My research tells me that the biggest smash hit of the summer of ’92 was “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap! Upon listening to the song now, I have to admit I have absolutely no recollection of it. I must have heard it multiple times, but tuned it out (which doesn’t seem difficult.) That summer also saw the release of the Madonna song which gives this blog series its title. Is it on the playlist? Nope.
Few artists are big enough to pull off the release of two new albums simultaneously. Guns N’ Roses had pulled it off the previous fall, and in 1992, Bruce Springsteen followed suit. The difference was, Use Your Illusion I and II were essentially two parts of the same big album. Bruce had recorded an album – Human Touch – and then, while insipiration was still running high, kept the tapes rolling for a hasty follow-up. Ironically, the afterthought album – Lucky Town – was to most people’s ears the superior one. Human Touch was polished and labored, whereas Lucky Town was loose and spontaneous. The biggest bright spot on Human Touch was its title song, an understated plea for making an emotional connection with someone. It’s a song I would come back to for solace in later, darker years. At the time, the video was just a constant presence on MTV all that summer, and I didn’t pay it much mind. (Pointless Note #1: Bruce’s E Street Band was on hiatus, so American Idol‘s Randy Jackson plays bass on this song.) (Pointless Note #2: See above for correct use of the term “ironically.” It doesn’t mean “amazingly” or “coincidentally.” The more you know…)
If you’re a Spingsteen fan, don’t bother trying to turn a younger friend or relative on to him if he/she is below a certain age. The appeal of Springsteen is a very adult appeal, lost on anyone who hasn’t experienced a certain amount of real life. As a budding music nerd, I owned 1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. years before their themes had any true resonance for me.
Originally recorded as part of the soundtrack to the film Rush in late 1991, “Tears In Heaven” became the official Downer Song of 1992 as the centerpiece of Clapton’s massively successful Unplugged TV concert/album. When we weren’t debating over The Cure and Depeche Mode, Emily and I were agreeing on the awesomeness of Clapton. She had the Rush soundtrack cassingle of the song (see earlier entry for discussion of “cassingles”) months before Unplugged became the soundtrack of the summer of ’92. (The TV episode, that is. The accompanying album didn’t come out until late August. There’s a noticeable lack of crowd reaction in the video when he begins the number, because it was a brand-new, unfamiliar song at the time the show was taped.) An ode to his young son that died after a fall from an open high-rise window, “Tears In Heaven” was shamelessly manipulative and maudlin – but damned if it didn’t work. A testament to Slowhand’s songwriting ability, which is often overlooked in the rush to praise his virtuosity.
As the summer wound down, I needed money. The only person more obsessed with raw capitalism than me was Emily. Her father was a part-time salesman at one of the seedier used-car lots in Marysville. In fact, the only thing seedier than this particular lot was its associated used-RV center immediately adjacent. Some of the flagship Winnebagos nearest the street were OK, but as you penetrated deeper and deeper into the lot, the vehicles began taking on a distinctly Cousin Eddie “tenement-on-wheels” appearance.
Em’s old man secured her as an independent contractor in charge of washing and detailing the RVs. In turn, she sub-contracted me as an assistant and all-around dogsbody in charge of all the least-pleasant aspects of RV detailing, in exchange for some under-the-table brown bag money. I couldn’t resist making some “sleeping with the boss” jokes, and some suggestions regarding testing the properties of the RV beds – all of which were resolutely and correctly ignored. By the end of the first day, I wasn’t in the mood for jokes either. One of my duties was to make sure the valves and pipes where the “waste water” was off-loaded were clear of cobwebs and various other encrustations. One set of pipes happened to be occupied by a nest of angry hornets, who registered their displeasure by swarming into my face en masse. And just to emphasize the fact that their swarming was no symbolic feint, one of them stung me directly on the tip of my nose. Eyes watering, I staggered backward, screeching like an electrocuted mink, and sat down hard on the asphalt, biting my tongue in the process. Fifteen minutes later, holding an ice-cold can of vending machine Sprite against my swelling proboscis, I was a source of great amusement to E. as she went about her duties, no doubt congratulating herself on her good fortune at snaring herself a companion whose nose was rapidly becoming a dead ringer for W.C. Fields’ in size and color.
E. dutifully worked her way through the lot full of RVs as August sizzled its way to its usual 100 degree Northern California conclusion. My own attendance on the lot was a little sporadic after that first day, but I remember going to The Wherehouse after my first payday and picking up The Black Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, which I had been dying to get – it had been on the shelves since May, and every penny I got my hands on for the past several months went right into my cursed vehicle.
It didn’t take Hollywood long to jump on the Seattle music scene bandwagon. Less than a year after the explosion of grunge into the mainstream, Cameron Crowe’s love-among-the-flannel romantic comedy Singles hit the screen, complete with a memorable supporting role for Matt Dillon as a slacker musician, and cameos from Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, who portray Dillon’s character’s band (“Citizen Dick”). My actually watching the flick would have to wait until its video release early the next year, but its commercials were on every fifteen minutes for three months, prominently featuring this song from the former Replacements front man. Westerberg had just left his legendary band, and began his solo career with two catchy, power-pop ditties for the soundtrack. (This one and the equally charming “Waiting For Somebody.” “Dyslexic” has the edge thanks to its “na-na-na” chorus. Who, since the days of “Hey Jude,” can resist a na-na-na chorus?) Despite the fact that native Minnesotan Westerberg has nothing to do with Seattle, and the style of these songs has nothing to do with grunge, I’m glad they were the cornerstone of the soundtrack, because they led me to discover The Replacements.
#72. “Drive” – R.E.M.
Senior year begins…AP English, Economics C, Algebra II, Biology II, French II…what a pisser of a workload. On top of which, Eric L. and I were among the last in our class to take the SATs. Everyone else took them in the late spring session. We drove out to Lindhurst High on a sunny early October day blasting Jerry Lee Lewis at top volume. (Musically, Eric was one of my only friends who was as retro as I was.) Lindhurst still had the somber shadow of the shooting hanging over it. Jerry Lee did his best to lighten the atmosphere by pumping out “High School Confidential” on the E.B. Bronco II speakers as we pulled up, but it didn’t help. I had a feeling, confirmed later, that we took the test in the exact same classroom where the initial shooting had occurred. I had a hard time concentrating. My final SAT score? 1140. 750 verbal, 390 math. I was terrible at math, and that was certainly not the fault of my surroundings.
I didn’t last too long in Algebra II (which was a junior-level class to begin with) thanks to a sawed-off petty tyrant of a math teacher whose sole explanation for the complicated machinations he was making on the chalkboard was “It’s automatic!” and refused to go into further detail. (Hi, Mr. Hathaway!) By October, I was out of the class, and replaced the hole in my schedule with aiding for the orchestra/drama teacher. Between that and actually being in the drama class, followed by lunch, I had a nice three-hour period of relative relaxation in the middle of the day.
The first video for R.E.M’s new album made its debut (“World Premiere” in MTV’s breathless hyperbole) in early October, and it was the topic of some discussion around the proverbial water cooler the next day. “Slow” and “weird” were the words I remember most. (Click the link above to see for yourself.) R.E.M. was sitting at the top of the popular music peak right then, and could easily have coasted into making a jangly, poppy Out Of Time Part Two, but instead they gave us this slow, downright gloomy song-cycle with titles like “Everybody Hurts” and “Try Not To Breathe.” Automatic For The People (Mr. Hathaway couldn’t have said it better himself) ultimately became one of the legendary albums of the decade, but at the time we didn’t know what to make of it. It certainly was not the “balls-out rock and roll record” guitarist Peter Buck had been promising all the previous year. (That one was coming next, of course.)
Keith Richards needs no introduction as the guitarist of The Rolling Stones, but he also serves as a hedonistic, swaggering, take-no-prisoners king-hell badass onto whom those of us with more sedate natures can project our desires to live like an outlaw. Keith-as-icon reached its peak with last year’s publication of a collection of his wit and wisdom called What Would Keith Richards Do?: Daily Affirmations From A Rock and Roll Survivor. (Get your copy today. You know I have mine.)
Musically, Keith and Stones were going through some rough weather. Both the Stones’ most recent offering (1989’s Steel Wheels) and Keith’s first solo album (1988’s Talk Is Cheap) got good reviews at the time, but already sounded completely out-of-date with their slick 80’s-style production – heavily processed drums, unnecessary horn sections, etc. The less said about the Stones’ horrid 1991 anti-Gulf War single “Highwire“, the bettter. Their hearts were in the right place, I guess.
So it was with great relief that Keith’s second solo album hit it out of the park. Gritty, stripped-down arrangements, production that never got in the way, and of course, Keith’s hoarse voice and rhythmic, riff-based guitar-playing. Give me that over Eddie Van Halen’s preening “shredding” (or as Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson calls it – “that riddly-riddly shit”) any day. Main Offender holds up to this day. I even bought the CD single of “Wicked”’s follow-up (“Eileen”) for its B-sides: a solo-Keith version of the Stones’ towering classic “Gimme Shelter” and his take on the Charlie Segar blues standard “Key To The Highway.”
Guns N’ Roses’ version of Keith – Izzy Stradlin – quit the band less than two months after the release of the Use Your Illusion albums. Even though their massive world tour continued for another eighteen months, with Gilby Clarke in the rhythm guitarist spot (more on him later), it’s no coincidence that Gn’R never recorded anything worth mentioning ever again. Stradlin was the glue (check the songwriting credits) that kept the whole shaky machine on the rails, and without him, there was no one to impose any kind of discipline, taste, or restraint in the recording studio.
A year after leaving the band, Stradlin re-surfaced leading a new band, and released an album that sounded almost nothing like Gn’R, but very much like an old Faces record (there’s even a cover of a Ron Wood song), or what Keith himself might sound like if he were twenty years younger and the front-man of a 90’s band.
I got both of these albums for my eighteenth birthday in December 1992.
Recorded for reasons that are still a bit hazy (and that can definitely be used to describe chief Lemonhead Evan Dando – “a bit hazy”), this Simon & Garfunkel cover was meant to be kind of a one-off single to promote the 25th anniversary of The Graduate. What there was to promote (the VHS? a theatrical re-release?), or why a little-known indie-pop band from Boston was tapped to record the tribute are questions I can’t answer. Something clicked, though, because this got a lot of airplay through the ’92 holidays, and the current Lemonheads album (It’s A Shame About Ray) was re-issued with this song tacked onto the end (and the song “My Drug Buddy” re-titled simply “Buddy,” under the assumption many more eyes were on the band now.)
This was the band you were Not Supposed To Like. According to their detractors, of which there were many, they completely co-opted the Seattle sound (and they were from L.A., fer chrissakes) and made it cheap and pandering. According to their defenders, of which there were few, they didn’t really sound all that much like Pearl Jam.
Um, yes. Yes, they did. And I say that as some one who likes them (though I never exactly spoke up to defend them at the time.)
I first came across the “Plush” video not knowing anything about them. I knew a follow-up to Pearl Jam’s debut Ten was in the works, and thought this was an early taste. I was genuinely puzzled as to why Eddie Vedder would dye his hair pink. It seemed so not like him. It wasn’t until the credits came up that I realized it was a different band. Watch the video and judge for yourself.
I got the album as a Christmas gift, so I didn’t have to wear the scarlet “A” of spending my own money in support of these clowns. But face it, the album was perfectly listenable. Not as creative as their next two, but certainly better than anything fellow heroin enthusiasts Alice In Chains ever coughed up.
l. to r., Your Humble Narrator (looking like a howler monkey during the “yell-off”), Jeff O., Jeff W.
This closes the door on 1992, and mercy me, this is turning into a much larger project that I ever envisioned. Hope you stay with it.