At one point in Crate Digger: An Obsession With Punk Records, a memoir of life as a punk-rock record junkie, a teenage Bob Suren asks his mom to write a check for some albums he wants order through the mail. Glancing at band names like Dayglo Abortions and Blood Farmers, his mom sighs and says, “You’re a nice boy, Bobby. I hope this music doesn’t change you.”
You only need to read a few pages of Crate Digger to find out that punk rock did change Bob Suren, over and over again. Yet he still seems like a nice guy. He does confess to having a short temper, especially when it comes to people scamming him out of record money (one scheme to injure a welcher was so scary his girlfriend nearly left him before he abandoned it). But overall Suren comes across as an earnest dude in love with music — so in love that he throws himself into all facets, becoming a store owner, label head, show promoter, bootleg T-shirt dealer and member of multiple hardcore punk bands in his home state of Florida.
The strain of punk Suren went crazy for is called hardcore for a reason — you’d have to be deeply into the subculture to recognize all the bands he reminisces about. But while every chapter is named after a specific record, Suren’s stories are pretty universal, at least for anyone who has spent time diving into an artistic niche. As a fan of indie rock and experimental music, I found myself familiar with less than half of these records, but I wasn’t bored by a single chapter (some of which don’t even mention the record in question).
In a time when nostalgia has become an addiction, and so much writing is “thinkpiece”-style sociophilosophy with grand claims about generational shifts and cultural trends and how the Internet has changed us, Suren’s simple storytelling is refreshing.
What I do recognize are the tales and characters from Suren’s underground: the chaotic shows in odd venues; the tireless fanatics who keep bands, records, stores, shows and magazines alive; the enthusiastic correspondences between far-flung collectors; the wild musicians who disappear and turn up unexpectedly years later; and all the spontaneous wisdom, skewed worldviews and comic-book-worthy anecdotes generated by a subculture composed of what those aboveground would call weirdos.
What makes Suren’s version of these common stories special is that he doesn’t claim they are. In a time when nostalgia has become an addiction, and so much writing is “thinkpiece”-style sociophilosophy with grand claims about generational shifts and cultural trends and how the Internet has changed us, Suren’s simple storytelling is refreshing. Sure, he mentions how he didn’t have the Web when he was record hunting, but it’s not meant as a war story or a value judgement, just as a matter of fact.
Suren doesn’t fear probing emotional depths, either, recalling moments of drama that transcend musical obsession (a chapter in which Suren describes meticulously planning a post-breakup suicide is particularly gripping). But ultimately Crate Digger is a book of whos and whats, not hows and whys — and it’s all the better for it.