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.
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…)
There 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.
So R.E.M. had been hinting at an electric rock album for some time, but Eric Clapton fans had to wait even longer for the “pure blues” album he had been promising for twenty-five years. As great a guitarist as Clapton is, his post-Derek & The Dominoes solo albums are mostly easy-listening, adult-contemporary pop. But on each of those albums is often a tantalizing glimpse of what he could do if he really wanted. (Think “The Sky Is Crying” from There’s One In Every Crowd, or “Double Trouble” from No Reason To Cry.) It got particularly bad in the ‘80s, when he went for synthesizers and Phil Collins collaborations. Finally in the fall of 1994, we got what we had been waiting for: From The Cradle, a stomping, shredding, all-electric blues album that paid homage to the Chess artists of days gone by, such as Muddy Waters, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon, and several others.
This was one that stayed mostly on my bedroom stereo. It was not feel-good music. I realized Danielle and Sandra had been passing fancies. Almost every track on From The Cradle was a desperate message to Emily: “Reconsider Baby,” “I’m Tore Down,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Standin’ Round Crying,” etc. etc. etc. It was an undeliverable message, of course, because I hadn’t seen or spoken with her for over five months at this point. I did have fantasies of running into her again. I thought of her casually wandering into the video store. I knew I would be going up to the state college in Chico in a year (or two), and wondered what it would be like to end up in a class with her. I even pictured her boldly knocking on the apartment door. Every time a knock came, I had a brief “could it be…” flutter.
“Motherless Child” was a particular stand-out, as it was acoustic where the rest of the tracks were heavily electric. Originally recorded as “Motherless Child Blues” by Barbecue Bob Hicks in 1927, it had none of the searing pain or beat-down desperation of the other material on the album, just a kind of quiet disillusionment. It was a sigh rather than a sob.
One of the most influential shows on MTV is Unplugged, which has been airing in various incarnations since 1989. The premise was simple: musicians put on a low-key live show using primarily acoustic instruments. If an episode proved particularly popular, it would be spun off as an album, and a handful of these became major entries in the artist’s catalog — Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Page & Plant, and several others. Towering over these was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York, because it was deliberately sequenced and staged by suicidal frontman Kurt Cobain as his own funeral.
On November 18, 1993, surrounded by black candles and lilies, the band played through fourteen muted covers and their own semi-obscurities (the only hit single they included was “Come As You Are”), accompanied by touring guitarist Pat Smear (former Germ and future Foo Fighter) and cellist Lori Goldston. The venue was a studio in the Sony broadcasting complex on West 54th St. (since torn down), converted into an intimate performance space with an audience of a few dozen. The show aired a month later, and after Cobain’s suicide the following April, it became the band’s final Grand Statement, seemingly airing every few hours all that spring and summer.
When it finally came out as album almost a year after it was recorded, it became an instant classic — haunting, sad, bone-chilling — and a eulogy not only for a musician and the band he created, but for the entire grunge era of the early ‘90s.
Maybe the most stunning single performance captured on tape by any musician during that entire decade was the final song on the album, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
The song is a folk music staple, originally known as either “In The Pines” or “Black Girl,” and dates back to the 1870s. It first appeared on sheet music in 1917. In the commercial recording era, the song and its seemingly endless variations has been issued dozens of times in many genres (including a chirpy, chipper one by a little known ‘60s British Invasion band called The Four Pennies that’s so wrong it has to be heard to be believed). But it was the version(s) recorded by folk-blues artist Leadbelly in the 1940s that had the biggest overall impact.
Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan seemed to set the bar for modern interpretations of the song on his excellent 1990 solo album The Winding Sheet (a pre-fame Cobain contributed guitar and backing vocals). It was in tribute to this performance that Nirvana chose to include the song in their Unplugged set…and managed to eclipse the Lanegan version which had inspired it. Over ominous, doom-laden chords, and a groaning cello, Cobain whispers, moans, wails, and finally screams his guts out, narrating a tale of betrayal, abandonment, and violent death, blacker than a thousand midnights. I must have played it a thousand times that fall.
Among the many VHS tapes stuffed into the crevices of our entertainment center was a compilation I had made some time before of classic Looney Tunes cartoons, thanks to my dual-VCR recording set-up and unlimited access to my video store’s inventory. A particular apartment favorite was the one with a beleaguered hound dog dealing with a hungry hillbilly flea. The flea’s theme song, “Food Around The Corner,” was sung delightedly by us when our paychecks came in and we could make a joint trip to the grocery store and load up.
Our grocery trips occurred well after midnight, and took advantage of the low, low prices at the bag-your-own-stuff warehouse store Food 4 Less. We loaded the cart with case after case of Coca-Cola, bags of bagels, and lunch meat. Besides the usual ramen noodles and mac & cheese, the staple meal in the apartment was the “bagelwich” — Oscar Meyer ham or turkey on a sliced bagel, liberally slathered with mayonnaise. It was a little more filling than a typical sandwich, and provided enough carbs to keep us functioning through the ridiculous hours we kept.
We didn’t eat at home all that much, though. Not when there was a smorgasbord of fast food to be had. It made up a full quarter of my budget: 1. Rent/utilities. 2. Gas/insurance. 3. CDs. 4. Fast food. That ratio is pretty accurate. The most common choice was Jack-In-The-Box, due to Caspar and McKinney’s employee discounts. Which didn’t stop us from referring to it as “Jack-In-The-Crack” and “Itch-In-My-Crotch.” A close second was Taco Bell (“Taco Hell” or “Taco Smell”), which we all agreed had the most mentally-challenged employees of all the fast food chains. I mean, their hiring bar was low. Then there was our favorite, Carl’s Jr. The mighty Carl’s never earned a disparaging nickname. Burger King was generally avoided, and McDonald’s got a bit of business due to its proximity to my video store.
We would also frequent the 24-hour chain diners, such as Lyon’s, which I’ve mentioned a few times already. My preferred dish was a steak flatbread sandwich with A1 “Gold” Sauce (long discontinued), and the bottomless coffee cup.
It was crossing the bridge between Marysville and Yuba City in the Millennium Bronco to enjoy just such a meal that “Seether” by Veruca Salt came on the local alt-rock radio station, KWOD 106.5. It became my new favorite song for a few weeks. The chugging twin-guitar attack of Nina Gordon and Lousie Post (and Gordon’s adorably squeaky lead vocal contrasting with the rage-filled lyrics) led me straight to Camelot Music the next day to get the album, American Thighs, but there was nothing on there to match the impact of “Seether.” Yet another CD where I would just hit “repeat” on one track.
Finally! A CD that’s good all the way through! As odd as it seems these days, now that Weezer had become kind of a musical pariah, the first Weezer album seemed to fall from the heavens as an antidote to CD-era bloat. Ten tracks, each one a winner. It was my birthday present from my roommates. We had been enjoying the videos for both “Undone” (the one with the dogs) and “Buddy Holly” (the one where the band was digitally inserted into old Happy Days footage) for some time, and in the week or so before my birthday, Caspar dropped some casual hints that this was to be my present, such as “Don’t buy that CD yet.”
I turned 20 on December 3, 1994. One year away from legal alcohol consumption, but I had already turned into a committed drinker. None of us could buy for ourselves, but all being 20 (I was the youngest), we had plenty of friends and associates who were 21 and would occasionally take the time to help us stock our fridge and “liquor cabinet” (lord knows we had plenty of kitchen cabinet space at the time, being mostly unencumbered by food or cookware.) Additionally, none of us had developed any kind of taste preferences yet, so our libations were haphazard and consisted mostly of whatever random bottles we could get our greedy paws on. Mostly rum and tequila at first, for some reason. What is it with rookie drinkers gravitating toward and rum/tequila, the most vomit-inducing spirits of all time? After a few bad experiences, I developed a lifelong hatred for rum and tequila.
I eventually drew a line in our brown shag carpet, and began insisting on whiskies. Scotch, bourbon, blended. I didn’t care, as long as it wasn’t rum or tequila. (Which I began referring to as “the Devil’s piss.” And don’t try to tell me I just haven’t had “good” tequila. I have, and it’s better, but I still don’t like it. I don’t like Captain Beefheart, either, and it’s not just because I haven’t heard the “right” album.) When the whiskey bottles finally started showing up on a regular basis, they also started disappearing with unseemly haste. The roommates barely got a sip before I drained it. “I would bring home an unopened bottle on Friday,” Caspar liked to say. “And Matt had a new candleholder in his room by Sunday night.” (Yes, I stuck candles in empty liquor bottles, and built up quite a collection. Even back then, the Holy Bee was about class.) The heavily-diabetic McKinney did not join us in our imbibing, sticking to copious amounts of Diet Pepsi and jabbing insulin into his knee seemingly every twenty minutes.
Our beer of choice was always bottled Miller Genuine Draft, but that didn’t stop me from downing at least ten cans of Budweiser at a video store work party, and learning that one’s world can shrink to the mercifully cool patch of tile at the base of a toilet. After that first two years or so of the drinking life, I decided I didn’t like being drunk. Or more precisely, I didn’t like hangovers. And a few “miscalculations” here and there aside (I was over-served!), I spent the next two decades maintaining the mild buzz that has kept my over-sensitive feelings in check without spilling over into total drunkenness. It is no coincidence that I started to do better with girls from this point on. A few sips transformed me from grasping, needy Jerry Lewis to don’t-give-a-shit Dean Martin.
To a lot of people’s surprise, our apartment crew was pretty much anti-marijuana. Not for any moral reasons (then as now, I say legalize it), but just because the potheads in our circle of friends could get really annoying about their little pastime. We fancied ourselves Hemingway/Fitzgerald-type old-school drinkers, and it seemed like our more herbal-minded acquaintances could talk about little else other than their precious ganja. Their giggly secretiveness and ritualistic fetishization of smoking it wore on our nerves, and their obsession with finding stoner references in everything was a kind of desperate. (Attention to you 4/20 types: That barely audible conversation in Weezer’s “Undone”? He’s saying “stoked,” NOT “stoned.” Sorry to disappoint you.) Despite having no illicit odors to cover up, incense sticks burned nonstop in Apartment #814. To this day, when someone fires up incense, my olfactory senses are transported back to 1994-5.
I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering which band was the true “American Beatles” of the 1990s. I narrowed it down to two, based on artistic integrity, critical respect, almost universal popularity, and my own taste: R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. With Nirvana now out of the running, I transferred a lot of my admiration to their Seattle cohorts. 1991’s Ten and 1993’s Vs. were, in my mind, almost flawless classics. Evidently I was not alone. Anticipation for the third Pearl Jam album, Vitalogy, was considered feverish enough to convince Yuba City’s lone indie music store, The Underground, to stay open until midnight to offer the album the second it went on sale, at exactly 12:00 AM, Tuesday, December 6, 1994.
Midnight was like early evening to us, so naturally the apartment crew was there. I believe I was the only one among us who actually bought a copy of the album, so I was the only one who experienced crippling buyer’s remorse when I actually played it.
Vitalogy suffered from the “third album” curse, typical for bands who were very successful with their first two albums — their ego and budget were inflated to the point where every idea was a good idea, they decide to get “experimental” resulting in at least four tracks of non-musical self-indulgence, and the CD packaging becomes some kind of modern art exhibit. In Vitalogy’s case, the CD came wrapped in several reproduced pages of a 1920s medical textbook, along with other random scribblings. Pearl Jam was/is a solid band, so a few good songs couldn’t be suppressed, with “Better Man” probably being the best of the lot. But when I read recently that rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard admitted “eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded” I couldn’t be less surprised. And the small amount of time between Vs. and Vitalogy reflected Eddie Vedder’s publicly stated goal at the time of releasing an album at least “every eighteen months, like Kiss,” which I supported, even if it resulted in sloppy, tossed-off albums like Vitalogy. It didn’t work out. For the rest of their career, they ended up taking several years between albums, each one painstakingly labored over, and the result was the same number of good songs per album (maybe fewer.)
My other purchase of the evening worked out a little better. The week before, The Beatles’ Live At The BBC was released. Lots of bands from the 1960s and early ‘70s recorded special sessions for the venerable British broadcasting institution, and these sessions frequently featured rarities not available on the band’s regular albums. In one fell swoop, two discs worth of studio-quality cover songs bashed out by the Fab Four in ‘63-’64 were added to their catalog. Needless to say, I got far more pleasure out of hearing John Lennon rip through “Johnny B. Goode” than hearing Eddie Vedder bleat about “Bugs” over his own accordion accompaniment.
There seemed to be enough business to keep every video store in town thriving. When we would get really crazy on weekend nights, this song would start running though my head. Ini Kamoze’s reggae-rap “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” which lifted the well-known “na na na na” chorus from Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of 1000 Dances,” was a good song to keep your energy up. It was featured in the Robert Altman turkey Pret-A-Porter (Ready To Wear), a frenzied and almost plotless glimpse into Paris’ Fashion Week. The movie tie-in video (which is not the one linked above, it seems to have disappeared) highlighted the some of the more frantic clips from the film— people racing around backstage areas, hurriedly answering phones, dashing in and out of rooms. I guess that’s what it came to be associated in my subconscious mind with rushing to get something done.
I tended to work the closing shift on Fridays (4-12), a “swing” shift on Saturdays (around 2-10, but be flexible!), and the opening shift (10-6) on Sundays, with various other hours scattered throughout the week. (Two days off in a row? Forget it.) Thirty minutes for lunch, just enough time for a deli sandwich from the Bel Air grocery store next door (or a “pounder” from McDonald’s, see earlier entry), and maybe suck down a Chesterfield outside the store’s back door in the loading zone. Closing was nice, because Joe the Manager was long-gone (despite frequent threats, he never once “popped in” to check on us after he went home), customers starting thinning out by 11:00 allowing us to put whatever we wanted on the in-store video screens, and we could go about our “closing duties” — sweeping, “spot-mopping,” and the never-ending task of alphabetizing the videos, which had been pawed over by all manner of humanity all day. It wasn’t making me rich, but it allowed me to afford the lifestyle you’ve been reading about.
The tail end of ‘94 and the beginning of ‘95 was the Great Era of Faux-Grunge. With Nirvana out of the spotlight, there was much vying for who got to fill the empty spot on the podium with still-functioning Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains. Perhaps all you needed were distorted, down-tuned guitars, growly vocals, and dark lyrics in an ironic marriage with ear-candy hooks and radio-friendly production, and you were a contender. Yet despite sometimes massive sales, the newcomers were often dismissed and disdained.
What, then, separated the “pretenders” (the most prominent examples at the time are listed above) from the genuine article, if both featured all of the above attributes? Geography, mainly. If it wasn’t Seattle, it wasn’t true grunge. Somehow the dank fog and rain, the ongoing economic depression, and the media-glamorized heroin epidemic seeped into the music coming out of the Pacific Northwest, lending it a perceived legitimacy missing from bands based in, say, Texas (Toadies), Michigan (Sponge), or even the U.K. (Bush).
And from (shudder) L.A., Stone Temple Pilots were simultaneously the best and most-reviled of the grunge pretenders, which put them in their own (platinum-selling) purgatory.
Sometimes even being from the right region wasn’t enough, as two excellent Seattle bands, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees, never got much of a commercial foothold.
And I forget who first said it, but there was a joke going around at that time that, “mathematically, through the process of elimination, there has to be someone out there who is the world’s biggest Better Than Ezra fan.”