Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

Black Tie White Noise
Black Tie White Noise Extras
David Bowie

If I’m dreaming and I’m not satisfied with the dream I’m in, I rewrite it. I rearrange the plot and reinforce the dialog. When I’m awake, I do this with movies and TV shows. You’ll know it if I do this with you in conversation because I’ll give you new pages to read. I’ll advise you on where to stand and maybe suggest a wardrobe change.

A few nights ago I dreamed that someone had hired me to play drums for David Bowie. This was for an album Bowie had already recorded. (It was a dream, OK?) I was so concerned that I stopped the dream (I was still dreaming while I stopped the dream) and demanded to know which album. There are some that don’t interest me. There are some that could stampede Donald Trump’s hair. At least one should be stored in an ice volcano on Pluto.

I was also concerned about my ability to play. Though I’m competent (or at least annoying) with two pencils on a conference table while I’m waiting for a meeting to start, I haven’t played the drums since I was a teenager. My parents’ plan to keep me out of the Vietnam War was to have me learn to play an instrument. Then if I were drafted into the army, the Pentagon would assign me to a band. Simple. Why didn’t everybody do that?

I thought the drums would be easy to learn, but a year of instruction made it clear that I was never going to be a drummer, not even on a bad Bowie album. I turned 18 just in time for the last draft, but none of us from that year were called up. Today I serve my country as a blogger. It even says “Blogger” on my uniform.

Bowie’s version of The White Album
One thing we bloggers fight about when we fight about music is an artist’s best album, worst album, and last great album. Bowie almost managed all three in the same decade. His best albums live in the 1970s. His last great album was Scary Monsters in 1980. His worst album lurched into the daylight in 1987 – the unfortunately named Never Let Me Down.

After that one, Bowie barricaded himself in his Fortress of Silentude for six years. He opened the 1990s by marrying a model and stabilizing his life. David and I must be like chocolate and peanut butter because this was almost exactly my experience around that time, not counting all that stuff about music.

Bowie’s next album was Black Tie White Noise (1993). BTWN is not a great album, a return to form, or an innovation. It’s something I don’t associate with Bowie: It’s fun. It’s his most fun album.

BTWN has its quota of menace and paranoia, but even when it’s dark, happiness lurks behind every shadow. Happiness springs from his extraterrestrial sax playing (producer Nile Rodgers said that Bowie “painted” with the sax rather than played it) and from the chaos of musical styles on this disc: rock, pop, dance, terrific covers of Cream’s “I Feel Free” and Scott Walker’s “Nite Flights,” two symphonies for his new wife, Imam, and one avant-gardey track for of all you self-conscious hipsters.

Bowie issued several new versions of this record over the next 10 years, removing songs and adding others (including “Real Cool World,” which he wrote for the movie Cool World). You could theorize that with all this fiddling, Bowie was trying to improve the original pressing. I say that’s just a theory. I say it was too much fun not to.

Black Tie White Noise Extras, a collection of dance remixes, was released on the 10th anniversary of the original. BTWNx dropped five of the original 12 songs, added “new” tracks, and remixed all of them, some more than once. I loved most of the first record and I love most of the remixes.

(I don’t know why, but nobody changed a note in the only blank in this bandolier: the avant-gardey “Pallas Athena.” Here are all the words:

Is on top of it all
And that’s all it is.
We are praying.
Athena, Athena
Athena, Athena
Athena, Athena
Athena, Athena
etc., etc.

This stinker, which I admit has a kick-ass drum track, somehow survived every lineup change since 1992.)

This is a fun record in any version. It doesn’t matter which you choose, just choose already. As Kirk said to Balok in “The Corbormite Maneuver”: “We grow annoyed at your foolishness.” Or was he talking to Trump? Maybe I’m dreaming.

Random Pick of the Day
EMF, Schubert Dip (1991)
Hard rock with a scoop of hip-hop and a bedrock of danceability. “Unbelievable,” an unbelievably happy rock song, hit #1 in the U.S. and the U.K.

Schubert Dip is notable for “Unbelievable” and for the unstoppable expression of just being alive as only five guys in their 20s can express it. The first two tracks, “Children” and “Long Summer Days,” jump at you like puppies that haven’t had their walk today. The rest of the album sags – a 25-year-old can only go so far on all that natural energy – but come on, you can’t say no to an album that includes audio clips of T.S. Eliot and Bert & Ernie.

Random Pan of the Day
The Pretenders, Packed (1990)
Most of the album sounds like Don Henley. That’s OK for Henley, but Chrissie Hynde can do better. Her cover of Hendrix makes me dislike Hendrix. Pack this one away.


I concluded ’70s Week with a list of my favorite songs and ’80s Week with a survey of women in rock, but ’90s Week is just over, period. This is not because I don’t like the music of the 1990s, because I do. But the ’90s was the first decade where I realized that I didn’t understand the trends in popular music. I don’t have the emotional investment in this decade, which I guess should be no surprise given that I was 34 when the ’90s began. I was old enough to have other things to obsess about.

There are many topics worth writing about in the ’90s (three that immediately suggest themselves are Whitney Houston, *NSYNC, and what happened to Bruce Springsteen), but they’re going to have to wait. Why? Because if I’m ever going to build momentum on my novel, I’m going to have to give up something. Wife? No. Job? No. Hygiene? See Wife. Blogs? Oh yeah, those.

Starting today, Run-DMSteve and The Nervous Breakdown have gone fishin’. If I make substantial progress on my book I’ll be back in 2013. Thank you all for reading along and commenting and correcting me and inflating my sense of self-worth. This is my 74th post since November 2010, a breakneck pace of 2.34 posts per month. I couldn’t have done it without you, and I mean that. You’re my soul and my hheaart’ss inspiration.

As George Washington said in his “Farewell to the Troops”: Farewell, troops!

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Los Lobos, The Neighborhood (1990)
Not their best record, but totally endearing. “Be Still” is a great whistling song for a Saturday morning. The swaggering final track, “The Neighborhood,” is actually a sweet benediction:

Thank you Lord for another day
Help my brother along his way
And please
bring peace
to the neighborhood 

Random ’90s Toss-up of the Day
The Psychedelic Furs, World Outside (1991)
After 20 years I can’t decide whether I like it or I’m just used to it, which is a neat trick given that some of these songs make me feel like I’m trapped in a plastic bag. Maybe it’s the relief when they’re over. Maybe they’re really good. Maybe it’s a tunnel to my youth. Just don’t come to this record expecting anything like the Furs’ breakout ’80s hit, “Pretty in Pink”!

The biggest change in music in the 1990s came from the Internet. This is not a secret. We flocked online when the first graphical user interface browser was introduced in 1993, and by 1999 you could listen to your favorite radio station by visiting their website. In fact, you didn’t need a real radio station at all. I found this out in 1999 when I went to work at Visio and met a graphic designer named David. Following the tradition of all people younger than me whom I trick into becoming my friends, he gave me a tip about music: My life changed.

Spinner was an Internet radio station. Its only physical presence in my life (if this counts as physical) was the gorgeous red Deco-styled boom box that appeared on my computer screen once I downloaded their software. (There were no corporate firewalls in 1999. Or if there were, there wasn’t one at Visio Corp.) Spinner gave me, as I remember it, approximately three dozen channels divided by genre. Classic Rock, New Wave, indie, soul, neo-soul, baroque, romantic, West Coast jazz, big band, bebop, etc. While I worked I gobbled music like free donuts in the break room.

Whichever channel I was listening to, Spinner told me in a sort of CNN crawl on the boom box the song and the artist. This was particularly important to me because by 1999 mainstream radio djs had stopped giving this information so as to increase the time for commercials. The crawl also told me what the next song and artist on that channel would be and what was playing on some of my other channels.

There was no charge for Spinner, and there were few commercials.

Spinner introduced me to music I never knew existed. Country blues, for instance. This was blues from the 1920s through the ’40s made by poor whites from the South. I learned about trance, a form of electronica that Special D will not allow in the house. Trance, house, and acid jazz are genres you’d hear at a rave. Or so I am told. I’ve only been to one rave and that was in 1981, and we didn’t have the word “rave” yet. Or glowsticks. Or electricity. I suppose raves have changed a bit since then.

I became reacquainted with surf music, which was going through a renaissance, and met The Baronics. I learned much more jazz, immersed myself in Mozart, Telemann, and various other frilly-laced troublemakers, heard plenty of ’80s alternative and ’90s alternative (’80s wins) (assuming anyone can define “alternative”), and surprised myself with the Oldies channel. There were many songs from the ’60s that I didn’t know, and I was there! Chief among them was The Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which had completely escaped me. That song’s pretty good, I thought. My experience just shows you how oceanic is our culture. No matter how hip you are, you can never hope to swim in it all.

Spinner had its quirks. Playlists were limited. Erasure was in heavy rotation on the New Wave channel; they’re Tears for Fears on nitrous oxide. Peter & Gordon and Chad & Jeremy were fixtures among the Oldies, though I still can’t tell any of them apart. Spinner loved new albums, so I heard a lot of freshly minted music. Certain novelty numbers turned up frequently; one was Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” from 1965. (Though Spinner never spun it, “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” can’t compare to King’s cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” as done in the style of The Kinks from their Muswell Hillbillies album.)

But these barely qualify as flaws. I was in love.

Naturally, this situation couldn’t last. Spinner was assimilated into Napster and Napster into Netscape. They turned the cool boom box into a gray rectangle! Suddenly, the music was available to subscribers only, except for a free 90-minute block each day. I can’t blame Netscape for trying to make money from this venture. Eventually they locked out cheapskates like me, but by then (about 2004) I had discovered Rhapsody. Rhapsody has its problems but overall it’s worked for me for eight years. It’s an old friend now. An interesting, enlightening, cranky old friend.

Special D urged me to launch this blog, but David is the one who gave me the key to the highway. I have no idea what happened to him, but he probably went on to invent Pandora or Spotify. I should’ve stayed in touch – he could’ve given me a job!

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Hole, Live Through This (1994)
If there’s a grunge formula, Hole follows it closely, but that doesn’t take away from this record’s cumulative power. There’s more anguish in Live Through This and in Courtney Love’s deceased husband, Kurt Cobain’s, Nevermind, than in all the rest of grunge. Nevermind (1991) was epic, but Live Through This is what I listen to. The line “I get what I want/and I never want it again” (“Violet”) is the flipside of U2’s “I gave you everything you ever wanted/it wasn’t what you wanted” (“So Cruel,” Achtung Baby, 1991).

Random ’90s Pan of the Day
Soundgarden, Superunknown (1994)
I can’t remember the last time I played this. I went looking for the CD last night and couldn’t find it. Oh well.

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: The road goes ever on? Not according to Rand-McNally!

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
Various artists

I’d like to have a few words with you today about country and western music, which has been handed down to us from our forebears, who were probably trying to get rid of it. Not only has no one succeeded in this quest, those of us who make our living in the music-writing dodge and the rest of us who write stupid blogs must reluctantly admit that country has influenced every aspect of rock ’n’ roll. (Except for the music of Yes. Too bad, because Tales From Topographic Oceans, which has a running time of three days, cries out for banjos and at least a couple of songs about railroads or prisons.)

In searching for the countrified man, woman, or lonesome coyote who first infiltrated rock you can find no end of candidates but the one I wish to concentrate on today is Gram Parsons, who overdosed in 1973 in Joshua Tree National Park. Though this sad event pretty much rang down the curtain on Mr. Parsons’ life and career it by no means arrested his influence, and I don’t just mean the title of the 1987 U2 album. Parsons altered the course of the mighty Byrds, created the hybrid called country-rock, gave Emmylou Harris her break, influenced artists as diverse as Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Wilco, and became the kind of cult figure I would like to become if I had any talent and if I didn’t have to die first. His second album, released the year after his death, was Grievous Angel. Hence the title of this collection of covers from his abbreviated time on this planet, released on Grievous Angel’s 25th anniversary.

Let me state forthrightly that I never paid attention to Gram Parsons when he was alive and I haven’t paid attention to him since his passing, but though my knowledge of his music is zero and though I approach country music as reluctantly as I’d approach the front door to Bob’s Country Bunker I have come to appreciate Return of the Grievous Angel. If like me you’re looking for a relatively painless way to mosey on up to this painful music, this may be the album for you.

My father loved Hank Williams’ music
When I describe a song as being “too country” I am probably remembering being trapped in the car while Hank wailed away on the radio. My father moved on to muzak and then silence while I headed in almost every direction that wasn’t country. Some of the songs on Return of the Grievous Angel are so country that they disturb my sleep. However, I can state unequivocally that several songs lurking in this lineup are quite interesting and that three are sublime.

Gillian Welch turns “Hickory Wind,” a meditation on lost youth, into something almost spiritual. Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris sing like angels on “Juanita,” which, though it is sung in waltz time, is not one of your more upbeat numbers:

No affection were the words
That stuck on my mind
When she walked out on me
For the very last time
Oh, mama, sweet mama
Can you tell me what to say
I don’t know what I’ve done
To be treated this way

The song that laps the field, though, is “Ooh Las Vegas,” as covered by The Cowboy Junkies. “Ooh Las Vegas” is the story of a man lost in an artificial world:

Well, I spend all night with the dealer
tryin’ to get ahead
spend all day at the Holiday Inn
trying to get out of bed

This is so not Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” (“I’m just the devil with love to spare!”). But it is the song the intensely quiet Cowboy Junkies were born to play. While in the past I’ve often wondered whether I was listening to one of their songs or just the wind in the willows, here they produce real pathos, virtuosic singing, and a knock-down punch. Their interpretation rocks so hard that after 13 years of listening to it it only occurred to me when I began writing today’s post that I should give the original a go. I did. Parsons had a pretty good song up his sleeve, but his Foggy Mountain Boys delivery is too happy. The Junkies are the ones who understood what he meant and the ones who bring it home.

Return of the Grievous Angel may not be everyone’s Rocky Mountain high, but it deserves your attention. Gram Parsons deserves to be remembered. And Yes still deserves banjos.

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
This is a tough choice for me, because I hate rap, plus one of this group’s founders (long gone) talked a lot of smack about Jews. But Public Enemy is one of our most influential bands, and this is probably their best album of the 1990s. It’s certainly one of the best album titles of any decade. I give them credit for staying true to their politics and to the album format (they’re releasing two of them this summer) for 25 years. In a recent interview, when asked to pick three albums that would best explain modern music, Chuck D said they’d have to be by Run-DMC, The Beatles, and James Brown. Those are three good picks.

Random ’90s Pan of the Day
Candlebox, Candlebox (1993)
This band will never get anywhere near my list of the Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner(with the album having the same name as the band), even though this disc contains their big fat stupid hit, “Far Behind.” Grunge can be hard enough to take, but this 1% low-fat grunge did not convince me to ask for more.

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: Computers explained!

Sparkle and Fade

Sparkle and Fade was the album that made Everclear a success and Art Alexakis the voice of his generation, just as Born to Run did for Bruce Springsteen exactly 20 years earlier. The two albums are similar, with working-class characters and an outside-the-mainstream point of view. Their characters are trying to run away from the straight world and themselves. Springsteen, however, writes fiction. He’s an observer; he stands back and lets it all be. With Alexakis, it’s memoir. He’s a participant. Also, in Alexakis’ world they’ve gone way beyond drinking a few warm beers in the soft summer rain.

Sparkle and Fade (and its sequel, So Much for the Afterglow) underline just one of the many difficulties I would face as a contemporary rock star. Memoir? What would I write about, teaching chess? My life looks like Mr. Run-DMSteve’s Neighborhood compared with this joker. For example, it would be instructive to compare the women Alexakis has been involved with with the women I’ve been involved with. Instructive, but dangerous. Instead, I’ll compare and contrast all of his women with Special D.

Composite Everclear Woman: Enjoys heroin.
Special D: Enjoys a nice Chardonnay with dinner.

Composite: Walks around in monster boots.
Special D: Never underestimate the importance of comfortable shoes to a woman.

Composite: Sleeps with the lights on due to fear of what the dark might bring.
Special D: Don’t try that at this house!

Composite: Makes questionable life choices.
Special D: Married me.

Composite: Mysterious, unknowable past.
Special D: At this point, I am her past.

Composite: Leaves without warning.
Special D: Reserves the right to divorce my ass.

Although the comparison is close in a couple of areas, it’s obvious that I won’t be writing songs like “You Make Me Feel Like a Whore,” “Chemical Smile,” or “Electra Made Me Blind” anytime soon. I’ll leave this sort of thing to the experts. Though my life has followed a different plot, Sparkle and Fade is one of my favorite albums of the ’90s – it’s Screaming Trees with intelligible lyrics. I think of it as Born to Run +20.

I want to hear what the next generation has to say, which, if they keep to this schedule, will be right around the corner in 2015. It probably won’t be about chess.

Rock journalism of the ’90s

The Promise Keepers came into being two years ago, after mutating from an equally tumultuous local combo, Slappy White. “[Slappy White] were bad back then,” Perini confesses. “It was noisy and funny, but it was really chaotic. We’re trying to control our chaos more, make it a little heavier.”

“Yeah, it’s not so much like get up there and play drunk as you possibly can, make a bunch of noise and insult people,” explains Pineschi. “It’s more like, ‘Well, maybe we should try to like still insult people and drink a lot, but kind of make it more focused.’ ”

(The Rocket, Seattle, 1998)

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: Thank God I’m a country boy!