RockCritics.com
 


I Sold Acid to Soul Asylum
The Nerve Years

By Rick McGinnis

What happened was that the first people I met when I dropped out of college were Dave and Nancy, so I became a rock critic and that, I suppose, was when my troubles began.

It didn't have to happen this way; I could have stayed in school and racked up another few thousand dollars of debt, gotten a degree, learned a lot of fashionable buzzwords, kissed ass, and became a sanctimonious joke like Mark Kingwell or some other odious but marketable jerk-off. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to own just a few dozen records, to be able to listen to the radio or go into a record store without feeling all that over-elaborate aesthetic machinery start to churn and clank. It might be nice, but I'll never know--it's far too late, and the damage was done long ago.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I suppose the mid-80s were the last days of the unexploited market. Today, I know it had something to do with a stagnation that had overcome the entertainment business just before new communications technology and corporate diversification changed the way that everything was sold. That's right--"globalization", the home computer, the Internet, and every other over-hyped and ill-comprehended trope, gadget, and phenomenon that we take for granted nowadays.

Back then, it was easier to understand: The world--which included record companies--was run by idiots who saw no profit in catering to the needs or tastes of myself and my friends. The music, movies, and books that we loved were fringe interests, scarce and expensive, available as imports only, and barely taken seriously by anyone, or anyone with money, at least, which was all that seemed to matter in the midst of a boom economy.

At the time, we didn't see that we were a risible demographic, the fringe of a generational trough sitting between two huge population booms. No one saw a way to make a profit selling anything to us, and so we languished a bit defensively in a cul-de-sac culture largely of our own making. Which is where Nerve comes in, trailing in the shadow of the late but legendary New York Rocker, and accompanied by Seattle's The Rocket, Calgary's Vox, and probably dozens of other nasty little newsprint entities in Boston and San Francisco and Montreal, a fraction of which were actually run by people with an ounce or two of business sense, of which even fewer are still around today. But they weren't Nerve, and what Nerve lacked in business sense it made up for in, well, bad typesetting, probably, or really creative ways of wasting white space in layouts.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I was hardly a musical sophisticate when I started writing for Nerve, but I was the guy at Catholic private school who was a year or two ahead of everyone else with punk rock, mod and rockabilly. The guys at my college radio station made me feel like a rube, though, so I was feeling pretty defensive when I approached Nancy and Dave to do a couple of record reviews. I wasn't doing much else, though, besides a bunch of weekend beer drinking, long, aimless late-night walks around the city, and the occasional acid binge, but I'd been reading Nerve religiously for months, and I thought that becoming a Nerve writer would be something to show for my first year in the "real world" [1].

I still have almost every copy of Nerve I ever picked up, including months of issues before I wrote my first review. One of them is missing a neatly-clipped rectangle of newsprint--a Record Peddler ad that got you a buck off of the just-released Fringe Records pressing of New Day Rising. That one licensing deal from SST by Fringe--the Peddler's own label--kept Fringe unnaturally viable for years. It made possible the release of records by (utterly forgettable, hopelessly anglophile) local acts like Breeding Ground and--you've gotta laugh, even today--the Dayglo Abortions. But I'm getting ahead of myself; I was still completely na´ve about how records were made and marketed, or just what a rock critic did. I was just another unhappy kid lately graduated into adulthood, yet another social retard who used music to get him through a miserable adolesence and I had, for not the first (but, I would later discover, last) time in my life, found the music that helped me make sense of it all. That, I suppose, is where the story begins, with the last moment of my life where I was truly, obsessively, a fan.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The first thing I ever wrote for Dave and Nancy was a live review, four paragraphs on a local rockabilly band playing at a short-lived hardcore club that I can't recall a detail of today. (There would be more nights in clubs, and more bands that I don't recall, the memory having diminished along with 40% of the hearing in my left ear.) In the next issue, I was given two utterly valueless records (a Stewart Copeland solo album and Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti by Squeeze) that, if I knew anything, I should have recognized as discards from their slush pile of major label promos, a bone tossed to a supplicant little twerp who washed up on their doorstep. I persevered, nevertheless; it has to be understood that I desperately wanted to write for Nerve, wanted to be a rock critic, thought that if I could succeed with this I'd be on my way, into adulthood, a career, a living.

The last thing I ever published in Nerve was the cover story of the last issue, two and a half years later; an interview with fIREHOSE that I also photographed [2]. I don't remember the last thing I ever wrote for Nerve--that ended up lost forever, on the finished flats of the last issue, which Dave carried around in a box for a year, trying to put out another Nerve after Nancy left both him and the paper. I remember at least one benefit held by local bands who wanted to see Nerve publish again. They needed Nerve, it seemed, almost as much as we did, and the paper had--mysteriously--accrued a remarkable amount of goodwill on the local scene.

It was mysterious to me because, like most rock critics, the majority of the Nerve stalwarts would come to a mutual but unspoken conclusion that bands were probably best regarded as a necessary evil when it came to writing about music [3]. Interviews were a kind of necessary evil, something we had to do, to keep the record companies and the bands (and maybe even--perish the thought!--the readers) happy, because we couldn't just fill every issue with record reviews and our own increasingly sprawling "think pieces" on our obsessions of the moment. I'm forever grateful, though, to Dave and Nancy for indulging us by printing them; by doing it, they treated us like rock stars, like the incisive pop cultural thinkers we all longed to be, heirs to the mantle of Nik Cohn, Meltzer, Christgau, Chuck Eddy and, most of all, Lester Bangs. They probably ensured the paper's demise in the process, but that was what Nerve was all about, for good or bad.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A local record store--one that most Nerve writers patronized--had a "wall of shame" covered in clippings from the local music press, reviews and articles that the store clerks--imbued with that awesome sense of disdain that only pennies above minimum wage and a 15% over wholesale discount can inspire--considered examples of pretension, lapses of taste, and benchmarks of the unhip. It didn't take long before Nerve articles started to dominate the Records on Wheels wall of shame.

In retrospect, it was a compliment more than anything else. Sure, some of the stuff we wrote was a bit hard to take--frankly, I can't read any of my own pieces today without a wince [4]--but we were trying to do something, aiming above merely constant tryouts for a spot as the "kid music critic" at one of the dailies. We had an instinct that there was not only a market for the marginal music we loved--the American indie and leftover post-punk Brit bands Nerve covered--but for a less formulaic style of music writing. We were right about the first part, it turned out but, tragically, only a few years premature. About the second part, alas, we were terribly, terribly wrong.

It turns out that your average music fan is as loathe to pay for interesting music criticism as they are for music but, fifteen years before Napster and Gnutella, we had no way of knowing that. Interesting music writing, when it was published at all, either popped up in the most unlikely of places (Creem magazine in the '70s, a cheeseball pop mag where no one much cared about what got covered or how as long as Robert Plant or Jimmy Page was on the cover every three months), or within the protective wrapping of something that made money in the more conventional way (Rolling Stone, where there was once always room for weird shit or rogue enthusiasms as long as the people were told, with depressing regularity, what Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles were up to.)

Then there was the British music press, just emerging from its Trotskyite phase as Nerve hit its stride. I know Dave got a lot of inspiration from the Burchill/Parsons-era NME, but it's hard to compare Britain--an overpopulated island full of lager-dazed sociopaths, ferocious social-climbers in Land Rovers, and ex-public schoolboys smarting with joy and shame from their latest flagellation session in some upper-storey Soho bedsit--with Canada. Sure we could try, but the odds were against any kind of demographic, social or cultural momentum building behind Nerve, or the music we loved, at least until the first wave of boomers' kids surged out of junior high and looked for ways to accessorize their angst. Thus Nirvana, but that lies a couple of years beyond Nerve's brief lifespan.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It's taken me ages to write this, and I have an hour or two left before the deadline I promised Scott I'd meet. A month ago, Scott sent us a questionnaire to help us with our pieces, and it included questions like: "Are you still as fond today of the music you enthused about back then? If not, what has changed?" It's a loaded question.

No, I'm not as fond of the music I listened to then. Over the years, I've sold almost every one of the records I once raved about. Bands I once adored I either hate, passionately--R.E.M.--or can barely recall what they sounded like. Why did I put Hunters and Collectors on my top ten list? Who the fuck are Hunters and Collectors? fIREHOSE? And Van Morrison? I'd have to put that down to all the pot I was smoking with Dave, and maybe the mushrooms we took at that one "editorial meeting" where we all ended up playing frisbee in Trinity Bellwoods park. Best frisbee I ever played in my life.

What has changed? Well, everything, I guess. I once wanted, desperately, to make it as a rock critic. I had the naive assumption that the people whose bylines I read were, by sheer fact of that byline alone, owed some sort of living. I was so in awe of "writers" that I actually thought it was a trade, a profession, like being a politician or a banker. But then again, there was a week or so there, at the beginning, where I had Phil Dellio confused with Don DeLillo [5].

If anything has made writing this piece difficult, it's the lingering feeling of failure, both the Nerve's and my own. The truth is that I stank like ass as a rock critic. I don't know--I guess I didn't care enough, or too much, or my priorities were confused, or I was too ambitious, or not ambitious enough. Today, I make a bit of money as a movie critic, and I seem to be much better at it than I ever was as a rock critic. The reason is simple: I really don't care much about movies. I like them fine, but if I never saw another movie again, I'd be perfectly happy [6].

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Can you recall a particularly memorable Nerve party?"
     Well, there were quite a few, there was the one with the mushrooms and the frisbee and Mike Henry reciting Mentors lyrics. There was the one where Mike Dyer--an older guy, and very sophisticated from what I could see--complimented me on my first film festival piece. And then there was the week where Nerve partied with Soul Asylum [7].

"What are your thoughts about Nerve magazine when you look at it now?"
     Disappointment, I guess. I thought it looked great at the time. Today, it seems a bit of a mess--an inspired mess, maybe, I can't help but think that a half-decent desktop running Quark would have been a godsend, even if it probably would have cost more than a car.

Some of us, from time to time, seemed to really get it, but not me. There's some good writing--Phil seemed to get better and better as he embraced his Top 40 obsession, and Dave could, occasionally, hit these strange, lucid plateaus--but my stuff reeks.

I feel sorry for the bands. Where are they now, most of them? The local bands, for the most part, never stood a chance, and I hope that the various members of the Woodentops, the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Royal Crescent Mob found a job and a home somewhere. But I can see how we all started so suspect that we, the writers, were a lot more interesting in the end than most of our subjects. They were a pretty inarticulate bunch on first impression, and a real disappointment in the long run. Our idols, inevitably, had feet of clay (R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, The Meat Puppets), and our momentary enthusiasms left almost no aftertaste (Mojo Nixon? That Petrol Emotion? Hunters and fucking Collectors?). It's no wonder that a crank like Steve Albini seemed like some kind of intellectual giant [8].

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"How important was Nerve to your personal growth as a writer or photographer?"
     Very. I'll always be grateful to Dave and Nancy for giving me a chance to make a fool of myself, and to my friends at the paper for a sense of community when I needed it. A lot of those friendships haven't lasted, and I'm geniunely sad about that, but some have, with no small amount of effort on all of our parts. There was a quick closeness among Nerve writers, and for a year or so we really lived in each other's pockets. There was some drinking, of course, and some drugs, and there was the time that Phil and I passed out on MuchMusic VJ Erika Ehm's lawn, blind drunk on tequila, and threw up on each other while asleep. Great times.

I learned that I was a good photographer, and I learned, with the passing of time, that I had no reason to be writing about music of any kind and expect money for it. I did learn to love writing, and that I could, if I worked a lot harder, eventually hope that I'd be readable, even entertaining. It's a hope I still cling to, along with the muffled hush in my left ear, (no tinnitus--thank you God!) a copy of Zen Arcade, a hatred of record companies, and a lingering aversion to live music. Thanks, Dave and Nancy. Thanks, Nerve.

See Rick McGinnis's Nerve ballots

Nerve-McGinnis

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Click on a link below to read more about Nerve magazine.

  • A brief history of Nerve

  • Chris Buck: Nerve Questionnaire

  • Phil Dellio: Quality Time With Balaam & the Angel

  • Howard Druckman: Nerve Memories, 20 Years On

  • Maggie Helwig: Nerve Questionnaire

  • Helen Lee: Nerve Questionnaire

  • Tim Powis: All Yesterday's Meetings

  • Tim Powis: Nerve Questionnaire

  • Scott Woods: Nerve Questionnaire

  • NerveSpeak: Quotations from the pages of Nerve.

  • Sub-articulate, Psycho-Head Babble: Tim Powis's review of White Zombie's Soul-Crusher.

  • Right Now!: Phil Dellio Locates the Secret Connection Between Mel Torme and Pussy Galore.

  • A Panoply of Nerve Covers, 1984-1988, part 1

  • A Panoply of Nerve Covers, 1984-1988, part 2

  • Images From Nerve, Part 1

  • Images From Nerve, Part 2

  • Contributor Bios