Category Archives: Music — 1990s

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 24: The Final Countdown

“We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product, while giving ourselves the grace to evolve…” — T.D. Jakes.

This is it. The decade, and my interest in the popular music it was currently producing, were both circling the drain. I was about to be a husband and father (in that order, barely.) I had stopped listening to the radio entirely back in early ‘96 (had a CD changer in the car, remember?) MTV was a wasteland by 1997. I had my niche artists that I chose to listen to, and had parted ways with the music currently on the charts…but they were in the cultural air and kind of unavoidable.

So here’s the last batch…mostly unconnected to any specific reminiscences…and a little epilogue…and now I’m thinking of things I forgot over the past 23 entries, and it’s too late to add…oh, God, “Come To My Window” was huge, and nowhere to be found…and “Liar” by the Rollins Band…and why did I pick “Creep” instead of “Waterfalls”?…Oh shit, this whole thing sucks…

#257. “Love Sick” — Bob Dylan

In response to the bombshell she just dropped that early-November night, I did what any panicked unready father would do…I insisted we drive right to the store and buy two more pregnancy tests. Positive. Positive. In the scary days that followed, she decided she would keep the baby and raise it with or without my help. Despite all evidence to the contrary (some of which you have read about), the Holy Bee had a sense of honor. I decided to “do the right thing,” in old-timey 1950s vernacular, and marry the baby-mama.

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Posing with Dylan’s guitar, Hard Rock Cafe, November 1997. My interest in caftan-like cabana wear was clearly growing. My hair was falling out in clumps at this point. The strain wasn’t noticeable in my face, was it?

We told our respective parents of the situation and the decisions we had come to…(except her Religious Dad, who was kept in the dark for a few more months about the reason for the nuptials)…the wedding was set for early January…a certain amount of haste was needed for obvious reasons…I found an apartment for us…just down the block from good ol’ First Run Video, actually…still in business but definitely dying…now entirely ran by the former assistant manager from whom I had only very recently stopped buying Vicodin tablets at ten dollars a pop…Religious Dad would not allow cohabitation before the marriage…I would live there by myself for about two months (Religious Dad did help with the rent)…

I don’t know if it’s coincidence but it’s also around this time that my formerly unruly hair became a lot easier to manage…I was pleasantly surprised at first…where it used to have to be beaten into submission with a blow dryer and a lot of patience, it would now submit meekly to a quick toweling…it seemed wispy…thinner…then I saw some home movies taken around Christmas that briefly showed me from the back and I almost choked on my eggnog…there was a definite patch of empty real estate on the crown of my head…tiny at first but it would grow to the size of a monk’s tonsure by the new century…

We went to see the Rolling Stones on their Bridges To Babylon tour…left early due to the harmful effects the smoky air may be having on the unborn child…

#258. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — The Verve

#259. “Monkey Wrench” — Foo Fighters

The Future Ex-Wife and I tied the (temporary) knot in Nevada City in January of 1998. It was a pretty nice wedding, actually. I was particularly proud of the sharp-looking tuxes I had picked out for myself and my best man, Will. The religious in-laws raised the subject of having a “dry” reception and were practically laughed out of the room. There would be no compromises on this issue. Frozen margaritas all around!

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Wedding Day, although Allen seems to be the center of attention, flanked by the Holy Bee and a very Tony Soprano-ish Will

#260. “Miss Misery” — Elliott Smith

#261. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It” — Will Smith

#262. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” – Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott

#263. “Sex And Candy” — Marcy Playground

#264. “Karma Police” — Radiohead

I really liked our apartment…it had a lofted master bedroom accessible by a narrow spiral staircase, which I had decorated with blue and white Christmas lights…then it was pointed out navigating a spiral staircase potentially several times a night to use the bathroom while pregnant may be a problem…we switched to a more practical unit in the same complex after a month or two…

Religious Dad was finally told of the reason for the wedding (because he certainly knew how to count, and would know the difference between nine months and six months)…he basically shrugged and said something akin to “she’s your problem now”…

Caspar and Audrey came to the wedding reception (late as usual)…and visited the apartment a few weeks later…that was the last time I ever saw either of them…

7cee75f3adec14e28d41ba4601c3b0b4#265. “Smack My Bitch Up” — Prodigy

The fellas in Prodigy insisted they meant the title ironically, and that the song was actually an indictment of obnoxious, overbearing intensity. I almost believed them. But it deeply offended Future Ex-Wife’s staunch feminist sensibilities. (She had only recently stopped writing it as “womyn.”) The Fat of the Land — despite its critical accolades — was a banned album in our new joint household. (When she found out her much-admired older brother owned it, she burst into tears. I don’t know if he got rid of it, or just told her he got rid of it.)

#266. “History Repeating” — Propellorheads

The Sutter Theater was located in the “downtown” area of Yuba City, which being a town and certainly not a “city,” was a just a few blocks. At one end was the Sutter Theater. At the other end was the Underground record store. It was about a ten-minute walk. On a typical Tuesday or Wednesday night at the theater, business was pretty slow and staff was minimal, usually just a manager and another employee. More often than not, it was Will and me. We were already on manager’s salaries ($350 a week for the Holy Bee; more for Will who was now actually Head Manager), so the company didn’t have to shell out for an hourly employee who may cost more than the movies made that night.

With little to do when the movies were actually running, we sat in the office chatting, doing college homework, or reading music magazines. If the music mags tipped us off about something interesting, we could walk down to the Underground on our dinner break, acquire our album, and have it spinning on the office CD player in under thirty minutes. Such was the case with the Propellorheads’ forgotten techno classic Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, which is still a favorite album of mine to this day.

#267. “Closing Time” — Semisonic

To get to Java Retreat and the Underground, you exited the Sutter, turned right, and walked a few blocks. To get to two of the grungiest dive bars in the north valley, you turned left and walked ten feet. The Spur was a classic barfly bar, and its barstools certainly supported the Holy Bee’s ass on more than one occasion. Its next-door neighbor, the Town Pump, attracted a slightly younger and more dangerous crowd. If we ever had a problem with a loud, obnoxious trucker-hatted drunk wandering into the theater (which was often), nine times out of ten, they came from the Pump.

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#268. “The Way” — Fastball

Saw these guys in their pre-one-hit-wonder days back in ‘97, opening for Matthew Sweet at the long-gone El Dorado Saloon in Sacramento. I pegged this song as the stand-out of their set.

#269. “Iris” — Goo Goo Dolls

#270. “Flagpole Sitta” — Harvey Danger

scn_0001#271. “Ray Of Light” — Madonna

My son Cade Carson was born on June 21, 1998 (at Fremont Hospital on Plumas Street, within sight of the theater.) It also happened to be Father’s Day (gifts displayed at left, along with a rapidly-expanding double chin). His delivery was paid for by Medi-Cal, the California health insurance for extremely poor folks, which we most definitely were. I told people “Carson” was an aesthetic choice, having a nice alliterative ring with “Cade.” But it was totally, 100% after Johnny Carson, one of my childhood idols. (Did I mention I was a weird child?) I would actually have done “Cade Letterman” or “Cade Newhart” if I thought I could get away with it. (There’s a slight chance he’s sitting in his dorm room in Denver reading this right now. Dude, I wouldn’t really have done “Cade Letterman”…but if you want to change it to that…I’m OK with it.) Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 23: I Hope You Had The Time Of Your Life

#224. “Killing Me Softly” — The Fugees

#225. “Who Will Save Your Soul” — Jewel

#226. “Criminal” — Fiona Apple

#227. “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” — Los Del Rio

Summer ‘96! (as should be obvious from the songs above)

I floated lazily around most days on buoyant pool chair…I customized the drink holder in the styrofoam independence_day_movieposterchair arm to be able to handle a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor…Beck’s Odelay played on repeat from speakers perched in my bedroom window…When the sun started dipping, I would wash the chlorine off, put on my managerial shirt and tie, and head for the theater…

The State looked like it might finally turn a profit by opening The Nutty Professor and Independence Day back to back…we had lines around the block…and a total lack of parking which reminded us why the place had to shut down in the first place…Frosted-Tip Douche was fired for stealing from the register…Rodger had long since quit and moved to a nearby town…Smokey quit and moved to Vegas…

Caspar and Audrey returned from Colorado…they had left at the start of the previous summer impulsively with no plan…they spent the first couple of months literally homeless…living in their car and a tent in a campground…they came back to California and moved back into the exact same apartment complex we had lived in before (not the same unit)…Future Ex-Wife and I made up a social foursome with them…Caspar took a job washing and folding clothes at LaundryTime…

s-l400I was usually in charge of changing the marquee at the theater…nothing like being perched on a teetering ladder which was in turn perched on the edge of a building to get you over your fear of heights…My specialty, though, was “build and tear”…movie prints arrived on six to eight individual reels of about 2000 feet each (Braveheart had ten), in battered, Depression-era cans, and had to be “built” up — spliced together into one massive piece of film about the diameter of a tractor tire, which would rest on a platter system that would feed into the projector…(sit still dammit, this is like the parts in Moby Dick that talk about whaling technicalities…I actually liked those parts)…movies that had finished their run had to be “torn” back down into their component reels to be shipped out…the whole process could take a couple of hours at least, depending on how many movies we were turning over, and had to be done after the last showing on Thursday night…so most Thursdays I was at the theater all alone from midnight until two or three in the morning…

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Typical pre-digital platter & projection system. Our projection booth was never that clean.

Of course the State Theater was rumored to be haunted…and of course I did hear footsteps and a few mysterious knocks on the projection booth door when no one was there… I took to wearing my Discman (90s alert!) when doing build & tear…I had an elaborate back-and-forth system of turning on and off all the lights so I was never walking through total darkness on my way out…I took to calling out “good night!” as I locked up, to get on their good side…despite knowing on an intellectual level it was all nonsense, I lived in abject fear of looking up from the auditorium floor and seeing a horrid pale face peering out the projection booth window, which allegedly happened to a late-working employee one build and tear night back in the 70s…

Film prints were in the process of switching from a celluloid base to a longer-lasting polyester 11dc959a2bb7ae2ec88881867e97755cbase…we got some of the older kind, some of the newer…if the projector jammed on a celluloid print, the lamp would just burn a hole through it (remember that?)…the print would break, the fail-safe lever would drop, stopping the system, and it was a mere few minutes’ work to splice it together and get it going again…if it jammed on a polyester print, it would not break, and often pull thousands of feet of film off the platter right onto the floor…movie cancelled…customers pissed…

But it’s all digital now, so none of the above is anything anymore…I’m old…call me Ishmael…

Speaking of old…the World Wide Web was now a thing…at least for me…I plunged in after many, ahead of some… I began paying twenty-five bucks a month for dial-up service in July…

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Pebble Beach, Summer ’96

#228. “El Scorcho” — Weezer

#229. “Santa Monica” — Everclear

At the start of August, Future Ex-Wife moved down to Monterey to attend Monterey Peninsula College. We decided to take a stab the long-distance thing, knowing it was probably futile. I listened to Weezer’s Pinkerton a lot on the three-hour drive I made several times that fall. (I found out later that Rodger was also making that three-hour drive several times that fall. I don’t know what he listened to. Probably something much cooler.) Santa Monica is pretty far from Monterey, but it was the theme song of the separation.

#230. “Everyday Is A Winding Road” — Sheryl Crow

I started the university not long after she left. I stayed living at home, and began life as a commuter, making the hour-long trip up and the hour-long trip back every day (at first — I soon learned not to schedule classes on every day of the week.) My major was Mass Communications. But after years of slacking around community college and not doing much, I had no discipline, and my mind was in Monterey. I did poorly.

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One night in October, Future Ex-Wife came home to visit her family…she came to see me at the theater when I was up in the booth…she told me the long-distance thing was too difficult…we should split up…but would I please continue to visit her as a friend?…it was a quick, clean break…her dad was waiting outside with the engine running the whole time… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 22: A Girl Like You Is A Bullet With Butterfly Wings

We join our story already in progress…

#203. “Ironic” — Alanis Morissette

Everyone knows rain on your wedding day is not really ironic. Nor is your ex-boyfriend unexpectedly showing up at your reception. Both can end up a damn mess, though. Luckily, I don’t think I could have dragged down that visibly grim scenario any further. The fact that her thrown-together reception was being held in her parents’ small backyard with everyone awkwardly holding paper plates indicates the situation was already pretty fucked. I also lucked out in that the groom was somewhat dim-witted and didn’t really grasp what was happening. Emily took me aside before anything could truly escalate. I’ve never seen an unhappier bride, and I don’t think it had much to do with me showing up.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” I asked.

“It all happened so fast. The Air Force is sending him to England at the end of the month. He begged me to marry him and go with him. I just…” she trailed off.

“OK. Congratulations.” I may have choked on the words a little, but I turned on my heel and headed for the door.

#204. “Tomorrow” — Silverchair

The next day, I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would. I actually felt kind of OK, like I was released. (Little did I know…)

#205. “One Of Us” — Joan Osborne

There’s no God, as has been demonstrated time and time and time again, so the premise is invalid. (To be fair, there’s no such thing as a talking walrus spouting “goo goo g’joob,” either, and that doesn’t stop me from enjoying that song, so let’s call it a push. And I must say Osborne is a hell of a vocalist.)

empire_records_poster#206. “A Girl Like You” — Edwyn Collins

Empire Records was a horrible flop of a fake-indie movie, its desperate bid to court the 90s youth market was nakedly transparent, and the whole thing came off like a bunch of hair-gelled, empty studio suits in their thirties trying to guess what “the kids” were into these days. The only thing the movie did right was assemble a notable soundtrack, highlighted by this pulsating, vibraphone-drenched neo-soul nugget by Edwyn Collins, who was little known outside of the U.K.

Not that something as small as Empire Records would play in the Yuba City multiplex anyway. (The funkier downtown Sutter Theater would sometimes get those lesser-known films, but not in this case.) The soundtrack was available locally, and had gained some cachet. I last saw Girl Whose Name I Forgot when I hauled myself, clothes dripping, out of that hot tub earlier in the year. That fall, I ran into her one more time at Java Retreat. Empire Records was the topic of conversation. She had the soundtrack on cassette in her car. I asked if I could borrow it to make a copy. She handed it over. I did not ask for her number, but gave her mine. She clearly would rather live without that cassette than call me. That Empire Records soundtrack moved from glove compartment to glove compartment as I changed cars over the years, on the off chance I would see her at the coffee shop again. I didn’t. I probably still have that cassette somewhere.

#207. “Only Happy When It Rains” — Garbagegarbage-535021_600_666

I don’t know what the official harbinger of autumn was before pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, but a return of cooler weather is always a cause for celebration in California’s blistering northern valley.

#208. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” — Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan fulfilled all of his massive prog-rock ambitions with Smashing Pumpkins’ third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double-disc behemoth chock-full of angst, despair, ennui, joy, and nostalgia. Good ideas and bad ideas, fragments and epics, with a rich vein of meandering instrumentals. “Quietly noisy relaxed intensity,” to quote Edward Albee. And I can’t even say it’s a great album. All I can say is that we probably won’t see its like again.

#209. “Free As A Bird” — The Beatles

I had been living back at home with the parents since May, and I was kind of stuck. All my friends’ apartments were already full-up with roommates. The phone number there hadn’t changed since we moved to the area back in 1989, so Emily had it, and one day in November, she called.

“I thought you were in England with your husband,” I said.

“He went ahead of me to get the housing situation settled. I’m going after Thanksgiving. Come over and watch The Beatles Anthology with me.”

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The epic, multi-part documentary on my favorite band (and her third or fourth favorite band) made its TV debut on ABC on November 19, 1995, along with the video premiere of the first “new” Beatles song in 25 years. Paul, George, and Ringo overdubbed their parts onto an old demo tape of John’s to create “Free As A Bird.” It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t the Beatles. It sounded more like ELO, thanks to being (over)produced by Jeff Lynne.

So we sat down on the floor and watched The Beatles Anthology on the TV in her mostly-empty old bedroom at her parents’ house. A week later, she was 5000 miles away.

She said I should come visit them in England, and couldn’t understand why I would never do that in a million years.

#210. “Champagne Supernova” — Oasis

I turned 21 on December 3, 1995. Legal drinking age, but for some reason, pictures from mymatts21stbday01 family birthday dinner depict me innocently sipping on a Sprite, just like I had been doing since I was seven. Drinking in front of the family still felt wrong, I guess. (Oh, how that would change, and very soon.) Later, I celebrated with my friends…by going to see Toy Story. I didn’t set foot in a bar until a few weeks later, in Nevada City…

One of my favorite memories is when a few of us drove into the Sierra Nevada foothills to the Nevada City Victorian Christmas Stroll…held for a few days in December…a nighttime street festival with vendors, performers, carolers…everything festively lit…freezing cold air, often snow on the ground…open fires…hot, mulled wine…bars and bookstores…that night we had a big dinner in a small Italian place…afterwards, Allen (who had also just turned 21) and I nervously went into a bar for the first time in our lives…shyly approached the bartender… “Uhh…what’s a good Christmas drink?”…we were condescendingly presented with grasshoppers…complete with straws, which Allen found particularly insulting… “Give the little boys straws…” The best part may have been the ride home…heater blasting cozily…at a crawl through heavy fog…getting lost twice even though all we had to do was follow the same highway we had used to arrive…I heard the Pogues and Tom Waits (beyond his vocal cameo on Primus’ “Tommy the Cat”) for the first time on Allen’s car stereo…we did the Stroll again once or twice in later years…but it was never quite as perfect as that first time…

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Nevada City Victorian Christmas Stroll

#211. “Give Me One Reason” — Tracy Chapman

I had taken community college as far as it could go. I was called into the counselor’s office towards the end of fall semester and was told I qualified for an associate’s degree, which I hadn’t planned on. I was just taking classes that would be transferable to a state university someday. Someday was here. I enrolled at California State University Chico for next fall, meaning no school for me from mid-December all the way to late August.

Other changes were afoot…Will and Allen had been assistant managers at the Sutter Theater in Yuba City since time out of mind…the theater’s parent company decided to re-open the older, bigger sister theater, the State, across the river in Marysville…it had been shuttered for over a year…an assistant manager would be needed there…Will hooked me up with the job…

I gave my two weeks’ notice at the video store the day after my 21st birthday…one of the other new hires for the theater staff was Future Ex-Wife… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 21: Take A Bow

OK, it’s time to put a button on this whole thing and shove it out to pasture. I’ll be researching a massive blogging project through much of 2017 (it probably won’t see the light of day until very late in the year), and I can’t have this series hanging over my head anymore.

The semi-subconscious impetus to begin writing this look back at a rapidly fading decade, along with my emotions during that decade, and the music that provided the soundtrack, came in early 2009 when I was very single, very lonely, and wondering where it all went wrong. Now I’m very married, very happy, and this whole series is growing hair and mold in my mind

But I can’t abandon it entirely, because that’s not my style. I must see it through. There’s still 135 songs left on my Ultimate 1990s Playlist, along with half of the decade itself, and still a few interesting events to make note of. So we’re going to do a quick wrap-up of the list over a mere four more entries…where a lot of stuff…when it’s not directly connected to a song…will be in italics…with a lot of ellipses…all impressionistic…and space-saving…

If you want to jump in at the beginning (and bless your heart if you do), there’s Part 1. If you want to climb aboard late, Part 15 or Part 18 work as passable entry points.

#166. “Zombie” — The Cranberries

The Cranberries and their Irish-y Irishness were starting to get on everyone’s nerves around this time. Dolores O’Riordan’s wordless vocalizations on this song, akin to a howler monkey in estrus, gave a new meaning to the word “grating.”

December ‘94/January ‘95…

For Christmas, I got a multi-disc CD player and 33_23680a_lga massive speaker cabinet for my Bronco II…

I was dating a girl who was practically bristling with red flags…she had been kicked out of her mom’s apartment…she had been taken in by her friend’s family on the condition that she convert to Mormonism…she took to it zealously (except when she didn’t)…in addition to the Book of Mormon, she owned Madonna’s “Sex” book…she refused to listen to Tom Petty because she found him physically unattractive…she was a huge Ace Of Base fan…

#167. “The Sign” — Ace Of Base

#168. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — Tom Pettyuswb19902766_640x480_01

“Turn the radio loud/I’m too alone to be proud” is maybe one of my favorite lyrical couplets ever. So much summed up in ten words. It’s a little like Hemingway.

#169. “Take A Bow” — Madonna

Red-Flag Girl was obsessed with Madonna…I must have heard this song a thousand times during the few weeks I was with her.

When I visited Red-Flag Girl at her friend’s house where she had taken up residence, I feared for my life…it was in one of the more squalid parts of Linda, the scuzzy little meth town that surrounded my community college…all parts of Linda were varying degrees of squalid…the house was more of a shack, squatting in a lot full of plastic bags, car parts, weeds, and dead, skeletal trees…it looked on the verge of being condemned…the roof sagged, the walls listed, the front porch was missing entirely, and access to the warped, peeling front door was provided by some cinder block steps…

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I never visited the kitchen or bathroom, thank goodness, so I never got to gauge to quality of the plumbing, but there was no heat…it was a particularly cold, wet winter…when I visited, we huddled around a tiny space heater in Red Flag Girl’s friend’s room, listening to the “Take A Bow” cassette single over and over…so yes, there was electricity (barely), because the friend’s morbidly-obese parents wouldn’t want to miss a moment of their favorite religious programming, at ear-splitting volume…Two Mormon missionaries were always around every time I was there, and one of them so clearly had the screaming hots for the friend that watching their interactions was by turns hilarious and uncomfortable…and being missionaries, they could not cross the threshold into her bedroom, so they stood shivering in the hall, sometimes for an hour or more…

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#170. “Come On” — The Jesus and Mary Chain

#171. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” — Elton John

Red-Flag Girl was a devout Mormon, at least until her sinful urges occasionally kicked in, and her two-job working mom conveniently left us an empty apartment and an unlocked sliding glass door.

I went to some kind of Christmas banquet at the Linda LDS Church assembly hall with her and her friend, who had volunteered to serve beverages…I looked around for the coffee urn for ten minutes before it dawned on me that I would not find one…one of the organizers bringing the chafing dishes was late, having locked her keys in her car…she actually, legitimately, not-making-it-up blamed Satan… “Satan did not want our get-together to be successful this evening, but we beat him this time…”

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Proudly rocking the community college sweatshirt, Dec. 94

#172. “Run-Around” — Blues Traveler

I began to suspect I was getting the run-around myself, as Red-Flag Girl only began calling when she needed a ride somewhere. (“Run-Around” is also one of about two dozen songs around this time that made me think of Emily, who I was nowhere near over, despite me dating anyone who could fog a mirror at this point. I’ve actually only mentioned a small percentage of them here.)

#173. “Don’t Turn Around — Ace Of Base

The aforementioned Sinful Urges caused a crisis of conscience with Red-Flag Girl, who rededicated herself to her faith, and kicked me to the curb because, in her words, I “obviously had no love for the Church.” Couldn’t argue with that, and I was relieved never to have to visit that filthy hovel ever again. (It’s since been torn down, or perhaps it finally just disintegrated into muck.)

I actually hung out with Red-Flag Girl once or twice about a year later…she had reconciled with her mom…she ditched Mormonism to become a Wiccan…she still has my Reservoir Dogs VHS…

#174. “You Gotta Be” — Des’ree

No, I don’t. 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.

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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.

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

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

The floodgates finally opened: Thirty songs spaced over two packed-to-the-gills compact discs. Use Your Illusion I’s cover used the red-and-yellow motif of the original Mark Kostabi painting. Use Your Illusion II changed the color scheme to a cool blue-and-purple. The CD booklets were stuffed with photos, the vitriolic lyrics in microscopic sans-serif type, and detailed production and songwriting credits. Here’s the track list for the albums:

USE YOUR ILLUSION I

  1. Right Next Door To HellGnR--UseYourIllusion1
  2. Dust N’ Bones
  3. Live And Let Die
  4. Don’t Cry
  5. Perfect Crime
  6. You Ain’t The First
  7. Bad Obsession
  8. Back Off Bitch
  9. Double Talkin’ Jive
  10. November Rain
  11. The Garden
  12. Garden Of Eden
  13. Don’t Damn Me
  14. Bad Apples
  15. Dead Horse
  16. Coma

USE YOUR ILLUSION II

  1. Civil WarGunsnRosesUseYourIllusionII
  2. 14 Years
  3. Yesterdays
  4. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
  5. Get In The Ring
  6. Shotgun Blues
  7. Breakdown
  8. Pretty Tied Up
  9. Locomotive
  10. So Fine
  11. Estranged
  12. You Could Be Mine
  13. Don’t Cry (Alt. Lyrics)
  14. My World

GunsnRoses pinballThirty tracks of equal parts seething fury and overwrought sentiment hit the streets in the waning days of summer ‘91…(Five or six songs remained mysterious outtakes. “Ain’t Going Down” was the only original that has ever surfaced…on the official Guns N’ Roses pinball machine, if you please. Evidently some other songs were covers that came out on “The Spaghetti Incident?” in 1993.)

The albums shot immediately to #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts. Use Your Illusion II sold slightly better, which I still find hard to believe even though the evidence was right in front of my eyes on Release Day at the Wherehouse. Customers buying only one of the albums almost inevitably chose II. Perhaps because it contained the massive “You Could Be Mine” single, plus the previously released “Civil War” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (both of which got some radio airplay over the last year), so maybe the material was more of a known quantity. But it was also saddled with the odious “My World,” the embarrassing “Get In The Ring,” the inferior “alternate lyrics” version of “Don’t Cry,” the mawkish Duff McKagan-penned ballad “So Fine”…but I suppose people going to the cash register didn’t know that at the time.

The narrowing down began almost immediately. What are the “necessary” songs from the Use Your Illusions? Like almost everyone I knew, I only had a cassette player in my car. I put the entirety of I and II onto two separate tapes…then I did what everyone who has ever owned these albums did: I made a compilation of what I thought was the best stuff, and it was this third cassette that rarely left my player through the last half of ‘91 and the first half of ‘92.

[Years later, there actually was an “official” single-disc Use Your Illusion, supposedly compiled by Axl himself, consisting of profanity-free songs for the big box stores like Walmart and Kmart. Unfortunately, it’s a great example of how NOT to make a single-disc Illusion, including both versions of “Don’t Cry” at the expense of better (still profanity-free) songs.]

So…the 33⅓ author did it, several blogs have already done it, I remember most of my friends from that era doing it…

They all got it entirely wrong, botching the whole thing. The Holy Bee will now do it right.

Many people’s single-disc mixes included only twelve songs, making it a song-for-song match for Appetite For Destruction. Yes, the Use Your Illusions need to be cut down, but I don’t want them to be a mere shadow of their former selves. Grandiosity is what makes them fascinating. Therefore, I will cut only fourteen songs, leaving me sixteen, clocking in at about 88 minutes. This still stretches the limits of space available on a commercially released compact disc, but my pared-down Use Your Illusion would make an awesome double album on vinyl (which, remember, the individual Use Your Illusions were anyway), and would fit on a standard 90 minute blank tape. Perfect. (A few minutes too long for recording onto a blank CD, but we’re keeping our heads firmly in 1991…)

The Selection Process: I will be discarding fourteen songs, but it’s not enough to simply cut and let the remainder stay where they are. The running order will need to be completely re-shuffled to create a smooth, balanced and natural flow from one song to the next.

I have chunked the songs on Use Your Illusion I and II down into six general categories, and each category has to lose at least two songs (except where noted.)

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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 prominent role 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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Filed under Music -- 1990s