Category Archives: This Used To Be My Playground

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 14: Bitten By Reality

#115. “Streets Of Philadelphia” — Bruce Springsteen
The Holy Bee used to love going to movies. In the early nineties, a typical evening-show ticket was between five and six dollars. Matinees dipped as low as $3.5o. I probably watched two movies per week in a theater (and that total increased in late 1995, when I began working at a theater and could watch films to my heart’s content free of charge. More on that later.) Whatever the “big” movie was in any particular week, I was most likely in attendance. December/January was especially busy, what with all the Oscar-bait. (The weeks just before and just after the “summer blockbuster” season are probably the worst movie months. I was one of the maybe two dozen unfortunate souls who saw Folks! in the theater, just because I wanted to “go the movies” that night, and had already seen the other seven films playing at the Cinemark Movies 8.)

Tombstone was the movie I was excited about around this time, and I made a point of seeing it on Christmas Day, but Philadelphia was the big, prestigious Oscar-bait movie of the December ’93/January ’94 season. Like many “important” movies of that era, I let it wash over me without forming any strong opinions one way or another. I was a “movie-goer,” not yet a true film fanatic. That’s one of many evolutions the Holy Bee would undergo through 1994-95. These changes also included moving from a detached admiration for the work of Bruce Springsteen to full-blown fandom. Bruce was going through a rough patch at this time. The E Street Band was on hiatus, and the reviews for his ’92 double album release were middling. The muted, synth-heavy ballad “Streets of Philadelphia” won the Oscar for Best Original Song and put Bruce on the road to revival. (I still like Tombstone better than Philadelphia, and you know you do too.) Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 13: Strictly 4 My R.E.A.D.A.Z.

I had been under the impression that my playlist followed the mainstream pretty closely, but clearly I was mistaken. Even as my memory faithfully recorded me as a tiny part of a massive movement — everyone blissing on the same tunes at the same time — cold, historical facts have proven me wrong. In preparing for this installment, I made the mistake of looking at the Billboard Top 100 Songs of 1993, and felt myself staring into foreign territory. Could this be my 1993? How could my memory be so at odds with reality? Nothing but mediocre soul, “New Jack Swing,” and novelty pop-rap as far as the eye could see. It seems like I heard none of it at the time.


I mean, I was expecting to run across the Twin She-Beasts — Whitney and Mariah — in my little journey, and felt those shrill harpies could be safely ignored. But, oh, there’s Janet. And Mary J. And Vanessa was still around? That minx. And just who the fuck was “Shai”? Shanice? Silk? SWV? And how were they clunking up not only the Top 100, but the Top 40? In the end it doesn’t matter, because they were all faceless and interchangeable, but how did I not at least know them as names — then or now? I thought I was on top of things. Peabo Bryson. Jade. H-Town. Paperboy. Robin S. All names on the ’93 chart, and names I heard for the very first time as I sat down to write this. I was initially stunned, then ashamed. They must have been blasting from passing car stereos, the jukebox at Round Table, the pink Barbie tape player of the little neighbor kids, and over the speakers at Camelot and the Wherehouse, my homes away from home. I somehow missed it all.

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 12: Skipper Joe And Me, Running Through The Barrio…

[Author’s Note: Good God, I’m really starting to think of myself as some kind of Mickey fucking Spillane with all the novelistic bullshit this feature is starting to peddle. All I can say is, if you’re not into it, I’m sorry, thanks for sticking with it this far. If you’re just into the music and the YouTube clips, simply scroll down to the end. I’ve linked this site to a lot of other things over the summer, so if you’re new and want to start from the beginning — and why wouldn’t you — go to April 2009 for Part 1.]

Late August, 1993 — The manager of the video store sat enshrouded in a permanent fug of blue cigarette smoke. Basics. Two more packs rested on the desk. He could have been forty, he could have been sixty, his appearance betraying no hint of anything beyond a middle age where appearance is no longer a going concern. His tinted aviator-style glasses and drooping porn-star mustache were topped off by a truly heroic, unselfconscious Afro, the likes of which had been unseen on a white man since 1975. He jabbed a nicotine-yellowed finger at my resume.

“I liked your introduction letter,” he said. Which was a damn good thing, because the Employment History of the resume was a bit of a wasteland. The manager, Joe, had made a career out of managing small retail establishments — a Men’s Wearhouse in Pomona, a 7-11 in San Luis Obispo — and I’m sure he’d given many neophytes their first shot at cash-register jockeying. My letter, written in an embryonic, eighteen-year-old version of the chatty, verbose prose you’re reading right now, was my only chance to differentiate myself from the pimply herd.

Skipper Joe (as it turns out, a Navy vet) confirmed he’d like to have me “come aboard,” and thus began my introduction to the great dysfunctional family dynamic known as “co-workers.” As he popped open the door, great clouds of Basic smoke billowed out as if a pile of Christmas trees was burning somewhere in the depths of the manager’s office. Joe ushered me out moments before my blood turned into a sticky sluice of nicotine and tar. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 11: Whoomp! There Goes My Summer

#89. “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” – Lenny Kravitz
#90. “No Rain” – Blind Melon

First day of summer! The noonday sun tried desperately to penetrate my bedroom blinds as I slept off Grad Night, but it was all for naught. My room remained dark as a tomb. If it wasn’t for the fact I had a hip-pocket full of Wherehouse gift certificates and graduation cash, I would have slept another two or three hours. But I crawled out of bed and drove to the Wherehouse, where I bought Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek & The Dominoes, the Who’s double album Quadrophenia, and two albums of more recent vintage: Blind Melon’s self-titled debut, and Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way.

What a burn. Loved, loved, loved the Kravitz title song, so I bought the album…and there were no other good songs in evidence. Not a one. I would repeatedly fall into this trap until the dawn of the mp3 age. Kravitz would go on to never make a good song ever again. I deduced later that he never made any good songs before “AYGGMY,” either. I guess that proves that even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in his life.

The Blind Melon album fared much better. Known mostly for the massive hit single “No Rain” (and its iconic “Bee Girl” video), the rest of the album was solid and unpretentious, and has held up surprisingly well. The same could not be said of its follow-up, 1995’s Soup. Lead singer Shannon Hoon was a notorious drug ingestion machine, and it’s too bad the atrocious Soup was his last statement to the world before he went tits-up. (Note to aspiring musicians who are considering acquiring a My First Drug Habit kit: Drug use doesn’t always result in an Exile On Main Street or Appetite For Destruction. More often than not, it results in Soup.)

By the by, there’s nothing more boring than watching someone else negotiate to buy a car. While Emily was taking seventeen hours to trade in her old Datsun Z for a new Honda Civic del Sol at some point that June, I wandered over to the Underground to spend the last of my graduation cash on Primus’ live debut Suck On This, and Nirvana’s 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach. Em’s new vehicle reflected her decision to eschew college for the time being and enter the full-time workforce as a medical records clerk for Chico Community Hospital. A real, adult-type job. The beginning of the tiniest crack in our relationship foundation. But she celebrated by buying me the Kinks’ Greatest Hits and the book The Films of Sean Connery, so it was all good. For now.

#91. “Two Princes” – The Spin Doctors

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Most Overplayed Song of 1993! Featured on movie soundtracks, movie trailers, a video that by federal law was played twice per hour for ten to twelve months, and as background music on dozens and dozens of MTV shows, including The Real World. I spent a lot of afternoons that summer glued to the groundbreaking “reality” series’ second season, the one in Los Angeles with the drunken Irish “music critic,” (he was shown fleetingly at a club show holding a notepad, so that makes him a music critic, right?), the obnoxious, glowering “stand-up comedian” who got kicked out of the house for general assholery, and didn’t seem to have a funny bone in his body, and the jaw-droppingly awful “country singer” (his act was shown at least a dozen times, and it always consisted of one song: “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”) Some argue that The Real World reached its peak with the next season in San Francisco (a.k.a. “Puck and the AIDS Guy”), but I was already growing bored with the format by then.

It reached a point where “Two Princes” seemed to saturate the very air itself that summer. You would be out for a quiet walk, and then suddenly…a whiff of patchouli, and Chris Barron’s lazy, beard-y voice would be carried faintly through the breeze: “One, two princes kneel before you, that’s-a what I said now…” And you would curl up on the sidewalk and wait for help to arrive. This album had been kicking around since ’91, and showed no signs of going away.

(But never fear, a follow-up was in the works. And if there was one follow-up that was worse than Soup, it was the Spin Doctors’ Turn It Upside Down. It’s a poorly-kept recording industry secret that most artists try to front load their albums with the stronger tracks. The Doctors’ idea of a lead-off track? A gem called “Big Fat Funky Booty,” followed by the single (!) “Cleopatra’s Cat,” an exercise in scat-singing so repugnant it would make Cab Calloway claw his own eyes out.)

#92. “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” – The Proclaimers

Originally released by Scottish folk-rock duo the Proclaimers in 1988, and a fair-sized European hit at that time. As we all know, Europe doesn’t really count, and it remained unknown to American ears until its re-release and inclusion on the soundtrack of 1993’s Benny And Joon, a good-natured movie so slight that it dissolved in your mind upon viewing, like cotton candy, leaving only the sweet, sticky residue of Johnny Depp’s Buster Keaton imitations, and the Proclaimers singing over the closing credits in their thick Scottish burrs about “havering” and other nonsensical Euro notions that aren’t really words. The film was in theaters for about a day and a half, but the accompanying re-edited music video – now featuring clips from the film interspersed with the rather spastic Proclaimers (“Dah-DAH duh, dah-DAH duh”) – stayed in rotation for the rest of the summer.

I wanted to get hold of the song in an idle kind of way, not to the point of buying it or anything (still jobless, remember?). I resorted to an old trick from my younger days. I propped a cassette recorder against the television speaker and recorded the audio right off of MTV. In my formative years, I did this with the audio of George Carlin VHS tapes the clueless liquor store clerk would rent to me. (Remember when liquor stores rented movies?) Yes, I was the only twelve-year-old on the middle-school playground who had hours of George Carlin material memorized flawlessly. Explains a lot. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 10: Cashing In My High School Chips

#85. “Everybody Hurts” – R.E.M.

Our six-minute dinner theater performance of Pyramus and Thisbe did not require intense rehearsal, and once that show was performed, there was no reason to go to drama class at all. My duties as a teacher’s aide were rapidly becoming non-existent, and we still had an open-campus lunch. It was the onset of “senior-itis,” so if you went looking for the Holy Bee in the halls of his high school between the hours of about 10:30 to 1:00 that spring, you would not find him. I was usually in the company of Jeff McKinney (who played “Lion” in P&T), loitering in some of Yuba City’s finer fast food establishments, or simply cruising around town aimlessly, looking for targets for our Super Soakers. Squirt guns were quite a fad the last few weeks of senior year. Everyone had a Super Soaker under his car seat, and a smaller “piece” in his backpack. Sadly, this silliness would never be tolerated at a post-Coumbine high school.

I had a definite feeling of closing shop, putting up the shutters, and taking in my shingle. I received my letter of acceptance to CSU Chico (the only university to which I bothered to apply), but decided – in the Great Holy Bee Tradition – to follow the path of least resistance and put some time in at the local community college for awhile.

I was spending most of my free time with Emily (my senior prom was out of the question, as she had already graduated and would not countenance a return to a high school function), but I was also gravitating toward more eccentric, off-beat characters like McKinney, whose every word was intended to entertain, confuse, or shock. My kind of guy. I was also having more and more conversations with a quiet, long-haired bass player named Allen Maxwell, whom I’d met in English class junior year. Consequently, I was spending less time with some of the old friends like Jeff O. and Eric. We were like foxhole buddies, fighting down in the high school trenches, but as the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared, we realized we didn’t really have all that much in common. They wanted to watch baseball and Faces of Death, I wanted to watch the Marx Brothers and Fawlty Towers. To their credit, they laughed their asses off at Duck Soup, but I don’t think I made them lifelong fans. They were on the tennis and cross-country teams, I was in drama. We didn’t split up and go our separate ways right then (community college, remember?), but there was a definite elegiac feeling in the air. Friendships would never be the same, and we were all very conscious of it. Joy at our impending graduation was tempered with a good deal of melancholy. (Not “Everybody Hurts”-level melancholy, but you fit things where you can.)

#86. “Creep”
– Stone Temple Pilots
At some point in early May, I sat in an almost-empty classroom, facing the entire Student Council. I felt like a Supreme Court nominee being raked over the coals by fat-cat Senators. But no, I was merely interviewing for the position of Director of the Senior Showcase, the big Class of ‘93 talent show. It was the most ambitious thing I ever did in high school, and it came in the last four weeks.

The Student Council decided to choose the top two applicants as “co-directors.” I would be sharing the task with Tricia H., my co-star from Dracula who played my wife (as unenviable a position in fiction as it was in fact – she can be seen sitting next to me in the picture in the previous entry.) Far from being disappointed, I was ecstatic. Less work, and someone to share the blame if things went terribly, terribly awry. Tricia was a tough, sharp girl who used stay in character backstage at Dracula – but that character was “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher, who was dominating the headlines at the time. She would rant and curse at us all in a broad Noo Yawk accent (“I’m stayin’ wit’ Joey forevah, muthafuckah! Donchoo try’n stawp meeeeeee…!”) right up until she made her entrance onstage, when she would switch to the plummy British tones of Mina Harker without batting an eye.

McKinney also found himself involved. I don’t know if he tried out for director, but he ended up attaching himself to the show as “producer,” meaning he ran the soundboard, ran errands, and ran his mouth.

There was a time when the Senior Showcase was the “Senior Follies,” a much more freewheeling and bawdy night of “adult” entertainment. I’ve seen the videotapes from some of my friends’ older siblings with my own eyes, or I never would have believed what they got away with. Then as now, high schoolers never met a gay joke they didn’t like, and hammer into the ground ad nauseum. That sort of thing was considered good clean fun in the 1980s in the same way minstrel shows were considered harmless in the 1880s. While I wouldn’t have gone down that road, I did wish that our show could have had a little more comedic bite. By the early 90’s, things were safe and sanitized. Our edgiest sketch was the a re-hash of Robert Townsend’s “Farters Anonymous” – bowlderized into “Flatulators Anonymous.” Since the comedy element had been de-fanged, the Showcase was more of a musical recital, and didn’t require much in the way of “direction.” Just some minor blocking, some editing for time, and arranging the sound and light cues.

We decided to set the dangerous precedent of running the show without an M.C. With the judicious and well-timed use of stage curtains, an act could be performing downstage while another prepared upstage, and the show would flow like a stream of consciousness. After two weeks of meticulous rehearsals…it wasn’t close to working. Oh, well. We figured the Show Business gods would smile upon us, and the adrenaline of opening night would cause the whole thing to miraculously pull together.

It didn’t. And I wasn’t there to see it.

I was busy failing my Algebra 2 final out at my Yuba College night class on opening night. Tricia and McKinney did their best, but it was a clusterfuck. Again, oh well. Opening night was just a glorified dress rehearsal, anyway. Night two, Friday night, was when we’d have a packed house. During a tense huddle fifteen minutes before showtime on night two, we decided it just wouldn’t work without an M.C. The task fell to me. I felt very show-bizzy as I stood backstage in the last five minutes before curtain, sweating profusely and furiously thinking up what I hoped were funny remarks. The curtain went up, I did my best David Letterman saunter into the spotlight, and the glitches began. Luckily, I had McKinney to abuse. I hollered at him down in the tech pit from the stage, even when it wasn’t his fault (which wasn’t often), and he hollered back at me, and we turned it into a desperate little time-filling routine that just barely kept things on the rails.

The comedy sketches were a shambles, filled with inside jokes that only the performers got (I tried to cut as many of those as possible during rehearsals, but they sneaked them back in). Musically, we fared a little better. Allen’s band, Pink Viking, had played in the quad at lunchtime several times that year, and they were the Showcase highlight, offering an instrumental “Dazed and Confused” and Allen on vocals for ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”

The show closed with a so-called “Class of ’93” slideshow, which featured the same ten or twelve people in each picture. I loudly pointed that fact out to the audience as the show came to a welcome end. I can’t remember much of my own performance from the haze of that night, except that it was deemed adequate, and the second (and mercifully last) night of Senior Showcase 1993 was put in the books as a success. I would never put myself forward or volunteer to do anything again. Ever. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 9: What’s Up? Cereal Killers, Vampires, And 12 Inches Of Snow, That’s What

#77. “Connected” – Stereo MCs
Connected I was most certainly not. I lost my first real job in January before I even worked a minute. I was all set to be a lot boy on evenings and weekends for Enterprise Rent-A-Car (drawing upon my recent experience as an employee of Emily’s Detail – see previous entry.) Right before I was scheduled to start, I received a panicky call from their office manager. It seems they thought they were hiring someone already in college, and a quick review of my paperwork showed I was still a scum-sucking lowly high-schooler. The job was yanked away from me without much in the way of apology, even though they were the ones who made the mistake. Who’s laughing now, Enterprise Rent-A-Car? I went on to bigger and better employment later that year in the field of home video entertainment, and your crummy rental company…is, according to my notes, still going strong in its same location. Still…I think the moral victory was mine, as I was soon able to earn my gas and CD money without having to pick dragonfly corpses out of the grills of Ford Festivas.

I think the confusion may have sprung from the fact that I told them I would need Tuesday and Thursday evenings off for my Algebra II class at Yuba College. Yes, folks, I was taking another stab at that elusive math credit, this time via night class at our local community college.

#78. “Man On The Moon” – R.E.M.
I won’t try to convince you that this was R.E.M’s best all-around song, but it’s certainly my personal favorite. A sprightly, melodically-perfect tribute to late comedian Andy Kaufman, whose provocative, confrontational anti-comedy broke barriers in the 70’s, it reminds me of the times I would try to rock the establishment boat in minor ways. I was not much of a joiner. You can page through the yearbook and not see me participating in any sport, or as a member of a club. As Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” That, and I valued my personal time away from school. And I was lazy. And a poor athlete.

I raised my profile by trying to be amusing in various semi-subversive ways. I was given an Opinion column in the school newspaper, which was desperate for content that year, and then had it taken away when I informed its readership that the rag they were holding was an embarrassment to student journalism, a biased mouthpiece for the administration and “popular” kids, and should be used as birdcage lining or fish-wrapping material. And I forget which student council wonk handed me a microphone and told me to drum up business for the charity snack sale one lunch period, but my remark that “whatever lucky so-and-so finds the toenail I hid in one of the Nutter Butters gets a prize” set off a mild disturbance and I was relieved of my sales duties. All of this tomfoolery eventually ended up with me onstage as Master of Ceremonies for the Senior Showcase, but that’s a story for a later entry.

cereal-killer#79. “Three Little Pigs” – Green Jelly
A true abomination of a novelty/metal song, I only include it here because it represents a time when anything seemed able to break into the musical mainstream. Green Jelly (pronounced “Green Jello,” but the good people at Kraft Foods objected to a shitty band using their trademarked brand name, so the band changed the spelling – but not the pronunciation) hyped themselves as the world’s first “video-only” band. If you wanted their album Cereal Killer (and who didn’t?), you didn’t buy a cassette or CD. You bought it on a VHS tape and watched it. And then when you were done watching it, you reached for the nearest ball-peen hammer and shattered it into a thousand pieces so you would never be subjected to it again. Green Jelly eventually broke down and released the album in standard audio formats (as Cereal Killer Soundtrack), and snuffed out the only thing about them that made them worthy of attention in the first place.

Speaking of audio formats, it was around this time that the shrinkage of the cassette sections in music stores was growing ever more noticeable. I went straight from vinyl to CD back in ’88, so it didn’t impact me directly but cassettes had been the format of choice for a lot of my peers, and it’s always kind of sad to observe the slow death of a format that had served its purpose well. Blank cassettes still sold like hotcakes, however.

Juvenalia like Green Jelly and Beavis & Butthead (who made their debut in early March) nestled tusk to tusk in my personality next to (what I hoped) was a growing level of intellectual sophistication. AP English was my most challenging and enjoyable class senior year. As an inside joke to myself, I titled all of my essays after songs on Metallica’s Black Album (e.g., “The Struggle Within: Hamlet’s Dilemma,” “The Unforgiven: Sins of Madame Bovary.” Clever, no?) Certainly, the references were lost on our teacher, Mr. Wemple, cranky old head of the English Dept. and a frustrated True Intellectual within shouting distance of retirement. I remember he all but sneered at me for drinking pre-ground brand-name coffee one morning.

One late winter day, Mr. Wemple did not appear, nor did a substitute. We sat for five minutes, then ten. I forgot who first said, “Well, if that old bastard’s not bothering to show up, I’m not going to waste my time here,” but it became the majority consensus. Except for a few of the more timid souls who stayed behind reading their Joseph Conrad, we all signed our names on the board to demonstrate we had shown up in good faith, then promptly left campus to kill forty minutes before second period. I forgot whose house we went to about a block-and-a-half from campus, but I do know we put on MTV, and there it was — the cream of YCHS’s literary intelligentsia ended up staring dumbly at the “Three Little Pigs” video.

#80. “Informer” – Snow
Also known as the “Licky-Boom-Boom” song. It’s really fucking stupid. Went to #1, naturally.

#81. “Eat The Rich” – Aerosmith
First heard this one on Em’s car radio, waiting in the parking lot for her to come out of some store or salon. Something about it’s overall sound made me think it was Warrant or Skid Row. That’s not a compliment.

#82. “What’s Up?” – 4 Non-Blondes
This isn’t the first poorly-written song to be a huge hit, but it may be the only one where the writing is bad enough to actually make the listener angry. 4 Non-Blondes, and their songwriter-in-chief Linda Perry, stumble right out of the gate by originally titling it “What’s Going On.” Points for chutzpah, but naturally their record company feared there would be confusion with the classic Marvin Gaye song of the same title. (Anyone who’s heard them both can attest that the confusion would be very, very minimal.)

The source of our narrator’s angst is never once made clear. She’s simply a sobbing, shambling wreck right from the start. She “cries sometimes when I’m lying in bed/Just to get it all out, what’s in my head,” before screaming “at the top of my lungs” to anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot: “What’s going on?!” Well, there’s some emotionally unhinged girl in a top hat and dunebuggy goggles bellowing randomly, that’s one thing that’s going on. Infusing every single syllable of her inane, shitty-ass song with an unintentionally hilarious, larnyx-shredding intensity is another. Perry’s ultimate solution to her dilemma in the final verse? “And I pray…ohmygawd… do I pray…I pray every single day… for revolution!” Well, you know, we all want to change the world… but how a violent armed uprising against the government will put her back on the long road to mental stability and a healthy night’s sleep remains totally baffling, as does how Perry went on to become one the hottest songwriters-for-hire of the 2000s. What’s up with that? Watch the video and try not to piss yourself. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 8: Automatic Hatred For Stone Temple Pilots

My research tells me that the biggest smash hit of the summer of ’92 was “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap! Upon listening to the song now, I have to admit I have absolutely no recollection of it. I must have heard it multiple times, but tuned it out (which doesn’t seem difficult.) That summer also saw the release of the Madonna song which gives this blog series its title. Is it on the playlist? Nope.

#68. “Human Touch” – Bruce Springsteen

Few artists are big enough to pull off the release of two new albums simultaneously. Guns N’ Roses had pulled it off the previous fall, and in 1992, Bruce Springsteen followed suit. The difference was, Use Your Illusion I and II were essentially two parts of the same big album. Bruce had recorded an album – Human Touch – and then, while insipiration was still running high, kept the tapes rolling for a hasty follow-up. Ironically, the afterthought album – Lucky Town – was to most people’s ears the superior one. Human Touch was polished and labored, whereas Lucky Town was loose and spontaneous. The biggest bright spot on Human Touch was its title song, an understated plea for making an emotional connection with someone. It’s a song I would come back to for solace in later, darker years. At the time, the video was just a constant presence on MTV all that summer, and I didn’t pay it much mind. (Pointless Note #1: Bruce’s E Street Band was on hiatus, so American Idol‘s Randy Jackson plays bass on this song.) (Pointless Note #2: See above for correct use of the term “ironically.” It doesn’t mean “amazingly” or “coincidentally.” The more you know…)

If you’re a Spingsteen fan, don’t bother trying to turn a younger friend or relative on to him if he/she is below a certain age. The appeal of Springsteen is a very adult appeal, lost on anyone who hasn’t experienced a certain amount of real life. As a budding music nerd, I owned 1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. years before their themes had any true resonance for me.

#69. “Tears In Heaven” – Eric Clapton

Originally recorded as part of the soundtrack to the film Rush in late 1991, “Tears In Heaven” became the official Downer Song of 1992 as the centerpiece of Clapton’s massively successful Unplugged TV concert/album. When we weren’t debating over The Cure and Depeche Mode, Emily and I were agreeing on the awesomeness of Clapton. She had the Rush soundtrack cassingle of the song (see earlier entry for discussion of “cassingles”) months before Unplugged became the soundtrack of the summer of ’92. (The TV episode, that is. The accompanying album didn’t come out until late August. There’s a noticeable lack of crowd reaction in the video when he begins the number, because it was a brand-new, unfamiliar song at the time the show was taped.) An ode to his young son that died after a fall from an open high-rise window, “Tears In Heaven” was shamelessly manipulative and maudlin – but damned if it didn’t work. A testament to Slowhand’s songwriting ability, which is often overlooked in the rush to praise his virtuosity.

#70. “Remedy” – The Black Crowes

As the summer wound down, I needed money. The only person more obsessed with raw capitalism than me was Emily. Her father was a part-time salesman at one of the seedier used-car lots in Marysville. In fact, the only thing seedier than this particular lot was its associated used-RV center immediately adjacent. Some of the flagship Winnebagos nearest the street were OK, but as you penetrated deeper and deeper into the lot, the vehicles began taking on a distinctly Cousin Eddie “tenement-on-wheels” appearance.

This Used To Be The Seedy RV Lot — Now a respectable Kia dealer

Em’s old man secured her as an independent contractor in charge of washing and detailing the RVs. In turn, she sub-contracted me as an assistant and all-around dogsbody in charge of all the least-pleasant aspects of RV detailing, in exchange for some under-the-table brown bag money. I couldn’t resist making some “sleeping with the boss” jokes, and some suggestions regarding testing the properties of the RV beds – all of which were resolutely and correctly ignored. By the end of the first day, I wasn’t in the mood for jokes either. One of my duties was to make sure the valves and pipes where the “waste water” was off-loaded were clear of cobwebs and various other encrustations. One set of pipes happened to be occupied by a nest of angry hornets, who registered their displeasure by swarming into my face en masse. And just to emphasize the fact that their swarming was no symbolic feint, one of them stung me directly on the tip of my nose. Eyes watering, I staggered backward, screeching like an electrocuted mink, and sat down hard on the asphalt, biting my tongue in the process. Fifteen minutes later, holding an ice-cold can of vending machine Sprite against my swelling proboscis, I was a source of great amusement to E. as she went about her duties, no doubt congratulating herself on her good fortune at snaring herself a companion whose nose was rapidly becoming a dead ringer for W.C. Fields’ in size and color.

E. dutifully worked her way through the lot full of RVs as August sizzled its way to its usual 100 degree Northern California conclusion. My own attendance on the lot was a little sporadic after that first day, but I remember going to The Wherehouse after my first payday and picking up The Black Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, which I had been dying to get – it had been on the shelves since May, and every penny I got my hands on for the past several months went right into my cursed vehicle.

#71. “Dyslexic Heart” – Paul Westerberg

Less than a year after the explosion of grunge into the mainstream, Cameron Crowe’s love-among-the-flannel romantic comedy Singles hit the screen, complete with a memorable supporting role for Matt Dillon as a slacker musician, and cameos from Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, who portray Dillon’s character’s band (“Citizen Dick”). My actually watching the flick would have to wait until its video release early the next year, but its commercials were on every fifteen minutes for three months, prominently featuring this song from the former Replacements front man. Westerberg had just left his legendary band, and began his solo career with two catchy, power-pop ditties for the soundtrack. (This one and the equally charming “Waiting For Somebody.” “Dyslexic” has the edge thanks to its “na-na-na” chorus. Who, since the days of “Hey Jude,” can resist a na-na-na chorus?) Despite the fact that native Minnesotan Westerberg has nothing to do with Seattle, and the style of these songs has nothing to do with grunge, I’m glad they were the cornerstone of the soundtrack, because they led me to discover The Replacements.

This Used To Be Me: First day of senior year. The Holy Bee was going through a surly don’t-smile-for-pictures phase
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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 7: Cure-ination & Urination On Prom Night

Spring and summer 1992 — the warm months that closed out my junior year may have been the best time of my life. Afternoons of swimming and shooting pool at Bret K.’s house (was it elk jerky or bear jerky we were eating that one day?), long twilit evenings of “tennis” (see below) or spending quiet time with the girlfriend, nights full of innocent teenage fun (like the time Jeff O. sped through the Placer Video parking lot with Anthony on the hood of his car). We were easy to spot around town with our fleet of candy-colored early 70’s GM vehicles: my sky-blue Blazer, Bret’s shamrock-green GMC pickup, and Jeff W.’s Cheeto-orange Chevy pickup. Jeff O. and Eric L. broke the pattern with their turd-brown Mustang II (prone to overheating) and two-tone Eddie Bauer-model Bronco II, respectively. Bowling…moviesSNL…MTV…all backed by the soundtrack I’m featuring here…

#64. “Divine Thing” — The Soup Dragons

Those long, warm evenings of that particular spring were tennis evenings at Sam Brannan Park. Not that I played much — or at all. Jeff O. and Eric were the racket sports fanatics, and I was quite content to lounge along the baseline with a stack of magazines and keep up a running conversation with them as they lobbed the ball back and forth. Sooner or later, they would get tired and we could all go rent a movie, which was more my speed.

The tennis court was surrounded by a high wall of oleander bushes, and for several evenings running there was evidence that a poor soul in straitened circumstances was making these bushes a temporary domicile. After a week or so of noticing the tattered sleeping bag and empty government cheese boxes, the occupant himself finally made an appearance.

He was already there when we arrived. Seemingly asleep, he was curled up with his back against the tennis court’s chain-link fence. We all noticed, but said nothing. The game started. Fifteen feet away from us, he continued to sleep, or pretend to sleep. The game finished, and the next game in their set began. Conversation rambled from topic to topic. THWACK! went the ball as it volleyed between the two players. THWACK! The man stirred slightly. For almost forty-five minutes, it was as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Then Jeff O. piped up — loudly — between lobs:

“Hey, Matt.”

THWACK!

“What?”

THWACK!

“Wouldn’t it suck to live in a bush?”

Well, I thought it was funny at the time.

These Used To Be Surrounded By Oleanders: The Sam Brannan tennis courts as they are today. The skateboard park in the distant background replaced the homeless-friendly vacant lot

And the Soup Dragons? I was aware of them through their criminally inept cover of The Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free,” and I seem to recall Eric being a casual fan around this time. I have a clear mental snapshot of 3 or 4 of us listening to this in Eric’s Eddie Bauer Bronco in the Sam Brannan parking lot. In the very parking spot shown above. Eric was the only one of us who had a CD player in his car.

#65. “Friday I’m In Love” — The Cure

I spent most of my high school years actively despising two bands: The Cure and Depeche Mode. Emily was a world-class Curehead, however, so whenever we drove in her car I was assaulted by Robert Smith’s caterwauling. (Our deal was whoever drove picked the music. I was usually able to sweet-talk her into letting me pick the music even when she drove, though not often enough to escape learning Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration forwards and backwards.)

Why did I hate The Cure so much? Because they just seemed so antithetical to everything I wanted out of music — swagger, confidence, general ass-kickery. I most certainly did not want to hear some lipsticked, cartoon-character freak with a rat’s nest of hair and raccoon eyes expound in an adenoidal yelp about how forlorn and misunderstood he was. Fuck that noise! Plus, they used lots of synthesizers, which was a no-no in my book back in ’92. I’ve since realized The Cure’s “Goth” (TM) look was no more of a pose than any other band, and that under all the mopey whining were some tight little pop songs — “Friday I’m In Love” perhaps the best of them.

Why did I hate Depeche Mode so much? Because they sucked and still do.

So The Cure’s Wish album came out in late April, right around the time everyone was gearing up for prom. In fact, it was probably blasting from the tape deck in Emily’s Datsun Z as we went dress shopping. (We had been spinning Wish so often at the time, I felt as though I should go ahead and get a dress too.) My junior prom was also directly responsible for me learning how to drive a standard transmission (“stick shift” for you non-gearheads.)

“I am not getting all dressed up and and going to a nice dinner and prom in that thing,” she said, gesturing at the Mattmobile.

“We’ll take your Z,” I suggested.

“No. The guy drives to prom. That’s tradition.” [NOTE: I may have been the one to insist that driving to the prom was the male prerogative, but this is how I remember it, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can get their own long-winded blog. E. definitely vetoed the Mattmobile up front, though.]

So began several nerve-wracking practice turns around south Yuba City in my mom’s non-Eddie Bauer Bronco II with the hair-trigger clutch that popped if you looked at it hard enough. I eventually got the hang of it, but I spent much of the month of May with a sore left leg.

#66. “Breaking The Girl” — Red Hot Chili Peppers

It was also around this time that I became a member of a band — we lasted one rehearsal. I was an admirer of the Chili Peppers’ Flea, plus I had, shall we say, limited musical ability. Those two facts about Your Humble Narrator made him perfect for the role of bassist. Jason Van Zant played lead (he owned two guitars — a blonde Telecaster and the arctic-white Stratocaster fetishized in the Wayne’s World movie.) Brian Cunningham and resident school weirdo Mike L. were also involved, but I forget in what instrumental capacity. I do remember we were drummer-less.

Cunningham conned someone’s grandma out of a Frankenstein’s monster of a bass guitar. It looked like it started life as a some kind of Fender knock-off, but its formerly solid body had been stuffed with cotton wool for some reason, and a piece of old leather had been thumbtacked over the enormous hole that had been gouged out of the body’s backside. Its never-been-changed roundwound strings had been worn smooth by the seventy-year-old woman who played in the country-western cover band that had been her late husband’s hobby.

Rehearsal time came. I plugged in, stood stock-still in Mike L.’s garage, clenched in concentration, and plunked the notes Jason told me to plunk. The bass sounded so terrible, it covered my lack of skill nicely. I made a warm, bass-y wash of sound that was at least in the neighborhood of the same key Jason was playing. We made it through two (or possibly one-and-a-half) Dead Milkmen-style snot-rock originals. (We didn’t get to my edgy songwriting effort, “Hatefuck.” Hoagy Carmichael I was not.)

We then began a 45-minute discussion of how our first video should look. In one of our nocturnal countryside cruising sessions, we had already ran across a perfect location — a set of grain elevators out in Sutter, a small(er) farming town about seven miles away. From a distance, they looked like a gigantic pack of twenty-four ounce beer cans. Up close, at night, they looked like a whirring, hissing, Gilliam-esque industrial futuristic nightmare-scape. All color washed away against the towering white silos floodlit by powerful flourescents. How cool would it look to set up band gear and rock out with all this as a backdrop? Security at the place was clearly minimal/non-existent as we had already paid it a night-time visit or two. In fact, it was clear we could simply back up a truckload of gear and film our video till the wee hours.

The Sutter grain dryers, still whirring away…

We never got that far. No one was motivated enough to plan even a second rehearsal. The old bass moldered under my bed until I handed it off to Jason when he got out of the army(!) the following summer. The grain elevators would re-enter my story, however.

On prom night.

But in between my first/last band rehearsal and my junior prom, something terrible happened. Check out the previous entry, “Interlude,” for the story.

#67. “Why” — Annie Lennox

Yes, she was slightly taller than me in heels. But look at that fucking hair. God, I used to be beautiful…

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This Used To Be My Playground — Interlude

#63. “Jeremy” — Pearl Jam

Jumping ahead slightly from where I left off, in the late summer of 1992, MTV began airing a video that kind of made all of us in the Yuba City area shift uncomfortably whenever it came on — it served as a reminder of the events of early May. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” was the last narrative (non-performance) video Pearl Jam would make for the better part of the decade. It depicts the violent suicide of a misfit child in front of his classmates. Thanks to some oblique editing, the video can also be interpreted as the “Jeremy” character shooting those classmates, which is the scenario that played out at Lindhurst High School on May 1, 1992.

Eric Houston did not have the fortitude to off himself, despite being a self-confessed miserable piece of shit. Instead he came to Lindhurst High School, about nine miles away from where I sat in Creative Writing at Yuba City High School, and began shooting. He killed three students and a teacher, and held eighty-five more as hostages late into the night, before being led meekly away in handcuffs.

It was the third day of the L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, so when an announcement came over the YCHS public address speaker stating that all students should go “straight home” after 6th period, I assumed that it had something to do with the tension and unrest that had been all over the media, and humming through the school, for the past couple of days. It had been a year of student protests and sit-ins for a variety of (mostly petty) causes — the infamous “Codom Man” incident was still fresh in everyone’s minds — so I genuinely believed that the YCHS administration was trying to defuse some kind of uprising by a group of mostly middle-class high school students acting in solidarity with disenfranchised inner-city African-Americans 400 miles away. As it turned out, it was the deadly situation rapidly unfolding at LHS to which they were reacting.

So I followed instructions and went straight home — which I would have done anyway. I was no longer gainfully employed by my father, who was in the process of shutting down his struggling body shop and going back to work for The Man. Afternoons were now filled with MTV, my stereo, and maybe a little homework. (What wasn’t filled? My wallet. I was back on a mow-the-lawn-do-your-chores allowance, which barely covered the Mattmobile’s enormous appetite for gas.) As soon as I flicked on the TV and saw the aerial shot of Lindhurst on the news, I understood why all of us were sent straight home.

I was surprised, then, when Emily showed up at my door hours before our usual late-evening hanging-out time. She was very upset. Her cousin was believed to be one of the hostages. She asked me to come back to the house to be with her.

And, as the horrible evening unfolded, we discovered that her cousin was one of the four fatalities.

I was a relatively new addition to Emily’s family scene, so I could do nothing except sit mutely at her house among all her relatives (including her uncle who had just lost his teenage daughter) and watch the grieving process unfold from initial shock to waves of anguish. I offered what comfort I could, later, to Emily, but I am a poor comforter. I don’t know if I’ve gotten any better since, but I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to be. I hated being there, and I hated myself for selfishly hating being there. Through luck and maneuver, I’ve never been around anything as terrible since then. But someday, I know I will have to be, since no one can duck dealing with tragedy his or her entire life.

The Lindhurst High School incident stands as the first on-campus shooting of students by another student (or rather, former student — Houston had dropped out) in anyone’s memory. It was overshadowed by the Columbine shooting seven years later, and has gradually faded from general awareness, but it certainly was on the minds of everyone I knew for a long time. And of course, there are four people who are no longer here — social studies teacher Robert Brens, and students Judy Davis, Beamon Hill, and Jason H. White were forcibly ejected from this world on a sunny spring day eighteen years ago.

I’m afraid I don’t really have a profound point to make here, but omitting this from my look back at my memories of the 90’s, or worse, briefly alluding to it in passing would do a greater disservice than including it. I guess what little point I have to make here, other than to give a brief remembrance of those who died, is to say that in spite of all this nostalgia I shovel out, I’m really not bitter about growing old because some people don’t get the privilege…

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 6: Schwing And A Hit

#43. “Alive” — Pearl Jam

Ohhh, Pearl Jam. The perpetual #2 in the Great Early 90s Seattle Band ranking. The Stones to Nirvana’s Beatles. The Wyatt Earp to their Tombstone. The Munsters to their Addams Family. Pearl Jam were much more open about their classic-rock influences than Nirvana, and P.J.’s slightly-less-experimental approach gave Nirvana the much sought-after credibility edge. Kurt Cobain once summed up Pearl Jam in one sneering word – “jocks” – the implication being that cool, popular guys like Pearl Jam were once the guys that beat up arty misfit punks like Nirvana. It was all a crock, of course — neither band really matched those reductive descriptions. It was all a part of a “feud” between the two bands whipped up by the media to sell the magazines that were beginning to pile up in the corner of my room.

Sometime in early ’92, I was cruising aimlessly around town on a Friday night in Brian C.’s much beloved sky-blue Chevy stepside (mentioned in a previous entry.) Also on board was Jason Van Zant, a free spirit who favored floppy denim hats and those rough-hewn, loose-fitting hemp pullovers that I thought had a name, but I guess are just called “rough-hewn, loose-fitting hemp pullovers.” The proper social order was maintained, as I rode in the middle of the truck’s bench seat (as a junior) while Cunningham and Van Zant occupied the proper “adult” seats befitting their status as seniors. Van Zant was very into music, like I was, but his taste skewed a little more toward metal. He was one of those dabblers who always knew a few guitar chords and occasionally scribbled some lyrics into a Mead notebook.

“Vedder stole my thunder,” Van Zant was saying.

“Huh?” I asked, never having heard the name at this point.

“Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. I’ve been working on getting that tremolo into my singing voice for years, and now this Seattle clown is making a mint off it.” Continue reading

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