Sixty Songs that Explain the 90s – tribute to a podcast
Imagine a scene for me.
It’s 1999. About 10 PM on a Saturday night.
I’m driving through the Arizona desert, on my way home from my job as a bag boy.
Driving down Dynamite Boulevard in North Scottsdale. Not the glamorous Scottsdale you’ve maybe heard of, just some ugly greybrown desert north of Phoenix.
Like I said, I was working as a bagboy on weekends, and even so I could barely afford gas to drive past the type of glamorous Scottsdale places you’ve probably heard of.
I was just some kid, growing up surrounded by rich twats and religious nuts. Young, broke and horny. Seventeen years old – a pale, greasy-haired, morose doofus.
And of course, I’m driving a tan 1985 Chevy pickup with a gun rack in the back window.
It’s noisy. But not so noisy that I don’t perk up when Tool comes on the radio.
The pickup truck only has one working speaker, in the driver’s side door, and at this point it’s been kicked for more than a decade by people getting out of the truck, but still, I’m blasting Tool’s song Ænema through the one speaker, driving home from my job as a bagboy, and I’m feeling pretty good, and I decide to push down on the accelerator and see how fast this old pickup truck can go.
I do this because not only am I young, broke and horny, I’m also stupid. And the heady testosterone cocktail that passes for my personality at that point is telling me to take pointless risks, because who cares?
The engine roars as I press the accelerator and Maynard sings, “Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona Bay.”
I wonder what it would be like if an apocalyptic earthquake were to destroy California, or Arizona, and at that point I’m young and stupid enough to think it’d actually be pretty cool.
The old Chevy pickup with the gun rack does 75, 80, 85 miles an hour down the straight part of Dynamite Boulevard – Maynard chanting “learn to swim” – before I see some headlights appear, coming the other direction and take my foot off the accelerator.
The spedometer on that truck maxed out at 85, so in theory I’d approached the maximum speed those six cylinders were capable of, and I was listening to Tool as I turned off of Dynamite road and onto 76th street, which was a dirt road, and I felt pretty good, or at least okay, as I turned up the driveway and parked the truck in the dirt and went inside.
That’s it. That’s the story. Life was stupid, but music made it tolerable. I went to my room, hung my bagboy apron to air out for the next day, and probably listened to some more Tool on my headphones before I went to sleep.
Nothing happens in my story because nothing ever happened, because I lived in the middle of the desert and there was no future. But Tool was the coolest shit in the world, dude.
Music: I love it loud
Maybe you can tell from that anecdote: I’ve always loved loud music.
Ever since I was a teenager, back on the ranch.
When I got into modern rock music, my dad’s main issue – he literally said this – was that it might give me the idea to kill him and my mom and bury their bodies in the backyard.
He meant, by “modern rock”, anything from Black Sabbath onwards, as far as I could tell.
This was Arizona, it was the 90s, and evangelical Christianity was ascendant. Not that my family was religious. But it was in the air.
In any case: killing my parents and burying their bones in the back yard. That, I thought at the time, was an oddly specific thing to be worried about.
A few years later, though, I bought a copy of a Green Day album called Kerplunk.
I opened up the CD case and found a story printed in the liner notes about a girl who kills her Christian Scientist parents with the help of a Satanic high-school classmate, and throws their bones to the neighbors’ dog, all so she can go to see a Green Day concert.
At this point I can tell it’s an obvious satire, but who knows what I thought back in 1996 or so? Maybe I was one heavy metal CD away from sacrificing chickens under the bleachers at my high school’s Homecoming game. One blistering punk riff away from spiking my hair and killing my whole family.
My parents seemed to think it was a possibility, anyway.
So did the religious kids at school.
Maybe that sort of thing was part of the zeitgeist, back in those days. Suburban Satan-worshipping parricides.
Remember Erik and Lyle Menendez? Those kids from the wealthy Beverly Hills family who killed their parents with shotguns on the way back from a Batman movie?
Also, the rest of the situation in LA… it was awful! Kids going out and joining violence gangs because they heard about it in a rap song. Goodness!
Never mind that LA was a 9-hour drive away, across hundreds of miles of desert. Never mind the many other differences between North Scottsdale and South Central LA.
I don’t know why they were so worried. All I know is that it was enough to keep suburban parents sleeping with one eye open through much of the 90s. And we didn’t even have Marilyn Manson yet.
Tool was about as metal as I got, back then, and they didn’t have anything specifically inviting me to kill my parents – or if they did, it was written in code way too deep for my teenage brain.
And now all that worry seems a bit silly. But back then, I guess, the moral panic was real.
Podcast Shoutout: 60 Songs that Explain the 90s
I’d like to give a shoutout to a podcast.
It’s called 60 Songs that Explain the 90s and it’s on Spotify.
Written and narrated by Rob Harvilla – a music journalist and former teenage doofus himself – it explains the 1990s, as the title suggests, through the lens of some of the decade’s biggest songs.
Each episode is a mix of reminiscences about Harvilla’s youth in Ohio, an introduction to the band or artist in question, and plenty of interesting commentary about the bygone era which is (or was) the nineteen nineties.
Remember listening to the radio for hours every evening, hoping they’d play that new song you’d like? Remember hoping to record that song on cassette, by pushing the record button at just the right moment, before missing too much of the intro?
Remember going to the CD store and contemplating whether it was worth it to spend 15 bucks on the new Nine Inch Nails, or better to drop $11.50 on the older CD of Nine Inch Nails remixes?
I remember. And Harvilla remembers.
Also, he’s a lot better at describing things than I am. Almost poetic, in fact, in his description of teen angst at the record store and elsewhere, circa “the grunge era”.
Listen here on Spotify, or search your favorite app.
(Note to my teenage self: don’t get the NIN remixes. Save up the extra $3.50 and treat yourself.)
And while we’re on the topic of 90s music…
Actually, I remember my first trip to Best Buy to buy CDs, circa “the grunge era”.
I’d just received my dad’s single-disc hand-me-down CD player as a birthday present, and with 80 bucks or so in my pocket I was ready to invest in some music.
This was Arizona, in the mid-90s, and many adults – like I said earlier – were worried that modern music was going to turn their teenage kids into psycho murderers. Thus, my parents were at the store with me, censoring my CD choices. This was what counted as a family outing for us: everybody spending Saturday morning at Best Buy.
Anything that had threatening song titles, or violent imagery, or one of those “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” stickers was out.
And so I wandered, that morning, up and down the 4 or 5 large aisles of CDs at Best Buy, not sure what to get. My main problem, at that point, was that I had no idea what was hip. I was probably 13, and had little identity of my own. Certainly no taste. And also, no contact with modern music previous to that trip to Best Buy.
(We had a radio station in Phoenix at that point called Power 92 that played some dance music, or the occasional Bon Jovi song. Other than that, it was oldies and country all across the old analog radio dial.)
So what did I do?
I picked out CDs that matched the t-shirts the cool kids were wearing.
I wasn’t quite proud of this at the time. But I’ve since come to suspect that few people actually have taste, or even opinions of their own – mostly, at whatever age, they’re still just looking around at the cool kids for cues about what to think or how to behave.
It’s stupid and lame, but it’s just how our highly-social primate brains are wired.
Back in the seventh or eighth grade, of course, musical selection seemed like a matter of great importance in determining my level of middle-school coolness. I figured I could just buy the right CDs, listen to the right bands, and become one of the cool kids myself.
So on that first shopping spree, I ended up with Nirvana’s Nevermind, Green Day’s Dookie, and The Offspring’s Ignition, to name just three of my best purchases.
After that, home was a 25-minute ride in my dad’s Ford Bronco, and once there, I ripped the cellophane off my new CDs, and popped in Green Day. The Sony box hissed and whirred, spinning that CD slowly, then faster.
Keep in mind I’d never actually heard this music before – I bought it because the cool kids had the t-shirt. That drum fill at the beginning of “Burnout” before the guitar kicked in, though. The immediacy of a song that loud, that distorted, that straight-to-the-point.
The first line: “I declare I don’t care no more...” It went right to some part of my unformed teenage brain, and started flipping switches I’d had no idea were there.
And just like that, I was on my way to having an identity of my own… or at the very least an identity that had been manufactured and sold to me by a few record companies based in New York or California.
Either way, it was a step up.
Is Green Day making your son beat the bishop?
A few weeks later, when my sister heard me listening to “Longview”, she tried to get me in trouble by telling our mom that the song contained the f-word. Mom took the little lyrics booklet and read it. She chortled and handed it back to me.
It’s a song about jerking off. Not that I understood much about that at the time.
I might have been a year or two too young to “get” masturbation – probably not – or else not yet deep enough to interpret lyrics like…
Bite my lip and close my eyes
I’m slipping away to paradise
Some say, quit or I’ll go blind
But it’s just a myth.
Young and bored and too dumb to understand the depth of Green Day lyrics, I just felt rebellious owning a CD with 5 or 6 swear words on it. Kids these days, who can stream filth from Cardi B on their iPads for free, will never know what it’s like to have to earn those f-bombs.
At 15 bucks a pop back in the 90s, though, I had to do a whole lot of yard work to afford a new CD. And you shouldn’t underestimate Arizona yard work: it’s over 100 degrees, for one thing, and everything is venemous or pointy. But I needed CD money. The problem was that there was no telling what the disc would contain until after you bought it.
Did Phoenix not have an alternative radio station at that point, or did I not have reliable access to a radio? It’s a good question. As far as I can tell, this was a year or two before The Edge 106.3 had enough broadcast wattage to reach our faraway corner of the Sonoran desert. So I think the answer is “no radio station”.
The risks and rewards of blind CD purchases
On the other hand, my parents pretty much monopolized the family boom box, blasting A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered and other mind-numbing public radio programs for much of the day and night. Music around the house mostly consisted of very mellow shows that played jazz standards from the 1940s, and were presented by old ladies. Barf.
We didn’t have MTV either, at that point. It’s possible that our dirt road through the desert didn’t have the actual cable for cable TV laid down yet – or that my parents didn’t want to pay 50 bucks a month for a subscription. Whaddya need cable for? You’ve got 5 channels already!
Whatever the reason, I spent at least part of the 90s buying CDs without the slightest idea what the bands were going to sound like. And after that, when we got an alternative station, I’d buy them having heard one hit song on the radio. In that case, there was always the possibility that the other songs just sucked. But that was a risk we had to live with, back in those days.
Nirvana’s Nevermind, for instance, was disappointingly free of profanity, but otherwise pretty good, solid, loud music. And the singer having recently blown his brains out gave the teenage angst extra credibility.
(Yes, yes, I got into Nirvana after Kurt Cobain had already killed himself. So uncool.)
Ignition by The Offspring was pretty clean, except for the first several seconds, in which Dexter Holland screams “Ah FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK” right before the drums kick in.
(It does have a few n-words later on, in a song called “LAPD”. And actually, if I recall correctly, buying Ignition at all was something of a compromise, because the Offspring album I really wanted, Smash, had a song called “Genocide”. The idea that a song called “Genocide” might be anything other than an incitation to massacre millions apparently never occurred to my parents – it was rock music, after all. It must be pro-genocide, right?)
The Revenge of the Heroin Pyros
My parents never found out that Ignition also has a song about shooting heroin, and one about being a pyromaniac. In any case, I never took these things too literally. “Yeah, I’m a pyro, I wanna burn it up!” It’s not an instruction – it’s a lyric from a punk song!
These people had leather jackets, and girlfriends, and outlandish hairstyles, and they lived in California. Their families didn’t own pickup trucks. I couldn’t have emulated their lifestyles if I’d tried. And I certainly wasn’t going to begin a career in arson or heroin consumption just because some song told me to.
Within a year, I was the proud owner of twenty-something CDs. And so far, my musical choices hadn’t turned me into a dangerous psychopath.
Like many of the musicians themselves, apparently, I didn’t care that much about the lyrical content.
If anything, 90s music just made me slightly louder as a teenager, and somewhat more profane.
I still couldn’t get my own copy of The Offspring’s big hit record Smash, but I borrowed a friend’s copy for an evening and was overjoyed by the part of “Bad Habit” where all the instruments go silent and Dexter shouts “YOU STUPID DUMBSHIT GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKER!!!”
Overjoyed, and then chagrined, when I realized I might never be able to make it to Best Buy on my own to buy the CD for myself.
I didn’t yet have access to a the family pickup, and this wasn’t some quaint small town. There were 15 miles of desert between me and the strip mall. Why, oh why, were my parents such puritans?
Be careful who you look up to
A couple years later, by the time I was about 15, I was worshipping rock stars. Maybe that was just what kids did back then. You didn’t have much information. You couldn’t just follow them on Instagram.
Instead, you had a CD, some lyrics, and maybe a few pictures, and you could project whatever you wanted onto your artist of choice.
(The fact that I managed to be a Tool fan for more than 20 years before seeing a group photo still surprises me, but they’re an exception. They didn’t really do photos back in the day. )
This projection – and lack of solid information – was a good thing, mostly. You could separate the art from the artist. You didn’t have to know everything about them as people.
It didn’t help that my teachers, and later college professors, were actively trying to convince me that nothing good would ever come from the suburbs. Calling my patch of desert a “suburb” is being a bit generous, but I got the point: if you weren’t from a big city, you were doomed a life to mediocrity.
My admiration for rock stars was part of my general teenage rebellion – I was rebelling against all of it.
Since then, I’ve toned down my admiration quite a bit. Rockers aren’t heroes. They’re just people with a specific skillset and (presumably) enough good luck and talent to make it in the music business.
A bunch of addicts and fuck-ups
And eventually, my admiration seems to have dissipated completely.
I remember standing in a village square bar in some Spanish mountain town years ago, when I was around 30, and watching a documentary about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love on the boxy little TV. I hadn’t thought about Kurt and Courtney for years, leading up to that morning. Shocked, I suddenly realized: “Wait, these people were total fuck-ups!”
I guess when I was a teenager, ruining your life – and that of others – with drug addiction seemed much cooler than it does now. Still not something I wanted to try myself. But cool, in a rockstarish way. Maybe, I thought, it was just the price people had to pay for talent.
Come to think of it, when I was 15, just being 24 seemed like a super cool and adult thing to do. It never occurred to me that my favorite musicians might be losers or narcissists who’d developed a single skill – they were basically gods!
Now I see the “rockstar lifestyle” as being a dumb – but perhaps inevitable – consequence of giving tons of money and attention to groups of testosterone-addled twenty-year-olds.
Pop culture claims it’s a tragic part of the rock mystique: handsome youngsters who “had everything” and still ended up wrecked or dead by their mid-to-late 20s, because of the general unfairness of the human condition.
Now I think I’d probably end up the same way if I “had everything” in that sense: young Daniel, but with millions of dollars, a horde of groupies, and unlimited access to drugs? Sheeit.
Life on “The Edge”…
At some point, like I said, we got an alternative radio station up in my patch of desert, and I got to hear a greater variety of music.
Every night I’d tune my clock radio – because I had a clock radio of my own, at that point – to The Edge 106.3 and listen to their top 10 songs of the day.
It was on The Edge that I first heard Stinkfist, from Tool. I found Tool to be pretty scary at first, but one day the DJ mentioned that the lead singer’s name was Maynard. That seemed pretty unthreatening. So I bought the Ænima album and listened to Maynard wailing his way through those six- to twelve-minute metal songs for hundreds of hours.
(That album also introduced me to Bill Hicks, the comedian, whose assertion at the beginning of Third Eye that all of my favorite musicians were “real fucking high on drugs” I did not take super literally.)
It was also on The Edge that I first heard Zero by The Smashing Pumpkins, and found Billy Corgan’s nasal screeching strangely compelling. I bought Pisces Iscariot, an album of outtakes, because it was a couple dollars cheaper. When I realized my mistake, I went back to Best Buy and bought Mellon Collie, as well as Siamese Dream.
The Pumpkins looked pretty harmless. Surely Billy Corgan was a nice guy, wasn’t he? Not some narcissistic control freak who’s high all the time… right?
One year, my dad put a giant satellite dish out in our yard, so now we had MTV. They were playing all kinds of things, but mostly at that time it was rap and R&B, Britney and the boy bands.
I’d watch all day, hoping for the occasional Nine Inch Nails video. I finally saved up the extra 3.50 and bought The Downward Spiral so I could listen to Closer on repeat. Never had teenage angst sounded so good as when Trent Reznor screamed about it over a soundscape of what might have been malfunctioning kitchen appliances.
How Smashing are your Pumpkins?
Back to the real topic here: the “60 Songs that Explain the 90s” podcast. Because I especially like Harvilla’s commentary on the Smashing Pumpkins – commentary he continues, at great length, over on Yasi Salek’s podcast called Bandsplain.
Full disclosure: I love the Pumpkins, and the fact that Billy Corgan seems to be a raging mega-douche (who was apparently also high all the time) has done nothing to change my mind. Also, the fact that most of their lyrics are a mix of total nonsense and the type of quickly-tossed-off drivel that 14-year-olds consider to be “deeply poetic”. Also, the dozen or so bad albums released post-1998.
I don’t care. I don’t care about any of it. The Pumpkins are great.
Consider, for example, the chorus to my favorite Pumpkins song, “Cherub Rock”…
Who wants honey?
As long as there’s some money.
Who wants that honey?
Let me out.
Let, let me out.
Let, let me out.
It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not even Bukowski. But does it matter?
Not, apparently, to me. That song rips.
I used to listen to Cherub Rock on my Discman while walking to Spanish class in the 9th grade. My life sucked, out there in the gritty grey armpit of America which is the Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler metropolitan statistical area. My family were jerks, I was teenage-broke, and I resented spending most of my youth in a soul-crushing bureaucracy learning – of all the useless things – Spanish.
So yeah. “Let, let me out” was about all I needed to hear, lyrics-wise. Plus that guitar solo – it sounded like a wave of hope washing across my synapes, or like whatever the sunshine probably felt like in spring, in some place that wasn’t a dusty desert wasteland full of wackjob religious people.
Now, twenty-something years later, that song still kicks ass, and I don’t care that the lyrics are largely pointless drivel.
Come align for the big fight to rock… for you.
Indeed. Whatever you say, Mr Corgan.
Looking back, I guess there were always signs that Billy was a raging mega-douche – or if not a raging mega-douche, at the very least an awkward weirdo who lived in a fantasy world. See the entire Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness double album for more about that.
Still, the Pumpkins have at least a dozen top-notch songs, and if Corgan had OD’d after recording “Eye” for the Lost Highway soundtrack – sparing us the last couple of decades of weirdness and mediocrity – we’d probably all think he was a level-10 super-genius.
(Or, looking at it from another point of view, what would Nirvana sound like if they were still around now? Kurt approaching 60, clinging to relevance way past his prime… Some people manage to have 40-year rock careers that don’t suck. Most manage nothing of the kind.)
Rise of the Rap Rockers
My sister eventually got a subscription to Spin magazine.
As far as I can recall, it was mostly about electronic music – but maybe that’s because it was the heyday of The Prodigy and – um… – other allegedly good electronic musicians who existed in the late 90s.
I was befuddled.
These professional critics would write rave reviews of an album, in nearly-incomprehensible rock critic lingo, and often, I’d dutifully go out and buy the thing – only to find out that it sucked huge donkey balls. Or at least I thought so. But who was I to say? Certainly no rock critic.
Harvilla explains (notably in his Prodigy episode) that this was a moment when all the serious critics got super excited about “electronica”. They saw it as the next grunge, the next generation-defining movement, maybe even the next rock-n-roll… And they were trying, in the late 90s, to sell everyone else on the idea.
I had a series of huge crushes on a series of European exchange girls at my high school in those years, so I tried to get into dance music, or electronica, or whatever it was – you know, so we’d have something in common, to talk about on the dates we never had.
It didn’t really work – for one thing, because I was a huge dork, but also because I didn’t much like the repetitive thumping, and couldn’t imagine myself dancing or raving or whatever people did. Meanwhile, alternative music was getting worse.
In fact, I think I gave up on alternative rock when Linkin Park got big.
“I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter”.
That’s Linkin Park. And it’s not, as far as I can tell, objectively stupider than anything else I was listening to. And the whiny attitude?
I don’t know… wasn’t that whole decade of rock music just whiny white guys and their pain?
For some reason, though, it didn’t hit the same.
Also, this was technically the year 2000, but I didn’t care. I was still in my high school in the desert. Nineties nostalgia was still years in the future – I wasn’t mourning the end of that stupid decade.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler metropolitan statistical area had a rap-rock band of our own called the Phunk Junkeez, who I liked a lot at the time – they were publicly angry that rap-rock had taken off in a big way without launching them to superstardom, and I agreed. That shit was totally unfair.
In hindsight, though, it seems like they kind of sucked.
By that time, people were burning CDs, so you weren’t as attached to something you’d paid good money for. I got into Radiohead, and later Modest Mouse. Even whinier white guys, but without the rapping.
Nine Inch Nails came out with The Fragile, and I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent lying on my bed listening to that, wondering why I was so depressed. That and Kid A by Radiohead were pretty much the soundtrack to my graduating high school and moving out to confront the “real world”.
And if the rock stars were right, the “real world” was set to be a huge bummer. How could it not be? They had “everything” and were still miserable. All I had was my old pickup truck and my stupid bagboy job.
And so the 90s ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Some of my favorite bands kept making music: The Pumpkins, of course, and Nine Inch Nails. Occasionally Tool. The quality varies. And what’s more, now you can stream any of it, any time, on Spotify or YouTube.
So instead of spending a week’s yard-work or bagboy money on a new album and then playing it over and over again, willing yourself to like it, you can just click off if the first 30 seconds don’t do it for you.
One of the interesting things about the new streaming culture is that it makes me reconsider some songs I’d never thought much about previously, or that I hadn’t heard in 20 years.
A few decades later, some of the 90s music has held up surprisingly well. Some seems, even, to have improved with time. And some is much worse, even, than I realized when I was younger.
All the Limp Bizkit, for example – I don’t remember having much of an opinion about “Nookie” one way or another back in the 90s, but today it just seems mind-numbingly stupid, as well as musically terrible. Check out Harvilla’s episode about Nookie, though. The first line is “I had forgotten about the GIANT TOILET!” and it just gets better from there.
(Apparently, the Bizkit bros had a giant toilet on stage with them for much of that period.)
And what about Sublime? That shit was huge when I was a kid. Now I hear “Caress Me Down” and feel like I wasted years of my life listening to a song about some junkie getting a hand job.
And their other songs aren’t much better. Knowing Spanish doesn’t help – lines like “la cosa que me gusta más es panochita” and “pon las nalgas en el aire y empieza a gritar” aren’t nearly as interesting once you actually know what they mean.
I’m still waiting on an episode of “60 Songs that Explain the 90s” about Sublime. We’ll see.
Showing off my musical “talent” to an audience of dozens
Should I talk about the talent show?
Well, okay. This was my senior year in high school.
I think it was actually more of a “Battle of the Bands” scenario, and I don’t have any idea how many bands my high school had produced, circa the year 2000. But I guess there were at least three or four. The best one was a Sublime cover band. And I was in one of the other ones.
In fact, I’d started playing the guitar a couple of years before. I’d sit on my bed and practice all evening long. I was pretty good, in the no-pressure environment of my bedroom.
So one day, when I was a junior or senior in high school, I got invited to join a band. This band involved my sister, and some kid named Scott or Dave or something, and another kid named Stefan.
Be in a band? Why not? I put my amp in the back of the pickup truck and drove with my sister up to Stefan’s house.
Stefan was the brains behind the band. They’d been practicing, allegedly, for months. But this particular lineup was new. It soon turned out that Scott or Dave or whatever-his-name-was wasn’t really cut out for rock music – he was supposed to sing, but in the end he just held the mic timidly, and was too nervous to yell out the lyrics.
By the next band practice, Scott or Dave was out, and I’d been promoted to lead singer. I’d never really tried singing before. And especially not singing at the same time I was playing the guitar. So naturally, as a band, we started gravitating toward songs that didn’t require much musical talent.
Just like that, I was a punk.
Stefan had a lot of punk CDs lying around. God knows where he’d gotten them. Obscure stuff, by hardcore bands who made very short albums and toured in smelly vans.
I’d tried to get into punk music before, with limited success. I liked my loud music a bit more melodic.
But it turns out if you’re a morose, greasy-haired doofus who’s just been inducted into a band and promoted way beyond his musical skillset, punk songs are a pretty accessible way to fill several minutes of stage time.
The first song Stefan wanted us to learn was Waiting Room, by Fugazi. Check out Harvilla’s episode for more info – I didn’t know anything about Fugazi, but the song sure was was easy to play. It only took me a couple of minutes to pick out the power chords and deadpan the lyrics. Then: practice!
For the talent show (or Battle of the Bands), we played that and two more songs: Wasted, by Black Flag, and a song called Suck My Ass by F.Y.P.
Allegedly, F.Y.P. stood for Five Year Plan, and I guess the name was inspired by Stalinist policy.
Anyway, Wasted is about 55 seconds long, and Suck My Ass is a minute twenty. If you want to waste eighty seconds of your life, you can actually listen to it here. By far the longest song we played was Waiting Room, at about 2:50. So all in all, we had three songs, which we played in five and a half minutes. All the better to avoid embarrassing ourselves on stage.
Before the big day, we had to write out the lyrics we’d be singing on a piece of notebook paper – this was before Google, of course – and run them by the Vice Principal for approval. So of course, we made them up where necessary. Suck My Ass become “Ducks Like Grass”, etc.
Then we went up and I screamed into the mic with so much distortion that nobody could tell what I was saying anyway. Maybe Stefan sang Suck My Ass. I think my sister sang Wasted. I can’t remember. The only song I actually remember singing myself was Waiting Room. In any case, sticking it to the man.
We later – the band and I – wrote several songs of our own. Mostly, I wrote them. Four chords, and me screaming. We played concerts. We played at a place called The Mason Jar. We opened for some crust punks called F.I. Our band was E.O.S. – short for Enemy of Society. I’m not sure what F.I. stood for. I guess abbreviations were all the rage in those days.
But then, I sold out.
Aren’t we all a bunch of sell-outs, though?
One thing Harvilla talks about in several episodes of 60 Songs that Explain the 90s is that at the time, a lot of bands’ worst fear was to seem like sellouts.
I remember this from back in the day: the punk ethos and its hatred of success and glorification of poverty. It went something like this: working as a fry cook by day so you could be a dead broke punk musician at night was a “good thing”. However, if you became popular and signed a contract with one of the dreaded “major labels”, you were a sellout, and that was a “bad thing”.
Now I see the whole dichotomy as being pretty stupid. Turns out the punk ethos is basically a bunch of puritan moralizing, plus stupid hairstyles and facial piercings.
Back in the 90s and early aughts, though, I was worried about my artistic integrity as much as anyone else. I didn’t know what a major label was – didn’t realize that by the time a band made it to the shelves of our local Best Buy, they were already sellouts.
Scribbling my profound musings in a 79-cent notebook, on the sidewalk outside the recently-opened Starbucks (which I refused to actually patronize, most of the time), I was worried that pursuing any sort of profitable career would turn me into nothing more than a consumerist zombie, just like my parents.
Dumpster diving, though… that was punk! Scraping by as a professional shoplifter? Super punk! Selling plasma? Best to avoid that one, but if you were forced into it by necessity: extra-super punk!
I didn’t like punk music much – but I was into the ethos. I was a punk in spirit. Anything to avoid the horrors of holding down a steady job and having a four-figure bank balance.
So how did I sell out?
My personal selling out involved going off to a faraway university. Superficially, the goal of this was so that I could become a successful adult. But I didn’t really want that – and it seemed implausible anyway.
Mainly, I just wanted to get out of Arizona. And in the meantime – in the 6 or 8 months I had left in high school – I decided I preferred shagging my girlfriend to playing punk music.
Yes, I had a girlfriend by that point. I’m pretty sure she was mostly into me because of my rock stardom in Stefan’s living room and other venues, such as the Battle of the Bands and the Mason Jar. Either way, I was getting Closer to God like a Nine Inch Nails song – with an actual female – every weekend.
So I sold out my punk roots – sold out the whole punk community – just so I could get some action… and eventually, a college education. (Maybe I never wanted to be a rock star. Maybe I was a sensitive guy who just wanted to feel love… which is definitely not punk!)
Anyway, Stefan and my sister were devastated. They were the whole punk community in our town.
And I failed to get an education. But that’s another story.
Wrapping this up while we’re still (sorta) young
I could keep writing about every band I liked back in the 90s, but Rob Harvilla over at 60 Songs that Explain the 90s is an actual rock critic and a very talented writer as well.
Check out his Nine Inch Nails episode, his Green Day episode, his Offspring episode – check out all of them. A recent episode I like is They Might Be Giants, a band I’ve never listened to, but the first several minutes of autobiographical introduction about Harvilla as a kid growing up in Ohio is brilliant.
In fact, many of the episodes he does are about songs I had never listened to (or never really liked) but I still get a lot out of them. Britney Spears, Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind – musicians I hadn’t thought about for decades, but their stories are oddly interesting.
(The “Semi-Charmed Life” episode starts with a list of insulting things other musicians have said about Third Eye Blind’s lead singer, Stephen Jenkins, which is quite hilarious.)
And I wasn’t listening to rap music in the 90s, but that didn’t stop me from laughing my way through a whole train ride listening to the episode in which The Notorious BIG’s mom weighs in on the real stories behind her son’s music.
In any case, the 90s were different times, I guess.
Harvilla is great, and the music is great, but the real star of 60 Songs that Explain the 90s is the bygone era itself, with all its strange plot twists and bizarre cultural ideas.
And Harvilla explains it well: to be truly rockstarish, in the 90s, you were supposed to hate your fans, hate success, and yearn for the days when you were unshowered and broke in the old touring van – all, you know, for the artistic cred.
Did we really believe all that at the time?
I think, actually, that we did.
Nirvana was the most famous case of being angry at their own fans once they got popular. We could talk, of course, about the blistering irony in Kurt Cobain’s January 1994 interview in Rolling Stone entitled “Success Doesn’t Suck”. At that time, he said, he’d learned to enjoy his fame, to appreciate his fans – and he’d never been happier.
Real quote from that article:
“I just hope,” Cobain adds, grinning, “I don’t become so blissful I become boring.”
In hindsight, he didn’t need to worry about that.
Kurt Cobain was gone by the time the ink was dry on that interview – and most of the other big lead singers from “the grunge era” either overdosed or killed themselves by other means in the years after.
Stefan (the brains behind my punk band) went on to be a more serious musician. He was born with a congenital heart condition, though, and died in 2020 – not of Covid, but because he couldn’t get an appointment to fix his pacemaker during the lockdowns.
Nobody in my area, as far as I know, ended up killing their parents because of rock music – not even Marilyn Manson caused any significant increase in kid-on-parent violence.
The 90s ended, and were followed by the aughts and the 2010s. At some point in there, I became an adult – a sellout with a somewhat steady job and a four-figure bank balance.
It turned out not to be that bad.
We all worry too much about the wrong things.
With the wisdom I’ve gathered over the last couple of decades, I could hop in a time machine back to the 90s and give teenage me quite a lecture. But teenage me wouldn’t listen. He’d probably just roll his eyes, put on his headphones, and start up that Tool CD for the thousandth time.
That’s all I’ve got for today.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. I don’t think there are any photos of me playing in a band out there. And really, there aren’t that many of me in the 90s at all. Which is probably better. I’ve had a number of questionable looks through the years, but the 90s were the peak of my unfortunate haircuts and fashion statements. Anyway, leave me a comment… right here. Thanks!