The line marking the cultural beginning and end of a decade is a fuzzy one. Any one who doubts 1980 was still part of the 70’s can just take a look at a 1980 JC Penney’s catalog and marvel at the width of the bell-bottoms, or look at a list of the top-selling 1980 songs and count up the disco tracks. Anyone who doubts 1990 was still in the clammy grasp of the 80’s need only look at the Yuba City High School 1990 yearbook, and observe the enormous Vuarnet sunglasses, Reeboks, and feathered hair.
#10. “Blaze Of Glory” – Jon Bon Jovi
In piecing together the smoking ruins of my ego after the First Breakup, I realized I had to expand my social circle. Mr. Tackmier’s Geography C class seemed like
a good place to start. I became friends with guys like Jeff W., Kevin S., and Bret K. Through Anthony W. in math class, I met up with guys like Jeff O., Eric L., and Pawen D.
On the last day of school freshman year, I went to see Dick Tracy with Jeff W., which featured lots of Madonna songs, but not this one. It came from the album I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired By The Film Dick Tracy. How Warren Beatty’s brutal evisceration of the Dick Tracy character with his engorged ego inspired a treatise on dance moves from gay discos is anyone’s guess, but I’m Breathless kicked off a trend of “inspired by” albums where artists loosely associated with a movie’s soundtrack could unload their B-sides and outtakes. (The Madonna video hit around the same time, featuring our pal Madoo in a see-through shirt that wasn’t quite see-through, though not for lack of trying on my part. A Holy Bee Tip of the Hat to the original queen of titillation.)
That summer, Jeff W. and I rode our bikes out to Movies 8 to see Young Guns II, which is better than the original (and if that isn’t damning with faint praise, then I don’t know what is.) The accompanying Jon Bon Jovi (solo) music video serves as a reminder that they used to drop some serious fuckin’ coin on music videos. Jon strummed his acoustic and mouthed his watered-down remake of “Wanted Dead Or Alive” on a massive, detailed set built on the edge of a cliff, and was photographed with more swooping helicopter shots than you can shake a stick at.
When school started up again in the fall of ‘90, I must have spotted half-a-dozen The Razor’s Edge T-shirts under the denim jackets of the metal kids heading for the smoking area across from the front of the high school on Frederick Street. I didn’t stare too long, as the wearers surely would’ve singled me out for a beating, and blood would’ve been hard to get out of my preppy Cosby sweater.
#12. “U Can’t Touch This” – M.C. Hammer
#13. “Ice Ice Baby” – Vanilla Ice
I began subscribing to Rolling Stone at the start of 1991, which was also the height of the “pop-rap” boom. Every advertising icon sported shades and was “rappin’.” Colonel Sanders and Cap’n Crunch rapped. The first issue of RS to show up in my mailbox had Slash on the cover, and Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme showing up at the #1 spot on the record charts on the back page. Ice was still #1 with a bullet in the next issue. And the next. It seemed like it would never go away. (It’s official run at #1 was November 1990 to March 1991.) But like all fads, “Ice Ice Baby” and the album that spawned it died a sudden death. I observed the exact moment when Ice’s career began its downward trajectory into the shitter. February 10, 1991. At a Valentine’s-themed party hosted by Noele D. We were all lounging around in her side yard after the sun set. Anthony had just confessed his love for Audrey Varick.
To me, not her.
What the hell was I supposed to do about it? I guess he knew I had sort of taken a fancy to her myself over the last year or so, and was trying to get me to step aside. Knowing that my own chances in that area were pretty much nil anyway, it wasn’t a big effort to be the gallant friend and say “go for it.” I got to be the good pal and avoid total rejection from Audrey. So, y’know, win-win.
All this low-level teen drama halted at 8:00, when we went to Noele’s living room to tune into the show that no self-respecting 1991 sophomore would miss: In Living Color. In about two and a half minutes, Jim Carrey’s Ice parody “White, White Baby” hammered the first nail into Ice’s coffin. Vaguely disliked by everyone before that night (except by Jenny Hunt – don’t deny it, Hunt!), poor V.I. was now a total punchline. Anthony’s pursuit of Audrey befell a similar fate.
So it was out with 1990, in with 1991…Word to your mother. (Or “word to your mother’s toaster” which was an inside joke between my friends at the time, the origins of which I’ve completely forgotten.)
#14. “Hard To Handle” – The Black Crowes
The Crowes were often called “southern rock,” but despite their Georgia roots, I believe their true inspiration came not from down in Dixie but across the pond in Blighty. The first two Black Crowes records were a near-perfect attempt to recreate the sonic and visual aesthetic of the Faces, Humble Pie, and early 70’s Stones. All British bands, and all bringing a foreigner’s deconstructionist perspective to American country and R&B. The Black Crowes share far more similarities with them than with Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet.
#15. “Losing My Religion” – R.E.M.
I thought I had no prior knowledge of R.E.M before the release of Out Of Time. The album came as a part of Anthony’s first Columbia House shipment. I believe he received something like 10 cassettes (and yes, they were cassettes) in exchange for a penny taped to a card, and Columbia House owning his poor monkey ass for the next ten years, forcing him into Amway distributorship. I remember him opening the box when it came, and pulling out Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead, Extreme’s Pornograffitti, several others, and this one. We listened to most of them that afternoon. I only had one blank Maxell C-90 cassette with me at the time, so all of Out Of Time went on Side One and a little of Side Two, with the best cuts from Van Halen finishing it off. I still have that tape somewhere.
#16. “Been Caught Stealing” – Jane’s Addiction
The appeal of Jane’s Addiction has always been a puzzle. Their janky art-metal left me cold, and Perry Farrell’s obnoxious, nonsensical babblings and generally unpleasant demeanor (it always seemed like I could smell him through my TV) did not sweeten the deal.
#17. “Birdhouse In Your Soul” – They Might Be Giants
I did not become a They Might Be Giants fan until a little bit further down the 90’s path, but I do remember this song kicking around the airwaves about this time.
#18. “Shiny Happy People” – R.E.M.
As I delved into R.E.M. a little deeper, I figured out I did have prior knowledge of them. The first place I heard them was as the opening theme music to the too-soon-departed Chris Elliott show Get A Life, where he delivered papers to the piping strains of 1988’s “Stand.”
#19. “Gonna Make You Sweat” – C+C Music Factory
#20. “Groove Is In The Heart” – Deee-Lite
The first half of 1991 was truly the last gasp of the 80’s. Paula Abdul’s ’89 smasheroo Forever Your Girl made the world temporarily safe for shallow disco-style dance music (again), and C+C Music Factory’s repeated yelps of “everbody dance now” were oppressively unshakable. As a favor to myself and others, I avoid attempts to move my body rhythmically, and for the better part of a year, it was impossible to escape exhortations to do just that. Blaring from radio, TV commercials, sporting events, and county fair rides, “Gonna Make You Sweat” was one of the first truly unavoidable songs of the decade.
#21. “I Touch Myself” – DiVinyls
I don’t think there’s much to add here.
#22. “More Than Words” – Extreme
This is a terrible, terrible song, folks, and there’s no use denying it. As a high school sophomore, I associated its 80’s-ish vibe with the older kids, the seniors. The class of ’91 spent more of their high school years lodged in the previous decade than in the new decade, so in my mind they were the last of the true 80’s kids. The Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller crowd were moving into adulthood, making way for us youngsters who hadn’t yet formed an identity. I heard this song many a time blaring from car stereos in the school parking lot as I pedaled my Schwinn past the couples making out.
It must be obvious by now that I have no objection to having bad songs on my playlists, but I do draw a line in the sand when it comes to Color Me Badd. The vile “I Wanna Sex You Up” was all over the airwaves in the summer of ’91, but you will not find it contaminating my iPod.
It is stuff like Color Me Badd that made the world ripe for the “alternative” boom just around the corner.
#23. “Right Here, Right Now” – Jesus Jones
I actually heard this one for the first time at the same party where I witnessed Vanilla Ice’s downfall. Someone older than us, who had a car, had the “cassingle” in their glove compartment. The cassette single was a format that not only did not catch on, but actually instills a kind of low-level hostility in people who think back on them and how stupid they were. A tiny reel of audio tape housed in the familiar plastic cassette case, which was itself encased in a cardboard sleeve with artwork and artist/song details, then shrinkwrapped cellophane – all for two songs.
My friend WH pretended not to know what I was talking about when I asked him about “cassingles” recently, then vehemently denied ever owning one. My other friend MDG copped to owning “about ten.” I had one. It wasn’t this one.
#24. “Wicked Game” – Chris Isaak
Originally a flop single from 1989, “Wicked Game” and its pompadoured author/singer received a kick in the pants from an instrumental version being included in the David Lynch film Wild At Heart. The vocal version became a hit thanks to an infamous music video featuring topless (though artfully concealed) supermodel Helena Christensen flailing around in seawater with Isaak, who had the good sense to cast himself as a participant in all the semi-explicit rumpy pumpy, rather than assign himself the usual role of the performer in a music video (detatched narrator/observer.)
#26. “Everything I Do, I Do It For You” – Bryan Adams
The tradition of seeing a movie on the last day of school continues. This year, I was one of the people lucky enough to see the cultural phenomenon known as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on its opening day. This song was the “power ballad” that limped along through the closing credits like a broke-dick dog.
#27. “Something To Talk About” – Bonnie Raitt
The basis for the 1995 Julia Roberts/Dennis Quaid movie of the same name. Mediocrity spawning more mediocrity. Do you suppose there’s anyone out there that actually has a copy of the Something To Talk About on their DVD shelf? It’s not a really cheesy bad movie that you can laugh at or enjoy “ironically.” It’s certainly not an awesome movie that demands repeat viewings. It’s just kind of…there. Like lichens or Dick Cavett. It exists, to no discernible purpose. I’m just curious about the type of person who would say to themselves “That’s what my collection is missing. That is my next media purchase.”
#28. “You Could Be Mine” – Guns N’ Roses
Delay after delay was amping up anticipation of the new Guns N’ Roses album (or rather, albums) to a fever pitch. (Note to Axl: Delay an album six months = fevered anticipation. Delay an album fourteen years = colossal indifference.) This single was most people’s first taste of Use Your Illusion, released as part of the Terminator 2 soundtrack in June.
I was not really a music consumer yet. I’d had a CD player since 1988, but in mid-1991, my CD collection could still fit on a single shelf, and was mostly classic rock stuff like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks 1964-1971, some Hendrix, and other odds and ends, most of which was accumulated over birthdays and Christmases. I had no job, and no way of acquiring new music on a regular basis. Just Cool 104 FM, which I would occasionally roll tape on, and friends who let me dub off cassettes from their collection. Not that I was too interested in owning most of the music that was kicking around the first part of ’91 (i.e., Vanilla Ice, Color Me Badd). By the time the double album extravaganza of Use Your Illusion hit stores like an atom bomb in September, I had a job and a car, and, at long last, an interest in “new” music. Partly because I was changing, but mostly because the music itself was changing.
The music that would quickly be labeled “alternative” had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time. Bands like Husker Du, The Pixies, The Minutemen, The Replacements, and Sonic Youth had been mining their experimental, uncommercial vein since the mid-80’s, fusing elements of punk/hardcore, art-rock, and a grab-bag of earlier 60’s influences into a stew that oozed out of basement clubs and college campuses to a relatively small audience. A few of the more user-friendly of these acts, like R.E.M., got some radio play as “college rock,” and soon exploded into the commercial mainstream. But most went unheard, until the bands they influenced found a young, discerning audience dissatisfied with metal, bland dance pop, and New Kids On The Block. (All of these would eventually make a spectacular comeback as the nation’s collective IQ hit the shitter around 2000.) MTV, radio, and record labels were a little quicker on the uptake than they usually are, and the “alt rock” boom was well underway before the year was out.
My first inkling that there was something available as an alternative to what had been clogging up the airwaves was when Brian Cunningham played this track from the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack on the cassette player in his wonderful, baby-blue Chevy stepside pickup during a high school lunch in the parking lot. (God, I loved that truck.) Sandwiched between the Slaughter, Winger, and Steve Vai songs was this interesting tidbit from the Bay Area band Primus. Early Primus downplayed its prog-rock Rush/Pink Floyd influences, and played up the more commercially popular “punk-funk” (or is it “funk-punk?”) influence, with Les Claypool’s fretless bass slapping & popping away and his nasal, cartoon character voice telling tales of fishermen and race car drivers. For all intents and purposes, Primus were a novelty act at the time, but that term had no stigma for me yet. (One of the odds & ends in my CD collection was a Weird Al album.) They were at least very, very different, and I made a mental note to acquire more Primus as soon as possible. (This was also my first exposure to Tom Waits, who provided the voice of “Tommy,” but I didn’t follow up on him until ’95…)
#30. “Into The Great Wide Open” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Having never watched 21 Jump Street, this video was the first time I saw Johnny Depp.
The Yuba City school district had very recently eliminated the behind-the-wheel portion of Driver’s Ed, forcing us to complete our state-mandated six-hour driver’s training course via any number of private vendors. My turn behind the wheel was in July, and I spent a very uncomfortable six hours seated next to an instructor who was old enough to remember when there weren’t any cars, and by the fifth hour was relaxed enough with me to explain his theory about AIDS being the Lord’s curse on homosexuals. We ended our brief acquaintaceship when he handed me my completion paperwork and a pocket copy of the Good News. I was squared away as far as the DMV was concerned, but I believe the instructor secretly wished his cranky, Old Testament-style God would smite me for my suggestive Rolling Stones lips-and-tongue T-shirt.
The end result was a driver’s license, and with it came a car, or rather, an enormous, battered land yacht. My first vehicle was a 1972 Chevy Blazer, which denied me even a modicum of SUV coolness by being the 2-wheel drive variety. Basically, a pickup with a lid. But the price was right (free), it had an interesting history (it’s previous owner was a carnival company, which used it to haul things like the Zipper and Tilt-A-Whirl from county to county), and its big-ass engine/cheap muffler combo made a satisfying, rumbling roar when I fired it up. A quick trip to Denio’s in Roseville provided the cheapest of car cassette players and some shaggy, blue-dyed sheepskin seat covers, and I rolled into the great wide open – or rather, the YCHS East Parking Lot – on the first day of junior year behind the wheel of the Mattmobile (Vers. I).
1/10th of the way through already! But keep a weather eye on the horizon because there’s rough seas ahead for Your Humble Narrator…
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