First that sneaky bass line, and the odd, distant howl. Then Kim Deal all quiet and breathy and winking, “And this I know, his teeth as white as snow, what a gas it was to see him. . . .”
Now come the drums and the pregnant hum of a guitar on the verge. And suddenly we are loud. We are very, very loud: “Gigantic! Gigantic! Gigantic! A big, big love!”
I’m listening to the single greatest song this town has ever produced — “Gigantic” by the Pixies — on the concrete stoop outside Nuggets Records in Kenmore Square.
I’m at the start of a walking tour of Boston’s ragged, arty rock ‘n’ roll history. And my guide Matt Bowker, proprietor of Soundscape Tours, is arguing that the Pixies — and by extension, Boston’s late 20th-century music scene — were seminal forces in modern rock.
He’s making a pretty good case. Kurt Cobain, as he points out, once told Rolling Stone that he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies” when he wrote Nirvana’s generational anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
But the truth is, I don’t need much convincing.
I grew up in this city in the 1980s and 1990s. And it was axiomatic back then that Boston was — and always would be — a music hub. Maybe not a Nashville or a Los Angeles, but certainly an important provincial capital.
After all, we weren’t just producing the influential, second-tier acts I liked — the Pixies and the Lemonheads and Belly. We had our share of bona fide MTV stars, too: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Ric Ocasek of the Cars, Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block, and Bobby Brown from New Edition.
Over the last couple of decades, though, it’s become harder and harder to cling to the idea that Boston is a major player.
We’ve had our moments, no doubt. The Dresden Dolls. Speedy Ortiz. Last year, Boston singer-songwriter Clairo was the opening act on R&B star Khalid’s summer tour. But the local music scene has lost a good deal of its energy. A good deal of its weight. And the region’s imprint on American music has undoubtedly faded.
I’d been thinking about this phenomenon before the coronavirus hit — how a cultural capital loses its mojo. And then I put it aside for a while. In the face of our cascading crises, it felt too trivial.
But as the isolation wore on and our yearning for city life grew more acute, the question of Boston’s cultural vitality — the question of what we will return to when all this is over — started feeling meaningful again.
I got in touch with Bowker — who’d put his tour business on hold during the pandemic — and asked if he’d take me on a private, socially distanced stroll through the golden age of Boston music. I wanted to understand what had propelled the city’s sound in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and what, if any, lessons that period might have for us now.
So we meet in Kenmore Square and listen to “Gigantic.” We stroll past the old site of the Rat, where Boston’s first great rock band, the Remains, played on a stage made of crates and picnic tables and beer signs. We talk about WBCN and WFNX, The Boston Phoenix, and Intermedia Studios. And as we make our way through the old Victory Gardens off Boylston Street listening to Jonathan Richman — “I walk through the Fenway, I have my heart in my hands” — it all hits home.
Why it worked before and why it’s not working now. What it will take for Boston artists to break through again.
It’s obvious, really.
All you have to do is ask a musician.
ELLIOT EASTON SPENT a year at a small college in upstate New York, ditching class and playing gigs in Rochester and Syracuse.
But that wasn’t where he wanted to be.
He wanted to be in Boston. And when he arrived in 1972 to attend Berklee College of Music, the city was everything he’d hoped for.
“It was a very different place” back then, he says. “It really had a lovely, small-town feel to it. . . . It was a much gentler place to scuffle, and try to make your bones, and be poor, and get in bands.”
Easton cycled through a string of cheap apartments in Brighton and Brookline and the South End. He ate $1 bowls of chili at Coyote on Commonwealth Avenue. And one day, when a roommate answered an ad in The Boston Phoenix — a band was looking for a sound man — he decided to tag along to the show.
He was impressed. He’d seen a bunch of Boston bands, and Richard & the Rabbits was the first he could imagine on the radio. But Easton thought their songs were missing a certain something.
Later, two of the guys from the Rabbits, Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr, started playing as a duo at The Idler in Harvard Square. Easton’s roommate was still doing sound for the guys. And he started talking up Easton’s guitar skills.
After a nerve-wracking tryout at Orr’s Porter Square apartment — “OK, play something amazing,” Orr said — Easton latched onto the band that would eventually become the Cars.
There was a certain amount of luck, of course, in this convergence of talents. But it wasn’t just luck. It was circumstance.
Boston was the sort of place musicians could afford. It had a thriving alternative weekly that could bring them together with an advertisement for a sound man — and then spread the word about their work.
It also had one of the most influential rock stations in the country, WBCN. And when a DJ at the station named Maxanne Sartori put a pair of Cars demos — “Just What I Needed” and “Best Friend’s Girl” — into regular rotation, she handed the band an enormous opportunity.
Easton says it’s hard to overstate the importance of WBCN to the Cars’ success. Yes, the band had talent, he says, but “you need a little miracle somewhere — and Maxanne was our little miracle.”
Lines for the band’s shows at the Rat stretched all the way to Fenway Park. And word was spreading beyond the city, too.
Radio industry “tip sheets” reported that WBCN was breaking this band with the delicious staccato hooks. And it wasn’t just the DJs in other towns who took notice. Record label talent scouts started turning up at shows. And soon the Cars, manufactured on Boston’s rock ‘n’ roll assembly line, had a buyer.
The assembly line. That’s what I was seeing on my walking tour of Boston’s rock history — or more to the point, wasn’t seeing.
Every piece of the line had been shuttered for years — the Rat closed its doors in 1997, WBCN went off the air in 2009, its alt-rock competitor WFNX followed suit in 2012, and the Phoenix published its final issue in 2013.
Each got a proper send-off when it went. An ode to its particular history.
But few outside the city’s besieged music scene fully grasped the significance of what was happening — the slow-motion dismantling of an entire cultural machinery.
RUBY ROSE FOX came into her own in Boston. She found her strange, deep voice here. Her unsettling glamour. And the scene took notice.
She was named Female Vocalist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards in 2014 and 2015. Singer-Songwriter of the Year in 2016. And at the 2018 New England Music Awards, she won Band of the Year, Album of the Year, and Video of the Year.
And yet, there she was: Driving out of town on a chilly day this past December, with tears running down her face.
For everything that went right here, ultimately it felt like the city had let her down.
“I was leaving not because I wanted to,” she says from her new home in Chicago, but because “I felt like an exile.”
Fox moved to Brookline as a teenager, in 1998, and when she arrived, there was still a certain energy in the air.
Her first band, a ska outfit called Mass. Hysteria, played Bill’s Bar on Lansdowne Street, angled for reviews in a still-robust music press, and recorded in a downtown studio just hours after the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
“When you’re in a ska band and Dicky Barrett was just there a couple of hours before you, you get this feeling like you’re part of something,” Fox says.
After she graduated from Emerson College, she bought a white dress and declared that she was marrying Boston.
By the time she started her solo career in earnest, in 2013, it was clear that something had changed. The music infrastructure, she says, seemed about half the size it had once been. But there was still enough, she figured, to make a go.
So Fox recorded a pair of ambitious albums. She played an annual Valentine’s Day gig for the lovelorn. And in a lavish, one-woman show at the Planetarium, she twirled a fiber-optic umbrella and warned of a coming Trumpian fascism.
She was growing. And she could feel it. On stage, Fox felt like a badass. But offstage, she says, it was different.
Life in one of the most expensive cities on earth was feeling increasingly precarious.
Fox lived in constant fear of a rent hike. As she grew older, she felt increasingly humiliated by sharing a bathroom with roommates. And when she inquired with City Hall about artists’ housing, she got nowhere.
For years, Fox and dozens of other musicians relied on low-cost rehearsal space at the EMF Building, a former electrical supply company in Cambridge’s Central Square. When a developer swooped in with plans to clear out the artists and build office space, she helped lead the fight to stop him. But she lost. And it felt like a real blow: “Broke my heart a thousand times,” she says.
It wasn’t just the financial pressure, though. There was something else. All those records she’d made, all the elaborate shows she’d staged, all the awards she’d won — they didn’t seem to be adding up to much.
When she’d arrived, it felt like Boston still had the power to turn its most talented musicians into stars. But not anymore.
“I don’t know how many times people were like, ‘You’re going to be famous,’” she says. “But I hit this glass ceiling. I needed representation. I needed a break. I needed someone to take me under their wing and say, ‘I want to support you and help you go from the top of the local scene to the bottom of a national scene.’”
Ruby Rose Fox needed a little miracle.
And Boston could no longer oblige.
IT’S NOT CLEAR, though, that any other place could.
The breakdown of the Boston assembly line was just the local version of a national story. Yes, the Phoenix shuttered after the Internet swallowed up its advertising. But so did the Village Voice in New York, City Paper in Baltimore, and the Bay Guardian in San Francisco.
The demise of WBCN — first sapped of its local flavor by the corporatization of radio, then killed off by declining ratings — was part of a broader phenomenon too.
And the failure of local bands to secure record deals, these days, has a lot to do with the decline of the recording industry.
Back in the ’90s, the labels were flush with cash. That’s one reason so many Boston acts got signed in that period.
“When Nirvana broke through, it really felt like the floodgates opened,” says Bill Janovitz, frontman for Buffalo Tom. The labels “descended upon these towns like Boston,” he says, looking for an alt-rock goldmine.
Hilken Mancini, who played with Fuzzy, remembers getting her break after a show at the Middle East in Cambridge. “It was like one of those things in a movie,” she says, “where you get off stage and some man’s like, ‘I’d like to sign you.‘”
The 1999 launch of the file-sharing site Napster, created by a Northeastern dropout, marked the start of a deep slide for the recording industry that has only started to reverse in the last few years with subscription growth at streaming services like Spotify.
Now, the labels are much more conservative about signing acts — and with everything online, much less interested in what’s happening in any particular city.
“Where once major labels were chasing scenes, now they’re chasing data,” says Jim Horan, a former Rounder Records executive who teaches online music business courses at Berklee.
And because it’s all about YouTube views, Spotify streams, and TikTok followers, there has been a sharp decline in the regionalism that played such an important role in the development of American music — from the birth of the blues in the Mississippi Delta to the rise of Motown in Detroit, psychedelia in San Francisco, and grunge in Seattle.
The shift has hit Boston especially hard.
When place mattered more, the city could punch above its weight. Its unusual combination of dynamism and (relative) affordability was a big advantage. And its institutions — WBCN, WFNX, and the Phoenix — were far more influential than any mid-size city could reasonably expect.
Now, Boston artists have to navigate a sprawling, hyper-competitive global marketplace while figuring out how to pay the bills in an enormously expensive city.
It’s a task that requires prodigious talent, some luck, and, maybe, a different brand of hometown support.
Some songs in this playlist include explicit lyrics.
BOSTON ISN’T KNOWN as a hip-hop hub, but it has an intriguing cluster of rappers at the moment. And among the most talented is Cliff Notez.
Raised in Dorchester and Roxbury and Mattapan, he grew up pulling indie rock and easy listening and whatever else he could find off Limewire, the Napster-like file-sharing service.
Over the last few years, he’s built an eclectic, often searing body of work rooted in his own mental health struggles.
And it’s caught the attention of a small group of philanthropists and activists working to construct a modest new music infrastructure.
This year, Cliff Notez was among 60 artists who received a “Live Arts Boston” grant from the Boston Foundation and the Barr Foundation, which have combined to dole out about $3 million to musicians and performing artists since 2017 — with about three-quarters of the money going to people of color.
The foundations have also donated to The Record Co., a nonprofit that has provided low-cost recording space to hundreds of Boston-area musicians in recent years — including Cliff.
The organization is in the midst of a $5 million expansion of its Massachusetts Avenue facility that will double the number of recording studios from two to four and add 15 songwriting and rehearsal spaces. Executive director Matt McArthur says he hopes to add professional development down the line: training in digital marketing, for instance, and copyright management.
If the operation can become self-sustaining, McArthur says, he hopes it will encourage entrepreneurs to rebuild the region’s shrunken rehearsal and recording infrastructure — and from there, its music culture.
The goal, he says, is to make it possible, once again, for Bostonians to go out on a Friday night and stumble into a great live show. Serendipity, he suggests, is the hallmark of a healthy culture.
The city may produce a breakout star or two in the process, he says. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about what that would mean for the local scene.
“People say that a lot: ‘Well, if we just had a couple of big acts, like we used to, then this community, this scene, would pop, and it would all be like it used to be,’” McArthur says. “And it’s like, ‘False, that’s not going to happen.’ It doesn’t happen anywhere.”
He’s right about that.
But even if we’re clear about what’s possible, even if we know the ’90s aren’t coming back, we can still root for individual breakthroughs. We can still empathize with a talented artist, from our own backyard, who feels stuck on the brink.
We can still want the world to see him.
“There’s a few of us artists that are kind of on that cusp,” says Cliff Notez. “We’re trying to figure out, what will it take to break out of Boston?”
He’s been impressed by the efforts to build out new supports. And he says the city could use a lot more of the same. But what Cliff really needs is more clicks. Better data. A bigger audience.
And while a mid-size city like Boston can only provide so much of that, it can get its musicians started. It can generate a little buzz.
For this 40-something, “Gigantic” will always be the best song this town has ever produced. But Cliff Notez’s new track “Voodoo Doll”? I gotta say, it’s pretty damn good.