How To Become A Legend In Music, Vol. 1Posted: November 29, 2011
The original kings of indie.
By Bruce K. Hamilton
“Indie rock” has become popular. This is an extremely vague generalization, considering this is, in theory, the equivalent of saying independent music that features guitars and drums is more well-known than before. But you probably know exactly what I mean. Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Wilco, and other Rolling Stone-acclaimed bands have seen the limelight quite frequently in recent years, who were no doubt influenced by the underground music scene of the 80s and 90s. Indie music has, in turn, produced its own legends, not unlike Page, Hendrix, and Clapton and classic rock. And I think I’ve figured out just how it’s done. Allow me to cite a few examples:
Jeff Mangum. I may have come across as being too critical of indie music at first, but let me say this: I love Jeff Mangum as much as a straight man can love another straight man without actually knowing him personally. Besides composing the large majority of two of the greatest albums of the 1990s, (nay, all time) Mangum more or less disappeared for an entire decade after constant touring for the release of 1997’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. He supposedly had a nervous breakdown after living in a haunted closet and reading The Diary of Anne Frank (or something like that) and chose not to release any music or perform in public for about ten years. I’d like to take that story at face value, but I almost feel as if Jeff Mangum consciously quit while he was ahead. Perhaps he knew he would leave a legacy in place as soon as he put down the guitar for good. Either way, it proves that if the last thing you do is incredible, people will you remember you in that way (which explains 90 percent of the decisions people make ten minutes before they die). When Jeff “came back” in early 2011 and announced a handful of tour dates, indie enthusiasts went crazy, as did I. All of his shows sold out in only a few days. Remember, this guy hadn’t released any new material since Bill Clinton was President, and yet people were flocking to his concerts. Jeff Mangum inadvertently became an indie rock (or indie folk, or psy-folk, or whatever you kids call it these days) legend, with the help of some down time and two kickass records.
Kurt Cobain. This is the slightly more obvious example of obtaining legendary indie status (it’s debatable if Nirvana was an indie band, but that’s an argument for a different day). If you do not currently live under a rock, you know that Kurt killed himself in the mid-90s after suffering from a crippling heroin addiction. You probably know that he singlehandedly destroyed the popularity of 80s heavy metal and influenced a slew of modern bands (ranging from phenomenal to intolerable). Finally, you may or may not know that Kurt achieved legendary status in a similar way that Jeff used; he left the music scene at his peak. Both men left it in different ways, obviously (one quit the scene; the other quit life) but at the core, it’s one and the same. However, Kurt had something else going for him on this journey to legendary status: he reached out to the outcasts. It’s important to point out that this is not at all unique in itself. Everyone from Morrissey to Lady Gaga does this. What is unique is the persona Kurt created using both his departure from music and his connection to the weird kids. His artistic genius is another debatable subject, but there is no denying his genius in a social or pop-cultural sense.
Steve Albini. If you want to follow this guy’s lead, just produce a bunch of A+ albums, make appearances when you feel like it, and instigate the public by insulting the Smashing Pumpkins.
David Bowie. This is the dude that many people like to turn to when they want to cite somebody who made pseudo-cool music for particularly uncool people. He influenced Lady Gaga yadda yadda yadda empathized with the weird kids bla bla bla social influence yadda yadda yadda…you’ve heard it all before on every other analysis of a ‘retro’ musician (including Kurt Cobain, if I turned the paragraph above into an essay all by itself). When arguing that Bowie is an indie legend, I find the best argument is the one that refers to his discography, specifically, every album he released before Ronald Reagan was President. The second half of his work is, for the most part, forgettable. The first half kindly forgives all of the later albums for their sins, however, because Bowie manages to progress musically on every early album and he sounds damn good on ‘em, too. From what I can understand, David Bowie is the best example of an indie legend getting the credit he deserves for the albums he’s put out instead of the interviews he’s done or the things he’s worn. It’s scientifically proven that even his worst album (you be the judge) is still better than any Rolling Stones album. Sue me. You know it’s true. Yeah, he may have been a fashion icon, too, but that would probably be ignored if his music was crap from the start. Actually, it probably did have something to do with his fashion sense.