66 & 2/3 – Use Your Illusion I and II (Part Two)

Guns_N'_Roses-logoWhen my son Cameron was about six or seven, he began nosing around in my Beatles books, and saw some of the recording credits. “How could Paul play bass, piano, and organ on the same song?” he asked. “He didn’t have six hands.” Most people with a passing interest in record-making are aware of the concept of overdubs, but I’ll throw out a quick description…

In the early days of recording, the idea was to capture a performance as it happened. The band set up, the recording engineer plopped down a microphone, and they played. If there was a screw-up, they took it from the top. If a singer or instrumentalist needed to be louder, they moved closer to the microphone.

Beginning in the 1960s, thanks primarily to The Beatles’ studio innovations, the whole philosophy behind recording changed. It was no longer about capturing a performance as it happened, but building the perfect version of a song. Bits and pieces of numerous takes were edited together, and additional vocals and instruments were added via multi-track tape recorders. The typical method for a post-mid 60s rock band would be to record a “basic track” or “rhythm track” (drums, bass, a couple of guitars) onto one or two “tracks” (individual recording spaces) of the tape machine. Then additional tracks (guitar solos, percussion, keyboards, miscellaneous texturing, lead and backing vocals) would be “overdubbed” on top of the basic track. On a single-track recorder, like your old VCR or portable cassette player, the new recording would simply erase the old. But on a multi-track recording, everything remains audible. Picture an overhead projector from your early school days — each track would be the sonic version one of those transparent sheets you could lay down on the projector surface, combining to create the full image projected on the screen.

The tracks would then be mixed, ensuring the proper balance of sounds. The Beatles worked their magic with only four-track recorders. If they needed more room, they mixed the in-progress song back down to one or two tracks (“bouncing” it, as they put it), and made the necessary additions on the newly-opened tracks. The process could be repeated, but the loss of fidelity would become noticeable.

Vintage 2-track, 4-track, and 16-track tape recorders

Vintage 2-track, 4-track, and 16-track tape recorders

By the Use Your Illusion era, 48-track digital (no tape) recorders were the order of the day. With reduction (“bounce”) mixes resulting in no loss of audio quality, overdubs could be almost infinite, and even a single note or word could simply be “punched in.” 

As evidenced above, the term “track” itself has a multitude of uses — it can refer to an available space on a recording, a single instrumental or vocal overdub, a basic foundation recording…or even a finished song as it appears on an album, just to add to the confusion.

Continuing our look at the development of the Use Your Illusion material…

Summer 1989 — Eight weeks of writing, work-shopping and rehearsal for the new album were scheduled in Chicago, a seemingly random location chosen by Axl and Izzy. Then neither of them showed up for most of that time. The trio of Slash, McKagan, and Adler attempted to work out ideas in the absence of their two chief writers and arrangers, but Slash called that whole period a “waste of time” that yielded a few finished tunes and a “handful of rudimentary ideas” that they had brought with them from L.A. in the first place. According to the hazy recollections of their autobiographies, Slash and Duff figure the songs that came together in Chicago included “Bad Apples,” “Garden Of Eden,” “Get In The Ring,” the final version of “Civil War,”  “Pretty Tied Up” (originally an Izzy song that they finished off in his absence), and “Estranged” (when Axl finally deigned to show up).

dizzyReed

Dizzy Reed

February 1990 — Against the wishes the other band members, Axl insisted on hiring a keyboard player to fatten out the sound and assist with the epic synth orchestras he was hearing in his head for his ballads. Dizzy Reed, formerly of L.A. bar band The Wild, became the sixth member of GN’R. (Also, like a wise old uncle, Mick Jagger advised Axl that using keyboards onstage helped keep your vocals on pitch.)

By the rules of rock & roll, adding a keyboard player where there wasn’t one to begin with is the first slip on the greasy slope of musical bloat. What’s next? Backup singers? A horn section? Elaborate stage effects?

Spring 1990 — After the disastrous Chicago “pre-production” sessions, according to Slash, most of the final arrangements of the Illusion tracks were worked out “in literally two nights” on acoustic guitars when all band members finally got together in one room for the first time in months. Songs that had been kicking around the band forever (see previous entry) were given a fresh going-over, old fragments were pieced together and fleshed out, becoming new songs, and Axl finally began his rough draft of the lyrics. At the end of this phase, they had thirty-six demos.

All they needed to do now was get themselves organized enough to take this material into the recording studio. Easier said than done: Slash was still a heroin addict. Duff was a raging alcoholic, guzzling by his conservative estimate a gallon of Stoli vodka per day. Steven Adler was both a heroin addict and an alcoholic, and had more than a passing interest in crack cocaine as well. Izzy, after a decade of living like these guys, had gone clean and sober and was keeping contact with his bandmates to a bare minimum. (At this point, he would often mail in cassettes of riff ideas and demos to the band office rather than show up to sessions.) Axl was Axl, and operated on no schedule other than his own whims.

They did manage to start recording in good faith with Appetite producer Mike Clink, making several passes at “Civil War,” before it became clear that drummer Steven Adler could no longer play. Recording sessions were put on indefinite hold until the situation could sorted out.

Matt Sorum

Matt Sorum

June 1990 — GN’R fired Steven Adler for drug-induced incompetence. He was replaced by veteran drummer Matt Sorum, a hard-hitter who kept solid time with no frills or complications. Sourm had played for more bands than anyone could count since the mid-70s, but was most recently the touring drummer for The Cult. The lawsuits and counter-lawsuits between Adler and the rest of the band kept dozens of lawyers employed through the 1990s.

Slash said the first song recorded with Sorum was the Bob Dylan song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” but Slash’s autobiography is (understandably) fuzzy on firm dates — it must have been recorded in a damned jiffy compared to everything else, because it came out on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise/NASCAR turkey Days of Thunder on June 26. (“Knockin’” had been played in concert since 1987, so they knew it pretty well at this point.)

July 1990 — “Civil War” was released to little fanfare as part of the charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, in support of Romanian orphans. It was the final appearance on a Guns N’ Roses song by Steven Adler. (According to one of the band’s counter-lawsuits, the drum track was pieced together by Mike Clink from over sixty different takes because Adler’s playing had deteriorated so much.)

September 1990 — The backing tracks are laid down at A&M Studios, Los Angeles. “Thirty-six [basic] tracks in thirty-six days” as Slash described it, bashed out by the core band with Clink behind the soundboard. These early sessions are pretty much the end of Izzy Stradlin’s recording career with Guns N’ Roses. Slash figured Izzy was there “one day out of three,” and it seems much of his rhythm guitar work was simply lifted from his mailed-in, four-track demo tapes. A close perusal of the songwriting credits on the finished albums shows that, despite being “Mr. Invisible” (as the rest of the band called him), Stradlin had a strong hand in creating the foundation of the Illusions’ strongest songs. “I have a few [songs] on there…” he told a journalist at the time, then almost dismissively followed it up by adding, “…but they all get mixed together. Once they’re on tape with Axl singing and Slash playing guitar, I just look at it as Guns N’ Roses stuff.”

The vocal-less tracks were given preliminary mixes by legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain (Stones, Bowie, Springsteen, many, many others), which were rejected as “too slick.” Another attempt was made by legendary engineer #2 Bill Price (Sex Pistols), and these proved rawer and more primitive — satisfactory. The project was already “over-budget, over-time, over everything,” in Price’s words.

His mixes provided the foundation for the copious, almost suffocating, overdubs that are the hallmark of the Use Your Illusions. Continue reading

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66 & 2/3–Use Your Illusion I and II (Part One)

On September 17, 1991, the band that had been on top of the hard rock heapGunsnr-useyou_22 since its debut album  Appetite For Destruction went multi-platinum back in ‘88, made the groundbreaking — and seemingly insane — decision to release two separate full-length albums of original material at the same time. “An act of almost colossal arrogance,” one writer described it. (On vinyl, each one was actually a double album in and of itself). The Use Your Illusion project was a microcosm of the arena-rock breed of populism that had been annoying intellectuals and highbrow music writers ever since Led Zeppelin and its legions of high school parking lot smokers dropped a bomb on the progressive ambitions of the Woodstock Generation.

Of course, those progressive ambitions returned with a vengeance in the form of “alternative rock,” which killed off Guns N’ Roses quite handily. Turn, turn, turn.

Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II represented a lot of things – inflated runaway egos, rock & roll super-indulgence, perhaps the pinnacle of “event” albums, but most of all they represented the end of an era.

These albums were completely over-the-top, sonically massive, and in a way that seems charmingly archaic now, totally ridiculous in their excess. Overdubbed to the breaking point, featuring synthesized strings and brass, spoken word segments, and enough hubris to fuel three Kanye Wests, the fact that the Use Your Illusions were even allowed to exist opened the door to the more subtle, self-conscious, and self-effacing alternative rock that had been waiting quietly in the underground for a few years. In 1992, Alternative Nation would topple Dinosaur Rock, and cause a complete re-set on how music designed for the masses was recorded, marketed, sold, consumed, written about, thought about.

So the Use Your Illusions have become something of a milestone, a “You Are Now Leaving…” sign. Just like Nirvana’s Nevermind, released exactly one week later (I can’t believe the beautiful symmetry either), became a “You Are Now Entering…” sign.

For some reason (midlife crisis?), in the late summer of this year, I found myself gravitating toward and listening to the Use Your Illusions quite frequently. As with most of my temporary obsessions, I tried to think of a way to spin it into a Holy Bee blog piece, but for weeks, I couldn’t find an angle. I didn’t want to do a straightforward review, nor a “Holy Bee Recommends” segment…because I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Frankly, the albums are a mess.

So I thought briefly of doing the classic music-nerd parlor game of winnowing a sprawling double album into a tight, cohesive single album by discarding weak tracks and championing the keepers. A great exercise to foster discussion and debate on things like The Beatles (“White Album”), London Calling, and of course, Use Your Illusion I and II. But seeing how that activity has been done so incredibly frequently (by me and my friends, you and your friends, and certainly by other bloggers), I didn’t want to make it the whole point of the essay.

I didn’t know what I had to say about the Illusions, then it occurred to me (in the bathroom, where I get my best ideas.) Why not say everything? I had the brilliant idea of doing a shorter version of a  33⅓ book, which are not that long to begin with.

33Collage33⅓ is a series of small, slim paperbacks put out by Bloomsbury Publishing, each one dedicated to a milestone album. They are usually written by a critic or journalist, but several have been written by musicians. (My favorite 33⅓ book, on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, was written by Bill Janovitz of the 90s indie-rock band Buffalo Tom). There are currently 98 33⅓ books in print, with several more slated though 2016. The authors are free to write about the album in whatever way they want: technical breakdowns, musical analysis, personal reflections on what the album meant to them, short fiction, etc. Or a combination of it all. No set format, and that’s what makes them fascinating.

I now had an approach. Regular Holy Bee readers know I’m a throw-in-the-kitchen-sink kind of writer, so I decided to dump all of my thoughts on this peculiar pair of albums into one massive, multi-part piece. My own little 33⅓ book.

Imagine my heartbreak when I discovered that there already was a 33⅓ book on the Use Your Illusions! I was stunned. Frankly, the 33⅓ books are a little on the hipster/elite side — their latest entry is on Sigur Ros’ (), to give you an idea — and I was very surprised Use Your Illusion I and II would appeal to their regular readers. Back to the drawing board for the Holy Bee?

But wait! The Use Your Illusion I and II 33⅓ book is perhaps the most reviled work in the entire series. Former Spin and Village Voice music editor Eric Weisbard pissed off nearly everyone with his take on the albums. Here’s some titles of the scathing Amazon reviews:

“This Book Is Garbage !!”

“Yikes. Not for the fans!”

“An hour of my life I won’t get back.”

“Wow – This writer is completely self-indulgent and pretentious.” (The Holy Bee looked around nervously at that one.)

“The Worst Book in the 33⅓ Series I’ve Read.”

And so on.

Weisbard decided to write a piece about popular culture in the early 90s, using the Use Your Illusions as a filter through which he 33grexamines the changing of the musical guard described above. What infuriated readers is that his look at the music on the Use Your Illusions is cursory and intentionally secondary. It’s based on his memories of the album from twenty years ago…without re-listening to it until he wrote the final chapter! By his own admission, he was far from a Guns N’ Roses expert, and not even much of a fan.

I was siding with the indignant Amazon reviewers, until I plunked down a ten-spot and actually downloaded the damn thing to my Kindle to see what all the fuss was about.

It turns out Eric Weisbard is a good writer. With every turn of the page, he fires off an eloquent passage expressing the whole end-of-an-era idea much better than I ever could. To wit: “The idolatry required to sustain albums on a 1970s or 1980s scale could no longer be met by a popular culture whose niche markets were collectively far more valuable than its consensus heroes…In the season of the blockbuster [album], CDs still came in ‘long boxes’: tall rectangles shaped like skyscrapers, and meant to…fit record store bins, and provide at least a hint of the majesty that LP covers had offered. Unlike vinyl, however, once you bought a CD and ripped the long box open the effect was instantly gone. A couple of years later, the industry stopped faking consumers; the aura of the LP had been replaced by the profit margin of the CD…We need to hear Use Your Illusion I and II with the long boxes still intact, those twin towers of September 1991. Filter back in the audience they summoned and expected to speak for…”

And there’s more where that came from. (Check out his NPR article on Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” if you like his style.) I understood what he was trying to do, and I think he succeeded in doing it. I can definitely recommend his book — with the caveat that, as the reviewers have made clear, it’s not really about the Use Your Illusion albums

And when he did get to some thumbnail analysis of the songs, he gets everything entirely wrong, naturally.

Good thing I’m here. I decided to plunge ahead and write the 33⅓ (or 66⅔ if you will) on Use Your Illusion I and II that people seemed to actually want. Along with my picks for a single-disc version. Not even Eric Weisbard could resist that little exercise. He may be a great writer, but his single-disc UYI mix blows. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #12: Tom Doyle’s “Man On The Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s”

It is said that no journalist gets close to Paul McCartney. His naturalman on the run guardedness and evasiveness have been compounded by fifty years of constantly dealing with prying, insensitive, and often clueless “reporters” trying to get a story out of one of the most well-known, wealthiest, and at times, oddest, musicians in the world.

He still gives tons of interviews. But, as Rolling Stone reporter Chet Flippo wrote in an old McCartney bio, when the reporter leaves the glow of being in the presence of a Beatle and actually reviews their tapes or notes, there is a cold realization that they have come away with nothing of any substance.

Does Tom Doyle break through that wall? For the most part, as even he admits, no. But he feels he has been lucky enough to get glimpses of the unguarded McCartney, mostly by virtue of being Scottish (a quality that McCartney seems to love), and the fact he is a long-time writer and editor for the classic rock-worshipping music mag Q, and not some Fleet Street hack looking for an angle on his messy divorce or re-hashing the same Beatles questions for the 10,000th time.

Perhaps to avoid over-familiar territory, Doyle has chosen to focus on the wings19721970s. Under the multi-platinum surface of Wings was a schizophrenic and frenetic decade for McCartney. Less resonant than the cultural upheaval that was the Beatles and the ballyhooed 1960s, but perhaps more interesting to someone who has had their fill of Beatles/60s mythologizing.

Doyle bookends his text with a Prologue and Epilogue from his numerous McCartney interviews of the 2010s. He notes that McCartney’s hair now seems professionally colored, rather than what he suspects were appalling home dye-jobs in the 1990s. (It’s this type of detail written in a clear, informal prose style that makes this book a particular pleasure.) Another reason I really like Doyle: He actually asks about Paul’s goofy, cheery, thumbs-up “Macca” persona of the last quarter century that has led to countless bad Dana Carvey-style impressions and a degradation of his standing among those who fancy themselves “serious” rock fans.

McCartney sighs, and says, “Have you seen me do it [the thumbs-up] in the last ten years?”

Doyle admits he hasn’t.

“I have been chastised by world opinion on that.”

The unguarded McCartney’s speaking voice, according to Doyle, is earthier and more “lovingly profane” than the cartoon Liverpudlian he puts on for most of the public. (Is this a thing? I’ve also heard from many sources that Michael Jackson’s spacey, high whisper was a total put-on, and he had a perfectly normal speaking voice in private.) The world’s third most-famous pot smoker (after Bob Marley and Willie Nelson) also admits he quit the stuff several years ago, citing age as a factor. He noted that friends told him recently “‘Wow, your choice of words has really gone up.’ Before, I’d go ‘It’s like…y’know…it’s like…y’know…good.” Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #11: Michael Korda’s “Clouds of Glory”

“I felt like anything other than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…” — General Ulysses S. Grant, on Robert E. Lee’s surrender

coverI am a Grant man. I have always been suspicious of the aloof, aristocratic Robert E. Lee. Not only because he fought on the side that was attempting to preserve one of the most odious institutions devised by mankind, but because Grant was decidedly non-aristocratic. Down-to-earth. “Blue collar,” though that term did not exist in the 1860s. He was a store clerk in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War started, having dropped out of the army as a captain a few years before. He had been a lowly quartermaster during the Mexican War, the brief conflict of the 1840s which introduced many of the young junior officers who would go on to be generals in the Civil War. He left the army in disgrace when loneliness for his family drove him to the whiskey bottle. He was reduced to selling firewood in the streets before his father took pity on him, and gave him a job in his store.

Four years later, he was a three-star general that had beaten the Confederacy’s best troops into bloody tatters, and accepted the surrender of the marble god of the Southern battlefield, the great Robert E. Lee, the man believed by many in the North and South to be invincible.

Grant’s story, to me, is the interesting one. Yet I have heard again and again about Lee’s divine prowess as a general, and I was always a little skeptical. He seemed more lucky than good. He took his much-renowned audacious risks out of necessity (the South was always outnumbered and outsupplied), and they paid off because the Union generals he was up against prior to Grant were timid and irresolute.

Michael Korda’s new biography, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, reveals that Lee was just as interesting as Grant, and certainly makes the case for Lee as a great commanding general: A man equally adept at offense and defense, which was a very rare thing indeed. Lee had a bold and courageous personality which led to decisive offense, stunning flanking attacks, and perfectly timed withdrawals.  He also had an engineer’s training, which led to impenetrable defenses when the need arose.

Lee was a loyal officer in the U.S. Army for thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. And most of that thirty years was drudgery — he was an engineer, specializing in fortification and drainage. His career highlight had been the two-year Mexican War. When Lt. Grant was “in the rear with the gear,” the dashing Colonel Lee was making a name for himself as a bold reconnoiter and mapmaker, and a valuable right hand to the commanding generals. Once the Mexican War was over, he served a term as Superintendent of West Point (where had graduated second in his class, already with a reputation for pristine perfection) before going back to engineering duties, which is where he was when the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 20: Where Did You Shop Last Night?

#151. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” — R.E.M.

R.E.M had long been promising a full-on “electric rock” album, and when Monster finally arrived at the tail end of September 1994, it received decent reviews, but little love from longtime fans, who seemed to prefer the band’s more inward, introspective material.

The material they did in the ‘80s for indie label IRS is what’s cherished by most people really into the band, but I always found it hit-or-miss. The good stuff is really good, but there’s also stuff I found to be on the boring side. So no, I suppose I can’t be counted among the R.E.M. “true believers,” who manage to sit through Fables Of The Reconstruction without being tempted to hit the “skip” button at least once or twice. Despite my carping, however, I do believe that they are among the best American bands of the last three decades.

REM39

It should come as no surprise that I thought Monster was the second-best thing they’ve ever done (1992’s moodier, acoustic Automatic For The People is a pretty unimpeachable #1). I loved that they dropped the self-serious tone (for the time being), I loved the loud, fuzzy electric guitars, and I loved that the “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” video (and subsequent Monster tour) featured bassist Mike Mills in a full-on Nashville Nudie suit. Underneath all the guitar wonk, I still think Monster is as solid a collection of songs you could hope to find in ‘94, or any other time. Give it another spin (if you didn’t sell it off years ago…)

#152. “Come Out And Play” — The Offspring

#153. “Self-Esteem” — The Offspring

offspringThere began to emerge a little gap between the stuff that spun on the communal 5-disc changer in the apartment’s living room, and the stuff I tended to reserve for private listening in my bedroom. The Offspring were definitely among the former. I liked some of their stuff, particularly the “Self-Esteem” single (as you might imagine, I was struggling in that area right around then), but this Southern California pop-punk quartet was always permanently stained in my mind due to their association with skate “culture.”

Yuba City was a fairly small town, but even fairly small towns can have problems with gang activity. Fortunately, I didn’t exactly move in circles that brought me into contact with real gangs very much. No, the closest thing to a “gang” that occasionally infiltrated by suburban white-bread/coffee shop milieu were…skateboarders, whom I reviled as over-aggressive, defiantly stupid, and extremely hygiene-challenged. (This was the case with Yuba City skaters, mind you. Down in SoCal or wherever, they might be pillars of the community.) When they weren’t paint-huffing or indulging in minor property damage, they were barging into coffee shops in their clown pants, engulfed in a cloud of body odor, and giving people dirty looks between ostentatious cursing and loud spits on the floor. (I don’t have a problem with cursing, but cursing to get attention is lame.) They were not kicked out because, like everyone, they knew someone who worked there.

sk8fail

Oh yes, and they were generally terrible skaters. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 19: Pulp Friction In The Voodoo Lounge

#143. “Black Hole Sun” — Soundgarden

The pattern began before I moved to my new apartment. I had recently swapped out my old Mazda Sundowner pickup for an ‘86 Bronco II, which had been my family’s workhorse for years prior to its being put out to pasture with me, and gaining the sobriquet Millennium Bronco (its hyperdrive was similarly unreliable, and I never even attempted the Kessel Run.) I would drive to Danielle’s house, check if her car was in the driveway, and if it was, ring the doorbell. (Calling ahead was for chumps.) If it wasn’t, I would seek out Caspar’s dad’s liquor cabinet. If that failed too, it was a disappointed return home and locking myself away with Soundgarden, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails.

sg_0I had way more free time on my hands than Danielle. By the end of August, she was at high school six hours a day. She had an evening math class at the college (just like I did the year before, but hers was due to her being too advanced, rather than mathematically retarded like me.) She had a job at Round Table, and just got a second job as a hostess at a family restaurant. (Yuba City folks loved them some family restaurants — Sizzler, Lyon’s, Perko’s, Jerry’s, Hal’s, Mr. Steak, and the ever-present Denny’s just across the river in Marysville.) That August and September, the precious few hours she had each week before doing something productive were more often than not spent on her family room couch with me, watching videos, or listening to some new CD I’d bought over to spin on the player perched on her kitchen counter. She was also undoubtedly bracing herself for the inevitable moment when I would try to kiss her. Between coughs.

The aforementioned Soundgarden, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails were also all over MTV right around then. The intensely creepy video for the pseudo-psychedelic “Black Hole Sun” was in heavy rotation that summer, so viewers were treated to its face-melting CGI nightmare fuel every 45 minutes or so.

We did get off the couch occasionally. I took her to the opening weekend of the215px-NBKillaz Oliver Stone gonzo bloodbath Natural Born Killers, illustrating how completely tone-deaf I was as to what girls might want to see at the movies on a date. I don’t even recall asking if she wanted to see it. I just announced that was what we were seeing.

But Danielle seemed to tolerate me. When I finally worked up the courage to kiss her cheek (high on the jawbone, near the ear), she accepted it gracefully, but it did not lead to a make-out session. I even asked “Was that OK?” (ever the gentleman) and she said “Yeah, it was nice.” I didn’t push any further at that point.

In my defense, her mother, little brother, and two dogs loved me. Her brother, a sophomore, was another overachiever-type and worked at the McDonald’s in the same shopping center as my video store. He would make me quadruple quarter-pounders (just called “pounders.”) Eating these on a regular basis may be solely responsible for the shooting pain in my left arm every time I rise from a seated position two decades later.

A lot did seem to be going right. But I couldn’t push through to the next level with her. The issue couldn’t possibly be me, could it?

The pattern continued…

#144. “When I Come Around” — Green Day

Gas was cheap in ‘94, hovering around a buck-twenty per gallon. I did a lot of aimless driving around, listening to sports talk or the oldies station (no CD player in the Millennium Bronco…yet), but I always ended up seeing if Danielle was home.

As we’ve discussed, Danielle was a busy girl. Her car was there maybe one out of every three or four days that I checked. I imagined her being disappointed on the days she was there and I somehow missed her. Missing her was a highly unlikely scenario because I watched that driveway like a hawk, but I imagined it nonetheless. “When I Come Around” was Green Day’s version of a ballad, and it was then and remains today my favorite song by them. The lyrical narrator is always “out on the prowl,” while the object of his affection is just sitting around “feeling sorry for [her]self.” I naturally applied this scenario to my situation. I was the roaming free spirit, she was the faithful waiter. Pure fantasy, of course…but there was an odd little hiccup that indicated I was subconsciously aware that whatever was going on with Danielle was kind of doomed.

I had a habit of slightly tweaking song lyrics when I would sing along with them to better suit my current state of mind. Even at the height of my delusions, I couldn’t kid myself about the last verse of “When I Come Around.” I mentally reversed the pronouns when I sang along with the song (which was often), switching the song’s “you” and “your” for “I” and “my.” As in “I may find out that my self-doubt/Means nothing was ever there/I can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right…” Very telling.

But “forcing something” I did. I pushed my chips to the center of the table one night as I was leaving, and planted a kiss squarely on her lips. She smiled, and continued saying whatever she had been saying before I moved in. But she did smile. I was hoarding whatever positive signs I got from her, because evidence that this was not going to work was piling up. (The coughing was a purely a nervous reflex at this point, and still lingering.)

Not long after that, I finally asked her to make it official with me. We were up in her bedroom, and she was doing something incredibly labor intensive (draining a waterbed, I think), and I sat cross-legged (not helping) on the floor, nervously fingering my shark’s tooth on a pukka shell necklace that I got in Hawaii a couple of months before. (It went nicely with the three-button polo shirt I was also wearing at the time. Why anyone would let me in their house is beyond me.) I steered the conversation toward Official Couplehood, and she didn’t steer it elsewhere (lack of panicked refusal = permission to continue). I ended up making clear that I was very low-maintenance. But the way I phrased it — “It doesn’t take much to make me happy” — didn’t come across the way I intended it. “Oh, thanks,” was the sarcastic reply. Smooth operator that I was, I somehow rescued the situation, and left for work that evening with the (ambivalent) impression I had a girlfriend again.

And I had one more ace up my sleeve if all else failed… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 18: Never Bring Laundry To A Mud Fight

Three years is a long time…practically forever in Internet-land, but that’s how long it’s been since an entry has been made in this series.

If you’re to new to the site, and/or a shut-in with mobility issues, you can begin with Part 1.

Or  catch up on the last few entries here:

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 15: Parker Lewis CAN Lose Or, The Perils of Clinging To Adolescence

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 16: A Fantastic Voyage With Cousin Bob (Loser Chronicles, Vol. II)

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 17: Nine Inch Fails — You Want To What Me Like A What??

When I first started these musical reminisces five years ago, it was intended as a quick skim through a few songs that I felt culturally encapsulated a very important decade in my life. Well…300 songs. The Holy Bee has always been an ambitious blogger. Ambitious…and verbose. The little capsule reviews of ‘90s songs and a few funny/sad memories to go with them swelled into a rambling autobiography, and it stopped abruptly at a particular time — the split between myself and my high school/college girlfriend, Emily. I now realize that was the point to which I was writing. Once I got there, it was like lancing a boil, or vomiting up something that had sickened me for far too long. The whole damn thing was not about music at all, but about heartbreak. And when I purged, I lost interest in continuing.

Looking back on the first seventeen entries, I am both proud and somewhat embarrassed. I was honest — too honest, sometimes. I included some real names I should have changed, some incidents best left unreported, and some thoughts best left unexpressed.

So I’ve gone back and changed a few more of the key names, including Emily’s. Why? Anyone who knows me from back then knows the real name(s), of course, and those who don’t wouldn’t be aware of who they are anyway. But I’ve just grown increasingly uncomfortable typing those real names, especially the girls (now middle-aged women long past caring, but it still feels intrusive.) The only person guaranteed to keep his real name is the late Jeff McKinney. Leaving his name attached to my memories is my inadequate tribute to his legacy as a genuine character.

I suppose I could stop the whole thing right here, but I feel I should see it through. The web is littered with abandoned blog series, and I refuse to join them. There’s still a few stories left to tell, and even a little music to remember.

One thing that will make it easier for me to continue is that “The Nineties” as an era, not a set of calendar pages, really ended for me in late 1997, and that’s when this series will end (with a quick 98-99 epilogue). Your mileage may vary, but I think unfocused anticipation (fear?) of 2000 shortchanged the last few years of the 20th century. So, if I keep it brief, I can see the end of my Nineties from here.

Decades are much more of a cultural span than a rigid group of numerical ten-year blocks, overlaid with very personal associations for those who experienced them. Culturally, the decade known as “The Fifties” was much more than Jan. 1, 1950 to Dec. 31, 1959 (add one year to each of those for you mathematical sticklers out there.) It started with the Baby Boom and the Cold War just after WWII, and continued well into what the calendar told us was the 1960s. Depending on your point of view, the turbulent “Sixties” began with the assassination of JFK or the American arrival of the Beatles (the two events took place eleven weeks apart). The Sixties “era,” too, lingered into the 1970s. A recent book called What You Want Is In The Limo by Michael Walker made a good case for the cultural “Seventies” starting in ‘73.

holybee94

The Holy Bee, looking typically morose, late ’94. Form an orderly line, ladies.

…So my Nineties felt a little short. It got rolling only in late ‘91 when Nirvana shook up a bloated and complacent music scene, and ended for me in the fall of 1997, for a few reasons. 1) I discovered I was going to be a father in 1998. I would have to be a grown-up from then on. 2) I began feeling the autumn breezes on the crown of my head a little more than in previous years, and the contents of my hairbrush and shower drain confirmed the physical (if not emotional) aging process had truly begun for me. 3) I lost touch with the music that was on the charts and on the radio. It began targeting a different audience (younger and dumber, in my opinion), and I became [sigh] “hipsterized,” for lack of a better term — interested in digging for the non-mainstream, the obscure. What little was left of the musical mono-culture crumbled into sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, “event” albums that everyone owned (and even albums themselves) would soon cease being relevant, staring as they were down the barrel of mp3s and new ways to consume music. Not necessarily bad ways, just not Nineties ways. The New Millennium was already eating its way backwards. Like the Fifties, I feel the 2000s (“The Oughts”?) began a little early, and lingered a little long. In fact, have the 2010s established an identity — a “feel” — even now?

Where were we? Oh, yes. It was August 1994, and I was a mopey 19-year-old college student and video store clerk who had just been dumped. Wispy early attempts at facial hair came and went according to my whims. I was spending a lot of time holding down a barstool at Mahler’s coffeehouse, where the coffee was gratis thanks to the counterman Caspar (an old high school acquaintance), and fellow regular patrons Audrey (Caspar’s girlfriend) and McKinney were allowing me a semblance of a social life again… Continue reading

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