By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Spin magazine's just-released Underground USA (Vintage, $14) is subtitled "An insider's guide to live music, cheap eats, dive bars, thrift stores, and deviant fun in America's top music cities." According to the introduction written by Craig Marks, Spin's executive editor, the 20 cities listed all "share at least one thing in common: They're contributors to the current vitality of American rock 'n' roll and offer their young visitors an underground nexus of pleasures that revolve around the notion that you don't have to spend lavishly in order to have a lavish good time."
Of course, any book that involves revolving underground pleasure nexuses is bound to be full of surprises, but the most surprising thing about Underground USA is what isn't in it: While burgs like Portland, Oregon; Columbus, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky, are listed, Dallas-Fort Worth is not.
Puzzled? Join the club. Although Street Beat loathes self-reference in music journalism, it has to be noted that I've lived in many of the cities listed in UUSA and have more than a passing familiarity with most of the others. A fertile music scene isn't necessarily proportional to size, of course, and the inclusion of indie hot spots like North Carolina's Chapel Hill/Raleigh/Durham area is understandable. But to list Louisville and omit Dallas is inexcusable. I've lived in Louisville--it's a lovely, verdant town, but it doesn't have one-tenth the music that Dallas does.
And Columbus? How much credit do you want for the New Bomb Turks, anyway? More credit than that accrued by the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Horton Heat, Al Dupree, Ronnie Dawson, Donny Ray Ford and Barry Kooda, the Tomorrowpeople, the Old 97's, Slow Roosevelt, Brave Combo, Robert Ealey, the Lucky Pierres, Little Jack Melody, Caulk, rubberbullet, Gene Summers, and Corn Mo? Even if you interpret "underground" in such a way as to eliminate MIAs like Tablet and Funland and/or popsters like Deep Blue Something and Jackopierce, Dallas still deserves inclusion, is still (to use UUSA's language) a "top music city." Besides, if you were to be rigorous in your definition of "underground," wouldn't you avoid "top music cities" entirely?
Of course, if this "guide" were really intended as such, wouldn't it make sense to include major destinations? Common sense indicates that there are probably more overnight visitors cooling their heels in the Dallas area, wondering what there is to do on a Wednesday night, than in Memphis or Columbus.
Granted, putting together such a list is an exercise in irritating local boosters; somewhere in West Virginia the music editor of the Tidley Corners Picayune-Intelligencer is no doubt muttering to himself as he writes a screed similar to this one. A call was put in to UUSA's publicist almost a month ago in order to give Duncan Bock, the book's editor, the opportunity to cast some light on Spin's city-picking rationale, but neither that call nor its numerous follow-ups elicited a response.
That leaves us with but one option: to assume that this is yet another of Spin's gratingly hipper-than-thou exercises, building on the foundation of lazy ineptitude laid by the magazine's execrable Alternative Record Guide in 1995. Designed not to convey any real information but to make clear how much more the folks at Spin know than the rest of us morons, publications like UUSA are the reason many music fans define "tragedy" as a busload of rock critics plunging off a cliff with two empty seats.
Rock journalism is an unusual field: No other form of writing tolerates so much contempt for both audience and subject, and Spin is the most contemptuous of a cranky, self-indulgent lot. Take this excerpt from Mark Schone's "The Song Remains the Same," a look at the odd persistence of classic-rock radio that appeared this July and is 100 percent pure Spin. Schone is sitting in one such radio station's control room on the night shift, listening to idiot-citizens and their pathetic requests. One guy calls in and asks to hear some "older Skynyrd."
Finally, after 16 hours of reruns, and five of giggling stoners, I've had enough. I break in before Ryan [the caller] can answer.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"What would newer Skynyrd be?"
"I really don't know."
"There's no such thing. You heard about the plane crash? The plane crash that killed the whole band?" Before I can add that people who want something "newer" don't call classic rock stations at 2 a.m., Ryan hangs up. I have bummed his trip."
The smug, self-satisfied arrogance with which Schone concludes the paragraph would be reason enough for breaking a chair over his head, as is the writer's completely gratuitous insertion of himself into a story, but we may ignore these for now. What makes Schone such a quintessential Spin writer is the fact that he is completely wrong: the 1977 plane crash took the lives of only three of the 10-member band, which re-formed in 1987 with most of the surviving personnel. Since then, they have released 11 albums--some of them containing all new material--and have had a movie made about them. They tour large outdoor complexes like Starplex almost every summer and are nearly as popular now as in their heyday; more significantly, their critical acceptance has grown.