BOOK REVIEW: Niceness In The Nineties: An Indie Music Memoir

Posted by: Necci – May 03, 2011


Niceness In The '90s: An Indie Music Memoir, by Jim Miller (Pleasant Peasant LLC)

The idea of the self-made rock star – the small-town kid hopping the bus to the big city and overcoming significant opposition through some combination of creativity and an impetuous zeal – is a persistent cultural myth, and it's easy to see why. The idea of being able to act as the sole agent of one's fortune, that individual traits of charisma and capability could forge a sort of Nietzschean will to power, is appealing to the large swaths of people for whom life can so often seem predetermined and stagnant.

The idea is, as ninety-nine percent of those who have attempted a career in music can attest, utter bullshit. The music industry – what's left of it, at least – is an image factory. Talent doesn't matter, ambition and drive don't matter, and personal charisma only matters to the extent that it can be transmitted in photo shoots. At this point, the idea of moving out to L.A. or New York to make it as a rock star is about as quaint as churning one's own butter, and about a million times less practical or realistic. But still, people do it, egged on by illusions instilled by the “Welcome To The Jungle” video, or American Idol, or whatever fabulist nonsense instills the strongest delusions of grandeur. Which is why a book like Jim Miller's Niceness In The Nineties is a compelling document – it is a reminder of how the best-laid plans can go sour, how all the connections and integrity in the world may never amount to more than a handful of stories about rock and roll's good ol' days to tell the grandkids.

Trash Can School, early 90s. Author is at top right.

Miller's memoir details his relocation to Los Angeles from the Midwest and his involvement with bands like Trash Can School and Black Angel's Death Song, apparently fixtures in what was then referred to as the alternative rock scene. In short vignettes, Miller recalls the shows, the travelling, the intersections of life and art – everything an audience can expect from a musician's recollections. There are the grasps at major-label success, stages shared with L7, Hole, Jane's Addiction, and Bad Religion, along with anecdotes regarding the author's personal histories with members of many notable bands at the time (which could come off as name-dropping if he didn't do the same with largely-forgotten bands like The Dancing French Liberals of '48 or The Leaving Trains). The style can be a little off-putting, consisting of extremely matter-of-fact “this happened, then this happened” prose, leaving little for interpretation or imagination. Not that this is the worst stylistic decision possible, but the difference between a readable memoir and a great memoir often rests upon the author's ability to construct meaning out of his or her experiences, rather than just recounting the show where they got “$20 and a pitcher of beer” and “were stoked.”

The title's suggestion of affability can also hinder the book somewhat. Now, I'm not suggesting a lurid, muckraking approach would've been the best course of action for Niceness In The Nineties, but Miller deals with some of the era's most notoriously sketchy figures and barely includes any sort of commentary, aside from how great they were. Maybe he was one of the rare people to not have had shady business dealings with Lone Gone John Mermis, or not to have been screamed at by a heroin-addled Courtney Love, but he seems to let a lot of people off the hook who might otherwise provide some rancor that could shake up the book's even keel. Being nice is a perfectly admirable personality trait, but it doesn't typically make for the most compelling book.

Black Angel's Death Song, 1992. Author is second from right.

Criticisms aside, Miller's book would be an excellent quick read for anybody who recalls the 120 Minutes scene fondly, or anybody who was too young to catch it the first time around. His experiences with a variety of now famous (or infamous) figures has a way of humanizing them, showing the actual individuals behind the music, and his near-brushes with success could serve as a great cautionary tale to those who might attempt to actualize their rock star daydreams. Which is not to say that each individual shouldn't follow their paths to happiness or creative fulfillment, but rather, each person should pursue their endeavors with a sober and realistic understanding of what it will take to actually make these goals a reality. Since many of these realizations only derive from cold, hard experience, books like Niceness In The Nineties can provide a little insight. That insight is couched in what may not be the most in-depth or challenging book ever written, but is an entertaining read nonetheless.


Niceness In The Nineties can be ordered here or here.

By Graham Scala