A Total Way of Life: The Legacy of Beat Happening

Guest Article by: 
Alexander Whelan

Since the early 1990s, the Pacific Northwest has been successfully rebranding itself as the kind of young, idealistic musical Mecca that had previously been reserved for the likes of Los Angeles and New York City. Whether Nirvana and the grunge revolution is to blame for this is by now a moot point, but the cultural relevance of shows like Portlandia makes the case for Seattle and yes, Portland, as destinations for Millennials sick of the hype. Like the late-‘60s exodus to San Francisco, the sheer momentum of young people climbing the Pacific coast has made lumberjack beards and trees cooler now than they ever were.

In a way, then, Bryan C. Parker's new book BEAT HAPPENING is as much a music biography as instructive historical revisionism. In tracking the formation of the eponymous punk band, Parker ultimately tells the story of Olympia, Washington, a town innately predisposed toward community-building and shopping local before either of those things were a Thing. The book posits that maybe this inclement corner of the country was a place to be way earlier than anyone realized. “It’s all about local culture,” Parker says. He lives in Austin now but has taken several trips to Olympia over the years. The original idea for the book was that “the form should represent the content, that it was going to be stories and angles all about local lore and that those are really integral to the identity of Beat Happening.”

So, who is Beat Happening? Formed in 1982, Beat Happening consists of Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford—no more, no less. There were no major labels, no one-hit wonders, no drugs or egos. Instead, they released cassette tapes on Johnson’s label, K Records; undertook endearingly misguided Japanese tours—a risky move for a nascent group; and invented what has become known as “twee pop.” It is often remarked that the band never actually broke up, but its members haven’t performed together since the early ‘90s and have impressively resisted every occasion to end their hiatus.

This decision, like every decision in the band, was unanimous. Despite Johnson’s charismatic reputation as what Parker calls “a cultural ambassador,” this all-for-one mentality is arguably as central to Beat Happening’s legacy as their music. The members were known to regularly swap guitarist/drummer roles both on recordings and in concert, and Johnson and Lewis split vocal duties on each of Beat Happening’s five albums. The results are as mercurial as you’d think, with songwriting running the gamut, from minimalist surf dirges to paralyzingly vulnerable ballads to satirical songs about getting laid. Their potpourri is an infectious one.

Parker’s book wisely chooses a single entry point for the band: the creation and release of their first album Beat Happening. The book serves as the newest title in the enormously popular 33 1/3 series, an ongoing Bloomsbury collection that aims to explore an album in a manner of the author’s choosing. In homage to its subject, Parker’s approach is its own potpourri. There’s a chapter “Negative Space” that encourages the reader to make his or her own additions to the text so that they might grasp the value of what Beat Happening’s musical arrangements lack (see: a bass player). There are also several sections dedicated to quiet slices of life in Olympia, following main figures like Johnson, who gave Parker a tour of the city, but also old friends of the band who graciously recount the recipes they would break out for house shows.

Meet Bryan C. Parker on November 17 at Brazos Bookstore

Of Beat Happening, Parker says, it “was not just one thing. It was a total way of life,” something other “self-starting” bands embraced. Parker tells me that he views that ‘83-‘85 period as the beginning of this Pacific Northwest Renaissance, and the book makes clear that music was merely one element of the major art scene. Over time, though, the direct through-line to cassette and punk culture cemented Olympia as a metonym for the Do-It-Yourself aesthetic.

Tellingly, the Olympia residents whom Parker interviews seem almost unaware of their city’s exceptional reputation. The book is full of indelible music-biography beats like impromptu recording sessions in dingy apartments and a revelatory tour in which Johnson bursts into record stores across the county and personally bargains with the clerks to buy his tapes. Time and again, though, both the band and their community emphasize that they were simply doing what made sense to them.

On Heather Lewis’s legacy as a female punk drummer, Parker suggests Beat Happening didn’t even think about it. “In Olympia, you have women take on roles. You know, ‘Why wouldn’t you have a woman drummer?’ It’s not like they sought out to do that.” Johnson himself seems to embody this unassuming power more than anyone, though it's hard to tell from his notoriously laconic press interactions. Case in point: upon calling the general K Records phone number (which Johnson himself answered on the first ring), I asked him whether the Olympia’s dynamic has been subject to change as its artistic reputation has evolved. After several seconds of silence, Johnson says, “I don’t think anyone here reads.” As taken aback as I was, Johnson’s point is clear: it’s not a scene—just their lives.

Parker's point is that the true meaning of Beat Happening and what they were trying to accomplish can get a bit lost in the digital noise of today. He describes it as two ends of a spectrum, one end being “giant monsters eating everything,” bloated and “enormous” to the point that “they're dysfunctional and boring,” or artists “doing really cool stuff and no one's paying attention.” In Olympia, “there was a singular time and place...where these things were allowed to happen, and it's still happening. Art reflects culture, and reflects social realities, and I think those things are related.”

Beat Happening's Beat Happening (33 1/3) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781628929270
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Bloomsbury Academic - September 24th, 2015

As a piece of literature, BEAT HAPPENING is unafraid to entangle its conscience with its dancing feet, and it bears repeating that this form is total service of its content. Listening to Beat Happening, you won’t find the shouted polemics and screeching guitars that many self-identified punk bands lean on—not that there’s anything wrong with those. Instead, lyrics like “We were playing with your rabbits / We were feeding them some cabbage” challenge and reward in other ways. What am I listening to? Is that somehow a clever rhyme? Why did they use the take where they hit the wrong chord?

These are the questions I ask. Parker offers one answer: “Just enjoy it!”

Alexander Whelan is an MSLIS candidate at Pratt Institute in New York. He is pursuing a concentration in archives, with a focus on moving image preservation and small-gauge film librarianship. His writing on music/literature has been published online by the University of Arizona Daily Wildcat and Akashic Books.

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