A History of My Taste in Music Part III
Looking back, its tempting for me to, like many in my generation, pinpoint the time when I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as THE turning point in my musical tastes. Make no mistake, that was huge, but while I didn’t realize it at the time, the signs were pointing to some major upheaval in my listening preferences.
To that point, being the “classic rock kid” was my thing, old people loved me because I somehow validated to them that new music sucked and the best sounds were from their generation. But I already made 2 exceptions for modern bands, R.E.M. and U2, especially the former. I was a big Byrds fan, so reading about Peter Buck and his Richenbacher in Rolling Stone hipped me to them. Towards the end of 8th Grade, Out of Time was released and I bought it the day it came out and played it in near constant Walkman rotation. It wouldn’t yet obliterate what I knew about music, but it made me more aware that there was more to new music than just hair bands and bubblegum pop.
Also around that time, Neil Young’s Ragged Glory became a very pivotal album for me. Although I knew enough about Neil to know that he’d always been an iconoclast, I also knew enough about the music that classic rockers made in the 80s to expect it to be cold, studio slick and not altogether good, no matter how legendary the artist once was. Ragged Glory was different. It was loud, it was filled with mistakes, it sounded like what it was 4 guys in a room playing rock and roll and it was awesome. Young’s tour for the album featured Sonic Youth as an opening act – I unfortunately didn’t go. But I read about their unorthodox guitar tunings and figured if they were good enough for Neil, I may as well check Goo out of the library. I don’t think I was quite ready for what I heard, but I did like “Dirty Boots” and filed the band away under “pretty interesting”.
There were other minor touchstones too: hearing the Velvet Underground while I wrote a report on Andy Warhol for art class, seeing World Party on SNL, hearing Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, a pre-Nevermind article in Rolling Stone on the “Seattle scene” that I thought sounded interesting.
Then there was “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I was in the car with my mom, I was in 9th Grade. I was listening to WONE and they said they weren’t sure whether they wanted to play this song, but they’d been getting so many requests for it that they figured they had to. Its part of the rock canon now, but seriously, if you were there in 1991 you know what I’m talking about. Hearing this song for the first time was an event. The guitars, they were aggressive, but they were so melodic and tuneful (and I was probably the only 14 year old who heard this and thought the intro sounded a lot like The James Gang’s “Walk Away”). And damn if I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could feel it. I doubt music had ever hit me on such a visceral level before. I remember going home and just flipping around to every rock station I could get reception on until I heard it again. I bought the album, I learned it on guitar but mostly what this song did is made me want to hear more.
You see, while I could appreciate the musical qualities of what I’d listened to up to that point; what it lacked for me was a real emotional connection. I was a depressed, misfit 14 year old kid from Cleveland, how was Eric Clapton singing about the dangers of cocaine or Crosby Stills & Nash harmonizing about the free lovin at Woodstock supposed to speak to me? Oh sure, I learned from it and I could appreciate it intellectually, or as entertainment, but it was never going to be mine. And my mom hated Nirvana. She liked just about everything else I played around the house, but this? Was this even music? And who else listened to this? There was a small group of kids that were already into these kind of bands. They seemed alright and not caught up in all the other bullshit of high school. They were into doing their own thing. And hey, wasn’t I already into doing MY own thing all along? This was huge, for the first time in my life I was finding an identity. And most importantly, some of these people were girls.
And then U2 came out with Achtung Baby and it was a totally strange record like little else I’d heard before. Were they alternative too? Clearly I needed a crash course in this “alternative” music. So, I did what any suburban kid with some magazine subscriptions and a spare penny to tape to a postcard would do: I signed up for the Columbia House record club under the “modern rock” genre and got my 12 free introductory tapes. I don’t remember what they all were, but some of them were as follows:
Primal Scream Screamadelica
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians Perspex Island
They Might Be Giants Flood
The Ocean Blue Cerulean
Sonic Youth Dirty
Violent Femmes Why Do Birds Sing?
And in the interest of full disclosure, not all of them were good (though don’t tell 15 year old me that):
Toad the Wet Sprocket Fear
The Soup Dragons
It still wasn’t enough. I had to know more. I discovered college radio, I taped 120 Minutes each week. I wrote down the names of anything that even sounded half interesting. I began redoubling my efforts at the library, discovering The Cure, The Smiths, Dinosaur Jr, and The Feelies this way. It may seem strange now, but back then these records were not found at the mall and weren’t written about everywhere, I needed a more reliable source and that’s when I discovered Alternative Press.
Far from the glossy mall-punk rag that its become, AP in those days was probably most akin to Magnet now in terms of coverage and placement on the mainstream radar, maybe even a little more on the edge than that even (would a band like Kitchens of Distinction merit cover placement on any magazine today?). And they were based in Cleveland, how cool is that? Here I read about bands that were even more obscure than what was on 120 Minutes. You couldn’t find their records in stores, at least not the ones in North Olmsted, Ohio. I had to find out what this was all about.