90s. Licht takes a personal approach to looking at how this history unfolded. He talks about his own recollections and thoughts as well as incorporating the views of the musicians and artists around him. But this is all done in a super informal, conversational manner. He is not quoting anyone, or tracking people down for contemporary interviews.
The story of late 80, early 90s in independent music is certainly not a new story to me, but it is always interesting to me to read how different people remember and interpret the changes that happened. In many ways this story of underground, independent rock getting into the mainstream and the subsequent effects is one of most relevant, interesting and important stories to happen modern music. It is so important because it is not really a success story at all. Many bands did not survive the transition after becoming really “big”. While others got totally screwed over by crazy deals. And then there were those that self destructed. It was exciting to watch great bands get the recognition they deserved, while at the same time disheartening to witness their increasing distance from their underground values and ideals (or at least the fan-perceived, media perpetuated versions of this).
The thing that I found really interesting to think about while reading this is that Licht must be at just the right age to be at the very beginning of Generation X, while I myself am just at the very end. There are a lot of interesting statements about how he and his peers perceived authenticity and value in music before the 90s media buzz and before the ease of Internet discovery. What I don’t think that he realizes is that even the people in my age group, the people who were young impressionable twelve or thirteen year-olds when Nevermind came out, some of us had some understanding of the underground and the rhetoric around it. For those of us who were somehow tuned in to the underground, even if only to some small extent, we were totally suspicious of success, selling out, signing to a major label, and being on MTV. I too often find myself, like Licht, lamenting the fact that it is so much easier to find out about music today, that it seems like the kids are really different, and all that jazz. So this really got me thinking. It seems to me that there has been a long history of independent thought and expression in the arts that has been around a lot longer than indie bands and labels. Maybe not all of the kids really are all that different. Maybe some of them are able to tap into the independent, underground mentality and seek out its manifestation today. The authentic gesture still has a huge impact on teenagers and chances are, those who are savvy can identify it. This likely accounts for the amazing noise, drone, experimental tape scene today and its semi-popularity with the kids. Music from this scene will never be on MTV or the radio and its possible that is part of its appeal. I have been to many shows where I have been totally shocked to see such young faces in the crowd. It took me years of listening and exploring to appreciate this music, while for them, it reeks of independent spirit. It makes me truly happy to see that young people, perhaps feeling marginalized and out of step, are seeking out authentic independent voices within music and other arts. For me, finding non-commercial, independent, genuine art of all sorts got me through being a teenager and beyond, and I imagine that the importance of this kind of connection is not limited to my generation.