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Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?
By Steven Hyden
Part 1: 1990:
1990: “Once upon a time, I could love you”
By Steven Hyden
Oct 5, 2010 12:00 AM
“I don’t want to sound snobby, but I was a snob back then, so why not—it wasn’t punk rock, it wasn’t
underground, it wasn’t rebellious to me. I saw it as being very mainstream. Now had I been living in the
Midwest and was bored with everything on MTV, and didn’t realize there was all this cool stuff going on,
maybe I would have been charged by it too.”
—Robert Roth, singer for the Seattle band Truly, as quoted by Greg Prato in Grunge Is Dead: The Oral
History Of Seattle Rock Music
There’s an old line that’s been attributed to everyone from Dennis Hopper to Robin Williams to Grace Slick of
Jefferson Airplane that goes, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Lately I’ve been thinking about
how this quote relates to my current relationship with the mainstream ’90s rock I grew up on. I don’t mean
Elliott Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided By Voices, or Yo La Tengo. That’s stuff I got into during the latter part
of the decade, once I was a little older. (And I still listen to those bands now.) I’m talking about groups whose
videos were introduced by the quirky, glasses-wearing, fury-provoking VJ Kennedy on MTV’s Alternative Nation:
Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and many others I lost touch with after
Well, maybe not Nirvana. I’ll still pull my favorite Nirvana records, In Utero and MTV Unplugged In New York, off
the shelf every now and then. (MTV Unplugged In New York still sounds so haunted and moving that I wish it
weren’t called MTV Unplugged In New York.) Last month, Nevermind turned 19, which means Nirvana’s most
popular album is nearly as old now as Woodstock was when the album was released on September 24, 1991.
Anyone who’s in college or younger doesn’t know a world where Nevermind doesn’t exist. Part of me wants to
lord my generational ownership of Kurt Cobain’s music—and that of the other grunge-era alt-rock bands that
stormed radio and the music charts in Nirvana’s wake—over those kids, much like baby boomers used to cram
Woodstock retrospectives down the throats of people my age.
That way I could say, “You shoulda been there!” whenever “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on the radio. And I
could track down all the people who chose to see Arcade Fire over the reunited Soundgarden this summer at
Lollapalooza, and stridently assert that Superunkown is twice the album The Suburbs or Neon Bible will ever be. I
basically want to act like a rapidly aging music fan like myself is supposed to act: Nostalgic for—and fiercely
protective of—the music of my youth.
But it would all be ruse. The truth is that I feel little nostalgia for ’90s grunge, and almost no connection to the
version of myself that once felt part of the Alternative Nation. I once believed that the rise of so-called
alternative music in the early ’90s was the greatest thing to happen in my lifetime—world-changing, no less—
but now this notion seems almost too embarrassing to admit in print. Over the years I’ve written these bands
out of my personal history: Old concert T-shirts have been worn out or tossed away, CDs have long since been
sold off. I remember the ’90s, but it’s like I wasn’t there. Like many people of my generation—including
practically every band that was originally associated with the term—“grunge” for me has become something to
live down, like cuffed jeans or bad Luke Perry sideburns.
Somewhere along the way, grunge-era alt-rock got tiresome. Today, it’s all but unbearable. Scanning the latest
Billboard rock chart, you’ll find bands like Shinedown, Stone Sour, Three Days Grace, and of course Nickelback,
who have adopted the pained, groany vocals and sludgy guitars associated with grunge and merged them
seamlessly with a leather-pants and soul-patch sensibility that comes straight from hair metal. Unbeknownst to
Kurt, Eddie, and Layne, they created a sonic blueprint that would go on to inspire disreputable bands for the
next two decades. You can’t blame those guys for inspiring much of what’s awful and soulless about the state of
“modern” rock music as we’ve come to know it, but their music is inextricably linked to it nonetheless.
It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, grunge challenged the sexist and materialistic status quo of
mainstream rock ’n’ roll, asserting a bold new concept of what rock stars could and should be. For a couple of
years at least, grunge not only made the world safe for idealistic rejects and weirdos who were more
comfortable hanging out with Gloria Steinem than Tawny Kitaen, it pretty much made socially conscious,
politically correct, fame-averse, brooding loner types the only acceptable kind of rock stars.
The idea behind Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? is to look back at an era that’s both incredibly
important and yet mysteriously absent from my life as a music fan. I’ve gone back and repurchased a lot of the
CDs I sold off—which, thanks to the bargain bin at Half-Price Books, has actually been a fairly inexpensive
proposition—and reacquainted myself with groups that I once adored before they died off, broke up, or settled
into respectable but uninspired careers. My goal is to rediscover what I saw in these bands when I was a
teenager, and figure out why the music went from enlightening to deadening so rapidly, from the bucolic early
years of Lollapalooza to the apocalyptic assault of Woodstock ’99. Because as easy as it is now to take potshots
at the mumbly, histrionic sounds of the ’90s, this is music that meant a great deal to me and many others at the
time. Out of respect for my teenaged self, I’m giving it an honest re-examination.
Each installment of Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? will be tied to a year, starting with 1990—which
I’m packaging with this introduction, since it’s really a prologue year—and proceed chronologically up through
1999. However, this isn’t intended to be a definitive history of grunge; I won’t be writing about every single
Seattle band, or even most Seattle bands. A lot of it won’t even be about grunge; I also plan on looking at the
feel-good bro tunes of Sublime, and the ironic arena-rock posturing of Urge Overkill, among other groups and
how they fit in with the overall narrative of ’90s alt-rock’s rise and fall. I promise I’ll completely overlook at least
one of your favorite bands; please don’t take it personally.
As a general rule, I’m interested in discussing ’90s bands that were played regularly on MTV and on the radio,
even in a small city like my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, because this was the last time (as of now,
anyway) that rock music acted as the engine under the hood of American pop culture. Inevitably, this series will
reflect what I liked and cared about back then, which fortunately matches up with what millions of other
teenaged residents of Alternative Nation liked and cared about. More than an exercise in nostalgia—or, worse,
an excuse to pick on bands that haven’t aged all that well—I hope to give those who deserve it their due, and
maybe figure out how something that seemed so promising at the time went so wrong.
There were a lot of exciting things happening musically in 1990. Pixies, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Neil Young &
Crazy Horse, Ice Cube, and Jane’s Addiction released classic albums. Nirvana signed to Geffen/DGC Records
after being courted by several major record labels; its screechingly poppy 1989 debut Bleach had been a steady,
though still largely unheralded, seller. But it was an eight-song demo recorded with Butch Vig at Smart Studios
in Madison, Wisconsin—just a quick 90-minute drive from my town—that was really getting people excited as it
was widely circulated among record-industry types. Many of those songs, including future classics like “In
Bloom” and “Lithium,” formed the core of Nevermind.
Elsewhere, a new group made up of musicians from well regarded but star-crossed hard-rock band Mother
Love Bone played its first show with an unknown singer from San Diego named Eddie Vedder at a small club in
Seattle. Around the same time, the band quickly wrote an album’s worth of material that would soon be
released as Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten. And Alice In Chains set the table for the upcoming Seattle explosion
when its debut, Facelift, went platinum.
As for me, I was rocking to the cutting-edge sounds of Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli. Oh, and I was into Seattle
bands, too: I totally adored that heavy-as-shit, middle-finger-to-the-world anthem “Silent Lucidity” by thinkingman’s prog-metallers Queensryche.
Being a kid in 1990 wasn’t all that different from being a kid in 2010 save for one massive technological step
forward for mankind: the Internet. It didn’t exist back then—or, rather, kids like me did not have access to it. I
didn’t even have a computer, nor did a lot of my friends. I was 12-going-on-13 in 1990, and my burgeoning
interest in music was nurtured by three institutions: local radio, MTV, and the public library, where I could listen
to vinyl records for free (CDs weren’t available there yet) and peruse scotch tape-covered copies of Rolling
Stone, which is where I first read about “alternative” bands like U2, R.E.M., and The Replacements. If I wanted
to buy a tape, I had to either convince my mother to drive me to the mall—a tall order considering how moneyconscious she was as a single parent—or make the one-hour bike ride (one way!) to the only independent
record store in town, an oppressively cool place that frankly terrified me, as most things did back then.
Following music took real work if you happened to 1) be under 18, 2) live in a small town, 3) get paid a small
allowance, 4) not have a driver’s license, and 5) have limited access to media that could tell you about the latest
groups. Keeping up with underground music was practically impossible; you couldn’t just log on and dial up a
million blogs offering up free music without leaving your bedroom. Underground music was actually
underground; you had to venture out and look for it, and only after somebody let you in on the secret that it
was actually there. Maybe I could’ve discovered Pixies’ Bossanova had I searched a little harder, but how could I
look for something that I didn’t even know existed? For me, what I heard on the radio and saw on MTV was the
only music there even was.
People have a tendency to romanticize the world as it existed when they were children. Looking back, things
always seem simpler. I’m not going to paint you a picture of my childhood that looks like a heavily sanitized
episode of Mad Men; the ’90s were a strange time of relative wealth and comfort, with a thick patina of selfdefeat and wasted potential. Nevertheless, my memories of 1990 tend to be wrapped in sepia-tinged oldtiminess. I spent a lot of time that year watching Paula Abdul sing one of my favorite songs, “Opposites Attract,”
in a video that prominently featured a cartoon cat. How adorably red-cheeked and innocent is that? As far as I
can tell, the video for “Opposites Attract” was not intended to be entertainment strictly for little kids. There was
a very good chance that you’d see the video for “Unskinny Bop” immediately afterward. This gives you an idea
of how, shall we say, unsophisticated we were as pop-music listeners back then. The video for “Opposites
Attract” might not be “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?” but like that cheerfully insipid, pre-rock ’n’
roll Patti Page hit of the early ’50s, it signaled that American culture desperately needed someone to wipe that
stupid grin off of its face.
Top 40 offered up a smorgasbord of options for my developing musical palate. I could dig deep into the blues
with Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.” I could rail against the hypocrisy of our times with Poison’s “Something To
Believe In.” I could delve into motivational pop psychology with Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.” Or I could just dance
to the ubiquitous grooves of Madonna’s “Vogue” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” I loved each and
every one of these songs in the ’90, and dozens more: Faith No More’s “Epic,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing
Compares 2 U,” Damn Yankees’ “High Enough,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart,” Nelson’s “(Can’t Live
Without Your) Love And Affection” and so on.
Say what you will about that roster of songs today, but there’s no denying that the hit-makers of 1990 haven’t
exactly proven enduring. Madonna aside, the major pop stars that had produced single albums spinning off five,
six, even seven hit songs just a few years earlier were experiencing fallow periods. Prince was reduced to
recording inconsequential background music for Tim Burton’s Batman. Michael Jackson was in hiding as he
worked on Dangerous, a dubiously named opus that seemed as plausible as Boy George recording an album
called Clean, Sober, And Casually Dressed. George Michael petulantly burned the iconic leather jacket from the
cover of 1987’s Faith in the video for his new, unmistakably Faith-sounding single “Freedom.” Bruce
Springsteen had moved out to Los Angeles to work with studio musicians, a decision that was successful only
from the perspective of making fans desperately appreciative of the E Street Band.
The music industry has a lifetime warranty with the pop audience ensuring that it will produce immediately
catchy and inevitably annoying singles on a consistent basis. Nurturing lasting artists is another story; that’s
something that seems to happen only in fits and starts. The music I was listening to in 1990 had its pleasures,
but ultimately, it went straight to your ears and slipped past your heart. They were just songs you eventually got
sick of, nothing more. I certainly couldn’t relate to them on any kind of personal level. I couldn’t turn to them,
like a friend, when I needed to smile or bawl my eyes out. If you tried to hold this music too close, you’d wind
up feeling alienated. Pop music at the time was for winners, and I had the sneaking suspicion that socially
awkward adolescents from Wisconsin were the opposite of winners. (Which I guess would make me the
cartoon cat in this equation.)
Nevermind probably would not have impacted me in quite the same way had I been aware of the context it
came out of; had I been a little older and a fan of college radio, I’m sure it would’ve just been another record
that I liked about as much as Bandwagonesque or Green Mind. But Nirvana was not a band I had to discover; it
came right into my world, and discovered me. This is something Nirvana still doesn’t get enough credit for: Kurt
Cobain turned himself into a radio star at a time when somebody like him becoming a radio star seemed
unfathomable. So, yeah, it’s worth noting that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like Pixies, and that “Come As
You Are” is a direct lift from Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” But Pixies and Killing Joke never got played on the radio in
places like Appleton. Nirvana did, and this fact alone makes that band more important than any of Cobain’s
underground precursors, who only started to matter on a macro level because they were Nirvana reference
It’s hard to convey today how revelatory it was hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come out of your parents’ car
stereo for the first time, but this was a bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle, head-slapping pop-culture surprise of the
highest order. By the time I started 7th grade, I had already absorbed enough bad TV and cut-rate pop music to
get a sense that culture unfolded in a predictable series of fads and trends; nothing ever came along to upset
the applecart. But Nirvana clearly was not part of that. It didn’t matter that the band was on a major label; that
was just underground-rock semantics and I didn’t speak that language yet. These guys were not supposed to be
here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Nirvana finding
you was like being sucked into a whole new reality tucked inside the simpler, grayer world you’d always known.
All of a sudden it was just there. If something this incredible could exist in the world right under your nose until
it streaked in seemingly out of nowhere and smacked you repeatedly across the face, what in the hell else was
I, for one, really wanted to find out. I was in the eighth grade when Nevermind came out, and I remember
laughing the first time I saw the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. I got it—they were bagging on the cheesy, kidfriendly under-arm deodorant ads MTV used to play ad nauseum. (This is another thing Nirvana doesn’t get
enough credit for: It could actually be a pretty funny band.) But I also didn’t know what to make of the song.
Here was this blonde guy who wore his hair in his face, so you couldn’t even see him; what was the point of
making a video? He was mumbling something about how it was fun to lose and to pretend, and then he just
went, like, nuts, screaming that he was here now and needed to be entertained. It was a far cry from Bret
Michaels equating pumping gasoline with sex in "Unskinny Bop," which was a metaphor even a junior high
school student like myself could grasp. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just … different. Nirvana seemed like a onehit wonder, only you couldn’t get the song out of your head. There was something odd about these guys—
that’s the main reason I laughed at them initially—but Nirvana’s strangeness soon went from being a liability to
the best thing about them in my book. When Poison sang about getting laid, it just made me feel sad, because I
was convinced that no girl would ever, ever even look at me. I had braces, oversized glasses, a mullet that was
unimpressive even by mullet standards, and acne dotting my face like Walgreens stores on a city landscape. I
was the living embodiment of a weird song with a soft verse and a loud chorus, and here was a band that not
only transcended its deficiencies, but made these deficiencies into strengths. To this day, Nirvana songs that are
often described as depressing just seem fun to me. It’s the sound of losers shouting down their shame. It was
the kind of escapism kids like me craved.
I always hate that moment in documentaries about social movements where somebody insists that whatever
incredibly exciting and revolutionary phenomenon they were a part of could never happen again, because the
world has inevitably changed for the worse, and today’s kids are just too jaded or clueless to do what they did.
What they’re really saying is that it will never happen for them again, because they’ve reached the age where
they’re too jaded and clueless. When you’re young, whatever you’re doing feels revolutionary because the
world is opening up for you in ways that will never be more exciting than they are right now, in this moment,
forever and ever.
That said, I honestly wonder if the rise of grunge and alternative rock in the early ’90s will be the last time that a
musical movement has that kind of impact on youth culture. With the Internet, we know about every promising
band seemingly from the time it records its first demos. By the time the album comes out, the backlash has
already kicked in. Now the challenge is to not be informed; surprising people has gone the way of putting
current events on newsprint. It’s almost like we don’t want to be surprised anymore, because that means we’re
somehow out-of-the-loop, or not savvy enough to be there first, which seems to be of the utmost importance
when it comes to music these days.
This is one instance where I’m glad I was just an ignorant kid stuck in a nowhere town where nothing cool
seemed to happen. Because it made what happened next seem all the more exciting.
What Happened Next:
Next: 1991 is remembered as the year of Nevermind, but at the time Guns N’ Roses’ wildly ambitious Use
Your Illusion albums were supposed to set the world on fire. I’ll straddle the murky line between glam metal and alt-rock
by delving into the epic feud between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose, and explore how two men who perfectly personified their
respective eras actually shared more common ground than either would’ve admitted.
Part 2: 1991:
1991: “What’s so civil about war anyway?”
By Steven Hyden
Oct 19, 2010 12:00 AM
“The Guns N’ Roses it’s okay to like.”—A headline about Nirvana from British music weekly New Musical
“His role has been played for years. Ever since the beginning of rock and roll, there’s been an Axl Rose.
And it’s just boring. It’s totally boring to me. Why it’s such a fresh and new thing in his eyes is obviously
because it’s happening to him personally and he’s such an egotistical person that he thinks that the
whole world owes him something.”—Kurt Cobain on Axl Rose, as quoted by Michael Azerrad in Come As
You Are: The Story Of Nirvana
“You’re everything I could’ve been.”—Axl Rose to Kurt Cobain after a Nirvana show in October 1991, as
related by Courtney Love in Mick Wall’s W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography Of William Axl Rose
The trickiest part of writing history is putting styles, trends, and social movements in proper perspective. Not
everybody spent the ’60s making babies in the mud at Woodstock, or the ’70s doing blow with Bianca Jagger at
Studio 54. We dwell on these things because they’re easily recognizable signifiers of their respective eras, but a
lot gets overlooked when you use the easy shorthand of Nehru jackets and Bee Gees songs. The spectrum of
experiences in any era is simply too wide; it makes me wonder whether the so-called “monoculture” ever really
existed, where “everybody agreed on” what was good on the radio and the three TV networks. Maybe we’ve
just gotten better about recognizing that even really popular things are irrelevant to significant portions of the
population. A band as seemingly all-encompassing as The Beatles were in the ’60s probably didn’t mean much
to a black teenager living in inner-city Detroit, a truck driver from rural Texas, or the millions of decent, hardworking, square-as-hell middle Americans who impatiently waited for those tuneless long-hairs to finish their
songs on Ed Sullivan so the jugglers and impressionists could come on.
There’s an oft-repeated anecdote about how Nevermind stormed to the top of the Billboard charts in the
closing days of 1991 because kids returned their unwanted copies of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous for the
Nirvana album they really wanted for Christmas. It’s a story rich with metaphorical significance, pitting the
upstart punk-rock band against the gargantuan ’80s pop superstar, and ending with the new guys wresting
away the cultural torch by bloody force. In the movie version, you’d see teenagers everywhere suddenly ditch
their Day-Glo OP shirts and stone-washed jeans for flannel and Doc Martens, and hear them loudly pontificating
about how parents, the school system, and the media were telling the younger generation what to care about,
and how these things were complete and utter horseshit. It’s like we all decided to become Christian Slater in
Pump Up The Volume, and it started with Nirvana dethroning the King Of Pop.
In reality, Dangerous ended up being arguably more popular than Nevermind, selling more than 30 million
copies worldwide and spawning nine singles over the course of two years. The sixth song from Dangerous
released to radio, “Heal The World,” would likely be recognized today by more casual music fans than any
Nirvana song save possibly “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Dangerous only seems like a failure when compared with
the three blockbusters—Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad—Jackson released before it. But there were still a lot of
people who loved Dangerous; he might have lost the battle to Nevermind in the eyes of rock historians, but
Michael Jackson still did okay in the war.
Nevermind had already been mythologized by the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994; afterward, it seemed
Nevermind existed only as an historical turning point marking Cobain’s biggest triumph and his doom-laden
introduction to the dark side of inescapable fame and adulation. It’s difficult to play Nevermind today without
feeling the weight of history, or hearing the crash of foreboding thunder. But Nevermind’s entry into the canon
of Important Rock Records did have some lag time. When it was released, it only got three stars and a genial
review from Rolling Stone. According to Spin, Nirvana was good but not nearly as good as Teenage Fanclub,
whose Bandwagonesque was named album of the year.
(Nevermind did top the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, ranking ahead of Public Enemy, R.E.M., U2, and
P.M. Dawn. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” also took No. 1 on the singles list, ranking 19 spots above “Pop Goes The
Weasel” by 3rd Bass, which, like Nirvana, was deadly serious about calling out “phony entertainers.”)
Like millions of other kids, I owned a copy of Nevermind by the end of 1991. But I didn’t rush out to buy it as
soon as I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I did, however, browbeat my mother into driving me to the mall so I
could buy two albums that came out the week before Nevermind. I had waited three years for these records—
my whole life as a music-buying consumer. For months, I had been swallowing up the hype promising that this
music just might end up being the greatest thing to ever punish my eardrums. Clearly, I had to possess it as
soon as it was available.
You know where you are? You’re in the jungle with Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II,
baby! And by the end of 1991, something that was once vital about the baddest band on the planet was gonna
1991 might be remembered as the year of Nevermind, but no band was bigger at the time than GN-effin-R, and
no rock star had more power than Axl Rose, a man that made wearing a bandana and spandex biker shorts in
public credible by sheer force of personality. Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 debut, Appetite For Destruction, ranked
among the best-selling rock albums of all time, and it was the soundtrack for countless coming-of-age moments
for teenagers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Kids everywhere were getting laid, drunk, and beat up for the first
time to the sounds of “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Paradise City.” By 1991, Axl was so powerful that he was
able to essentially coerce his record company, Geffen, into releasing two maniacally ambitious double-albums
on the same day—Sept. 17, 1991—rather than a year or two apart, which is what the label wanted to do
because it happened to make a lot more sense. The dual release of the Use Your Illusion albums was an act of
hubris so brazen in its arrogance and yet strangely admirable in its artistic stubbornness that nobody had been
fucking crazy enough to try anything like it before, or attempt to copy it in the nearly two decades since. (Yes,
there was Bruce Springsteen’s little-loved Human Touch/Lucky Town experiment the following year, and Nelly’s
Sweat/Suit dual-release in 2004, but at least those weren’t double albums.) We can debate about the greatness
and importance of Nevermind—I’d rather we didn’t, but go ahead if you want—but there’s no arguing against
the Use Your Illusion saga being a unique and historical event in rock history; in terms of excess, it planted a flag
at the end of the world.
Grandiose piano-based balladry, queasily personal prog-punk epics, STD-ridden blues laments, “joke” songs
about bitches lying dead in ditches, sleazy folk numbers denouncing anonymous and not-so-anonymous exes,
surprisingly trenchant anti-war songs, furious (and libelous) attacks on journalists, guest vocals from the Blind
Melon guy—Use Your Illusion left it all in. All Geffen could do was hope that Rose didn’t decide to unload even
more stifling paranoia and motor-mouthed psycho-babble into additional songs, further delaying the release of
these overstuffed, twin wooly mammoths into the wild.
The first taste the world got of Use Your Illusion was “You Could Be Mine,” which was released as a single in
June of 1991 in connection with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which just so happened to be the other massively
hyped piece of entertainment I was obsessed with that year. GNR was still months away from actually releasing
the albums “You Could Be Mine” was intended to tease—it came from Use Your Illusion II, which was probably
really confusing if you didn’t know about Use Your Illusion I—but the Arnold Schwarzenegger-assisted video did
succeed in making the band a ubiquitous presence on MTV that summer as it toured the country. Not that GNR
needed any help getting attention; during a St. Louis show in July, Rose reacted to what he perceived as “lameass security” by storming off the stage during a performance of “Rocket Queen,” the band’s 15th song of the
night. The audience responded by trashing the place, causing $200,000 in damages; Rose was later arrested for
inciting a riot. (He got his revenge by writing, “Fuck you, St. Louis!” in the liner notes of both Use Your Illusion
The riot suggested that GNR’s image was still gritty enough to convince fans that punching each other in the
face was a reasonable response to the band playing for “only” 90-or-so minutes. But Use Your Illusion was the
work of a band moving beyond its humble beginnings as heroin-scamming street scamps; soon the world would
discover that “You Could Be Mine”—a lean, mean, and roaring rattlesnake shake in the vein of Appetite—had
created a set of hard-rockin’ expectations that the albums, whatever their other merits, wouldn’t come close to
living up to.
The defining single of GNR’s UYI period instead ended up being “November Rain,” which hit MTV one year after
“You Could Be Mine.” Needlessly expensive, fatally overblown, and a clear product of self-destructive tunnelvision, the video for “November Rain” already seemed laughably dated the first time MTV played it. It was as if
Axl was dutifully following a checklist of things you didn’t want to see GNR involved with: opulent weddings,
humungous orchestras, heavy-handed symbolism, Stephanie Seymour, and so on. Just five years earlier, GNR
presented a much different image in the video for “Welcome To The Jungle,” which for me is the single most
powerful thing the band ever did, even more powerful than Appetite as a whole. To this day, Guns N’ Roses as
seen in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video is the only rock band to ever truly frighten me. Yes, it helped that I
was only 10 at the time, but GNR was unnerving in a way that even the scariest of scary metal bands couldn’t
touch. Metal bands were like slasher movies; GNR was like prison rape.
Nirvana is credited with making ’80s hair-metal bands look silly with Nevermind, but GNR had already done that
with the “Welcome To The Jungle” video several years earlier. But even if Rose had grander ambitions by ’91,
the young turks from Seattle threatening to make him a dinosaur before his time apparently didn’t threaten
him. In fact, he was among the first rock stars to hop aboard the Nevermind bandwagon. In September 1991,
GNR released the video for the relatively restrained power ballad “Don’t Cry,” which included clips of Rose
wearing a Nirvana baseball cap. Rose wore the same cap in the making-of documentary, and apparently was an
enthusiastic fan of his Geffen labelmates away from the cameras as well. In October, he dragged Slash to see
Nirvana perform in Los Angeles and, according to Mick Wall’s W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William
Axl Rose, he even did his little Axl dance while the band played. (Why oh why didn’t iPhones exist in 1991?)
Rose longed to hear Nirvana cover “Welcome To The Jungle”—he wanted it done “their way, however it is”—
and put out a request for the band to play his 30th birthday party. Publicly, he reached out for Nirvana to join
GNR and Metallica on their massive stadium tour, which would’ve been an incredible boon for any band trying
to establish an audience at the time. (When Nirvana said no, Rose instead asked Soundgarden, another Seattle
band he praised in the media before most mainstream rock fans had heard of the group.)
Say what you want about Axl Rose, but you can’t accuse him of not putting out the welcome mat for new
pledges in the rock-star fraternity. More than anything, the guy just sounds like a fan; I know I would have asked
Nirvana to play my birthday party in 1991 if I had the means. Unfortunately, Axl Rose embracing Nirvana
seemed to confirm Kurt Cobain’s worst fears about signing with a major label. For Cobain, Axl Rose represented
everything horrible about corporate rock. On a personal level, he found Rose to be a despicable human being,
the epitome of racist, sexist, homophobic, proudly redneck and macho assholes that his music was intended to
irritate and destroy.
That Rose was actually more complicated than that—he was just as much of a misfit as Cobain was growing up,
and a fairly sensitive guy considering he once called his mother a “cunt” in the song “Bad Obsession”—was
beside the issue. Rose signified old-guard, cock-rock superstardom, and Cobain was never more deliberate in
his desire to dismantle that institution than in his outspoken criticism of Guns N’ Roses. Cobain’s aversion to
turning into Axl Rose bordered on obsession; he claimed to the press that out of the $1 million he made when
he was first flush with Nirvana’s success, a relatively modest $300,000 went toward a house, and only $80,000
was spent on other personal expenses. “That’s definitely not what Axl spends in a year,” Cobain said. (A
seemingly contradictory story is found in Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain,
where Cobain and Courtney Love spent two months in Fall 1992 at the fancy Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in
Seattle, ringing up an extravagant $36,000 bill before being kicked out. The name they were staying under was
Bill Bailey, also known as the original moniker of one Axl Rose.)
The irony of the Kurt/Axl rivalry is that Cobain—the wimpy feminist who took to wearing layers of sweaters in
order to look less scrawny—was the clear aggressor while Rose, who demanded that any and all critics “suck his
fucking dick” in “Get In The Ring” and once threatened to fight Vince Neil of Motley Crüe outside of Tower
Records in L.A., seemed to shrink away from a man he seemed to have genuinely admired. It’s sort of sad,
really, though Rose was not above insulting Cobain; when Nirvana turned down the GNR/Metallica “Get In The
Ring” tour, Rose crabbed to Metallix magazine, “They would rather sit at home and shoot heroin with their
bitch wives than tour with us.” (Artless wording aside, Rose wasn’t completely wrong.)
Things finally came to a head backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, where Cobain and Rose had a
mythic encounter on par with some of the most iconic pop-star tête-à-têtes ever. It was like Bob Dylan smoking
pot with The Beatles, or David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby, only this time the
participants unequivocally hated each other. You could liken it to that scene in Heat where bank robber Robert
De Niro has a cup of coffee with rival cop Al Pacino, but Axl and Kurt couldn’t even work up some grudging
mutual respect. The details of the meeting are already well known to fans of Nirvana, GNR, and celebrity pissing
matches: It started when Courtney Love, who was sitting with Cobain and their baby daughter Frances Bean,
called out to Rose and his girlfriend Stephanie Seymour and snarkily asked if Axl would be the godfather of their
child. Rather than acknowledge Courtney, Axl instead strode up to Kurt.
“You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement,” he growled, sounding more menacing in that
one moment than at any point over the 150 minutes of the Use Your Illusion albums. (At least that’s how I
Without missing a beat, Cobain turned to his wife, and said sarcastically, “Okay, bitch. Shut up.” Not wanting to
miss out on the insult-trading couples competition, Seymour disingenuously asked Love, “Are you a model?”
“No,” she replied. “Are you a brain surgeon?” Game, set, victory for Team Grunge.
If an analogy comes close to describing this hostile summit, it would be the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 at New
York’s Madison Square Garden, where Muhammad Ali was commonly seen as representing anti-war liberalism,
and Joe Frazier was associated with the conservative establishment. Like Ali and Frazier, Kurt and Axl were
bonded by their ability to turn their feelings of aggression, anger, alienation, and hatred into a highly lucrative
vocation. But they came from fundamentally different worlds, and bringing them together offered a fascinating
case study in what happens when two men who perfectly represent opposing sensibilities act out philosophical
differences in the physical world.
Sounds pretty heady for an evening presided over by Dana Carvey, I know. But the way the “Kurt made Axl look
dumb at the VMAs” story was gleefully reported and subsequently exaggerated by Cobain and the media says a
lot about how Use Your Illusion (even more than Nevermind) had made GNR’s outlaw cool look like empty
posturing in the space of a single year. That Nirvana proceeded to pull a memorable “fuck you” rock ’n’ roll
move onstage by playing a few bars of “Rape Me” before launching into a perfectly sloppy version of
“Lithium”—a devastating contrast with Rose dueting with Elton John on the highly choreographed “November
Rain”—apparently wasn’t enough for Cobain, who shared his juicy behind-the-scenes Axl story on MTV, playing
up Rose’s pomposity in what was depicted as a classic David and Goliath tale. In the clip below, which appears
to have been recorded the day after the confrontation at a benefit show in Portland, Ore., Cobain talks about
the “20 bodyguards” that were guarding Rose and how Axl was threatening him when he had “a little helpless
child in his arms.” Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic also chimes in about Guns N’ Roses being “the establishment
rock ’n’ roll,” and how “they want you to buy their packaged rebellion of sitting on a Harley-Davidson while you
play a piano with a 41-piece orchestra, just like Emerson, Lake & Palmer did in 1978.” Nirvana clearly had been
reading its own press clippings.
An interesting tangent to this story is Novoselic’s claim that he was threatened later that night by GNR bassist
Duff McKagan. Apparently this actually happened; McKagan even made a belated public apology to Novoselic
earlier this year. But even if he did challenge Novoselic to a celebrity bassist death match in the midst of a drink
and drug-induced fury, McKagan might’ve deserved a little more slack than Nirvana gave him publicly. Before
he moved to L.A. to join Guns N’ Roses, McKagan was an active member of the Seattle punk scene, playing in
the Fartz, Fastbacks, and numerous other bands. After he hit it big, McKagan maintained ties with the local
music community, hosting the members of Pearl Jam at his L.A. home on one of the band’s early tours, and
even hanging out with Cobain on a plane ride to Seattle after Kurt fled rehab one last time in the final weeks of
Obviously I don’t know Duff McKagan personally, but based on this clip and what I’ve read about him in various
grunge-related books, I’ve got to say he seems like a solid-enough guy. And his anti-Nirvana rancor was
apparently short-lived, given the empathy he felt for Cobain as he was circling the drain. But after 1991, the
mere mention of the words “Duff McKagan” or anything else associated with Guns N’ Roses would inspire
laughter and scorn among those who believed that the world wasn’t big enough for Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain to
both be rock stars.
It’s convenient shorthand to paint Axl Rose as the meathead rock cliché and Kurt Cobain as the genuine artist,
but what gets left out? Looking back, I see the crucial difference between Axl and Kurt being how they chose to
act out their darkest, ugliest sides. Both men had troubled childhoods that led to adult lives distinguished by
intense mood swings and a compulsive need to control their surroundings. Both men hated the press for
spreading “lies” that often turned out to be true, and both were drawn to complicated women who created as
much misery as ecstasy in their lives. Both men saw fame as a double-edged sword; it gave them the attention
they craved after a lifetime of being ignored, and yet it also seemed to intensify their feelings of self-loathing.
They were, to use medical terminology, a couple of fucked-up individuals, which both men expressed
eloquently in their music.
But even in the saddest, most depressing Nirvana songs, Cobain always seemed like a sensitive, thoughtful man.
Rose, on the other hand, wrote a lot of songs about being a bad person and not seeming all that sorry about it.
Is this dichotomy merely a reflection of who these guys were? Maybe, but I find it hard to believe that Rose was
clueless about the monstrous picture he often painted of himself in his music. He’d have to be a complete
sociopath not to notice it—though even Patrick Bateman from American Psycho knew to hide his true self
behind his love of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins-era Genesis tunes.
If Cobain’s songs dealt in surrealism and playful nonsense, Rose was all about directness and outrage. A song
like “Dumb” seemed to touch on Cobain’s chemical romance with love (“My heart is broke, but I have some
glue / Let me inhale, and mend it with you”), but he also claimed his lyrics didn’t mean anything; Rose made the
connection between “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and his then-girlfriend Erin Everly unavoidable by putting her in the
video. But if Rose loved Everly enough to write the best power ballad of all time about her (with an assist from
Slash and Izzy Stradlin), there were also days that he hated her with equal passion—and he believed that was
worth writing about as well. Cobain’s relationship with Love was far from healthy, but he never wrote the sick
and twisted sequel to “Heart Shaped Box,” like Rose wrote many toxic retorts to “Sweet Child.”
I’m not saying one approach is preferable, just that Axl Rose should be recognized for the role he played in
creating his own public image, including the parts that people like Kurt Cobain despised. Perhaps he was too
honest; as laughable as the Use Your Illusion video trilogy of “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain,” and “Estranged”
ultimately is, it shows Rose self-consciously grappling with his suicidal impulses, childhood traumas, and
proclivity toward domestic violence on a large and public canvas. Not only was he open about the demons that
had stalked him from Indiana to the Sunset Strip, he freely admitted that sometimes he enjoyed them, or at
least was unwilling to sacrifice them at the altar of political correctness, no matter what effect they had on how
he was perceived.
The best example of this is the most controversial song Rose ever wrote, the radioactive “One In A Million” from
1988’s GN’R Lies. An account of Rose’s first days in Los Angeles, “One In A Million” is an uncomfortably frank
but bracingly honest depiction of how a “small town white boy” reacts to being confronted by a number of
offending parties, including police, “niggers,” immigrants, and “faggots.” Rose just wants them to get out of his
way, so he can make a living in the big city. Sympathetic critics (of which there weren’t many when it came to
“One In A Million”) could interpret the song as a comment on bigotry, but Rose derailed such efforts whenever
he tried to defend it, saying in interviews that he was “pro-heterosexual” and that the “niggers” comment
referred specifically to black people that hassle you at the Greyhound station. Other times he simply claimed
“One In A Million” was a joke, which only made the song more offensive.
The power of “One In A Million” lies in it being an intolerant song that doesn’t endorse intolerance. Only a
complete fucking idiot listens to “One In A Million” and nods in agreement. It’s not a persuasive song in the
least, and it doesn’t seem that the protagonist is intended to be likeable in any way. “One In A Million” is a song
nobody would ever admit relating to. What makes it so disturbing is that Rose doesn’t tip his hand; there’s no
catharsis pointing toward a change of heart by the end, which is why Cobain and millions of others concluded
the worst about Rose when “One In A Million” was released. But if Rose really was just a cardboard-cutout
racist, homophobic bad guy, why would he have bothered to expose himself as such by releasing this song?
Rose would’ve had to be the least self-aware pop star ever to not anticipate the shit-storm “One In A Million”
caused; you have to assume that he either didn’t care, or saw value in shining a light on the dimmest regions of
his psyche. Was he trying to shame himself into being a better person? If so, did it work?
Cobain was right; Rose felt that the world owed him something, and that was the fulfillment of his dreams in
exchange for a painfully detailed account of his nightmares. In “One In A Million,” Rose sings, “It’s been such a
long time since I knew right from wrong / It’s all a means to an end, I keep it movin’ along.” By the end of 1991,
I chose Kurt Cobain over Axl Rose because I wanted someone who did know the difference between right and
wrong. But even if Cobain’s music changed lives, Nevermind failed in saving the man who created it. It also
couldn’t touch Axl; he’s the one who is still movin’ along.
What Happened Next? Nirvana was the first grunge band to achieve superstar status, but Pearl Jam quickly became the
defining group of the label. Next week will look at Pearl Jam’s ascendancy during the grunge summer of love in ’92, when
the band toured with Lollapalooza and dominated MTV, and how Pearl Jam’s subsequent legacy has shaped mainstream
rock music, for better or worse.
Part 3: 1992:
1992: Pearl Jam, the perils of fame, and the
trouble with avoiding it
By Steven Hyden
Nov 2, 2010 12:01 AM
“There’s a lot of bands that get to a certain level, and it just stops. They scrap it. Compare this to, say,
The Rolling Stones or The Who, where they just continued on forever and are still playing, or they quit
after 20 years. But Talking Heads, or Jane’s Addiction, or The Police, or even Nirvana you could say, got
to a point and then that was just it. I was wondering what the difference was between the early bands
and these bands…”—Eddie Vedder, in an interview with Craig Marks for Spin, December 1994.
“Show me any guy who ever said he didn’t want to be popular, and I’ll show you a scared guy.”—Jason
Lee as Stillwater singer Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous
If you’ve ever spent time around a local music scene, you’re probably familiar with the plot points of Doug
Pray’s 1996 documentary Hype! even if you’ve never seen the movie. Hype! ostensibly chronicles how Seattle
was affected by the media attention heaped upon the grunge phenomenon in the wake of the world-beating
early ’90s success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. But while the specifics of this story
involve flannel and coffee shops, the general outline applies to any mid-sized American city that’s ever had
three or four bands gain a measure of national notoriety while lots of other groups were left behind to gripe
endlessly about why the world ended up caring more about them than us.
While few people outside of Seattle would’ve cared about a movie like Hype! had it not been for the very same
media attention the film rails against, Pray steadfastly focuses his attention on the dimmer lights in the city’s
musical galaxy—bands like Mono Men, Seaweed, Zipgun, Love Battery, Hovercraft, and Gas Huffer—instead of
its big stars. The point of Pray’s film seems pretty obvious: The popularity of grunge didn’t put Seattle music on
the map; it ruined Seattle music, because the emphasis suddenly shifted from having fun and creating
idiosyncratic records to scoring contracts and making loads of money. Hype! spends a lot of time exploring how
the media reduced Seattle to a set of simpleminded stereotypes—lumberjack clothes! dumb-guy guitar
riffage!—that didn’t do justice to the city’s spirit of adventurous, non-trendy individuality.
Unlike other “it” cities in rock history like Liverpool and San Francisco, Seattle never really had a honeymoon
period in the spotlight. As Hype! shows, Seattle scenesters weren’t exactly inviting outsiders to come to their
land of omnipresent rain and widespread heroin addiction with some flowers in their hair. Grunge seemed to
arrive concurrently with grunge’s backlash; even stranger, the bands that stood to benefit the most from being
associated with grunge were the ones fueling the backlash. Unlike punk and metal bands, which have typically
been proud to declare themselves as such, grunge bands wore their tag with disdain.
None of the Seattle musicians interviewed in Hype! come across as outwardly bitter, but there is an overall
sense of resentment about grunge that sometimes seems justified (a lot of the mainstream media coverage of
Seattle was stupid and reductive), but sometimes not, though that comes across in ways that Pray probably
didn’t intend. While Hype! is an entertaining movie, it’s hardly revelatory; the bands you’ve never heard of
don’t exactly seem unfairly ignored. They sound “local” in a bad way, with lots of scrappy punk-rock energy
trying in vain to compensate for shouty, so-so singers and leaden songwriting. Hype! subtly suggests that the
right bands were handed tickets to international fame and fortune.
Among Pray’s most eloquent interview subjects was an Evanston, Illinois native who had only lived in Seattle for
a few years, having moved up north in 1990 after working as a musician and a part-time night attendant at a gas
station in San Diego for six years. But Eddie Vedder’s limited history in Seattle didn’t make him sound any less
regretful about his band Pearl Jam reaping the rewards of rock stardom that so many of the city’s musicians
missed out on. “They made a big mistake,” Vedder says ruefully at the movie’s 43-minute mark. “They didn’t go
further and find more of the bands that were already here, and had been here even before many of the bands
that exploded were. That’s what makes me feel guilty about the success of our band, because it should’ve been
spread out to a number of bands.”
When it came to rock stardom, Eddie Vedder was a socialist. But like so many celebrities before and after him,
he blamed the media for his problem—which, presumably, was Pearl Jam selling more records than Gas
Huffer—when he really should have blamed himself. Pearl Jam broke bigger than anybody else in Seattle
because the band’s 1991 debut, Ten, satisfied a social need: It was spectacularly good at making alienated
teenagers (i.e. all teenagers) feel less alone whenever they felt misunderstood by the rest of the world (i.e.
every waking hour of the day).
Bursting with intensely personal songs that sound universal by virtue of their oversized, near-operatic
emotionalism, Ten was neither subtle nor particularly cool, which helped it communicate better and more
profoundly with more people than any other rock record of its time. Along with Metallica’s Black Album and
Radiohead’s OK Computer, Pearl Jam’s Ten is easily one of the most influential mainstream rock records of the
last 20 years. The power of Ten was so great that it eventually stood apart from Pearl Jam; as Vedder and his
increasingly marginalized supporting cast distanced themselves from the record’s gauche chest-thumping by
churning out progressively restrained, more “mature,” and less expressive music, Ten was dusted off by other
bands and recycled again and again. Today, Pearl Jam is a popular touring band and intermittently successful on
the charts; Ten, meanwhile, is still all over modern-rock radio, though only a handful of the songs are actually by
The story of Ten has since passed into rock legend: After the drug-related death of Mother Love Bone singer
Andrew Wood, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were set adrift in a sea of limited career options.
Having cast their lot with the highly commercial and solidly career-minded MLB after departing the seminal
Seattle band Green River—which also included Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner, who would make the
Nirvanas and Pearl Jams of the world envious for their ability to stay eternally cool and hopelessly broke—
Ament and Gossard had every right to think that their best shot at stardom had just taken a lethal dose of
smack and nodded off forever.
As he tried to figure out what to do next, Gossard began writing songs and jamming with Seattle guitarist and
Stevie Ray Vaughan fan Mike McCready. Soon, Gossard and McCready were in the studio with Ament and a
revolving cast of drummers to record five tracks, which were labeled Stone Gossard Demos ’91. The guys
needed a full-time singer and a drummer; they approached Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, but Irons
instead passed the tape on to his friend Eddie Vedder.
Vedder listened to the tape, went out to surf, and then quickly returned to scribble down some lyrics and
record vocals over the instrumental tracks. Eventually these demos would become some of Pearl Jam’s bestknown songs, including “Alive” and “Once.” When Vedder ventured up to Seattle in October 1990 to officially
audition to be the band’s singer, he ended up writing several more songs with his prospective bandmates over
the course of a week. Five months later, the newly christened Mookie Blaylock was in the studio recording Ten;
four months after that, on Aug. 27, 1991, Ten was released. By May 1992, Ten was a top 10 record, eventually
peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and selling nearly 10 million copies. Pearl Jam had become one of the
biggest rock groups in the world before the band members had even spent 24 months together.
I remember hearing the first single from Ten, the vaguely Skynyrd-esque lighter-waving anthem “Alive,”
between Bad Company and Styx songs on my town’s top AOR station, “The Rockin’ Apple” WAPL. Vedder later
revealed in a Rolling Stone interview that the lyrics to “Alive” were practically straight autobiography,
recounting the day his mother told him that the man he thought was his father was, in fact, not his biological
parent, and that his real dad had recently passed away.
To me, the message of “Alive” boiled down to two sounds and three words: “Oh-ahh, uhhh, I’m still alive.” It
was a simple yet stirring rallying cry that rang true for a kid stuck living the worst years of his life in the dregs of
junior high school. The guy singing this song had obviously endured something nearly as traumatic as the eighth
grade, and yet he somehow survived to bellow about how he made it through to the other side more or less
intact. You had to be inspired by that.
In the video, which the band insisted be culled from a not-especially-polished live performance, Pearl Jam looks
like a glam band in dress-down mode; in other words, just like Tesla. (Except McCready, who’s decked out in full
cowboy-and-blouse Stevie Ray gear.) Like many of the songs on Ten, “Alive” starts out mired in a relatively
mellow wallow and gradually builds to a satisfying rage—in this case, a blazing McCready guitar solo that sends
“Alive” off in majestic classic-rock fashion.
“Alive” is one of Pearl Jam’s most famous songs, but it didn’t come close to making the kind of atomic
impression that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did. Ten was more of a slow burn; if memory serves, the next single,
“Even Flow,” was played on MTV 57 times an hour during the first half of ’92, an impressive feat considering
“Even Flow” was a pretty lousy song that made no fucking sense whatsoever. Supposedly “Even Flow” is about
homelessness—see the lines about “a pillow made of concrete” and “ceilings few and far between”—but I
hated that the chorus didn’t tell you what “even flow” was supposed to be, and the line about thoughts arriving
like butterflies sounded like a bad Natalie Merchant lyric. Still, the video for “Even Flow” succeeded in doing for
Pearl Jam what the “Pour Some Sugar On Me” video had done for Def Leppard four summers earlier: It made
you wish really hard that Pearl Jam would come somewhere near your town very soon.
Ten was already in the upper reaches of the Billboard chart by the time Pearl Jam’s third video, “Jeremy,” went
into heavy rotation on MTV in August ’92. Watching it now, the “Jeremy” video has lots of cringingly obvious
imagery, not the least of which is sad lil’ Jeremy wrapped in the American flag while surrounded by flames. (I’m
going to go out a limb and suggest that director Mark Pellington was trying to make a larger point about the
tenuous state of American youth in the early ’90s.) But at the time, “Jeremy” was probably the most
emotionally overpowering video I’d ever seen. The song itself had also been juiced up for MTV; the most
moving part of “Jeremy” is the outro, where Vedder lets out the same epic “whoa!” that Bruce Springsteen
should’ve trademarked in 1978 after he released Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The single version of “Jeremy”
was remixed to extend Vedder’s climactic “whoa!” for several extra beats, a slight but important change that
amped up the song’s dramatic impact. (Vedder’s greatest vocal performances tend to be practically wordless;
see Ten’s mush-mouthed closer, “Release,” and the essential “Jeremy” B-side “Yellow Ledbetter,” which fans
have been trying to decipher for 18 years.)
Following the familiar wallow-to-sweeping-crescendo template, “Jeremy” is sung from the perspective of
Jeremy’s classmates, a clever songwriting device for a singer who typically identified with the victims in his
songs. By siding with the kids who thought Jeremy was a “harmless little fuck,” Vedder made “Jeremy” the
ultimate revenge tale for the self-pity set, a classic “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead” song that allowed listeners
to feel the vicarious thrill of seeing awful people shamed for bullying Jeremy/you/me.
“Jeremy” was the capper on 1992’s grunge summer of love, when Pearl Jam crisscrossed the country with
Soundgarden and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and spread the alt-rock gospel as Lollapalooza headliners. By late
August, Pearl Jam would appear on three albums in the Billboard top 20: the ascendant Ten, hitting the full
stride of its popularity a year after it was released; the Chris Cornell-led Andrew Wood tribute Temple Of The
Dog, which got new life from the Vedder-assisted “Hunger Strike”; and the era’s very own version of Saturday
Night Fever, the Singles soundtrack, a first-rate grunge primer featuring two essential Pearl Jam songs (“State Of
Love And Trust” and “Breath”), the best Alice In Chains’ song ever (“Would?”), and excellent contributions from
Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees, and Cornell.
Against director Cameron Crowe’s wishes, Warner Bros. made grunge the promotional hook to sell Singles.
While it wasn’t a movie about Seattle music—I’ve never seen it, but I understand that it’s about relationships
and how they complete you while showing you the money—Singles was filthy with cameos from local
musicians, including Vedder, Ament, and Gossard, who appeared as members of Matt Dillon’s Pearl Jam-esque
band Citizen Dick. Vedder melodramatically declared to the Los Angeles Times that he “would go buy a gun” if
the studio made too much of the Seattle scene, but he eventually agreed to appear in an MTV special to
promote the movie, because Crowe told him Singles wouldn’t be released otherwise.
Vedder typically wasn’t so accommodating, especially once his status as Pearl Jam’s figurehead gave him the
freedom to tell people no. He fought the push from Epic, Pearl Jam’s label, to release Ten’s big romantic ballad,
“Black,” as a single because it appeared poised to become the band’s biggest hit yet. (“Black” became one of
Pearl Jam’s most popular songs regardless.) “We didn’t write to make hits. But those fragile songs get crushed
by the business,” Vedder told Crowe in Rolling Stone; Vedder thought “Black” was so fragile that, in a weird
anecdote related by Crowe, he once chastised a group of Pearl Jam fans for singing it when he overheard them
on a hiking trip.
As tempted as I am to roll my eyes at Vedder’s overexposed media rants about media overexposure, he did
have reason to worry about Pearl Jam-mania. When school reconvened that fall, Pearl Jam was everywhere;
using T-shirts and locker posters as a barometer, they were way more popular than Nirvana. Since I was a
Nevermind guy and only lukewarm on Ten—I like it a lot more now, because I’m much younger in spirit at 33
than I was at 14—this offended my sensibilities to the core. On this point I’ll quote an article that appeared on
the teen-oriented “Get With It!” page of the Appleton Post-Crescent on Oct. 22, 1993:
If there was ever a band I got sick of, it was Pearl Jam. I got sick of hearing about how “awesome” they
were supposed to be. I got sick of seeing Pearl Jam shirts on the backs of every other kid at my school.
And I swore that if MTV played that “Jeremy” one more time, I would grab a gun of my own and point it
at the television.
I know what you’re thinking: Why was Robert Christgau writing for teenagers in the middle of Wisconsin?
Actually, that was written by me, Steve Hyden, intrepid 16-year-old music scribe. I was reviewing Pearl Jam’s
second album, Vs.—a record Pearl Jam solemnly promised not to release any videos for—and attempting to
make a contrast between what I saw at the time as the band’s inferior debut and the much better sophomore
release. I described Vs. as “amazing” and “electrifying,” with a “delightfully raw and funky” sound and “simply
no filler.” I gave the album an A+, which I now know as an A.V. Club writer is a grade that does not exist.
The grade isn’t the only area where I was wrong when it came to Vs.; listening to it now, there’s “simply” a
whole lot of filler, including the eminently skippable likes of “Dissident,” “Blood,” “Rats,” and “Indifference.”
Elsewhere, Vedder awkwardly strains for Important Statements on “Glorified G,” which satirizes gun owners so
simplistically it makes the NRA seem sympathetic, and the “experimental” funk song “W.M.A.,” a takedown of
the white male Americans that composed most of Pearl Jam’s fan base.
Ten is a record that anyone who’s ever felt young and disaffected can relate to; on Vs., Vedder’s lyrical
perspective had broadened, and yet his songs feel narrower. But even if his stabs at saying something
meaningful usually fall short, there’s still something admirable about his attempts to leaven bro-friendly rock
with bite-sized morsels of social consciousness. Most impressive is Vedder’s empathy with women; on the
single “Daughter,” he sings in the first-person about a young girl struggling with child abuse. Vedder does it in a
manly baritone so as not to alienate his core audience, but still—a song like “Daughter” would have never come
from a meat-and-potatoes rock band of Pearl Jam’s stature a few years earlier. Along with the similarly folkie
“Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town,” Vedder turned feminine character studies into groupfriendly sing-alongs for millions of young men who were otherwise blissfully clueless about the female
With Vs., Pearl Jam sidestepped the aggressive media push that helped make Ten a success; at that point the
band didn’t have to go on Headbangers’ Ball and press the flesh with Riki Rachtman like it did when MTV was
just starting to play “Alive.” Vs. sold nearly a million copies in its first week and eventually hit the 7-million mark.
Pearl Jam’s third album, 1994’s Vitalogy, was another smash, selling nearly 900,0000 copies during the first
week of its release and going on to move 5 million units. But just when Pearl Jam should have been basking in
the reflected glow of its incredible popularity, the band seemed precariously perched on the brink of ruin.
Two things happened between the release of Vs. and Vitalogy that changed Pearl Jam forever. The first was the
firing of drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who joined the band right before the release of Ten and played on Vs. and
Vitalogy. The commonly cited reason for Abbruzzese’s dismissal was his comfort with being a rock star, which
apparently put him in direct conflict with Vedder. This point is central to Kim Neely’s Five Against One: The Pearl
Jam Story, the band’s definitive biography by default, which uses Abbruzzese as a primary interview subject.
My favorite Abbruzzese ax-grinding story from Five Against One involves Pearl Jam’s schoolmarmish reaction to
his purchase of a brand-new black Infiniti, which plays out like a low-rent grunge-rock redux of This Is Spinal
“Check it out,” he said, beaming. “What do you think?”
The others stood in a huddle, silent.
“Huh,” Jeff said finally.
“Well,” said Stone. “That’s rock.”
Nobody got in, nobody wanted to see the interior or peek under the hood. Eddie, who’d parted with
some of his Ten royalties to pay off the same beat-up truck he’d been driving when he first arrived in
Seattle, stood with his arms crossed, eyes flickering distastefully over the Infiniti’s shiny black paint job
and chrome wheels.
Whatever, Dave thought. He sat in his new car as they walked away, absent-mindedly juggling the keys
that hung from the ignition with one aimless finger. He sat there for a long time after the others had
Isn’t that just the saddest story involving a brand-new black Infiniti that you’ve ever heard? Abbruzzese
might’ve gotten a raw deal, but his firing appears to have kept Pearl Jam intact, because it more or less put his
nemesis in full control of the band. Vedder at the time was an uneasy collection of contradictions bumping into
each other under the same furrowed brow. On the one hand, he was a dedicated student of classic rock,
participating in tribute concerts to Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend, filling in for Jim Morrison when The Doors
were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and initiating a public partnership with Neil Young that
began when Pearl Jam invited him to play “Rockin’ In The Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards.
Vedder could always be called on to wax rhapsodic about musical heroes like the Ramones and R.E.M.; along
with Bono, he’s been the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s most reliable induction speechifier. As much as he was a
rock singer, Eddie Vedder was a rock fan, and he clearly believed that the artists that had moved him were
important and deserved to be celebrated.
And yet when it came to his own band and the intense connection Pearl Jam’s fans had to his public persona,
Vedder’s discomfort frequently boiled over into hostility. And it would only get worse after April 8, 1994, when
Kurt Cobain was found dead at his Seattle home with a gaping shotgun wound in his head. Vedder and Cobain
weren’t close socially; their relationship appears to have been one-sided, with Vedder playing the adoring
admirer and Cobain the ambivalent would-be rival. Cobain openly hated Pearl Jam’s music, but he thought
Vedder was a good person, and the two reconciled backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, the same
night as Cobain’s infamous confrontation with Axl Rose.
When Vedder learned of Cobain’s death while on tour in Fairfax, Virginia, he reacted as a fan, launching into a
violent emotional outburst and tearing apart his hotel room. That night he told the audience gathered for Pearl
Jam’s show, “I don’t think any of us would be in this room if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain.” But in subsequent
interviews, rather than focus on all the good that came out of Nirvana’s stardom—namely, that it allowed
millions of people to discover Cobain’s music, and use it as a skeleton key to discover loads of other artists—
Vedder instead pontificated about the burden of being beloved. It didn’t matter that Cobain had been an
unhappy person for a long time before he was famous, or that he died while in the grips of a harrowing,
seemingly unbeatable heroin addiction. Nope, it was the fame that killed him, pure and simple; Cobain’s demise
had made him a martyr for sensitive, camera-shy artists, and Vedder rushed to pound the nails in.
“You know, all these people… lining up to say that his death was so fucking inevitable… well, if it was inevitable
for him, it’s gonna be inevitable for me, too,” Vedder thundered to writer Allan Jones a month after Cobain’s
death under the headline “I’m Not Your Fuckin’ Messiah” in Melody Maker. “See, people like him and me, we
can’t be real. It’s a contradiction. We can’t be these people who just write these songs. We have to live up to
the expectations of a million people.”
Vedder’s classic-rock worship, and his professed disdain of the cult of personality perpetuated by many of the
classic-rock artists he loved, formed the twin poles of Vitalogy, Pearl Jam’s messiest, most self-indulgent, and, in
many ways, most fascinating album. Many of the songs explicitly critiqued the concept of rock stardom;
incongruously, this made Vitalogy Pearl Jam’s most self-absorbed, rock-star-ish album to date. While it was easy
for teenagers to imagine that Vedder was singing directly to them on Ten, it was all about Eddie on Vitalogy.
The lyrics spell this out with thudding regularity:
From “Immortality”: “As privileged as a whore / victims in demand for public show.”
From “Corduroy”: “All the things that others want for me / Can’t buy what I want because it’s free.”
From “Pry, To”: “P-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me.”
From the album-closing seven-minute sound collage “Stupidmop”: “Do you ever think that you actually would kill
yourself? Well, if I thought about it real deep, I believe I would.”
The central song of Vitalogy is the Crazy Horse-aping dirge “Not For You”; as a low, out-of-tune rumble slowly
picks up steam, Vedder sings: “Small my table, sits just two / Got so crowded, I can’t make room / Oh, where
did they come from, stormed my room / And you dare say it belongs to you / This is not for you.” How you
interpret “Not For You” depends on how you define “this” and “you.” In interviews, Vedder claimed “this” was
youth and “you” was the media. But when “Not For You” had its national TV debut several months earlier on
Saturday Night Live, just eight days after Cobain’s suicide, it was hard not to read the song as a forceful “fuck
you” to Pearl Jam’s Johnny-come-lately fans. (For clarity’s sake, Vedder actually screams “fuck you” in the
The message rang through loud and clear: For the millions of kids who had connected with Ten, the hit-or-miss
experimentation and willful stand-offishness of Vitalogy would signal the end of Pearl Jam’s “golden period.”
While the band’s decline in popularity in the latter half of the ’90s is usually blamed on its long, wellintentioned, but ultimately fruitless battle with Ticketmaster, it was really the release of 1996’s bloodless No
Code and its blandly commercial follow-up Yield that caused many fans, including me, to finally walk away from
Vedder’s curiously small table.
Pearl Jam, of course, carried on, and still has an audience large enough to fill arenas all over the world. In 2009,
Pearl Jam released its ninth record, Backspacer, via its own label, Monkeywrench Records, negotiating deals
with Universal Music Group and various retailers, including Target, to distribute the album. Backspacer ended
up being Pearl Jam’s first No. 1 record since No Code, though the first-week sales of 189,000 were far below the
band’s (and music industry’s) prime.
Pearl Jam’s ability to sustain a career for nearly two decades on its own terms is admirable. But this is still a
band that hasn’t engaged with mainstream pop culture in many years. In a Rolling Stone poll connected to the
release of Backspacer, five of the first 10 songs that readers picked as their favorite Pearl Jam tracks were from
Ten. (Two others, “Yellow Ledbetter” and “State Of Love And Trust,” date from the same period.) No song in the
top 10 comes from an album released in the last 10 years.
Pearl Jam isn’t the first veteran rock band to see a decrease in fans as it got older. But it’s the best example of a
band deliberately expediting the process. Pearl Jam helped to set a template that all too many alt-rock bands
would follow in the ’90s: success, and then retreat. Make people love you, and then disengage. Get to a certain
level, and just stop.
That was Pearl Jam’s right, and the band might not be here today had it not made that choice. Still, the
mainstream rock audience could’ve benefited more from the empathy and earnest intentions of Eddie Vedder,
just as he had benefited from readily accessible heroes like Pete Townshend when he was a kid. For all his
hamfistedness, Vedder offered up valuable lessons about the greatness of Rust Never Sleeps, the wisdom of
Howard Zinn, and the concept of male feminism to anyone with access to MTV or a local rock radio station. For
three years, Vedder occupied a unique and important place in mainstream rock; that he allowed it to be taken
over by people like Scott Stapp isn’t unforgivable, just unfortunate.
What Happened Next:
Next: The rise of alternative might’ve changed the look and feel of rock stardom, but it didn't keep bands
from chasing the ever-elusive brass ring. I’ll look at three Chicago acts—Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair—
and the varying approaches they took to gaining an audience in 1993 and beyond.
Part 4: 1993:
1993: Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge
Overkill forsake the underground
By Steven Hyden
Nov 16, 2010 12:00 AM
“Each artist had to grapple with what’s supposed to be a dichotomy between being popular and being
‘alternative.’ Once it became apparent that the fine line between the two was blurring, the rear guard
from the underground—which I would define as deliberately non-pop, whereas I guess alternative
would be relatively personal music that doesn’t necessarily exclude pop—tried not only to keep them
clear, but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you were on. This, of course, is bullshit, and
these artists took a stand and the resulting heat to prove it.”—Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader, “Not
From The Underground: 1993 In Review,” Jan. 6, 1994
“Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you
reread it.”—Steve Albini, “Three Pandering Sluts And Their Music-Press Stooge,” letters section of the
Chicago Reader, Jan. 27, 1994
After one of the headiest years in Chicago rock history—a time when the city usurped Seattle as the new altrock hotspot, thanks to Smashing Pumpkins going platinum with the colossal guitar symphony Siamese Dream,
and Liz Phair and Urge Overkill releasing the critically acclaimed and demonstrably cool Exile In Guyville and
Saturation—local music critic Bill Wyman stated an opinion that seems obvious now, but ended up being quite
the shit-stirrer when he wrote it. For Wyman, the common thread connecting the city’s best-known but
otherwise disparate rock acts was their “explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly
characterizes underground music and the fringes of underground music in America.” In other words, Smashing
Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill actively pursued a mass audience: They made pop-friendly records,
engaged with the record-industry hype machine, and did it all with enough ironic detachment so as to not
appear overly craven. They appeared, to quote Saturation’s “Positive Bleeding,” to be remote-controllin’ their
I was still too young and clueless in 1993 to feel the push and pull between the increasingly popular alternative
scene and the “rear guard of the underground” that Wyman writes about. To me, Siamese Dream was an
underground record, insofar that it wasn’t The Bodyguard soundtrack. If it was “relatively personal” to Wyman,
I suppose that means it just seemed “personal” to me. I had a vague awareness that there was a strata of bands
beyond the new alt-rock establishment, mostly pop-punk groups like Bad Religion and NOFX, which my
snowboarding-obsessed pals played all the goddamn time while we drove around town during lunch hour,
along with stuff like Fugazi’s 13 Songs and the self-titled Operation Ivy compilation. I was still gleaning most of
my music knowledge from Rolling Stone, which at least partially explains why I liked The Rolling Stones and Led
Zeppelin as much as any contemporary band at the time.
But in a place like Chicago—the home of Screeching Weasel and Styx, The Jesus Lizard and “Eye Of The Tiger,”
Ministry and, well, Chicago—the separation between the underground and pop audiences couldn’t be more
obvious, and there was no clearer statement of disreputable intent (if not out-and-out shittiness) in the
underground than wanton commerciality. When Wyman stepped forward and called “bullshit” on all the huffy
finger-pointing being directed at the local scene’s biggest stars, he was practically begging for a smackdown.
Enter preeminent smackdown artist Steve Albini. Incredibly smart, engagingly articulate, openly judgmental,
and intimidating to anyone with even a modicum of self-confidence issues, Albini not only once inspired
Chunklet to ask “Is This Guy The Biggest Asshole In Rock?” in 40-plus-point cover type, he seemed to lust
mightily for the distinction. Albini was a musician and studio engineer celebrated in underground circles for
fronting the seminal indie outfits Big Black and Shellac, and he became a celebrity of sorts after recording classic
albums like Superchunk’s No Pocky For Kitty, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and, in 1993 alone, PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me and
Nirvana’s In Utero. Albini famously refused producer credit on records he worked on; in fact, he preferred not
to be credited at all, particularly for albums he often saw as falling below his high standards. To the contrary,
Albini didn’t hesitate to publicly discredit bands after they paid for his services. In “Eyewitness Record Reviews”
from the zine Forced Exposure #17, Albini called Surfer Rosa “a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their
top-dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.” (He also wrote about an unsuccessful sexual encounter
with a friend of the band who was “lounging around making little fuck me noises” that ended with him having
to “run a batch off by hand.” Who on earth would ever turn down the pleasure of having sex with this man?)
On top of everything else on his impressive résumé, Albini was a prolific and important rock writer, contributing
profane, Arsenic-laced prose to zines like Forced Exposure and Matter, where his well-thought-out arguments
against submitting to the destructive conventions of the music industry were spiked with lame stabs at
“provocative” political incorrectness. (“I don’t give two splats of an old Negro junkie’s vomit for your politcophilosophical treatises, kiddies,” goes a typical line.) To Albini, indie-ness was both a science and an evangelical
religion; he could be persuasively pragmatic about how bands were better off personally and creatively treating
music as a pastime rather than a job, and then land patently insulting roundhouse blows against anyone dumb,
silly, or unlucky enough to disagree with his fiercely held views.
In the letters section of the Reader, Albini was in born-again indie zealot mode. Not only did he hate the artists
that Wyman was trumpeting—Exile and Saturation took the top two places on his best-of list—Albini objected
to the Reader’s casual dismissal of underground dogma. “In your rush to pat these three pandering sluts on the
heinie, you miss what has been obvious to the ‘bullshit’ crowd all along: These are not ‘alternative’ artists any
more than their historical precursors. They are by, of and for the mainstream,” Albini wrote. “Watching the
three artists you moo about prostrate themselves before the altar of publicity these last 12 months has been a
source of unrivaled hilarity here in the ‘bullshit’ camp, and seeing them sink into the obscurity they have earned
by blowing their promo wads will be equally satisfying.”
Albini had missed the point somewhat; Wyman wasn’t arguing that these artists weren’t mainstream, he was
saying that it didn’t matter that they were mainstream, at least when it came to judging the quality of their
music. But looking back 17 years later, it seems that Albini was right about the Chicago alt-rock class of ’93 on
one count: Each of the artists mentioned in Wyman’s story have been significantly diminished, none more so
than Urge Overkill.
Certainly this must have pleased Albini to no end, since Urge Overkill was undoubtedly the one band out of the
three for which he had a special spot in the deepest, darkest region of his pinched, pitch-black heart. When
Urge Overkill formed in the mid-’80s, the band released its first EP on Albini’s own Ruthless label; after moving
to storied Chicago indie Touch And Go, the band continued to use Albini as an engineer. But then Urge Overkill
decided to sign with Geffen before the release of Saturation, which to people like Albini and Touch And Go
founder Corey Rusk was an unethical, if not unforgivable, transgression.
It didn’t help that Urge Overkill had adopted a winking, swinging dandy persona on Saturation that reveled in
passé rock clichés with far less irony that it might’ve initially appeared. The medallions and leisure suits that
guitarist Nash Kato, bassist Eddie “King” Roeser, and drummer Blackie Onassis donned as everyday casual-wear
fit with the thrift-store sensibility of Saturation, which created good-time Gen-X party jams out of the discarded
pieces of unfashionable ’70s arena-rock like Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. The end result set Saturation apart
from the alternative pack: This was a record that could actually be described as fun.
By the time Saturation was ready to be released in early June—a perfect time for the best beach-friendly rock
record of the year—the members of Urge Overkill were already acting like rock stars. When Jim DeRogatis of
the Chicago Sun-Times profiled the band, he visited its secret lair, a converted bank on Chicago’s northwest side
that had been transformed into “a grunge-rock version of the Playboy Mansion,” a veritable theme park of hip
trashiness decorated in tiki lamps, campy best-selling novels, and oversized bongs. (Never one to turn down an
opportunity to tear into any Chicago music writer praising Urge Overkill, Albini responded to DeRogatis’ proUrge coverage by penning a letter addressed to “Jim DeRogatis, Music Pimp,” where he called the critic “a
useless fuck I should ignore.” He then refused to speak to DeRogatis ever again.) While Urge Overkill was
squarely opposed to the righteous indignation that was de rigueur for alt-rock bands at the time, the band
members were just as serious about maintaining an authentic image, which for them meant pumping up the
outlandishness of their everyday lives to sync up with their publicity photos. For Urge Overkill, life really was a
cartoonish Urge Overkill video.
Even if the glamour of Urge Overkill was constructed, it was still a form of glamour, and it drew in local fans like
Wicker Park musician Liz Phair. After failing to make it as an artist in San Francisco, Phair returned to Chicago
and began writing and recording songs at home. These tapes, which Phair released under the moniker Girly
Sound, made her a star among aficionados of lo-fi recordings, including Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records, who
decided to sign Phair after she called him out of the blue one day and asked if he’d like to put out her record.
Phair’s Matador debut, Exile In Guyville, was partly inspired by her unrequited infatuation with Nash Kato; the
title referred to Urge Overkill’s “Goodbye To Guyville” and the boy’s-club atmosphere of Chicago’s underground
music scene. (Kato had also convinced Phair to pose topless on the album’s cover.) The other, more famous
inspiration for Exile In Guyville was The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, which Phair told interviewers
provided the answers to questions her record was posing, song by song, two decades after the Stones’ album’s
release. It was an inspired hook for selling Phair’s Exile to male rock critics not normally predisposed to giving
female singer-songwriters a fair shake; while some detractors claimed the Guyville-Main Street connection was
only marketing, Phair insisted she consciously crafted her record as a response to the best album ever made by
rock’s foremost misogynists.
The Stones’ influence on Guyville is plain in the record’s gut-level, stripped-down drive, with Phair beating out
lean Keith Richards-style rhythm guitar parts over Brad Wood’s subtly swinging, Charlie Watts-like drumming.
Then there was Phair’s voice, which came out in a flat, seen-it-all, waveringly tuneful sing-speak that critic Rob
Sheffield memorably described as sounding like “Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag.”
The most interesting parallel for me between Guyville and Main Street is Phair’s “Fuck And Run” and The
Stones’ “Happy.” As sung by Richards, “Happy” is the epitome of rock ’n’ roll self-mythology, a song about a
ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold who “never kept a dollar past sunset” and just needs a love to keep him
happy, baby. “Fuck And Run” similarly is about the pursuit of a romantic ideal—the “letters and sodas” and all
“that stupid old shit” that’s supposed to come with having a boyfriend. The difference is that “Happy” takes
place the night before, with the promise of kicks just over the horizon, while “Fuck And Run” happens the
morning after, when the promise becomes betrayal, and Phair is stuck with yet another dickhead in yet another
room she doesn’t recognize.
“Fuck And Run” isn’t angry; it’s weary and disturbingly nonchalant about the emptiness of modern
relationships. But it feels angry as it soberly explores how women are treated as fun-time non-entities on the
level of whiskey shots and lines of cocaine in songs like “Happy.” Phair was saying things that women weren’t
supposed to say on a rock record; really, she wasn’t supposed to say anything at all. “I was so angry about being
taken advantage of sexually, being overlooked intellectually,” Phair said about Guyville in a Rolling Stone
interview earlier this year. “Even when I was young at dinner tables with the extended family, listening to the
men argue and the women sort of sit there—that’s just the way it was back then.” By merely existing, Guyville
stood out as a statement undermining a male-dominated alt-rock scene that didn’t always practice the gender
equality that it preached.
For Guyville’s female fans, listening to the record was like being allowed to speak after a lifetime of sitting
silently with their hands folded on their laps. “What Phair and the rest of the world didn’t expect was just how
many women would hear Guyville and think, hey, I live in a man’s world too, and it’s a problem,” L.A. Times
music critic Ann Powers wrote 15 years after the album’s release. “In situations where equality is assumed but
men still dominate, women occupy a strange space between the center and the margins. They can express
opinions, but they’re not dictating the terms of the conversation.”
I wish I could say that I fully grasped the gender politics that Phair was exploring on Guyville when I first heard
the record. But I’d be lying if I said that as a deeply awkward, profoundly confused, and sexually inexperienced
16-year-old boy that I didn’t take Phair’s blunt talk about blowjob queens and fucking until your dick turns blue
at face value. (Phair didn’t exactly discourage this when promoting the record, posing in cheesecake photos
that played up her bohemian sex appeal.) I found Guyville titillating and unnerving, which is essentially how I felt
at the time about every girl I had ever met. In my world, women had all of the power, which created a notquite-healthy mix of worship and resentment of femininity that’s common to a lot of boys that age. Listening to
Guyville tracks like “Girls! Girls! Girls!”—“I get away, almost every day/with what the girls call, what the girls
call, what the girls call/the girls call murder”—was like hearing what they really thought of you, and it was not
the least bit reassuring. On Guyville, sex was war—and I was Guam.
My 16-year-old self had a lot more luck connecting with the comfortable self-absorption of Smashing Pumpkins
and Siamese Dream, which easily out-sold the other big records coming out of Chicago that year. Probably not
coincidentally, Smashing Pumpkins were also the city’s most hated band, both in Chicago and everywhere else.
Bob Mould called them “the grunge Monkees.” Stephen Malkmus of Pavement dubbed them “nature kids” that
“don’t have no function” in the song “Range Life.”
Smashing Pumpkins drew detractors like health inspectors to Chinese buffets for reasons both musical and
personal. Musically, the band’s grandiose 1991 debut, Gish, had not one iota punk rock on it; even worse, at a
time when bands that owed more to Black Sabbath than Black Flag still took pains to recite the standard pieties
about the sanctity of the underground, Smashing Pumpkins didn’t pretend that their influences extended
beyond Judas Priest and The Cure. But even if Billy Corgan had gone out and gotten a Dead Kennedys tattoo on
his neck, there was no getting around the fact that the band’s preciously boyish, prodigiously talented, and
stridently controlling frontman was what many people—including the other band members—really hated about
To his credit, Corgan seemed to recognize this. When DeRogatis asked Corgan about the army of Pumpkins
haters that was already growing before Siamese Dream made him one of alt-rock’s biggest personalities, he
admitted that “the way that I carry myself” fueled much of the animosity. That Billy Corgan was arrogant and
annoyingly messianic did not make him special among rock stars, particularly in the early ’90s. But his singing
voice—which ranged from a whimpering whisper to an agonizingly forceful and petulant whine—was the
manifestation of an endlessly needy personality, the kind of guy who makes a list with the names of everyone
who’s ever wronged him and keeps it under his pillow at night. Whether Corgan obsessively pursued rock
stardom to spite those people or finally win them over, it seemed even he didn’t know. But in the underground
rock scene, a place where all kinds of freaks and geeks were supposedly welcome, Corgan was on the outside
looking in. “I wish from Day 1 people would have looked at me and said, ‘You’re all right, come on, join the
team,’ but it’s never been that way with me,” Corgan told Rolling Stone. “I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a dick, it
shows. I don’t know.”
In a way, bashing the Pumpkins only strengthened Corgan and the “tortured genius” image he fronted in
interviews. But if Corgan made a big deal out of being tortured, you also couldn’t deny him the genius part.
Corgan wasn’t only the architect of the widescreen Smashing Pumpkins sound, he was also the construction
crew, handling virtually all of the guitar and bass parts on the band’s early albums. For Siamese Dream, that was
a lot of parts, with some songs having more than 50 different guitar tracks. It took three months and a quarter
of a million dollars to finish Siamese Dream, and the arduous process of making the record nearly ended the
Smashing Pumpkins right then and there. But, like Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s masterpiece of megalomania,
Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Corgan kept the band together to satisfy his maniacal pursuit of endless power and
riches. In Aguirre, Kinski ends up adrift on a lonely stretch of the Amazon with a raft full of corpses and wild
monkeys; Corgan had better transportation, riding the stainless steel perfection of Siamese Dream’s impeccably
conceived guitar-rock hymns straight to the promised land. And he did it his way, declaring his independence
from the cool kids that scorned him on the album-opening “Cherub Rock,” which sounded like Bob Dylan rewriting “Positively Fourth Street” after gorging on Boston’s first album for an entire summer.
An even bigger hit from Siamese Dream was “Today,” which ranks among the grunge era’s best singles. In
typically melodramatic fashion, Corgan revealed that “Today” expressed his suicidal thoughts while grappling
with writer’s block during the making of Siamese Dream. Corgan was wise to score his manic-depressive
confessional with a gorgeously simple melody that took grunge’s standard quiet verse/loud chorus formula to
new heights of gloomy grandeur.
Soon, writer’s block would be a distant memory for Corgan. Emboldened by the acceptance he found with the
mainstream rock audience that had eluded him every place else, Corgan became a one-man factory of angsty
alterna-pop. With 1995’s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and the accompanying singles collection The
Aeroplane Flies High, the Pumpkins amazingly offered up five albums’ worth of material over the course of a
year. It was tough not to be impressed by the superhuman efforts of Corgan, who wrote nearly all of the songs
and surrendered no quarter of attention to his bandmates. The guy had even stopped looking human, taking on
a pale, bald-headed, rock ’n’ roll alien look that was as repellent as his songs were catchy. Compared with
reluctant grunge-rock pin-ups like Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, who didn’t court sex-symbol status but
undoubtedly benefited from it, Corgan didn’t exude traditional rock-star charisma. If those guys were Don
Draper, Corgan was more like Pete Campbell—not exactly a people person, but a real scrapper with ambition to
Corgan’s hard work was paying off big time: Singles like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and
“1979” made Smashing Pumpkins the most inescapable alt-rock band of the mid-’90s, a time when the
competition had either already taken itself out of commission (Nirvana) or was in the process of doing so (Pearl
Jam and Soundgarden). The sheer quality and quantity of Smashing Pumpkins’ work at the time integrated
Corgan’s larger-than-life odes to his own sadness into the very fabric of popular ’90s rock, making Siamese
Dream and Mellon Collie essential documents of their time.
Unfortunately, the Pumpkins’ greatest hits suffered greatly from being tethered so inextricably to alt-rock’s
prime once the ship started to go down at the end of the decade. By 1998, the epic emoting of Siamese Dream
already seemed irreparably dated even to Corgan, who pulled Smashing Pumpkins in a radically different
direction on Adore, playing around with trendy electro-pop and sullen balladry. But by then his band was falling
apart. First, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was fired in 1996 for his involvement in the drug-related death of
touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. (Chamberlain re-joined in 1998, and then quit in 2009.) Then bassist
D’Arcy Wretsky left in 1999, and guitarist James Iha decided not to re-join Corgan when he revived Smashing
Pumpkins after the band’s 2000 breakup. Today, Corgan keeps Smashing Pumpkins technically afloat like one of
those barely-there, barely-remembered classic-rock institutions that tour county fairs every summer with one
original member and four or five guys in Hawaiian shirts. But he’s still a songwriting machine—over at
smashingpumpkins.com, the curious can download selections from Corgan’s ongoing Teargarden By
Kaleidyscope project, where he is gradually releasing tracks from a massive 44-song would-be masterpiece-inprogress. By the time that’s finished, Corgan will surely have another 44 songs ready to go for whoever is
available to play them.
Liz Phair took longer than Billy Corgan to fall from grace, though that was mostly due to not being as prolific.
After Guyville, she released two other ’90s albums, 1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg,
that were respected by fans and critics but not particularly loved. Only Phair’s self-titled fourth record inspired
as much passion as her debut when it was released in 2003, though this time people were rushing to take back
all the nice things they had said about her 10 years earlier. Working with the sought-after production team The
Matrix, which was most famous for making hits with shopping mall punk Avril Lavigne, Phair attempted the
same career makeover that Weezer pulled off far more successfully a few years later, deliberately setting aside
the dark idiosyncrasies that her cult following loved in order to create an exceedingly cynical version of modern
pop music for the masses. Guyville is the work of a woman wise beyond her years; Liz Phair, meanwhile, was
sort of embarrassing coming from a 36-year-old divorced mother who was slouching toward middle age by
singing about playing Xbox with hot twentysomething-year-old boys in “Rock Me” and using semen as a beauty
aid in “HWC.”
“When it comes to rock, we’re used to wincing at stars dressed up in packaging that masks a lack of talent,”
Meghan O’Rourke wrote in a famously scathing New York Times review of Liz Phair. “Here, the wince comes
instead from watching a genuine talent dressed in bland packaging.” For people who felt Guyville had been an
honest reflection of their own experiences, it was as if Phair had gone back to being the girl that fetches the
beer and talks about how bitchin’ her boyfriend’s band is.
Corgan and Phair have both disappointed their followers over the years, but Urge Overkill seemed not have any
followers, save for those of us that still like to break out Saturation on sunny summer afternoons. When
Saturation failed to set the world on fire—even after the band scored a hit with the Neil Diamond cover “Girl,
You’ll Be A Woman Soon” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack—Urge Overkill strangely kept on pretending to be rock
stars, falling victim to assorted drug problems and ego clashes that made 1995’s Exit The Dragon as joyless as
Saturation had been breezily exuberant. When that album also flopped, Urge broke up.
But now Nash Kato and “King” Roeser are back together, having recently put out the first song from Urge
Overkill in 15 years. The rumbling “Effigy” is a deliberate departure from the glossy sugar rush of Saturation,
recalling the days when Urge Overkill was still pals with Albini and Rusk. “We went and rehearsed it for a couple
of days then banged it out like we used to, Touch And Go style,” Roeser told Spin. “Effigy” sounds
understandably shaky, like a band trying to go home again even if it knows home no longer exists. Here’s hoping
they end up someplace better.
What Happened Next? Kurt Cobain’s suicide knocked the wind out of alternative rock, but not before Soundgarden
released the defining grunge masterpiece Superunknown. But by then, the old alt-rock guard was being upstaged by Stone
Temple Pilots, Bush, and the new wave of “bubble-grunge” bands.
Part 5: 1994:
1994: Kurt Cobain is dead! Long live
By Steven Hyden
Nov 30, 2010 12:00 AM
“You can’t fire me because I quit.”—Nirvana, “Scentless Apprentice”
“I just wish I knew whether he won or lost,”—Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, the day after Kurt
Cobain’s suicide, as quoted by Kim Neely in Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994
For a momentous occasion to advance to “generation-defining cultural touchstone” status, it has to pass the
“Where were you when?” test. It’s not an easy test; only the big three of modern American history—the
bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Sept. 11—get passing grades. (Though only
in an ethnocentric sense.) If you were alive when these events occurred, you’re supposed to be able to instantly
recall with photographic detail what you were doing at the exact moment you first heard about them. Even a
distant or mundane personal encounter with a universally felt experience tends to come back shrouded in thick
layers of tragic-heavy significance whenever it’s conjured up. On the morning of 9/11, I woke up on my living
room couch with a wicked hangover and still dressed in my clothes from the night before. It was like every
other morning of my early 20s, and yet this was meaningful. I wasn’t just sleeping off a long work night of
drinking. I was yawning and dry heaving through one of the darkest days in my nation’s history.
By the “Where were you when?” standard, Kurt Cobain’s suicide either doesn’t qualify or my memory is truly
fucked. I know I remember finding out about it on a Saturday morning at school while waiting to get on the bus
for a forensics tournament. (Extemporaneous speaking—yeah, I was pretty good.) Cobain’s body was actually
found the day before, along with a can of Barq’s root beer, some towels, the shotgun with which he killed
himself, and half of his $100 supply of Mexican black tar heroin. (He injected the other half before pulling the
trigger.) I must not have watched any television the night of Friday, April 8; if I had, I would’ve known where he
shot himself (in the greenhouse behind his home), who found his body (an electrician hired to install security
lighting), and which CD was playing on the stereo when he died (R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People).
A fellow forensicator whose name was Josh or perhaps Trevor told me about the suicide. I don’t remember
what he said exactly; I just recall thinking that he had to be joking. People were always kidding around about
Kurt Cobain killing himself. Even Kurt Cobain cracked wise about his image as a shoulder-slumping, wristslashing depressive; he once wrote a Nirvana song called “I Hate Myself And Want To Die,” and released it on
1993’s The Beavis And Butt-head Experience. In hindsight, this seems important; at the time, it was just goofy.
In a way, my initial reaction to Cobain’s death was appropriate, because I had thought Nirvana was joking the
first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” two and a half years earlier. My life with Kurt Cobain was bookended
by instances where I didn’t get what he was trying to say. But soon after I realized that the news was true, that
Kurt Cobain really was dead, I became the poster child in my town for young Nirvana fans trying to come to
grips with the tragedy.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I started writing a regular column for the teen-oriented “Get With It!”
page of my hometown newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent. I was the de facto spokesman for Northeastern
Wisconsin teenagers, and I felt it was my duty to address the untimely death of the spokesman for the grunge
generation. Unfortunately, just like every grown-up pundit yapping on the subject in the media, I had nothing
profound to offer. So, I did what newspaper columnists have done since The Boston News-Letter: I went
maudlin, likening Cobain to rock stars of old that had died at any early age, and imagined them “sitting up there
in rock ’n’ roll heaven”:
I’m sure Morrison is up there, as is Hendrix. Cobain ought to fit right in with those guys. After all, they
have a lot in common. They all became big stars very quickly, creating music that would help define their
times. They all created headlines and controversy with their reckless actions and their “to hell with it”
attitudes. They were all killed before they got done saying what they had to say, and doing all the things
they had to do. And, tragically, they were killed through actions of their own while they were still in their
Admiration for Cobain’s “to hell with it” attitude aside, the thrust of my post-mortem was reassuring parents
that kids were not going to be lining up to blow their heads off en masse in response to his death, a major (and
overblown) concern in the press at the time. “Anyone thinking of doing this must realize something: Kurt
Cobain’s death is perhaps the strongest argument against suicide imaginable,” I wrote with all the gravity that
accompanies the heavy-handed prose of Appleton’s most respected 16-year-old columnist. The day my story
ran, one of the local TV news channels came over to my house and interviewed me for that evening’s telecast.
My mother was very proud; I just obsessed over how my complexion looked.
In my defense, it was a tall order for anybody to make sense of Cobain’s suicide. Cobain never seemed like a guy
built to go the distance, but his suicide still seemed incredibly senseless and shocking. He had obviously wasted
his talent and vitality as an artist, and yet his death undeniably made Nirvana’s criminally small body of work
seem all the more singular and towering. His career seems oddly perfect—all killer and no filler, all because he
In the aftermath of Cobain’s death, the world was left with three unanswerable questions: 1) Why did Kurt
Cobain kill himself? 2) Was his suicide preventable? 3) How would things be different if he hadn’t killed himself?
These are the questions I still come back to, 16 years later, while trying to figure out what, if anything, Kurt
Cobain’s death is supposed to mean. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
Unanswerable No. 1: Why did Kurt Cobain kill himself?
Kurt Cobain did leave a suicide note, of course, which was conveniently emblazoned on T-shirts worn by the
world’s dopiest Nirvana fans in the months after his death. (He also left a private note for his wife Courtney
Love and child Frances Bean.) After sorting through the misspellings and knowing Freddie Mercury and Neil
Young references, Cobain’s note seems frustratingly (though perhaps inevitably) muddled. Addressed to his
childhood imaginary friend Boddah, Cobain’s final words read like the first draft of a press release. (Love called
it a “letter to the fucking editor.”) When Cobain writes about the lack of joy he felt in his stardom, he’s clearly
addressing Nirvana fans more than his loved ones. (“I can’t fool you, any one of you.”) Even at the absolute
lowest point of his soon-to-be-terminated life, Cobain was still image-conscious enough to anticipate how his
suicide would be perceived in the media. “The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man!” he writes
derisively, more about his public persona than himself. “Why don’t you just enjoy it? I don’t know.”
Two things strike me while reading Cobain’s suicide note. The first is his reluctance to truly open himself up; he
doesn’t touch on the drug addiction or troubled home life that must’ve contributed in some way to his
decimated mental state. Instead, he begins by writing about how “all the warnings from the punk rock 101
courses” have “proven to be very true,” because “sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock
before I walk out on stage.” These were stock public statements coming from Cobain; he could’ve just cut and
pasted one of the many interviews he gave about his distaste for the spotlight (or directed readers to side two
of In Utero) to save himself the trouble of writing it out one last time in hastily scribbled longhand.
Later, he implies that lifelong depression and alienation, more than his disenchantment with fame, drove him to
this desperate act: “I have it good, very good, and I’m grateful, but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful
towards all humans in general.” It makes me wonder if Cobain’s problem with success is that it didn’t change his
life enough. If you’re given everything you could ever want—a wife, a daughter, a home, financial stability, mass
acceptance for your art—and you’re still unhappy, well, that just about sinks any possibility for redemption,
The other thing I’m left with is how young Cobain seems. He had turned 27 just about a month and a half
before his suicide; he was 11 years older than me when he died, which made him old enough for me to look up
to but also young enough that his worldview still seemed applicable to mine. Now that I’m six years older than
Cobain, he’s no longer a person with whom I feel much kinship. He’s just a confused and immature guy in his
mid-20s that hasn’t given up the pleasurable misery of parsing his childhood traumas. He reminds me of the
person I used to be, before I grew up a little and gained some perspective on life. Among the many things Kurt
Cobain threw away was the opportunity to cringe over how stupid he could be when he was young.
Unanswerable No. 2: Was his suicide preventable?
The fact that Cobain did kill himself probably means that the answer is no, especially considering that he
appeared suicidal on at least two occasions in the weeks leading up to his death—on March 3, when he
overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol while on tour in Rome, and again on March 18, when Courtney Love
called Seattle police after Cobain holed up in his house with a gun and a bottle of pills. Still, I’d like to believe
that Kurt Cobain could’ve been saved by using an old basketball strategy, where the loser extends the game by
committing fouls and calling timeouts, allowing for every last resort to play itself out. If anybody could’ve used
an extra timeout, it was Kurt Cobain.
On March 30, Cobain checked into the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles. The staff at the rehab facility
wasn’t aware of Cobain’s prior suicide attempts; had administrators known this, they might’ve kept a closer eye
on him. But they didn’t, which allowed Cobain to sneak over Exodus’ 6-foot-tall fence and hop a plane back to
Seattle. In the end, it was far too easy for one of the world’s most famous rock stars to disappear for a long
enough period of time to permanently erase himself from the world. If somebody could’ve just kept him alive
long enough to make him see that he could walk away from Nirvana and all the baggage that came with it
without destroying himself, things might’ve been different.
It’s a nice thought, but it seems painfully facile as I listen to MTV Unplugged In New York. Nirvana recorded the
live album at Sony Studios on November 18, 1993, less than four months before Cobain’s first suicide attempt.
When Nirvana’s Unplugged episode aired in December 1993, it seemed weird that so many of the songs were
covers. But after Cobain died, it made a lot more sense: Funerals often feature favorite songs of the deceased.
In light of Cobain’s suicide, MTV Unplugged In New York was commonly heard as the work of a man committed
to the idea of being dead as soon as possible. I know I’m not the only one that hears Kurt Cobain performing his
own burial rites whenever the record plays. It’s not just a matter of the music’s close proximity to Cobain’s
death; the suicide simply brought what was already there into greater focus. According to Charles R. Cross’
Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain, the Unplugged stage was decorated in lilies, black candles,
and a crystal chandelier at Cobain’s suggestion. “You mean like a funeral?” Unplugged producer Alex Coletti
Cobain begins MTV Unplugged In New York with two Nirvana classics, “About A Girl” and “Come As You Are”—a
very tasteful, if predictable tribute to the man’s life and legacy. Then there’s a hymn, The Vaselines’ “Jesus
Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” that’s irreverent and yet also appropriately churchy-sounding, followed by a
eulogy in the form of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” where Kurt casually explains that he’s
actually already been dead for a long time. Then he plays that long, droning guitar solo; listen closely and you
can almost hear his spirit rising from the body.
After that there’s a series of famous (but not too famous) Nirvana deep cuts—“Pennyroyal Tea,” “Dumb,”
“Polly,” and “Something In The Way.” (Playing one of Nirvana’s big hits would dishonor Kurt’s final wishes.)
Then the Meat Puppets arrive to play pallbearers on “Plateau,” “Oh Me,” and “Lake Of Fire,” ushering the
dearly departed to a dark place that sounds like the opposite of heaven but still oddly comforting, like a home
away from home. Kurt addresses all those that have gathered one last time on “All Apologies”; he assures
everybody that he takes full blame for what’s about to happen. When he finally gets to Leadbelly's “Where Did
You Sleep Last Night,” you hear him starting to dissipate. At the end, Kurt screams about shivering the whole
night through. Suddenly there’s a lump in my throat; I’ve heard this song at least 600 times, and yet the lump
always reappears in time for this part. My cheeks are hot, my eyes sting. I feel like I could throw up. Kurt gets to
the final line, takes a shallow breath, and bellows “—night throuuuuugh!” A few banged-out guitar-strums later,
he’s in the ground, lost forever.
Unaswerable No. 3: How would things be different if he hadn’t killed himself?
Chuck Klosterman wrote a funny piece in 2004 for Spin titled “What If Kurt Cobain Didn’t Die?” that
contemplated the path Cobain’s life would’ve taken in an alternate universe where he didn’t blow a hole
through his head. In Klosterman’s version of history, Cobain divorces Love, puts Nirvana on extended hiatus,
releases an indifferently received solo record, and battles depression and drug problems with varying degrees
of success. I have no idea how accurate this fictional scenario is, but I suspect that it’s strangely spot-on. It
sounds like the slowly descending career arc followed by many aging rock legends who have lived long enough
to be taken for granted. Even if Cobain had made it to middle age, it’s fair to speculate that the most important
work of his life had already been created. If we believe Klosterman, the world didn’t miss much.
Because Cobain was given larger-than-life immortality in part because of his tragic demise, there was an almost
immediate impulse to demystify him. A few years after Cobain died, I was talking to a friend about Nirvana and
how Cobain’s death had affected me. “Oh, you’re one of the mourners,” she said with just the right amount of
scorn to make me feel like an enormous tool. It’s not like I knew Kurt Cobain personally or something; he was
just some famous guy, so what was I so upset about?
When Cobain entered the pop arena, he represented the possibility for fury, truth, weirdness—anything!—at
the center of culture. At least that’s what I believed. But when he killed himself, people like me just looked like
suckers. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” invading my hometown Top 40 radio station felt like an unimaginable sea
change in the way That Things Are Supposed To Work, his suicide confirmed that nothing had really changed at
all, and I was sort of a nitwit for believing that it did. Getting scolded for having the gall to actually be mournful
about this just added insult to injury.
The perception is that Cobain’s suicide represents the momentum-shifting Billy Batts moment in the history of
popular ’90s alternative rock. In Goodfellas, the murder of Billy Batts (played by well-traveled ass-kicker Frank
Vincent) by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro signals a tonal shift from the swinging times of ’60s
mafiadom to the pitch-black and cocaine-fueled hell of crime life in the ’70s. Exhilaration turns to apathy, and
honor becomes a cheap joke. Similarly, Nirvana’s abrupt demise seemed to point toward darker times ahead. In
reality, the emergence of bubble-grunge bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox already suggested that
’90s alt-rock was rapidly becoming a closed circuit; where a record like Nevermind had once been an instrument
of personal awakening to underground culture, which opened a whole other can of worms about what was and
wasn’t valid in the media’s tidy representation of society, STP’s Purple (its own merits aside) merely pointed
back to all the CDs you had purchased in the past few years. The word “alternative” had the idea of otherness
hardwired into its definition, but by 1994, “alternative” had been codified into its own set of sounds, attitudes,
and clothing styles. Searching beyond the borders was discouraged. It was the beginning of the end, if not the
It would’ve likely played out that way even if Cobain had lived. But that doesn’t negate the perception that the
excitement that came with grunge’s takeover of mainstream rock died along with him. Cobain’s suicide
symbolized the crippling and devastating malaise that was starting to set in—not just in the mainstream rock
audience, but among the bands as well. In all the grunge-related books and magazine articles that I’ve read,
Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil has provided some of the most insightful and heartfelt commentary on this. A
towering hulk of a man whose dark-hued features are covered with an awesomely Satanic beard, Thayil proves
the old truism about the scariest-looking guy in the band also being the most soulful and sensitive. He felt
Cobain’s loss as much as anybody.
“When Kurt did that, it just permanently changed my perception about everything we’ve done for the past few
years,” Thayil told Rolling Stone’s Kim Neely in 1994. “And I don’t mean just me. I mean our band, and all of the
bands from here that play with each other and support each other and watch each other’s shows. It just
seemed to metaphorically put an end to everything.”
For Soundgarden, 1994 should’ve been a new beginning. Exactly one month before Cobain’s body was found,
on March 8, Soundgarden released Superunknown. It was the album of the band’s career: It debuted at No. 1
on the Billboard chart, went platinum five times over, and finally established Soundgarden as a commercial
force on par with the other big Seattle bands. More than that, Superunknown was a monumental hard-rock
record, a psych-metal masterpiece that expertly applied gonad-rattling heaviness to pop hooks that were
cryogenically engineered to pluck your pleasure centers while drawing a little blood in the process. Jack Endino
once described grunge as having “all the ingredients of classic ’70s rock, with maybe a little bit of ’80s punk rock
attitude thrown into the recipe,” and nothing exemplifies this better than Superunknown. It’s the genre’s
defining album. If grunge has any aspirations to musical greatness, Superunknown should be Exhibit A.
While the band’s music has aged exceptionally well, Soundgarden is remembered today for appealing mainly to
knuckle-dragging mooks. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is Audioslave. Chris Cornell’s postSoundgarden band sounds superficially like Soundgarden—mostly because of Cornell’s distinctive King Shit Of
Fuck Mountain vocals—only Audioslave is far more bombastic and totally sucks. We might as well lump
Cornell’s undistinguished solo career in here as well, though I’d rather not say much else about it. While it
should be noted that making a terrible album with Timbaland that literally nobody in the galaxy enjoyed will
tarnish your musical legacy, and that committing unholy acts on the carcass of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”
will make even staunch Soundgarden fans embarrassed for you, I’d prefer to spend my time talking about how
Cornell, at his best in the ’90s, was a powerhouse singer and the most underrated songwriter of his generation.
I am here to praise Chris Cornell, not to bury him.
To explain the other reason why Soundgarden doesn’t get the respect it deserves, let’s talk for a moment in the
parlance of contemporary indie rock. In the ’00s, no indie-rock band put out material as consistently strong as
Spoon. Britt Daniel steadfastly refused to write even one clunker on Spoon’s records, which were released
every two or three years to an audience that was impressed, then amazed, and then slightly bored by how
Spoon never made an artistic misstep. This consistency proved to be a double-edged sword. Spoon was both
highly respected and yet not passionately adored. Almost everybody that followed indie rock seemed to like
Spoon, but never as much as bands not necessarily expected to be brilliant. It was only when you looked back
over the course of several years that you realized that, holy shit, Spoon was one of the best bands of its era.
The same was essentially true of Soundgarden. It was just such a solid band that it was easy to overlook how
good it was pretty much any time it stepped up to the plate. By the time of Superunknown, Soundgarden had
been together for 10 years and had already made classic albums with 1989’s Louder Than Love and 1991’s
Badmotorfinger. It handled career hurdles that Cobain could never reconcile with relative ease, leaving
legendary indie label SST for A&M Records and then touring the world with Guns N’ Roses. Soundgarden was a
band in a true sense—Cornell was the singer and chief songwriter, but everybody made important creative
contributions. (And Thayil, the stoic guitar player, was arguably the most recognizable band member.)
With Superunknown, Soundgarden showed it could push its music forward while being more pop-friendly than
ever. From 1994 to 1997, Soundgarden successfully transitioned from the supersonic slime of its early records
to being a crafty and highly productive radio band, turning out a series of unbeatable singles—my favorites are
“My Wave,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Blow Up The Outside World,” and “Burden In My Hand”—that were instantly
catchy while remaining focused on eternally belching riffs.
More than any other Seattle band, Soundgarden seemed best equipped for a long career of multi-platinum
records and balls-out stadium shows. And yet, three years and one day after Cobain’s dead body was
discovered, Soundgarden followed suit and did itself in, releasing this terse statement to the press on April 9,
After 12 years, the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue
other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members’ future plans. They’d like to thank
their fans for all of their support over the years.
Apparently, in-fighting over the creative direction of the band during the making of 1996’s underappreciated
Down On The Upside was to blame; Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron wanted to push beyond
Soundgarden’s usual molten molasses, while Thayil argued for staying true to the band’s roots. Anybody who’s
ever heard a Soundgarden record will tell you that this dichotomy defined the band’s winning formula—
experimentation and melody grounded in the muddy waters of the River Styx. That Soundgarden turned its core
strength into a destructive creative disagreement suggests that this was a band looking to be smashed to
smithereens once it hit the big time.
After steadily rising through the ranks, Soundgarden lacked the drive to maintain the rock-star status it had
achieved. By the time Soundgarden reached the mountaintop, the view had already been ruined. Soundgarden
returned to Lollapalooza in 1996, four years after doing the festival with pals Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili
Peppers; this time the band ended up squabbling with co-headliner Metallica over tour payments. At the final
Soundgarden show in early ’97 in Hawaii, the excitable Ben Shepherd threw his bass down and stormed
offstage while Cornell chanted, “We’re better without you.” The thrill wasn’t only gone, it had moved to an
undisclosed location under an assumed name. Soundgarden had become the kings of grunge at the precise
moment that grunge had burned itself out. “You barely had time to sit there in the afterglow,” Thayil told
Rolling Stone’s Neely. “It was like, boom, the light was out.”
I don’t want to put all the sins of ’90s rock on Kurt Cobain’s corpse. Soundgarden had a good run, staying
together for a dozen years. (Not counting the recent reunion, though it’s unclear whether it will stick.)
Soundgarden probably would’ve broken up regardless, and alternative rock most certainly was on the road to
being diluted well before Cobain died. Kurt Cobain was not a martyr, and I’m not going to dehumanize him by
turning his life and death into a crushed velvet painting.
But I’m also not going to let Nirvana be reduced to a load of hype signifying nothing. Yes, I was one of the
mourners. Kurt Cobain's music made my life better, opening me up to new worlds that enriched my existence
immensely. I’m extremely grateful that Nevermind came into my life when it did, because I was a lonely kid that
really needed something to connect with. Just because I’m fortunate enough to no longer be 13 years old
doesn’t mean I’ll ever set aside my gratitude for what Cobain once gave me, or my grief for where he ended up.
I can only speak for myself (and possibly Kim Thayil) here; maybe you didn’t give a shit. But to me, you’re
goddamn right Kurt Cobain fucking mattered.
What Happened Next? The originators of grunge were in decline in 1995, but grunge music was alive and well thanks to a
new crop of bands that attempted to make up for their lack of roots with lots of hooks and angsty attitude. I’ll look at the
rise of bubble-grunge—also known as post-grunge or “scrunge”—and how it paved the way for the popular modern rock
Part 6: 1995:
1995: Live, Bush, and Alanis Morissette take the
By Steven Hyden
Dec 14, 2010 12:00 AM
“Experiments will be left to a small avant garde, way out on the left, very solemn and romantic, and the
bubblegum business in general will regard this avant garde with benevolence, will steal its best ideas
and talents, but will otherwise ignore it.”—Nik Cohn, “The Monkees,” Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom:
The Golden Age Of Rock
“It’s an idealization—a level of despair to aspire toward rather than shared pain requiring collective
catharsis. In other words, things could get worse.”— Robert Christgau, review of Bush’s Sixteen Stone
When my journey through the past of popular ’90s alternative rock began two months ago, I had a not-sosimple goal: I wanted to reconnect with my long-lost teenaged self, and in the process rekindle the passion I
once had for the music of my youth. Pure, unadulterated myopia aside, I hoped that readers would relate to my
experience of looking back and realizing that sizeable swaths of my adolescence didn’t feel like they belonged
to me anymore. I wanted to recover that history by playing old, dated albums and trying really hard to hear
them as I did back then, no matter how poorly some of my former alt-rock heroes had aged. Because while
opinions might change, the past doesn’t. The record is set—I liked what I liked in the ’90s, and I wanted to
So far, it’s been surprisingly easy to re-introduce Ten, Siamese Dream, and Superunknown to my CD shelves
after years of storing them away in boxes in the basement. But now that we’re a little further down the ’90s altrock trough, we have to deal with the likes of Throwing Copper, the breakthrough record from the oppressively
serious, frustratingly-difficult-to-Google-search messiah-rock outfit Live. I know I bought Throwing Copper, and
there’s a good chance you did, too—it sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. If you did buy it, you
probably also sold it off by the end of the ’90s; Throwing Copper is to used CD stores what Mantovani records
are to rummage sales. Discarded copies haunt the shelves like balding, middle-aged men in leather-sleeve
I’m watching the video for “I Alone,” the second of Throwing Copper’s five singles, and it’s not helping me
recover whatever affection I once felt for this record. The video begins with an uncomfortably tight shot on
thoroughly ridiculous Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk, who is rubbing and distorting his painfully pale face with his
hands while pretending to sing the song’s opening line, “It’s easier not to be wise.” I should take Kowalczyk’s
words as a warning to turn back, and not watch the remaining three minutes and 49 seconds of “I Alone,” but I
don’t listen. Instead, I stick around and see the other members of Live standing in the middle of what’s clearly a
soundstage that’s been made to resemble a burned-out, post-apocalyptic wasteland; it looks precisely like the
kind of godforsaken place where a record like Throwing Copper could sell 8 million copies.
Now Kowalczyk is shirtless, baring a modestly built torso that positively screams to be covered by several layers
of clothing. His spastic mannerisms are reminiscent of a hacky nightclub comedian hoofing it through a lame
David Byrne impression. “It’s easier not to be great,” he sings as a long, braided rattail rests over his right
shoulder. Suddenly I’m full of rage: Jesus Christ, this is supposed to be a commercial for Throwing Copper, and
all I want to do is kick the shit out of my computer screen.
The popularity of Throwing Copper—which was released on April 26, 1994, and hit No. 1 on the Billboard
albums chart 52 weeks later—says a lot about the state of alternative rock in 1995. Similar to the exploitation
and marginalization of the serious-minded avant garde by the pop-music industry that rock critic Nik Cohn
wrote about in the late ’60s, 1995 was a time when the superficial aesthetics of alternative music—down-tuned
guitars, downbeat melodies, frowny-faced (but still telegenic) stars—had been fully absorbed by corporate
starmakers, who set about flooding the market with highly commercial bubble-grunge bands that took
everything that seemed fresh just three years earlier out of context and straight into the meat grinder.
A record like Throwing Copper must make cash-strapped modern-day record executives wish that time travel
actually existed, so they could venture back to a glorious period in history when music consumers would gladly
buy anything so long as the proper palms were greased to get it on the radio and MTV. Throwing Copper was
the follow-up to Live’s 1991 debut, Mental Jewelry, a clumsy attempt at applying U2-style grandiosity to
regular-dude college rock. A band like Live was supposed to be a remedy to the proudly contrived and silly
music that was dominant on the charts before Nevermind pushed mainstream rock in a different direction. But
Mental Jewelry is plenty contrived and silly on its own; song titles that already seem wincingly pretentious (“The
Beauty Of Gray,” “Tired Of ‘Me’”) are given a little extra oomph by even more doltish, you’ve-got-to-be-fuckingkidding-me parenthetical asides, like the achingly, stupidly profound “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny Of
Apparently this was obvious even to the members of Live, who were in their late teens when they made Mental
Jewelry. For Throwing Copper, they tightened up the songwriting and made the songs louder and more
anthemic, pumping up the muscularity of the music by adding chunky distortion to the leaden jangle and
fumbling funk of their instrumental attack. Along the way, Kowalczyk locked his inner Bono in the same room
with his insufferable Eddie Vedder impression, got them drunk, and nine months later gave birth to an artistic
persona that was nearly as aggressively self-aggrandizing as it was hopelessly self-pitying.
Live is best remembered today for the song “Lightning Crashes,” a melodramatic ballad about death that made
modern rock radio safe for gratuitous mentions of the word “placenta.” The popularity of “Lightning Crashes” in
April 1995 coincided with the Oklahoma City bombing, and a remixed version of the song created by one of the
city’s local radio stations—which incorporated sound bites from Bill Clinton and Tom Brokaw, as well as fireengine and ambulance sirens—was played throughout the country as Americans mourned the tragic deaths of
168 people. Two weeks after the bombing, on May 6, Throwing Copper was the nation’s top-selling album. Live
would go on to be named 1995’s Artist Of The Year by the readers of Rolling Stone and the Billboard Music
Awards. Live’s status was such that when a strikingly beautiful girl named Jen moved to my town and started
hanging out with my group of friends, she seemed all the more exotic because she hailed from York,
Pennsylvania, which we all knew was Live’s hometown.
That summer, right before the start of my senior year, my friends and I drove down to Milwaukee to see Live at
the Marcus Amphitheater. I was 17, and driving four hours roundtrip for a concert was still a big deal. I had
sweet-talked my mother into allowing me to see R.E.M. on the Monster tour at Marcus just three months
earlier, which succeeded in part because she confused R.E.M. with REO Speedwagon, whose Hi Infidelity was
one of two non-Christian music tapes she still owned. (The other being the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.)
We arrived late and missed the opening act, a no-name blip on the pop-culture radar named PJ Harvey. I liked
Live enough at the time to purchase the single ugliest tour T-shirt that’s even taken up space in my dresser, a
brownish green monstrosity showing off Throwing Copper’s grotesque cover art. But my favorite part of the
concert actually had nothing to do with Live at all. It happened when Kowalczyk dismissed the band and
announced that he was about to play a song by a group from Dayton, Ohio that he recently discovered. The
band was Guided By Voices, and the song was “Dusted,” from 1993’s Vampire On Titus.
Now is a good time to finally address an issue that’s been hovering in the background of this series from the
beginning: the distinction between “cool” ’90s rock and “uncool” ’90s rock. I’ve made an effort to focus on
some of the era’s biggest names and most commercially successful rock bands because 1) those are the bands I
liked at the time; 2) those are the bands that millions of other people liked at the time; and 3) I find it strange
that many people, including myself, don’t seem to remember it that way.
When I look back to my music-listening habits in 1995, I tend to overlook all the time I spent listening to
Throwing Copper and instead think only about how I obsessed over GBV’s Alien Lanes, which I bought after
reading a glowing four-star review in Rolling Stone. That summer, I tried to make heads or tails of a record that
boasted 28 absentmindedly recorded songs in just 41 minutes. I was lost until I realized that the whole record
was basically like the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, which stitched a series of melodic fragments into
an extended suite. Just like that, Alien Lanes made sense, and GBV quickly became one of my favorite bands. In
hindsight, Live seems likes a footnote, despite selling millions of records and playing 25,000-seat amphitheaters
in its heyday, while Guided By Voices appears a lot bigger and more important today even if it reached only a
fraction of Live’s audience in the ’90s.
That has something to do with Alien Lanes possibly being the best rock album of the last 20 years, and Throwing
Copper without question not being the best rock album of the last 20 years. But I also think there’s an element
of self-flattery in how we remember our pasts. People who care about rock history have collectively decided to
focus on “real” ’90s alternative rock—Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Built To Spill, insert your
favorite aging indie band here—at the expense of bands most commonly identified with the nebulous genre tag
at the time. As critics are inclined to do, they’ve written ’90s rock history based on their personal preferences
rather than what people were actually listening to. I happen to share many of those preferences, but that’s not
the point: Our memories seem distorted by what we’ve retroactively decided is worthwhile.
Last month, Billy Corgan was soundly mocked after he took to Twitter and ripped Pavement for reuniting for a
cash-in tour without making any new music, and declared that indie rock’s premier slacker icons represented
“the death of the alternative dream.” It sounded like the sort of absurdly delusional statement that you’d
expect from a faded egomaniac like Corgan. But if people had taken a minute to think about the content of
what Corgan said before rushing to make fun of him, they might’ve noticed that he was actually sort of right,
albeit not in the way that he intended.
For mainstream rock fans like myself, the popular alternative music of the early ’90s really did seem like a
legitimate insurgence from the underground. But when Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus indifferently mocked
Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots in the lyrics to “Range Life,” one of the breakout songs from
1994’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, it was an early sign that this was no longer true—or, worse, had never been
true in the first place. Unwittingly or not, “Range Life” taught me that the alternative rock bands I liked were
overblown frauds; it was like the day you showed up at school and noticed that nobody cuffed their jeans
anymore. You couldn’t un-ring the bell.
The difference between “uncool” ’90s alternative and “cool” ’90s indie boils down to demographics: grunge and
post-grunge bands were geared mainly toward angsty, immature teenagers, while indie groups were targeted
at cynical, over-educated college kids and post-graduate twentysomethings. Bands like Pavement and Guided
By Voices seemed older, just like coffee-drinking and watching Northern Exposure seemed older. If there was
one thing I wanted to be when I was in high school, it was older. And in order to be older, you had to set aside
music that expressed the tortured range of erratic emotions felt by 14-year-old misfits in favor of music that
informed the calm, cool detachment affected by 21-year-old know-it-alls.
Alien Lanes ended up being just as important to me in many ways as Nevermind, only I couldn’t share the
experience with anyone I knew. My friends just weren’t into this kind of music yet, and they definitely didn’t
understand why I was so excited to hear Ed Kowalczyk play an unplugged version of a song that’s barely known
even by GBV standards.
On that late August night in Milwaukee, two paths briefly intersected at the heart of my experience with ’90s
music, and then passed each other as they headed in increasingly divergent directions. I wound up staying on
the road with GBV and indie rock; fading in to the distance was Live and the rapidly disintegrating husk that was
once known as alternative rock. It now seems strange that GBV and Live could’ve ever existed on the same
stage. Live went on to tour with Nickelback, serve as a primary inspiration for popular American Idol alumnus
Chris Daughtry, and break up in 2009. In 2010, Kowalczyk released a solo record called Alive while the other
band members formed a new group called The Gracious Few with two guys from Candlebox. Even when they’re
apart, the members of Live have still found it very easy not to be great.
I was on my way to being done with mainstream alternative music in 1995, but mainstream alternative music
wasn’t done with me. What else explains this copy of Bush’s Sixteen Stone, an album I actively avoided owning
until just a few weeks ago, sitting on my living room stereo?
I didn’t need Stephen Malkmus to tap me on the shoulder and point out that Bush really sucked as Sixteen
Stone came to dominate alt-rock radio in 1995. Bush epitomized the rankest form of grunge-rock shuck-andjive, cynically regurgitating the sonic and visual hallmarks of infinitely superior bands as hollow, shamefully
shameless shtick. Released on Dec. 6, 1994, Sixteen Stone seemed like blatant profiteering in the wake of
Nirvana’s end, when demand for a dumber, more pop-friendly follow-up to In Utero was sky-high and supply
was non-existent. Even better, Bush’s lead singer and guitarist, Gavin Rossdale, was a grade-A piece of pretty-
boy rock-star man-meat; he looked like Jared Leto’s Jordan Catalano period crossed with Jared Leto’s yet-to-beseen 30 Seconds To Mars period. After several years of rock stars who didn’t look or act like rock stars, Rossdale
was a swift return to the mercilessly hunky status quo.
Sixteen Stone had all the trappings of a pre-fab alt-rock confection, but Bush wasn’t exactly conceived as a
can’t-miss proposition. Birthed during the glory days of grunge in 1992, Bush stumbled around its native Great
Britain in search for a record deal as the Brits went crazy over the latest wave of American bands. Rossdale had
previously crapped out as music-business careerist, failing to garner any attention during two unsuccessful
stints under the tutelage of English labels. (In a 1997 interview, he admitted that labels in his native country saw
him as “damaged goods.”) Bush didn’t fit in with the emerging Britpop scene, but Rossdale found favor on the
other side of the pond, where Bush was finally able to land a U.S. record deal.
Sixteen Stone was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, two British music-industry pros who had
overseen glossy pop hits like Elvis Costello’s “Everyday I Write The Book.” For Sixteen Stone, Langer and
Winstanley showed a deft touch at replicating the blown-out sound of Steve Albini’s production work on In
Utero, all the while taking pains to preserve the simple but brutally effective hooks on the album’s catchiest
songs. It wasn’t great art, but Sixteen Stone was decent product, overseen by clever craftsmen who understood
what the contemporary pop audience wanted and knew how to deliver a convincing-enough facsimile of it. Still,
Bush’s label, Trauma Records, considered not releasing Sixteen Stone; not on artistic grounds, but because it
didn’t think the low-budget, no-buzz project had any commercial potential. Trauma ended up being rewarded
for its near-incompetence to the tune of 6 million-plus albums sold.
Listening to Sixteen Stone, there’s a part of me that wants to find something to defend. Co-opting cutting-edge
sounds for pop purposes isn’t an automatic artistic disqualifier in my book; The Monkees might have been a ripoff of the Hard Day’s Night Beatles, but they also made a lot of timeless pop-rock records. Larceny in pop music
can be forgiven with a good beat and a memorable melody. But Sixteen Stone just sounds junky and witless
outside of its well-known singles. Of course, that still leaves nearly half the record, which anyone who paid
attention to alt-rock radio in the mid-’90s will recognize—songs like the caterwauling “Everything Zen,” the
somewhat less caterwauling “Little Things,” and the caterwauling-est “Machinehead.” There’s also the awful
ballad “Glycerine,” a song I’ve always hated and occasionally slow-danced to.
My favorite song on Sixteen Stone is “Little Things,” which, not coincidentally, is the album’s baldest Nirvana ripoff. It kicks off with a stock “Smells Like Teen Spirit”/”Rape Me”/”More Than A Feeling” guitar riff before settling
into a distinctively rumbling Krist Novoselic bassline. Then the chorus explodes a la “In Bloom,” with maybe a
dash of “Lithium,” and I’m totally rocking out to my memories of a band I love a hell of a lot more than Bush. In
another time, Gavin Rossdale might have been praised as a passable mash-up artist. Instead, he used this
patchwork sonic canvas to paint a story that’s possibly about werewolves, starving frontiersmen, and/or a guy
sucking his own dick. I’m just spit-ballin’ here; see if you can make better sense of the following lyrics:
I touch your mouth
My willy is food
Addicted to love
I’m addicted to fools
I kill you once
I kill you again
We’re starving and crude
Welcome my friends to
The little things that kill
Rossdale made the highly questionable decision to print the lyrics of Sixteen Stone in the album’s liner notes,
which is sort of like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer—the doofuses behind Date Movie, Epic Movie, Vampires
Suck and other crimes against cinematic comedy—handing out leather-bound copies of their screenplays to
dissatisfied customers as they exit the theater. The lyrics sheet to Sixteen Stone reads like it was written an hour
before an English midterm by an especially dim Kurt Cobain acolyte. Rossdale’s lyrics demand an orgy of redpen marks, not preservation inside a multi-platinum record.
Picking on dopey lyrics is a loser’s game when it comes to discussing the big pop-rock albums of 1995, since
even the most patently pukey songwriting ended up being praised for its “confessional” qualities. Such was the
case with Alanis Morissette’s staggeringly popular Jagged Little Pill, which spawned six hit singles—”You Oughta
Know,” “Ironic,” “You Learn,” “Hand In My Pocket,” “Head Over Feet,” and “All I Really Want”—and went on to
sell an amazing 33 million copies worldwide. In terms of sales, Jagged Little Pill belongs in the same company as
Led Zeppelin IV and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Even more than Sixteen Stone, Jagged Little Pill demonstrated that mainstream pop had assimilated the sound
and feel of alt-rock and could now turn out artists that fit the mold without all that troublesome baggage of BS
punk-rock credibility. Jagged Little Pill made edgy gestures—lead single “You Oughta Know” thrust an
aggressive finger in the chest of the tired Carly Simon-style singer-songwriter template just enough to make it
feel alive again—while turning out a steady stream of ear-pleasing pop tunes that toed the line with trends that
were now firmly in place. Listeners were so wrapped up in the “controversy” over who exactly Alanis was
supposed to be blowing in a movie theater in “You Oughta Know” that they never stopped to ask, “You know,
who really gives a shit?”
Like Gavin Rossdale, Alanis Morissette spent years before her big break finding the right look and sound that
would make her a star. In the early ’90s, when Morissette was still in high school, she recorded two dance-pop
albums, 1991’s Alanis and 1992’s Now Is The Time, for the Canadian division of MCA Records. The first record
was a success in her home country, going platinum thanks to the hit “Too Hot” and Morissette’s tour dates with
Vanilla Ice at the height of his short-lived success. But Now Is The Time was considered a commercial failure,
and she was not offered a new record contract. The setback proved to be a turning point for Morissette, who
graduated high school and moved from her hometown of Ottawa to the more metropolitan Toronto. Soon, she
began venturing to Nashville and Los Angeles in search of collaborators. Eventually, she hooked up with record
producer-songwriter Glen Ballard, whom she met through their mutual publishing company ties.
Who is Glen Ballard? Here’s a more pertinent question: Who the fuck are you? According to his official online
bio, records with Ballard’s name on them have sold more than 150 million copies. He’s written songs for Barbra
Streisand, Aerosmith, Shakira, Sheena Easton, and Chaka Khan. He co-wrote “Man In The Mirror” for Michael
Jackson. He oversaw Wilson Phillips’ 10-million selling 1990 debut. He composed the song score for Robert
Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. He’s as punk-rock as Burl Ives, but no matter—Glen Ballard is a fucking music
fucking professional through and through.
In the aftermath of Pill’s incredible success, Morissette and Ballard both spoke of having an instant creative
connection, writing their first song together within minutes of meeting each other. “It was as simple as me
picking up my guitar and hitting a couple of chords, and she would go, ‘I like that,’ and she would hit a melody
and I would hit it back to her,” Ballard recalled in an interview. Morissette and Ballard worked quickly
throughout the sessions for the record, spending no more than a day writing each track.
“You Oughta Know” ended up being Morissette’s signature song, but it was “Ironic”—a song that very much
sounds like it was written in a day—that really pushed Pill into the stratosphere. A lot of people loved the
accessible quirkiness of “Ironic,” but what made the song a defining hit of its time is that people seemed to love
hating it even more. Alanis haters relished pointing out how many of the examples of irony in the lyrics to
“Ironic” were, in fact, not really ironic. On this point I’m going to defend Morissette, if only because these are
the same awful people that circle typos in newspapers and mail the clippings anonymously to editors with smug
putdowns such as, “Maybe you should consider hiring copy editors,” or some equally non-clever bullshit. I’m
right next to you flipping the bird at those a-holes, Alanis.