A NOTE ON THE TITLE: In coming up for a title for this blog, I had a lot of ideas: “How the 90s Saved Music,” “My Songs Are Better than Your Songs,” or just “I’m Old,” but I took the cheap, easy, Google-would-find-send-people-here-faster method: Mention The Beebs.
Sorry to disappoint the teenage girls, but this blog is about music made before your time. But if you want to learn about stuff that’s way better — I mean WAAAAY better than JB, read on.
It was a hazy summer day in 1995, I seem to recall, and I was driving in my hooptie car through the streets of Tahlequah — probably trying to get my mind off someone, possibly late to something. Most definitely broke off my ass. I was listening to “I Stay Away,” the Alice In Chains song from “Jar of Flies,” which I’m sure I’d copied from CD onto a tape because that’s all I had in my car — and the lyrics really took hold: “Why you act crazy/not an act maybe/So close a lady/shifty eyes shady…”
I knew then that I would apply to whomever I was thinking about a Good Ol’ Fashioned Lettin’ Alone, to borrow my mother’s phrase. That meant the ice queen routine. I’m not good at it naturally so I’m sure there was mental preparation that had to be done.
But the other thing I remembered at that moment, and over the course of the 1990s, was that I was living in A Time. I feel sorry for folks who didn’t live in A Time. My parents did — the late sixties and 70s — but I’m not sure kids these days, even those my younger siblings’ age, are part of A Time.
I not only lived in the death of disco days, but also the dawn of punk, New Wave, the second British Invasion (think Duran Duran), the glam and/or death metal days, and when Motley Crue handed over their rusty needles to Guns N’ Roses, who then had those same needles snatched, unwittingly, from their fists by the pale, shaky fingers of Kurt Cobain and his ilk.
I loved a great deal of it. Now, at 38, I feel out of touch with modern music. I like some of it, but none of it grabs me by the short and curlies like it used to. And if a song does, usually the whole album won’t. There are a few exceptions, but most involve Jack White in one way or another, and he’s a throwback to another generation. I think Nirvana would even let him in retroactively if they could.
It’s now an iTunes world, and it’s not my favorite. You download one song, listen to it, and forget the band exists. I’m as guilty of it as the next gal. I hear a song on a commercial, download it and talk about it for a week or so, then it kind of disappears from my memory.
I guess the music that I — a pushing 40-pop culture savant who has absorbed every song she’s ever heard since age 3 but couldn’t point out a direction if rabid, ravenous
bears learned to speak English and demanded she tell them which was was north, and who sometimes forgets left and right — claim as My Music is from A Time called the Early 90s — even though I feel ownership of a lot of 80s stuff too.
But the stuff that really stabs me in the gut with nostalgia is grunge-alternative from the 90s. I started college in August 1992, and had purchased Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on a trip to visit my soon-to-be college in October 1991. I bought it on a whim. Just like Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish.” Good whims, since I still listen to both.
My era, for me, was the best, most profound, most relatable — but my parents, though they scoffed at the hippie movement, probably thought the same thing about their music. My mom was into Gram Parson, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young; my father liked The Band, Black Oak Arkansas, Santana, stuff like that. Both liked Leon Russell, Delaney and Bonnie, good ol’ Rock N’ Roll. I remember asking my mom why she didn’t like the Beatles. She said she didn’t NOT like them, but everyone liked them, so she wasn’t that into it. My mom was an effing hipster. Looking back on it now, she listened to NPR, obscure Americana, and she knew Norah Jones a full six months before anyone else. Dammit, she was a hipster! And don’t get me started on my dad, who is still so cool it’s ridiculous. But he doesn’t listen to the old stuff anymore… he’s embraced modern music. I don’t understand it, but maybe it’ll happen to me too.
Still, I have kind of a hipster-y arrogance about some stuff from the 1990s — Pearl Jam, Nirvana being the big two that everyone knew and always connect to the so-called “grunge” movement — but I think they so perfectly embodied that time in my life, I can’t ignore them.
For the bands, I think the grunge movement started because someone in Seattle was cold and put on a flannel. They were angry at being cold, probably because a parent/loved one/ex had quit paying for heat. Hence the flannel an pre-emo (or Preemo, if you like) sound of the early 90s. (I may be simplifying. I do that.)
In 1992, I turned 18 and was free of all parental rule, experiencing life at every turn. I think I’m so damned lucky to have come of age when “Alive” by Pearl Jam was new and in heavy radio rotation, when you had to go out and buy the albums, and because it cost 15 fucking dollars and you worked for scraps at some restaurant, you were BY GOD gonna listen to every last note of that sumbitch. Hence my love for the entirety of the Liz Phair, Mother Love Bone, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Blind Melon, PJ Harvey etc. etc. — music wasn’t background in my friends circle. It was often talked over, but at least in my case, it was absorbed at the same tie, locked into a vault in my head to be attached to a time and place forever. And if it was talked over too much, you just casually walked over to the CD player and hit the repeat button. Or told one of those loud theater people to shut up.
But anyway — that day in 1995 — when I listened to “I Stay Away” in the car alone, of course heartbroken, possibly stoned, undoubtedly neurotic — is etched in my memory forever. I have so many of those moments, and I can’t help but think the music of my era is just… better.
Many of these songs, from their opening strain, take me back to smoky dorm rooms, dirty living rooms and bathrooms you wish you didn’t have to use, strange car trips and radios blaring at the Illinois River — and they aren’t necessarily my favorite songs of the time. They certainly wouldn’t pass the hipster test — manywere huge to a lot of people. But I don’t care. So without further ado, here’s the greatest hits of the soundtrack of my formative years…
* Loser, Beck: This may be THE anthem for THE time of my life. It certainly felt like it kicked off my generation of music. I didn’t have MTV, I didn’t know if there was a video or anything like that. I just kind of lived, taping bits of things off the radio onto my own little mix tapes… Now I have literally thousands of songs and implements to play them. It’s a wealth of riches, and I kinda feel guilty about it. And on the MTV note, I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen this video…so here goes.
* Low, Cracker: I remember getting really, really tired of this song. But listening to it now, it’s like a first-class ticket to memory lane, and it’s still a damn good song. It’s not indicative of the whole of Cracker’s catalog — kind of a dark detour for a pretty sunny/snarky lil’ band. But this is how most people know them, though they should be listening to the eponymous album — it’s so, so good.
* Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns, Mother Love Bone: The anthem of the last Gen X’ers. It is so Seattle it spread through the Midwest, spraying Seattle Glitter all over it. It might have missed the greater part of the generation if not for the anthemic ’90s movie “Singles.” The first time I heard MLB was on “Singles.” The soundtrack itself contains many of the songs that put me right back in the thick of it. But this song… it has made me cry, it has made me reflective, it has made me laugh. Now it rips my guts open with memory and nostalgia, and a bit of pride, again, at having been lucky enough to live through this.
* So on that note, “Seasons,” Chris Cornell. “And I’m lost behind the words I cannot find.” I, never at a loss for words, can have the hardest time communicating how I feel abut someone. Probably always will, which is why many times these things have just gone unsaid.
Summer nights and long warm days
Are stolen as the old moon falls
Mirror shows another face
Another place to hide it all
Another place to hide it all
I’m lost behind the words I’ll never find
I’m left behind as the seasons roll on by
Sleeping with a full moon blanket
Sand and feathers for my head
Dreams have never been the answer
Dreams have never made my bed
Dreams have never made my bed
I’m lost behind words I’ll never find
I’m left behind as the seasons roll on by
* X-Ray Man, Liz Phair: Really, everything off her first 3.5 albums is pure rocket fuel into my past. But this was one of my early favorites: “You’re an X-ray man/You got white wall tires/Iodine tan/Cheap unpleasant desires… You’re an X-ray man/Got an X-rated mind/You’re not satisfied looking at me, you’re always Checking out the girl behind.” Pretty much sums up every guy I’ve ever liked.
* Porch, Pearl Jam: I have this thing where I seem to like the No. 8 song on most CDs. Something I noticed when I was un-sober once, I’m sure. “Porch is No. 8 on Pearl Jam’s eponymous album, and while I’m sure Eddie Vedder’s aim was far more important than what I applied it to, it again fit into that moody lovelorn mess that was going on in my heart and head. I have read that this song was about becoming a political activist. I thought it was about leaving your family behind, or a breakup or something. I had the uncanny ability to make every song about me. Perhaps I’m a narcissist.
* Piranha, Tripping Daisy: Another song I’ve listened to nothing short of 1 million times, but I don’t think I ever saw the video. I have a fuzzy memory of feeling like this song was MEANT for me — In kind of a creepy-crawly way, Tim DeLaughter was telling me to lighten up: “Ready or not, like it or not, here they come again/It’s a shame but you are just laughing/People want to keep you in the dark/You’re always a mess, but you’re always a step ahead of the crowd… You can be what you want, it’s a matter of time, prepared to be amazed. You’re flashing, they’re frowning, you flash the clover leaf cheer/It’s a game/You’re winning/There’s always so many piranhas.” I have so many Tripping Daisy stories, first being the time me and some friends were asked onstage because we were blowing bubbles… that was fun. I think.
* Sabotage, Beastie Boys: Because lots of Tahlequah bands tried to cover this and only a few of them got it right – and because no is complete without them, and because RIP Adam Yauch.
* In the Meantime, Spacehog: This song, truly, really reminds me of being … well, messed up. Stoned. Ripped. Comfortably numb. It was the 90s and I was in college. If I ever decide to run for office, I guess this blog proves I’ll have to take the honest approach. I was a weirdo with weirdo friends. We had a lot of fun. And I still like this song, and can close my eyes and kind of trip along.
I could go on and on. But you get the idea. And if you’re of a certain age, some of these songs meant a great deal to you too. I say, let them out every now and again. Don’t try to learn all the new shit if the old shit is still just so good.
And I’m not saying the 1990s were all good — we had lots of cheezy pop, and Marilyn Manson was cool at first before it became a watered-down version of itself. Then Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit happened. Again, a bit cool, but kind of indicators that music was changing again. And in my view, for the worst.
But I’ll always have 1995. I’ll always have my memories, I hope. If not, I’ve got friends who remember things. Though not as much as we did pre-1995.
Oh, and while we’re at it: