“Alternative” music had become mainstream. What was the alternative to the alternative? Acts that were far more edgy than those that the record labels had decided were “alternative” began emerging into earshot around this time. The loopy, acid-fried Flaming Lips were not yet the untouchable critical darlings they would become in the next decade, but were rather a minor annoyance with this deliberately abrasive ditty that garnered them one-hit-wonder status in the MTV Buzz Bin. And there are those that will tell you they bought Pavement’s landmark Slanted and Enchanted the day it came out, but don’t believe them. About 50 people bought Slanted and Enchanted the day it came out, and you’re not one, I’m not one, and neither of us know any of them. I first heard Pavement the same way a lot of people first heard Pavement — observing their video for this song get shit on by Beavis and Butthead.
Adolescence – even the late adolescence to which I was clinging at 19 – imparts a certain degree of emotional masochism. Sometimes it feels so good to feel bad, to paraphrase John Hughes (again). But in the early spring of 1994, I had very little to feel bad about. Hindsight tells me I must have had some subconscious inkling of a train wreck ahead. I created, and spent a lot of time listening to, a bizarre mix tape: An unholy mélange consisting of key tracks from Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Pink Floyd’s The Wall – and, uh, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Layla stands as Eric Clapton’s towering achievement (sorry, “Tears In Heaven” fans). The ill-fated Dominoes band he assembled to bring this mix of blues standards and searing originals together stands as the best group of musicians Clapton ever worked with. (Sorry, Cream fans. By the way, Cream is criminally overrated. Psychedelic horseshit, mostly. Stuff your ten-minute drum solos where the sunshine of your love never penetrates, Baker.) Despite classic-rock radio overkill, the song “Layla” is still intense, the yearning “Anyday” and “Bell Bottom Blues” perfectly encapsulate the feeling of a broken heart, and “Little Wing” manages to top Hendrix’s original, which is saying a lot. On my mix tape, the Layla songs bleed into the Wall songs, with a bit of overlap. Pain and sadness give way to anger and isolation. A much colder, more cerebral work than the heart-on-sleeve Layla, there’s no doubt that The Wall works very well in terms of ambiance (and high-end production so crisp and clear it’s almost antiseptic – which I’m sure was the goal). I never had any interest in “concept” albums, so I don’t care a fig for the “story” told by The Wall (typical prog-rock codswallop about the problems of a depressed, self-obsessed millionaire rock star with oedipal issues. Boo-freakin-hoo), but man, does it set a mood. And that mood is “I can’t decide if the world or I should fuck off and die.” I cut out most of the little narrative songlets that usually litter concept albums, and kept the showpiece numbers like “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2,” “Young Lust,” “Hey You,” and the crowning achievement, “Comfortably Numb.” My version of The Wall ends with “Run Like Hell,” thus eliminating the lame theatricality of “The Trial”……in favor of the lame theatricality of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” To me, the explosive catharsis that is the final third of the song is the logical conclusion to the harrowing ninety minutes of sorrow that had preceded it. Once you get past the rather silly pseudo-operatic midsection, the song thunders into a statement of self-assertion and I’m-gonna-be-okay-no-matter-what attitude.
A great soundtrack for wallowing in self-pity, which I liked to do even with so little to pity myself about. I had been with Em for over two years at this point and the relationship seemed pretty stable, so I rode the emotions of the songs on my tape like a roller coaster – with all the speed, twists, and spills of something dangerous, but without the real danger. A vicarious, virtual-reality sensation of heartbreak. It couldn’t really happen to me, right?
It was right around this time that Kurt Cobain chomped down on a shotgun barrel and embraced his true future: appearing in hundreds of Rolling Stone retrospective pictorials with Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. Talk about clinging to a late adolescence! Cobain continued to act the bratty, willful teenager into his late twenties. Most people get over Mommy and Daddy’s divorce and the mean jocks in middle school by the age of 27. Cobain, unfortunately, existed in an occupation where arrested development is actively encouraged. Even as he railed against the music industry like a true voice of juvenile punk-rock alienation, the industry cosseted him and encouraged him (and paid him by the truckload) to remain a sulky fifteen-year-old at his core. In every interview (except maybe his last major one, in Rolling Stone #674, 1/27/94) he sounded like someone who desperately needed to provoke, and never, ever once voiced any approval or satisfaction about anything (except a handful of bands he admired).
I remember Nirvana played MTV’s big New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1993 – a performance that didn’t get much re-airing, even in the wake of Cobain’s death, when every single clip of the band ever committed to videotape was trotted out and repeated ad nauseum. An agitated Cobain gave a wretched, half-assed performance, and concluded by spitting a fat glob of saliva onto the nearest camera lens. Way to stick it to the man, you rebel! He proceeded to live another four months, a period in which the Snotty Kid was rapidly devoured by the Pathetic Junkie at frightening speed. Peter Pan-ing his brains across the back wall of his garage, cowardly as it was, may have been the most measured decision he ever made. It ensured Eternal Adolescence, which seems to have been his goal all along.
#123. “All Apologies” — Nirvana
Nirvana may not have been the best band of the nineties, but they were the most important. (There’s a This Used To Be My Playground entry entirely dedicated to them.) Cobain may have been all of the things listed above, but he was also a genius whose potential was never realized. A creative melodist, a poetic lyricist, a talented visual artist (a lot of his material can be found in Nirvana’s album artwork), and a moving, powerful vocalist. No, they may not have been the best, but they were my favorite at the time. (Or maybe they were the best. I always try to open this up to reader: Who do you think was a better band in, say, 1992?)
I realize that the amount of ink spilled on this topic could give the Gulf of Mexico a BP-sized slick, and it’s kind of like closing the barn door not only after the horse has left, but left, been recovered, sold to a breeder, sired two dozen offspring, died, been buried, the burial site sold, paved over for a Hollywood Video, the Hollywood Video gone out of business, torn down, and replaced by a strip mall with a questionable massage parlor. I’m pretty late to the party, in other words.
It was a Friday morning – April 8 – when the story broke. I either had no class scheduled that day out at Yuba College, or decided that the class did not require my presence that morning (God, I loved living rent-free and going to a local college…for now.) I was in the darkened family room of my house watching Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way – a new release I had brought home from work at the video store the night before. The phone rang at about 11:00 am. It was Em with the news. “Put it on MTV,” she wisely instructed. No CNN for us at that age! Sure enough, there was a grim-looking Kurt Loder at the MTV News desk reporting that the driving force of the greatest band of the era was no more. I muttered “damn” to myself a time or two, watched the coverage for about twenty minutes until it started repeating itself, then went back to Carlito’s Way. I guess I’m not a candlelight vigil kind of guy.
Cobain’s death was a prophetic meteor streaking through my sky, an omen that heralded the end of childhood. Eternal Adolescence was not in the cards for me. The signal that my life was going to change drastically over the next sixteen months had been given. It all started in that April of ’94, when two atomic bombs went off in my life back to back…
Just this past year, Robert K. Elder did a fantastic book called The Film That Changed My Life, and I’m about to tell you the story of mine. Atomic Bomb #1:
#124. “Sabotage” — The Beastie Boys
“Sabotage” finally won me over to the Beastie Boys. I realized that I had been judging them by the quality of their fans, who, in the early nineties, were still mostly lunkheads who thought “Paul Revere” was the height of wit. The Beastie Boys themselves were in the process of trying to change that reputation, and their brilliant Ill Communication album was a huge leap in that direction. By the mid-nineties, the Boys had won new fans like me, and their early fans either grew along with them, or switched their allegiance to acts like 311, defiantly continuing to wear backwards baseball caps and pukka shells. The award-winning “Sabotage” video was an homage to 70’s cop shows like Starsky & Hutch and The Streets of San Francisco which I don’t remember watching, but I guess I must have caught them when I was three or even two years old, because the visual aesthetic was instantly familiar. (My mom has told me that when I was three, I was a huge fan of Emergency!, and knew all the characters’ names. I have no conscious recollection of this. I do have a conscious recollection of faithfully watching Barney Miller during my pre-school years, which is pretty much the reason I’m as awesome as I am now.)
Gritty 70’s crime movies received their homage via the intriguingly-titled Reservoir Dogs, which had been kicking around on video store shelves for the better part of a year by then. Although the influences and antecedents were quite clear, no 70’s movie, or any movie, was like this. And it took me the better part of forever to finally sit down and watch it. My choice in movies had not yet become experimental. After eight months at the video store, and working their free-rentals-for-employees policy pretty hard, I had educated myself on some old classics (Lawrence of Arabia, The Maltese Falcon, Bullitt, etc.) and burned myself out on bad action movies. (Anyone remember Fortress? Christopher Lambert was a rancid ham, but this close to superstardom thanks to mid-range action flicks released every nine months and gobbled up by teenage boys in the days before X-Box). However, I had not yet dipped a toe into the modern indie-filmmaking movement currently gathering strength. Movies like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant, and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs were putting distributors like Miramax and the Samuel Goldwyn Company on the radar, and were getting the ink in the relatively new mags like Entertainment Weekly and Movieline (I was a proud subscriber to both), but they certainly didn’t play at the Yuba City multiplex. Patriot Games played on three screens, but there was no room for Peter’s Friends.
I finally brought home Reservoir Dogs. And when I say brought home, I mean I brought it to Em’s house, as by this point I was treating her living room as if it were my own. (Her family tolerated my watching all four hours of Gettysburg on their TV a few weeks before, so who says it wasn’t a great relationship?) What finally caused me to seek it out was the trailer that appeared on the home video of Chaplin. I had already seen Chaplin in the theater back around Christmas ’92, so I was in no hurry to rent it and re-watch it. But when I finally did, the preview for Reservoir Dogs caused me to dash back to work and pick up that video as well.
Reservoir Dogs completely changed my relationship with movies. Most of you have seen it, so I don’t need to recap anything about it, and you know how it starts: A conversation around a table at a coffee shop. But listening to that conversation is like putting your hand on a steel rail as a freight train approaches from a mile or two away – hot, heavy, thrumming…alive and dangerous.
The first voice we hear is Tarantino himself, playing the minor character Mr. Brown: “You wanna know what ‘Like A Virgin’’s about? Let me tell you what ‘Like a Virgin’’s about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.”
I was no stranger to crime flicks. I was no stranger to profanity in movies. But when was there ever a first line like that? Pop-culture obsessiveness, raw sexual crassness, and a slight veneer of menace based on automatically knowing the guys around the table weren’t cell phone salesmen or middle-school teachers (they were, in fact, jewel thieves) combined into a cinematic gut-punch. I was now a cinephile. I began devouring movies, and thinking about them. Was there other stuff like that out there? What had I been missing? If you haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs, go watch it right now. I had long since figured out how to rig two VCRs together, so I could copy any video I brought home from the store. Reservoir Dogs went right into the collection, and I almost wore out the tape. I finally received an official copy for Christmas or birthday at the end of that year, which went missing under circumstances I’ll discuss later.
(When either one of my sons come into money, their first instinct is buy a gift for someone else. I don’t know where they got this idea from, but I’ve been the beneficiary a few times. The first Blu-Ray I owned after getting a Blu-Ray player was Reservoir Dogs, bought for me by my son Cade, who is nowhere near old enough to watch it.)
#125. “Shine” — Collective Soul
This song existed.
Atomic Bomb #2: Em and I broke up after two years and four months of what I thought was happiness and stability. The Crash Test Dummies — a Canadian folk-rock band whose lead singer’s ridiculously deep baritone vocals had them flirting with novelty-act status — was the album I bought the week we had the “talk.” As in “we have to talk,” a phrase no one wants to hear.
We had the dreaded talk at the food court in the Yuba-Sutter Mall, and it was as brutal as expected. Out of her grocery list of complaints, the one that I did not anticipate was that I was doing everything I could to delay the onset of adulthood. She worked full-time at a hospital in the medical records office. She had a car payment. She ironed her outfits. I was still a goofy, childish part-time video store clerk who hung out at Lyon’s until four a.m., quite content to reside in my old bedroom in my parents’ house until who-knows-when. In another time-honored tradition, she told me we were just “taking a break.”
“Exactly,” she smiled reassuringly.
She would not be swayed. I knew a “break” at our age was the kiss of death. The melancholy rumble of the Crash Test Dummies’ singer was the perfect voice for the strange emptiness I suddenly felt. I was really quite shocked at how little I felt. But I was in that nether zone that exists between the time an injury occurs and the time your body’s pain receptors send the signal.
But first, we had to go to Hawaii…