Saturday, December 31, 2011

90's Hit Parade #1

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit


OK, first of all, no, this isn't actually my favorite song released between January 1990 and December 1999. But it's a great song, it makes my list, and where else could I put it? Can you imagine making a list of 70's songs and putting "Stairway to Heaven" at #8? No, with a song like this, you either have to have the guts to leave it off, or commit to putting it at #1.

And I've been, over the years, as much a naysayer as any punk rock snob about Nirvana's importance. I see them more as a band who was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. If anyone gets the credit, I'd go with Jane's Addiction, for putting on Lollapalooza. It was that tour in the summer of 1991, and the hefty bags of cash it generated, that convinced the big labels that there was gold in them thar indie bands. Whomever the next "alternative" band signed to a major label with a great single was, they were going to get the push from their label that had been denied their predecessors, and they would likely have a hit. Given the same circumstances at an earlier time, it could have been Sonic Youth with "Teenage Riot," or the Pixies with "Debaser," or Dinosaur Jr. with "Freak Scene," or Husker Du with "Makes No Sense At All," or maybe even Soul Asylum with "Sometime to Return." As it happened, Nirvana were signed to Geffen (thank you, Sonic Youth, for engineering that situation), and had Nevermind in the can, so it was Nirvana who walked into that breach.

But "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is still probably a better candidate than any of those songs. It has a physical force that none of them can match. "Teen Spirit" rocks like The Who's "My Generation," or Alice Cooper's "Schools Out," or The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," or whatever your example of a song that rocks is. It's simply one of the great kick-down-the-door, we-are-HERE-motherfucker! album openers ever recorded.

It's strange, when I think back to hearing the song on WUOG in those first weeks of late September-early October 1991, it almost seems like two different songs. It sounded so raw and powerful, so unlike the tired, heard-a-million-times classic rock track I hear now (as I said earlier, I strongly associated it at the time with "Jesus Built My Hotrod"). Then it slowly started playing on the rock and pop stations, which actually didn't surprise me. I figured it was a fluke, but "Teen Spirit" is such a commercial song, how could it not be a hit? For comparison, a few years earlier Living Colour had a huge hit with "Cult of Personality," which, whatever else you think about it, is a much more unconventional song than "Teen Spirit." In fact, earlier in 1991, Nine Inch Nails were getting plenty of airplay with "Head Like a Hole," also much more sonically radical than "Teen Spirit." (The Red Hot Chili Peppers, at almost the exact moment as Nirvana, had a significant his with "Give it Away" and a huge smash with "Under the Bridge," but since the latter is a soaring ballad influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and maybe Elton John, we don't count it.) The moment when I realized something was up--and I remember this very clearly--was when I was driving out of town, listening to the radio--not one of the college stations, not even 96 Rock, but Power 99, the top 40 station (which, in a few years, would transform into 99X, the "alternative rock" powerhouse)--and I heard "Lithium," a song with a chorus that's basically just Cobain screaming. And I said to myself, "what the fuck?"


Every now and then you'll hear someone tell you that Nirvana's best album is Bleach, their 1989 debut. Look, I'm prone to dropping "I liked their early stuff" as frequently as anyone, and especially with hard/garage punk bands, but that's just silly. Bleach is a good, solid punkish hard rock record, but consider the field in the late 80's: Fugazi, The Pixies, Pussy Galore, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and probably plenty more that I'm forgetting, were all hitting their artistic peaks. I'm sorry, Nirvana just didn't measure up. Yes, Nevermind cleans up a lot of the rough edges, but it also brings out Nirvana's real strengths as a band: pop hooks, stadium riffs, and Kurt Cobain's emotionally wounded voice. Nevermind is where Nirvana become Nirvana.

But if you want their best album, you have to go with their third LP, In Utero. In Utero is their harshest, noisiest album, with the band at their songwriting peak. Steve Albini's production brings out the abrasive clatter of the band, and Kurt's lyrics settle in on a level of self-loathing that would be comical if his voice didn't sound so convincing. They let it all out on "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," a full-speed mess of feedback and distortion which became their opener for their final tour. In the chorus, Cobain repeats the mantra that I find running through my own head far too frequently: "What is wrong with me?" It's possible that I've never related to any piece of music as closely as I do to that five-word chorus.


I remember hearing the announcement on the radio on April 5, 1994. I guess the news was still a little vague, so the DJ was trying not to say more than the police actually knew at the time. So the announcement was something like "Police have not yet identified the body of a man found dead of a shotgun wound to the face in Kurt Cobain's home this morning." And I thought, "Holy shit. He killed someone."

Over the years, I've frequently heard the explanation that Cobain killed himself because he couldn't deal with success. He came up in a punk scene that was defined by obscurity, and looked with suspicion, if not contempt, on commercial success. And yet, his band had become the biggest rock stars in the world. It was something that he couldn't reconcile, and that eventually led him to take his own life, his own success proof of his own failure. Looking back now, I realize what a load of horseshit that is. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that situation fucked with him, and he may well have lost many nights' sleep fretting about it, but the idea that this troubled him deeply enough to take his own life...well, that idea seems based on a very dumb Kurt Cobain. It's really not a mystery. The guy had severe clinical depression. This was common knowledge. He had a heroin addiction that he seems to have been powerless to kick (he killed himself right after bailing on rehab). He was plagued by intense stomach pains for which the only relief seemed to come from the needle. And...I hesitate to add this part, because I don't want to participate in the kind of misogynist Courtney Love-bashing that leads to conspiracy theories about her murdering Kurt...but his domestic life could not have been much of a respite from the drama, right? I can't read Kurt's mind, and he can't speak for himself any more, but it seems to me that if the concern that he had "sold out" played a part, it was a minor factor at most.

Somehow, that night, even as I was making irreverent jokes about it, I felt like Nirvana had become a more important band that day. Maybe he died a martyr, and his death would ensure that this moment of good music entering the mainstream would become permanent thanks to the romantic, live-fast-die-young legend he left behind. I'm not sure if that's correct. The window of me being able to listen to the radio ended around 1998-99, with the arrival of the three-headed monster of bad funk metal that was Korn/Limp Bizkit/Kid Rock, but those bands still seem part of the whole "alternative rock" milieu. The following decade, the story of music became the story of the dissolution of the whole idea of "mainstream," so the question becomes rather meaningless. But in some way, maybe the barriers that came down around 1991 contributed to the barriers ceasing to exist over the last decade.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Hit Parade

My favorite songs this year:

1. Jay-Z and Kanye West - "Otis"
2. Wild Flag - "Romance"
3. Jonathan Richman - "These Bodies That Came to Cavort"
4. Bjork - "Crystalline" (Omar Souleyman Remix)
5. tUnEyArDs - "You, Yes You"
6. The Kills - "Future Starts Slow"
7. The Drive-By Truckers - "I Do Believe"
8. Lloyd w/Li'l Wayne and Andre 3000 - "Dedication to My Ex (Miss That)"
9. Radiohead - "Separator"
10. Mr. Muthafuckin' Exquire - "Huzzah! (Remix with a bunch of other rappers)"
11. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks - "No One Is (As I Are Be)"
12. The Drive-By Truckers - "Pulaski"
13. Scissor Sisters - "Nightwork"
14. R.E.M. - "Every Day is Yours to Win"
15. Niki Minaj - "Superbass"
16. The Flaming Lips - "I Found a Star on the Ground"

Favorite Albums:
1. tUnEyArDs - w h o k i l l ?
2. Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne
3. Wild Flag - s/t
4. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1
5. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks - Mirror Traffic

More detailed post to follow next week.

90's Hit Parade #2

Public Enemy - Welcome to the Terrordome

I wrote about this song last year, so why don't I just recycle that:

Public Enemy had managed to get some attention in the mainstream press over the summer of 1989. First of all, they had recorded "Fight the Power" for Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing, and released it as a single and video. I've always thought of Spike's movie and PE's disc as companion pieces. Can you imagine any other song in that movie? The film almost feels like it grew out of PE's music.

The other incident that got them some press coverage was an interview that Professor Griff, the group's Minister of Information (nobody seems to be able to properly explain what his job in PE was, but he did give interviews)gave with the Washington Times, wherein he went off about the International Jewish Conspiracy and shit. A media shit storm, an apology from Chuck D and the firing of Griff followed. "Why do you think they call it the Jew-elery business?" isn't a place anyone wants to find themselves, but I'm not sure how you avoid ending up there when your starting point is "Farakahn's a prophet." What happened to Public Enemy was a rare thing among political musicians: they got called on their bullshit.

I don't think pop music is really the best medium for getting across a substantive political message. (In terms of actually making a coherent political expression, I actually think Ice-T does a better job than Chuck, KRS-1 or Ice Cube, but that's a post for a different day.) But that's not really what political music is about. It's about expressing the urgent fury of a cause, and no one has ever expressed that fury more vividly than Chuck D. There's a reason they call themselves "Prophets of Rage," not "Prophets of political reform."

This situation must have seriously fucked with Chuck, clearly not prepared to be on the defensive, especially not at such an early point in their career. Chuck's whole thing was so tied up in being unapolagetic that it must have driven him nuts. And from this confused, tormented mind state was born "Welcome to the Terrordome."

"Welcome to the Terrordome" was dropped in advance of the album, and my expectations immediately went through the roof. This was by far the best thing they'd ever recorded. More or less in the same vein as "Bring the Noize" and "Night of the Living Bassheads," but on those songs you could see the seams where the whole thing was stitched together, you could sense the hand of the craftsman. "Terrordome" was seamless and organic. It was an unrelenting blast in the face for 5:40, from the opening fanfare to Flav's "Boiiiing" ending.

Chuck's inner turmoil, trapped between righteous fury and self-examination, is expressed from the two opening lines: "I got so much trouble on my mind/ReFUSE to LOSE!" Contradiction is one of the recurring themes of the album, and Chuck circles back on himself again and again, the most obvious example being "Polly Wanna Cracka," where he spends two verses attacking the mentality of black people who date outside their race, only to have his narrator flip the script in the last verse and basically tells himself to shut the fuck up.

As "Terrordome" continues, Chuck starts spitting out two-syllable jabs like a boxer working the speed bag: "The CREW to YOU to PUSH the BACK to BLACK/AtTACK so I SAT and JAPPED/Then SLAPPED the MAC." Tyson used to come out to this song. Think about that: this was the song Mike Tyson used to make himself seem SCARIER. Jesus, I could go through line by line, but just take this one: "Snakebitten." One word jutting out at the front of it's bar, delivered with a whiplash. Or this: "Check the record and reckon an intentional wreck/Played off as some intellect." Who can match that?

The second verse starts off with the reckoning over the Prof. Griff situation, with no apparant desire to let the flames die down, starting off with two troubling rhymes: "Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called Chosen frozen." I take the first line to be more "I got crucified by the press" than a Christian rebuke of Judaism, but I'd bet he made the calculation that it would get under people's skin. The second line, I have no defense.

Apology made to who ever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus
I'd rather sing, bring, think, reminisce
'Bout a brother while I'm in sync
Every brother ain't a brother cause a color
Just as well could be undercover
Backstabbed, grabbed a flag
From the back of the lab
Told a Rab get off the rag
Sad to say I got sold down the river
Still some quiver when I deliver

That last line really does make me quiver, the way it drops out of the narrative to just let out a well-earned brag about his rhyme skills.

When I finally got the CD, I was pissed off just reading the track sequence. How could you have a song like this, and not start the album off with it? It was track 5, as if it were just another track. For the first few days, it annoyed me to death, but in the end I realized that PE were smarter than me. The whole album is constructed as a series of peaks and valleys, and "Terrordome" is the first peak. From the opening sample montage "Contract on the World Love Jam," through the mid-tempo "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," Flav's upbeat hit "911 is a Joke," The taut beat of "Incident at 66.6 FM" (a recording of Chuck on a surreal radio call-in show), and THEN into "Terrordome," which itself builds up steam as Chuck's verses go by. By the last third of the song, my blood is racing through my veins.

Caught in the race against time
The pit and the pendulum
Check the rhythm and rhymes
While I'm bendin' 'em
Snakes blowin' up the lines of design
Tryin' to blind the science I'm sendin' 'em
How to fight the power
Cannot run and hide
But it shouldn't be suicide
In a game a fool without the rules
Got a hell of a nerve to just criticize
Every brother ain't a brother
Cause a Black hand
Squeezed on Malcom X the man
The shootin' of Huey Newton
From a hand of a Nigger who pulled the trigger
Come on DOWN!

By the time it gets to the final stretch, if I'm listening to the whole thing in sequence in my car, I am literally compelled to scream. There's just no other way to express the excitement it gives me. There is one other point on the album that I have the same response to, the segue from "B-Side Wins Again" into "War at 33 1/3."

It's weak to speak and blame somebody else
When you destroy yourself
First nothing's worse than a mother's pain
Of a son slain in Bensonhurst
Can't wait for the state to decide the fate
So this jam I dedicate
Places with racist faces
Just an example of one of many cases
The Greek weekend speech I speak
From a lesson learned in Virginia (Beach)
I don't smile in the line of fire
I go wildin'
But it's on bass and drums even violins
Watcha do gitcha head ready
Instead of gettin' physically sweaty
When I get mad
I put it down on a pad
Give ya somethin' that cha never had controllin'
Fear of high rollin'
God bless your soul and keep livin'
Never allowed, kickin' it loud
Droppin' a bomb
Brain game intellectual Vietnam
Move as a team
Never move alone
Welcome to the Terrordome

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

90's Hit Parade #3

Dee-Lite - Groove is in the Heart

I mean...come on! Just listen to it!

Friday, December 23, 2011

90's Hit Parade #4

Beck - Loser

Every once in a great while, a song comes along that captures the zeitgeist so perfectly that it is almost inseparable from its time. Like "Loser." Nirvana (or whomever you want to give the credit to) created this weird little window where, for a few years, you could have a major hit with just about any chunk of lo-fi strangeness, and there was Beck, the right guy in the right place at the right moment.

Everyone knew someone like Beck. If you lived somewhere like Athens, GA or Austin, TX, you probably knew several of him: a hipster/stoner/space cadet who spoke in Da-Da gibberish and pop-culture references, collected obscure records and was determined to be famous, or at least creative, despite an apparent lack of talent. Come to think of it, I think I just described myself at that time. He could have stepped out of Richard Linklatter's film Slacker, or maybe out of the pages of Douglas Coupland's Generation X (not sure, never actually read it), and the title of his hit song was taken from t-shirts distributed by SubPop, the Seattle-based label that Nirvana and Mudhoney were signed to. This one song seemed to boil down that moment of pop-culture and slacker subculture merging together into one three-minute art movement.

The thing about "Loser" is that it was taken, almost universally, as a novelty song. Nobody expected to ever hear from this guy again. Like I said, we could all picture this hipster pothead recording this song on his 4-track, and it seemed like he just got lucky, came up with one demo that just FIT in that moment. Listening to Mellow Gold didn't do much to change that perception. There were some decent songs on there (I especially like "Soul Sucking Jerk"), but no real evidence that the guy had anywhere to go from there. Certainly, nobody saw Odelay coming. But we'll get to that in a minute.

The thing I find most notable about "Loser" is that it's the first song I can think of that features a white guy rapping, who is neither (a) making any attempt to sound "authentic" (ie, black), nor (b) making a joke out of the fact that he doesn't sound black. He's just Beck, doing what Beck does. This may have to do with his age (only two years younger than me, but perhaps two important years?), young enough to have grown up listening to rap, to have internalized it and to consider it just another element to include in his music.

Bonus Beat:

A few words about Odelay...

Once, back in the 90's, a friend told me that the first time he heard Rage Against the Machine, he thought "Yes! This is exactly what I've been waiting to hear!" I had a similar reaction the first time I heard Mudhoney. I was hearing on vinyl a sound that I had been hearing in my head for years, as if I had wished the band into existence. On the opposite end of the spectrum are bands like Sonic Youth and The Minutemen (Captain Beefheart is another example), whose sounds were so alien that they took me a while to adjust to. In fact, it took me the better part of a decade before I could completely "grok" either band.

Odelay is somewhere in between those two extremes. Around 1995-96, I had the feeling that music had to go somewhere else, that things were getting played out. I wanted someone to build on the experiments the Beastie Boys had done on their recent albums (I do believe the Beasties are a primary touchstone for understanding Beck), but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what that would sound like. When I heard Odelay for the first time, I immediately recognized it as the fulfillment of that wish. Beck and the Dust Brothers had cracked the riddle. And remember, NOBODY expected this. At least, I certainly didn't expect much more than a maybe-entertaining record. Come to think of it, I remember feeling the same way about the Beastie Boys. I was actually pissed that they were recording a second album! And, come to think of it, it was the Dust Brothers who helped them pull it off. But I digress.

I'm adding this bit because Odelay is one of my favorite albums of the decade, but I didn't include any songs from it on my list. The songs work better when taken together. But if I had to single one out, I'd probably go with "Novacane." As a piece of music, it's probably the highlight of the album, with Beck in full-on rapper mode and the band/producers delivering funky breaks of every sort behind him. The lyrics seem to describe some weird, lost 70's exploitation film about a convoy of genetically-modified truck drivers ("chromosome cowboys") on a secret government mission or something. It doesn't make sense, but you could kind of imagine it existing, especially if you grew up watching weird 70's movies when your brain wasn't quite old enough to process them. In other words, it's totally Beck.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

90's Hit Parade #5

Jungle Brothers - I'm In Love With Indica

"I'm in Love with Indica" may be the perfect hip hop song. I'm not sure I can explain why. It's not because it's a love song to marijuana, nor is it because it samples the Stooges' "Dirt" (and a little bit of "T.V. Eye"). There are no kind of impressive verbal gymnastics, and the beats keep to a simple, mid-tempo groove. Maybe that's the point: it's the simplicity of the song that makes it so memorable. It almost seems like a throwback--could this really have been released as late as 1993? It's such an old skool party jam! Great to sing along to, great to dance to, great to listen to.

There's something so in-the-pocket about those raps on the verses. The beat seems to get funkier with each verse, but of course that can't be true--it's a sample, the same loops repeated over and over (with the funkier bassline recurring in certain places). There must be some strange kind of voodoo emanating from the MC's, their rhymes actually creating the illusion of an ever-funkier beat. This is the magic of hip hop.

Monday, December 19, 2011

90's Hit Parade #6

R.E.M. - Nightswimming

My favorite R.E.M. song, "Nighstwimming," is a gorgeous piano ballad, similar to their early song "A Perfect Circle" (another favorite) but somehow even more beautiful. It's a song about growing up and losing that intensity of feeling that goes with being young, which is the ultimate source of nostalgia. The narrator of "Nightswimming" is driving at night, his mind drifting back to a night when he went skinnydipping in a river with some friends, maybe as a child or maybe as a teenager. It was a wild night, and he remembers it in a blur, and knows he could never explain it to anyone. "I'm not sure all these people understand/It's not like years ago/The fear of getting caught/The recklessness of water/They can not see me naked." When people talk about how much better, for instance, the music of their youth was, what they're really talking about isn't the music itself, but how they felt when they first heard it. No music will ever sound as good to me as the first time I heard KISS, or Van Halen, or the Dead Kennedys. It's not that these bands were so great that they could never be equaled--they might not even be very good--it's something that occurred in my nervous system, and every time I listen to them I'm chasing some kind of fix, hoping to feel that intensely about something again. I never will. I'll never get as high as I got off my first joint, or feel the rush of adventure from my first road trip, or feel the yearning heartbreak that I experienced in my first breakup. "All these things go away/Replaced by everyday."

"Nightswimming" is also a summer song, but of a rare subclass, the end-of-summer song. It's the kind of song that takes place in late summer, when the fun and games are lent an air of desperation, the first day of school is always there in the back of your mind, lurking like the Grim Reaper on the horizon. When Michael sings "Septembers coming soon," the line stuck somewhat awkwardly into its stanza, like a desk shoved katty-cornered to fit into an odd-sized room, the phrase is infused with foreboding. He lets it sit there for a beat. He could have just stopped there, and it would be an amazing line, but instead we get this: "I'm pining for the moon/And what if there were two/Side by side in orbit/Around the ferris sun?" At which point I simply run out of words to describe this song.

Bonus Beat: Vic Chesnutt - Panic Pure

Biggest problem in making this list: I'm still finding new stuff from the decade. I got this Vic Chesnutt album when I was halfway through the list, and realized that this song really deserved to be on the list somewhere, but didn't want to go in and mess it up. Chesnutt, more than R.E.M. or even the B-52's, embodies the idiosyncratic spirit of that little Georgia college town where I lived for five and a half years, in ways that I probably can't adequately explain (I believe I saw Chesnutt perform at the Earthfest the first time I visited Athens). But at any rate, the opening verse of "Panic Pure" is worth considering as a precursor to "Nightswimming":

My earliest memory is of holding up a sparkler
High up to the darkest sky
At some 4th of July spectacular
I shook it with an urgency I'll never be able to repeat

Friday, December 16, 2011

90's Hit Parade #7

A Tribe Called Quest w/Leaders of the New School - Scenario

In my humble opinion, the best ensemble rap track ever recorded. You've got a nice, mid-tempo beat, slow enough for the MC's to have space to let their personalities come through, but energetic enough to pack a dance floor, and a good party-anthem chorus bookending the verses, basically the ideal set-up for a posse cut. And each rapper brings some great rhymes that showcase each one's own personality.

"Scenario" features all the members of A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School passing the mic, and each one of them brings their A-game, but still sound like they're just having fun. Take Phife, for example, and how he effortlessly flows back and forth between fast and slow patterns, often within the same line, such as the way he builds a three-syllable pattern then suddenly breaks it, cramming "Well whadyaknow?" into that space in the third line. It's not just that the technique is so hot, but also that it's totally Phife's, that odd, choppy rhythm that is his alone.

Or Charlie Brown, who comes with an aggressive rap that he punctuates with percussive syllables: "Can I get a hit? (Hit!) Boom-bip," or "New York, North Ca-ka-la-ka and Compton." Dino D's verse is all complex tongue-twisters, culminating in a rush of one-syllable blows: "Funk flipped flat back first fist foul fight fight fight
Laugh yo how's that sound (ohhhhhh!)" And then Q-Tip comes on, totally relaxed. He doesn't try any kind of verbal gymnastics, but his flow just hits your ear right. If you look at the video, you see it on his face. He's just the most laid back dude in rap, and that smiling, sunshiney vibe flows through his rhymes: "I love my young nation, groovy sensation/No time for hibernation, only elation"

Obviously, Busta Rhymes is saved for the finale. Who wants to follow a verse like that? He comes in and tears up every goddamn thing around him, and it sounds even crazier when it's contrasted with Q-Tip's relaxed style. A lot of Busta's verse is nonsense, "UH!'s" and "ROOOAWRR!'s," and he sells the fuck out of all of it, until he kicks the track home to the chorus.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

90's Hit Parade #8

Jane's Addiction - Stop

There are so few rock bands that really deal with the concept of ecstasy. I'm not talking about sex, or even excitement, but a sort of out-of-body experience that you can get from sex, from drugs, from jumping out of an airplane. Jane's Addiction are completely in touch with ecstasy. When they sing about being "ocean size," I take it to refer to Freud's phrase "the oceanic experience," meaning an altered state of consciousness, ego dissolution. It's not always a theme expressed in their lyrics, but it's the constant theme of the music itself.

"Stop" is the boiled-down expression of what Jane's Addiction is about. It's one of the most exciting hard rock songs I've ever heard, it's four minutes zipping by (can it really be that long?), filled with hairpin tempo changes and bristling with excitement. "Stop" starts the first side of the last album of Jane's Addiction's original 3-album run. Its companion piece, kicking off the second side, is the epic "Three Days." One explosive, one implosive, both ecstatic.


This past summer was one long wave of 20th anniversaries, which I guess is another way of saying that the summer of '91 was an eventful time for me. I graduated from college in May, got married in June, and on July 4 we were spending our honeymoon at the annual Smoke Out in Washington, D.C. In August, we attended the first Lollapalooza, and in September, we moved to Athens, GA (I specifically remember making the last trip on Labor Day). For the first month, I worked at a pizza place down the street from the football stadium, which on game days would get an unbelievable rush that I really wasn't prepared for. I bring this up just because it makes it very easy to pinpoint things that happened in that first month, namely that the Red Hot Chili Peppers dropped Blood Sugar Sex Magic, then Nirvana released "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a 7", and then the album Nevermind. In some ways, the 90's really begins in the summer of '91.

We'll get to Nirvana, but let's talk a minute about that first Lollapalooza, which to this day is the best live music experience I've ever had. I'm not sure if it was the individual bands, some of which (like the Butthole Surfers) suffered a bit from playing out of their element, others (like Living Colour) just sucked, or if it was the whole experience, which was so novel at the time. You really have to hand it to Perry Farrell. It took some audacious vision to pack stadiums with a bunch of bands that were mostly playing clubs and small auditoriums.

The highlights? Well, Rollins Band were incredibly heavy, really surprised me (I hadn't really listened to their stuff before that, assuming it would be even worse than late-period Black Flag). But Ice-T, man...Ice-T came on and kicked the show into gear. Seriously, it felt like everything just came to life at that point. I had been obsessed with Ice-T's album Original Gangsta for a few weeks at that point, and he really killed it. I've seen people tell the crowd to get up and dance, but Ice-T was actually looking directly at people in the front rows and saying "You! Get up and dance! Now!" Which was, uh, pretty effective. And at the end of the set, he debuted "Cop Killer," which, I have to say, sounded a lot better that day than it ever sounded on the record.

Siouxie and the Banshees came on just as the sun set, the air cooled and the sky was a deep blue, and they were perfect right there. They started out with some of their slow, middle-eastern-tinged exotica numbers, then built up into their danceable hits. Then, Jane's Addiction came on.

I'm not sure if they were really that great, or if it was something to do with my state of mind being out in the sun all day, but this was the best band I've ever heard in my life. I think I experienced whatever it is that Dead Heads feel, like there was nothing separating me from the music. We were one. I really don't know how else to explain it, other than to say that I was in the oceanic state. Feeling ocean size.

I went to a lot of these festivals in the 90's, and eventually came to the conclusion that I'd rather see 2 or 3 bands play in a small club. You lose the focus and intensity with these all-day events, and as they added a second stage, and a third stage for local bands, and a DJ tent, a poetry tent, a comedy tent, whatever, it just gets more and more diffused. But now I'm starting to come around to the idea that these all-day festivals are really for people my age. 40-somethings who don't go to a lot of shows, but like having big day-off events to plan their weekends around.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Black Marble (Harold Becker, 1980)

I have vague memories of seeing this movie on HBO back in middle school. Well, mostly I remember one scene, involving Harry Dean Stanton, a phone booth and a fire hose. The scene wasn't quite as funny as I remembered it from when I was 12, but still a good larf. The only other thing I remembered about it was that there was a blonde with huge tits, which was true enough:

It's your basic buddy cop movie, with the two lead performances both far too broad, but Harry Dean Stanton as the villain is just fantastic (is he ever not? No, seriously, can you think of a bad H.D.S. performance?), totally scuzzy and repulsive. But what I really enjoyed about it was the footage of L.A. from 30 years ago, a good 15 years before I'd ever set foot here. My hometown in South Florida developed so quickly that I could barely recognize the town of my 70's childhood when I went back to visit through the early 90's. As Atlanta expands it's metro-reach, Bobbie's hometwon has gone from being a one-horse, middle-of-nowhere town to basically being a suburb of Atlanta. But so little looks as if it has changed in L.A. since 1980. Throughout the film, I recognized buildings, stretches of freeway, Highland Park Police Station, all looking pretty much like they look today. The opening credits feature a shot of Hollywood from somewhere above the 101. The camera does a slow, 360-degree pan, showing us the Hollywood Tower, the Hollywood Sign and mansions in the hills.

Friday, December 09, 2011

90's Hit Parade #9

Ministry - Jesus Built My Hotrod

Truth be told, I'm not a HUGE Ministry fan. I think there's a lot of good stuff on Twitch, The Land of Rape and Honey and The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste. I have a very clear memory of the first time I heard "Stigmata," on Album 88 while driving home from the mountains. I kept saying "What the fuck is this?" and "It sounds like the Butthole Surfers doing disco!" It's a great fucking song. So is "Hizbollah." But they only really have one masterpiece, and that's "Jesus Built My Hotrod."

This song dropped shortly after I moved to Athens. It's always associated with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in my head, the two songs came out about the same time, and I remember one Friday night when they played them back-to-back on WUOG, and man, did they sound great together. The version on the 12" (embedded above, mostly because the official video is unembeddeble) is superior to what eventually came out on the album, but both versions rock so hard. All the harsh nastiness of Ministry's industrial sound is married to a killer rock-n-roll record, with vocals by Gibby of the Butthole Surfers, samples of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dennis Hopper, a killer steel guitar solo that sounds like ZZ Top jacked up on meth, growling rhythm guitar, just crank this song up, and forget about the lousy industrial-metal album it came off of.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

90's Hit Parade #10

Chemical Brothers w/Noel Gallagher - Setting Sun

Yeah, right around 1996. That was when I started to feel old. That's when this new music that I couldn't quite understand started taking over. And the thing about techno, or "electronica" (nobody really uses that term anymore, it's like "Japanimation") or whatever, was that it mostly seemed to be absent of songs. It was just about beats. So Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun" was like the song that people like me needed at just that moment. It's not just a fully formed song, it's a fucking GREAT song. It makes you dizzy. It overwhelms your head. It reminds me of the one time I tried that drug, Rush, the shit in the little bottle that you sniff to get a head rush, which I didn't like, but I do like this. And it's a good song, with melody provided by Noel Gallagher of Oasis (a band I don't much care for, but he brings pretty much what a techno band lacks to the song).

Somehow, "Setting Sun" has everything great about a rock record--screaming "guitars" (even though they're not really guitars), lyrics about the devil, and of course that beat from "Tomorrow Never Knows"--but still feels like a techno record, with the crashing beat and the busy sense of chaos, the excitement of being at a rave. I suppose the evil twin of the Chemical Brothers is The Prodigy, who also combine aspects of techno, rock and hip hop, but who somehow come off as obnoxious and clumsy. Chemical Bros., at their best, get everything right that Prodigy get wrong.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Second Annual Eagle Rock Comedy Festival

Hey, it's that time again! Free comedy all up and down Colorado and Eagle Rock Boulevard! Come on out!

Wednesday night, I'll be hosting the show at Dave's Chillin' and Grillin', and also performing with the improv group. Lots of good comics in that show. Thursday night, I'll be performing another set at Dave's. This will be a great show, headlined by Bobbie Oliver, hosted by Sally Mullins, with a special appearance somewhere during the night by Marc Fucking Maron! Lots of great shows all through the festival. There will also be an open mic going on on the Swork patio. Check out the website for full schedule.

Sunday, 12/11, the festival winners will perform in a free show at The Ice House in Pasadena, featuring the great Maria Bamford, Wendy Liebman and more.

Friday, December 02, 2011

90's Hit Parade #11

Bikini Kill - Double Dare Ya

When I started this project at the beginning of the year, I actually had a different Bikini Kill song in this spot. I was planning to use their most popular song, "Rebel Girl," but after going back and listening, I decided that "Double Dare Ya," the first song on their first cassette, is really the greatest Bikini Kill song. At least, we should call it a draw.

"Double Dare Ya" starts with Kathleen Hannah at full scream, declaring "We demand a revolution, girl-style, NOW!!!" and never relents from there. It's an amazing vocal performance, really. She just throws everything at the microphone: rage, sarcasm, sisterly advice. Very few punk rock bands could summon the righteous fury that she throws out there. I realize that BK were hardly the first female punk band, or even the first to be as explicitly feminist (see, e.g., Crass' Penis Envy album), but when you listen to this you feel like you're hearing something new being given a voice.

I think the chief difference between male and female punk rock is how much the simple act of saying what's on your mind is revolutionary for female punkers. Being "pushy" is such a taboo for women, in ways that it never is for men. It's not that I can't imagine similar lyrics coming from someone like, say, Kevin Seconds, but I don't think they'd really have the same meaning or impact. Yes, dudes are told to conform and shut up by authority, but they also grow up receiving the message that there is virtue in pushing back. Teenage guys live in the conformity factory, teenage girls have it injected under their skin. So when Kathleen yells "Don't you talk out of line/Don't you speak out of turn," even though the sentiment isn't that different from, say, Dead Kennedy's "Hyperactive Child," the latter is mostly targeted to an audience that already knows it and wants an anthem. "Double Dare Ya" is directed toward an audience that is maybe still coming to grips with the idea. So when she mockingly says "Got to listen to what the man says," she's acknowledging a truth that might otherwise go unspoken for many of her fans.

Oh, and the last line of that verse: "Time to make his stomach burn." That's as great a punk rock line as has ever been written. Later, she states the real crux of it all: "You've got to know what they are/Before you can stand up for your rights." Then she repeats the word "rights," for some reason twisting it in a fake cockney accent. It feels like she's winding up. Then, she let's it go, screaming "YES! YOU DO HAVE RIGHTS!" (Or, as the lyric sheet would have it, "You do have them, you know.")

Bonus Beat:

"Rebel Girl" is one of those songs that seems not so much written as pulled out of the air (I believe there's a quote from Kathleen saying pretty much that somewhere). If she hadn't written it, someone else would have. It's just something that had to exist.

Bonus Bonus Beat:

I've fallen off the schedule a bit, as things have gotten crazy around here, but I do intend to get the final 10 entries in this list done before the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. I'm just not sure it will be on the regular Tuesdays and Fridays schedule: I'm gonna be busy as hell for the next two weeks, then not busy at all for another two weeks, so you might get them 10 days in a row or something. Following that will be the usual 2011 retrospective posts, then some book reviews (I've been reading a lot of non-fiction this year). Then I still have four entries (actually, I'll probably break it into five) in the Best Films of the 00's series. Then, a sigh of relief.