Ohhh, Pearl Jam. The perpetual #2 in the Great Early 90s Seattle Band ranking. The Stones to Nirvana’s Beatles. The Wyatt Earp to their Tombstone. The Munsters to their Addams Family. Pearl Jam were much more open about their classic-rock influences than Nirvana, and P.J.’s slightly-less-experimental approach gave Nirvana the much sought-after credibility edge. Kurt Cobain once summed up Pearl Jam in one sneering word – “jocks” – the implication being that cool, popular guys like Pearl Jam were once the guys that beat up arty misfit punks like Nirvana. It was all a crock, of course — neither band really matched those reductive descriptions. It was all a part of a “feud” between the two bands whipped up by the media to sell the magazines that were beginning to pile up in the corner of my room.
Sometime in early ’92, I was cruising aimlessly around town on a Friday night in Brian Cunningham’s much beloved sky-blue Chevy stepside (mentioned in a previous entry.) Also on board was Jason Van Zant, a free spirit who favored floppy denim hats and those rough-hewn, loose-fitting hemp pullovers that I thought had a name, but I guess are just called “rough-hewn, loose-fitting hemp pullovers.” The proper social order was maintained, as I rode in the middle of the truck’s bench seat (as a junior) while Cunningham and Van Zant occupied the proper “adult” seats befitting their status as seniors. Van Zant was very into music, like I was, but his taste skewed a little more toward metal. He was one of those dabblers who always knew a few guitar chords and occasionally scribbled some lyrics into a Mead notebook.
“Vedder stole my thunder,” Van Zant was saying.
“Huh?” I asked, never having heard the name at this point.
“Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. I’ve been working on getting that tremolo into my singing voice for years, and now this Seattle clown is making a mint off it.”
I had heard the name Pearl Jam somewhere before, and I was pretty amused that Van Zant felt he was somehow in direct competition with them. “So let’s hear your tremolo,” I said.
“Yeaaaahhhhh…Ayyyyeeeeee—ooooooooooohhhhhh—Ayyyyeeeeeeeemmmmm still uhhhhh-live…” he warbled. The first time I heard “Alive” was Jason Van Zant’s version, as we made a tire-squealing right turn from Gray Avenue onto Bridge Street. I could tell it was a good song even coming from him.
Any level of stupidity that can be concocted by imaginary means will usually be surpassed by real-life stupidity. Picture this: Two twelve-year-old boys. One called “Mack Daddy,” the other “Daddy Mack.” Most distinguishing characteristic? Wearing all of their clothing backward. The result? A squeaky-voiced, generic pop-rap song that stayed #1 on the charts for eight weeks in the spring of 1992. Really, America? Really? People stopped short of actually wearing their clothes backward in emulation, but I suspect it was a close call.
“Jump” was preceded at the #1 spot by a Vanessa Williams song and followed by a Mariah Carey song, so maybe the “wholesale cultural change” I gushed over so in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” entry wasn’t the bullet in the head of soulless middle-of-the-road Wal-Mart pop I had hoped it was. That particular genre’s lifeblood is people with little taste and less imagination, so naturally it thrives to this day. Know what doesn’t thrive to this day? Kriss Kross. You could almost see the “sell-by” date stamped on their wee little foreheads. I still remember David Spade’s advice to them on good ol’ SNL’s “Hollywood Minute” segment broadcast at the height of their popularity: “Save some money, boys, it’s a short ride.”
As soon as the “alternative” boom took off, record labels and retailers were eager to file everything and anything in the alternative section and drain flannel pockets of their hard-earned cash. Even Ugly Kid Joe, which was basically sub-sub-Van Halen L.A. cock-rock, was admitted to the club due to the cartoonishly hostile lyrics to “Everything About You” which pretty much screamed “maladjusted youth.”
As we’ve already discussed, lots of things on my 90’s Playlist are just plain not good, but included anyway. Most likely, I knew they were not good even back then (I remember actively rooting for poor little Kriss Kross’ downfall). “Everything About You” might be one of the most craptastic songs on the list. But, just between you and me…in 1992 I loved “Everything About You.” Its lyrics (a witless list of everything the singer hates), its riffy guitar parts, and its nihilistic bleakness were like catnip to a seventeen-year-old who fancied himself as quite jaded and cynical. It hit me in the right time and right place, and it was a bedroom-stereo favorite for most of the year.
But, really, the song is shit.
Ugly Kid Joe did not even have an album ready to go when the song hit. It was available on an EP – sold in the alternative section – with a bold sticker stating “As Heard In The Motion Picture WAYNE’S WORLD.” It was heard for about twelve seconds in a random Mirthmobile driving scene, and wasn’t on the soundtrack album, but that was enough to pique a lot of (temporary) interest in Ugly Kid Joe, ‘cause folks, Wayne’s World was huuuuuuuuge.
Wayne’s World kicked off the trend of movies based around SNL characters. (It was a trend which went downhill almost immediately. 1994’s It’s Pat!, anyone?) It should be clear from my last few babblings that SNL was riding a cultural crest at this time, anchored by the hugely popular metalheads-who-host-an-inane-public-access-show-from-their-basement characters created by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. Everyone who was anyone made the scene on opening night – February 14, 1992 – at Movies 8. I was there with Jeff O. and Eric, because Steph and I had had our first fight that day.
Yes, our first fight was on Valentine’s Day. Typical of us.
I think it had something to do with going to, or not going to, the high school basketball game. I’m not sure. All I remember is that I sulked through the game that evening flanked by Jeff and Eric, and later was cheered up immensely by the hilarious hijinks of Wayne and Garth on the big screen. The fight was ended by an apologetic phone call the next morning. (Me or her? Can’t remember. Probably me.)
Wayne’s World was a big success, filled with quotable quotes (Wayne: “Who’s playing tonight?” Doorman: “The Jolly Green Giants and the Shitty Beatles.” Wayne: “How are they?” Doorman: “They suck.” Wayne: “So it’s not just a clever name.” From memory, folks.) It was also filled with killer tunes – Gen Xers were introduced to Alice Cooper and the Sweet (by way of a cover version of “Ballroom Blitz”), and the 1975 Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” went into heavy rotation thanks to a memorable head-banging lip-synch sequence (which was snipped out of the movie and played as a video on MTV). In fact, I was sorely tempted to officially include “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the 90’s Playlist, because it received just as much video/radio exposure as songs 15+ years its junior, with no attention called to its age. It just slipped in there amongst the Chili Peppers and the Pearl Jam.
Also in February of ’92, I won a school-wide essay contest (believe it or not). I forget the particulars, but I recall my thesis was something to do with the growth of collaborative, group-based learning at the expense of fostering independent thinking and individuality (I was rabidly anti-Communist about forty years after it was cool.) Anyway, the prize was thirty American dollars – just enough to buy two CDs. This was a banner day, as I had never been able to afford more than one at a time. I wandered around the Wherehouse engaging in my favorite pastime — wandering around the Wherehouse. I already had one picked out, but with the second I had to make a difficult decision: The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magick, or…Jesus Jones. Just goes to show you my taste hadn’t fully developed yet. The Peppers came home with me that night, and in another six…no, three months, I’d be embarrassed to admit how close I came to owning the other one.
And the first CD? The no-brainer that I had already decided to buy before I left the house? The Wayne’s World soundtrack, of course.
Like WW and “Bohemian Rhapsody” Redux, “Under The Bridge” was another monster, a kind of “Stairway To Heaven” unavoidable epic of the early 90s.
In 2009, we may have bypassed the novelty song in favor of the novelty singer (do people really take Lady Gaga* and Soulja Boy seriously?), but there was a time when bright, bouncy tunes coupled with shamelessly stupid words ate up the airwaves. Case in point: These two trivialities which were released almost simultaneously in February of ’92.
Sir Mix-A-Lot’s opus toes the line between novelty song and quasi-serious paean to mad booty love. Some may bristle even at the suggestion that this is a novelty song, and consider it a credible artistic statement. Whatever side of the Great Mix-A-Lot Debate you fall on, one thing we all “can’t deny” is that this may be the song of the 1990s that crops up most often in the 2000s. I’ve heard it in its original form or in parody form about four times in the last week and a half.
And what needs to be said about “I’m Too Sexy”? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just remember hearing it for the first time on one of those fantastic, warm, early spring days. School was over for the day, and we were leaving Creative Writing class and getting into Stephanie’s Datsun Z. (Parked in what was known as the “cowboy” parking lot due to its proximity to the ag department.) Off to do whatever the hell kids do with beautiful spring afternoons. Probably watch TV. Datsun Zs are not conducive to giving lots of chums a ride home, but Steph did it anyway, with at least three people crammed into the tiny backseats, and one of the Kims on my lap in the front. The radio was turned on, and this song was playing. It made us all laugh.
That was the first time. It didn’t make me laugh the second time. Or the 452nd. It does make me remember being incredibly young on an incredible spring afternoon. So I can’t hate the song as much as it deserves.
Metallica further pissed off hardcore metal fans and further enticed pussies like me with this melodic ballad. I still think it might be the best thing they’ve ever done.
The follow-up single to “Teen Spirit.” Not in the same league as its predecessor or its successor (“Lithium”), its memorable primarily for its video. The band, playing on the publicity-shy side of the fence, insisted that their faces be obscured for the entire running time. (This caveat was actually considered a minor news item at the time.) Way to stick it to those uptight corporate promo people, fellas.
A catchy fluke hit for a bland Canadian singer-songwriter who bears a striking resemblance to Family Ties’ Tina Yothers. (The observation is not original, but does bear gleeful repeating.) The video featured Mr. Cochrane performing the song while standing in the middle of a – wait for it – highway, in case the complex metaphor wasn’t clear from the lyrics. The song was later bludgeoned into country-pop manure by the loathsome Rascal Flatts, the group for those who find Brooks & Dunn too heady and sophisticated.
This feature has already been a paen to how non-cutting edge I was in the last decade, so I might as well dig myself a little deeper: I spent a large part of the 90s not liking the Beastie Boys. Part of it was my general animus toward rap as a genre (it took Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt to change my thinking in ’96), but it was largely due to the fact that the Beasties still had a lot of meathead fans left over from Licensed To Ill – which I still think is a lame album – and these meathead fans liked to sing Beastie Boys songs. Beastie Boys songs sound obnoxious when delivered by anyone but the Beastie Boys. The nasal-y spiels by Ad-Rock were particularly ripe fodder for 16-year-old wannabe MCs, who usually delivered them in such a nails-on-a-blackboard pubescent whine as to give the Beastie Boys a permamnet taint in my mind. This attitude-filled single from Check Your Head came out quite a ways in advance of the album, if I recall, so I was treated to amateur renditions for that much longer.
It took a later album (Superunknown) to really cement my admiration for a yet another Seattle band, but I did like this single, and I especially liked the title of the album it came from: Badmotorfinger. Doesn’t that sound cool? Read it again: Badmotorfinger. Yeah. Stephanie had this CD, and I traded her something for it, sight unseen (or “songs unheard”) just based on the title. The fact that I can’t remember the album I traded for it at all indicates to me that I made the right choice. (Note: An authoritative, bad-ass version of “Rusty Cage” was recorded by Johnny Cash on his Unchained album in 1996.)
Yuba City occupies an area almost exactly between Sacramento to the south and Chico to the north. The fact that Sacramento is a city of half a million people and the state capital swallows up the fact that its home to a California State University. The smaller Chico, also home to a CSU, is very much a “college town,” and was frequently a destination for music shopping. As I grew more and more determined to expand my musical knowledge and taste, YC’s Camelot and Wherehouse didn’t always meet my needs. Chico’s Tower Records had a much deeper catalog of new CDs, and Chico’s bigger version of The Underground had a much deeper catalog of used CDs, continuously fed by desperate Chico State students selling off their music collection for “partying”/pot funds. I remember buying Faith No More’s Angel Dust album on a Chico record shopping trip. Its jackhammer rhythms and painful vocal gymnastics made it the harshest and most dissonant album in my collection at the time, and I still think it’s kind of a difficult listen, but this particular single is brilliant. I also voted Angel Dust “Best Album Cover” in the Rolling Stone Annual Readers’ Poll. (Bobby Brown’s Bobby got my vote for Worst Album Cover.)
A must-see MTV moment occurred the day after Easter with the massive Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Arena. Ostensibly an awareness-raising benefit in honor of the former front man of Queen who succumbed to AIDS the previous November, everyone really tuned in to get a glimpse of the volatile Guns N’ Roses, who were ever on the verge of total collapse. Preceding them onstage were Def Leppard, whose own resident rock n’ roll bad boy, guitarist Steve Clark, died the previous year. He did not get a benefit concert, as whorfing down inhuman quantities of booze and cocaine was not a condition that needed its awareness raised. The Adrenalize album and its lead-off single & computer animated video were the last time anyone gave a real shit about Def Lep, and it even that minimal interest was a struggle. Their day was done.
Another big MTV moment that year was Pearl Jam’s excellent appearance on the music network’s Unplugged in May. They performed all the best cuts from Ten in acoustic arrangements, complete with Vedder’s stage antics. (During an extended instrumental break, I remember him stripping off his flannel and writing PRO-CHOICE on his arm with a permanent marker. This is what passed as a “big statement” in ’92.) I’ve always felt Pearl Jam’s stuff worked best in stripped-down versions, but no one seems to agree with me, least of all the band itself. I think this set would’ve made a great live album (fully equal to Nirvana’s Unplugged album that came almost two years later), but PJ not only didn’t put it out, they’ve gradually moved further and further away from even attempting acoustic-based music. Their last two releases, Pearl Jam (2006) and Backspacer (2009) are hook-free, melody-free, almost wall-to-wall electric metallic din. C’mon, guys, put away the Fenders and break out the Martins again!
Seven minutes of an overwrought symphonic ballad, plus a lengthy coda, add up to eight minutes and fifty-seven seconds of pure bombastic bullshit. All the reasons to love and hate Gn’R are right here. Ballsy ambition or wretched excess? Both, of course. All aided and abetted by the multi-million dollar music video (topping nine minutes) supposedly based on a short story by band hanger-on Del James. If this is true, I’d like to get my hands on it because the video doesn’t make a lick of sense. What’s that you say? The video is part of a larger overall narrative also explored by the “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged” videos? Watching them all together makes the “story” even less coherent, if possible. In the “November Rain” video, ol’ Axl gets hitched to his real-life supermodel girlfriend wearing what appears to be an unfinished wedding dress. Then she dies. Or something. The visuals seem to imply that she was struck by lightning. Or not. Dying of acute embarrassment for participating in this dog-and-pony show doesn’t seem out of the question, but supermodels aren’t known for trenchant insight, so that’s probably not the case. The video reaches its giddy peak when Slash stalks out of the church, which for some reason is located in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, and takes an extended top-hatted guitar solo, duly captured by swooping aerial shots. This filmed tribute to one band’s collective ego aired twice an hour all summer. See it for yourself by following the link above. Make a sandwich first.
I was still years away from hearing college campus cult favorite Camper Van Beethoven (and when I did, I wasn’t particularly impressed — one of those “you had to be there” kind of things), but David Lowry’s rootsier follow-up band, Cracker, popped up on my radar in mid-’92 because Stephanie would repeatedly sing a line from this song: “What the world needs now is another folk singer/Like I need a hole in my head.” God knows where she heard it, as Cracker’s debut album got little to no radio or MTV play (remember, I wasn’t cool enough yet for 120 Minutes), and Steph didn’t seem to know the rest of it. So it remained a mystery, just a funny little lyric line that would pop into my head whenever I saw Tracy Chapman on the TV. I finally stumbled across the album about a year later when Cracker made it (temporarily) big with their second album. My copy never played right after sometime-roommate Dan West spilled Diet Pepsi on it. I’m still waiting for the promised replacement. (Thanks to Facebook, I know that Dan is currently farting around over in Iraq. If you can access Facebook, Dan, you can access Amazon, and the first Cracker album is available used for about three bucks.)
The third single from Nirvana, a much stronger offering than “Come As You Are,” and in some ways, stronger than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” although it didn’t have that song’s obvious hooks. The music itself packs even more of a deep roaring wallop, with the loud/soft dynamics more pronounced than on the first single. The lyrics, while still inscrutable, are darker and more disturbing. Any song that can maintain listener interest when the lyric “yeah” is repeated almost forty times throughout its running time must be based on some pretty firm bedrock.
I tend to avoid music made by hooligans who look like they’d enjoy nothing more than to beat me to a quivering pulp in a bar fight. White “Irish” rappers House of Pain’s limited appeal pretty much begins and ends with this single.
Never paid an iota of attention to this song or this band, except for laughing at the pretentiousness of having a “spiritual guru” as a full band member, prancing around onstage contributing nothing but “good vibes.”
(* since this was originally published in December of 2009, I have come to realize that yes, sadly, people take Lady Gaga seriously.)