(#488: 25 September 1993, 1 week)
Track listing: Serve The Servants/Scentless Apprentice/Heart-Shaped Box/Rape Me/Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle/Dumb/Very Ape/Milk It/Pennyroyal Tea/Radio Friendly Unit Shifter/tourette's/All Apologies
(Author's Note: Once again, this entry has been written by Lena, and I am merely publishing it thusly for technical reasons. Other than formatting and adding data where indicated, the writing is exactly as Lena wrote it. - M.C.)
Abject: cast down, worthless, mean, without hope – downcast
Well, who could speak for us, if not ourselves?
Because, here we are, direct, indirect, oblique, inadvertently against whatever there is to be against, which ultimately means us being against...ourselves.
Note: I have decided not to talk about my friends too much as they have their own 90s pieces to write, if they wish. I can’t even mention them in a modest way as it would be too easy to find them online and when it came to musical preferences and tastes, not much was discussed – it was all quite private. They were/are younger and better educated than me; this doesn’t always mean music was secondary to them, but it was never at the forefront of conversations, as you will see.
I am also not going to mention any of the movies I went to see, because in retrospect they all disturbed me in one way or another, which can only mean I was always on the edge of something, but I’m not sure what. As it was, the best movies of the year were ones I only caught up with in 1994.
This is because I felt that something – I wasn’t sure what it was – was coming to an end in 1993, so my personal chronology of the year jumps around and isn’t always reliable. After having found these friends (conveniently in a bundle, not one at a time) I may have somehow realized – as in a new school year, when you walk into the wrong classroom – that these were all very nice people, but what they talked about was for the most part lost on me. But they were all I had, and I did not have the confidence to go out and rub shoulders with the hip music people of Toronto. What would they have made of me? Not much. I read about writers and poets and tried to gather what I could particularly about Sylvia Plath*but otherwise was at a loose end.
I had just seen a movie at the Manulife Centre and exited the theatre in the wrong way. It was quite a stunning movie, which in part may be why I went down towards the screen, went left and out and
I’m on the roof. It’s covered with round worn stones and pebbles and I have to be careful as it’s yes it’s high up, too high up for any safe way down. The flat metal doors have shut and I start to yell and slam my palms on the doors, hitting them and hollering, my little silver dolphin ring being part flattened and I keep yelling HHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLLP
The doors open and the person said, you were so loud we that you were being raped.
You cannot imagine how loud you can be, until it is inevitable, until it’s the only way.
My fugue state, as a friend calls it, begins here and lasts
until spring. It’s not that I keep
disappearing but somehow I am not there.
It is a Sunday night and I am at home, having already had
dinner with my mom. The phone rings;
it’s my friend who sounds distraught.
She asks me to meet her at Fran’s on College St. and the sooner, the better. I get ready and go, because River Phoenix has
died and even I can tell this is wrong; my friend doesn’t know many details,
but his death is enough cause. It’s
Halloween and it is cold, very cold, as I go to get the 506 streetcar and head
out west. The wind swirls around Yonge
and College and I cannot help but feel that someone who was the best of us –
Generation X, a term already a bit worn-out by now – is gone, and how many more
are going to go. It is not a pleasant
thought but an anxious one. I don’t
remember much else, besides the fact that it was going to be a long, cold
It was good to know there was someone to talk with about all this.
The feeling of dread – low-level dread, admittedly, but there nevertheless – had come to some kind of conclusion. River Phoenix died around other actors and rock musicians in a place called, ominously to me, The Viper Room.** The year had already had so much music, so much worry as well. I am still amazed that so much had happened in a relatively short time, and my chronology of this time is still adjusting to the fall of 1993 being so busy. It didn’t help that New Order’s Republic came out in the spring but sounded autumnal, or that The Breeders’ Last Splash really should have come out in the early summer, not late summer. But no matter.*** I read SELECT Magazine and the Village Voice to keep up with things and sensed that the UK and North American sensibilities were beginning to warp and shift away from each other and this is proven in their respective EOY albums lists, where of course The Breeders and Belly appeared – as did PJ Harvey, Cypress Hill and Smashing Pumpkins, even Nirvana. (Yeah, just a moment.) Oh and Pet Shop Boys and U2 of course. Beyond these albums they had nothing in common.
There are reasons for this naturally – Americans were and are always more likely to appreciate a far wider range of musics to accurately reflect themselves. The narrowed-down indie world of SELECT was particularly....myopic and contented to regard most current American music in a negative way (the notorious cover with the Union Jack and Britpop manifesto was blatantly anti-American and unless I’m mistaken, its author still feels the same). In my fugue state I could not comprehend why this article existed, but it gave me pause. I’m not even sure I knew the words ‘nationalism’ or ‘exceptionalism’ then, their demonstrated meanings anyway, but here it was – our music is much better than yours****, now run along please, and take your awful grunge/slacker music with you. Wave the flag and disdain anything American. To the music...
I should start here with The Afghan Whigs. At some point I must have heard them on the CBC or CFNY and immediately got that this was a record of an awful mess, put together carefully so that the raw words would stand out. Greg Dulli hollered and moaned and pleaded and wrote a song (“My Curse”) so utterly abject he found in the course of things he couldn’t sing it, so he got Marcy Mays from Scrawl to do so instead, as a song directed no doubt to himself. He is singing about his love life and the scary thing is he was deliberately messing that up in order to have material for songs. (Thankfully he has grown out of this.) Everything on Gentlemen is open and clear, there is no mistaking what Dulli is trying to get across (he has actorly tendencies like Courtney Love – perfect enunciation and a lot of yelling and screaming just so you get the point). He is open about being a self-deprecating bastard in a way many men aren’t – here I am, he is saying, I’m a romantic but I’m also a bit more into pleasure and pain than you might like. He is showing his colors here, like a dangerous snake.
But then they do a perfect cover of “I Keep Coming Back” and dammit if Dulli doesn’t also sound utterly, helplessly sincere. Is this longing real? It sounds real enough, and the finale is an instrumental, a hope amidst the squalor for something better.
Now some people didn’t like Pearl Jam back at this time, didn’t care for them, and in part I can understand why. People who thought of themselves as aesthetes did not like Pearl Jam, and yeah that included (at the time) Rob Sheffield and who knows how many others on either side of the Atlantic. (SELECT did not even bother to review Vs.; no doubt it was reviewed in Kerrang!) Just about any reason to dislike them was probably trotted out (my favourite was that Vedder wasn’t from Seattle; they probably held his being a surfer against him too – really) and while I knew about them I wasn’t paying that much attention to them myself, but like a story where only afterwards the clues are obvious, it eventually became clear to me (and presumably others) that like it or not, Pearl Jam are vivid, solid and going to last. They had no time for their haters (“Get out of my fuckin’ face” sings Vedder on “Leash”) as they had bigger things in mind. Vs. has a kind of vehemence to it and also a gentleness; they sing songs about elderly women and police brutality but in the end turn on themselves. What good is what they do? They can put all their effort into something, but what difference will this effort make? Is going to an extreme, thinking catastrophically***** really worth it? On “Indifference” this is questioned and inherently rejected.
I looked forward to the album, well aware it was on its way - that is for certain. Over the summer I got to know a woman who had been part of my group of friends, went out with one for a few months and then left him when he would or could not commit in a real way to her. She then said I should break away from them too, as she had done, and I knew she had a point. I wasn’t really like them and in a way being around them all the time was not helping. I must have told someone about the incident on the roof – or did I? –but no one said, hmm, that is odd and I think maybe you need therapy. I continued on as I was, being more careful and waiting...
In Utero is all about the body and its illnesses and conditions. This was a radical enough step to take; going to have the album ‘recorded’ by someone punker-than-thou (because Pixies but also PJ Harvey) sealed the deal. Of course everybody hated it – the label, various UK publications, some of Nirvana’s fans. It’s as if Kurt is opening a door and saying, “Welcome to my world!”
And what a world it is, full of angst, joyful rebellion, sarcasm and a stubborn refusal to change. There is also some bitterness and a kind of terror of the body and how abject it can make you. In “Scentless Apprentice” he screams “GO AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYY” in a way that redefines screaming – somewhere I remembered the roof. The music spirals and slams, and it sounds as if he is utterly disgusted with everything and more than happy to dive into a live volcano. This is not Nirvana as some might have expected, but then there’s strings on “Dumb” and “All Apologies” and that wasn’t in the cards either.
In rock (supposedly such a rebellious form of music) real, actual rebellion is not very well rewarded. Kurt realizes this on the first song – he’s bored and old now, too old to truly rebel, but what else is there? Pulled between ye olde punk ideals and the relentless pressures of – well, you name it: the label/corporation, his family, his band’s success, he has to find a way through. This is an album that hints as to what is to come, while still being crunchy, if I can put it that way, to appease the hardcore crowd. It’s transitional, a kind of packing up of things, but some things are still nagging away.
I didn’t respond to Kurt mentioning anaemia at first. I don’t know if he had it or Courtney did, but at this point it doesn’t much count – I knew anaemia and how it happened and what it felt like – a great lethargy gathers and sits and you cannot do anything. This is to say, Kurt was not a well young man. Anything but. I felt this and heard it and it was scary, that quiet resignation of hapless difference, longing for a “Leonard Cohen afterworld” of sighing, waiting for change. And as for his being in debt to Courtney for her “priceless advice” – I still, to this day, do not know how sincere he is here, or even sarcastic. It’s not the ambivalence of Gentlemen but the physicality of the cancer, the noose, the complaint which may or may not be real.
There is joy and good humor on In Utero, but the real rebellion is against all the male ideas of what consists of a rock music******. It’s not triumphant, other than to say, it, despite everything, exists.
And as with all pioneers, it’s influential, just as Nevermind was. It’s an angry album of course, in part, but catchy as well – which must be what Mariah Carey (yes) picked up on when she made her own grunge album not too long after In Utero appeared. The quiet parts are elegant and the loud parts are one big biting of the hand. All of this is his world.
There was something else out at this time, but I was too preoccupied by Nirvana and Curve and The Breeders to notice it. It got a middling review in SELECT and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t getting any radio play. I now know that I wouldn’t have been ready for it, as it was so different from everything else here. If someone had played me Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements I am sure I would have been puzzled, but intrigued. This just wasn’t like anything else. It had no agonized leaps and bounds, no grunge despairs. No metaphorical or literal abandonments. It had purpose, strength, lyrics in English and French, steady rhythms, drones, a kind of calm. There was no ominous circling clouds hanging above this music – it came from a place of concern, but not turmoil. This is music that addresses the world, as the title suggests, with no references, blessedly, to anything obviously autobiographical. Again and again – how to deal with the world? How should you conduct yourself? Be who you are, they seem to be saying (not far from Become Who You Are by the Juliana Hatfield Three) and work for a better world. “Get all those ghosts out of my sight.” “Golden Ball” sounds at least as rough as grunge, with indecipherable words, but then the keyboards come in and I feel as if it’s gone past that. It really is different....
”Out of the darkness. Into consciousness...” then back to rough, droning guitars....
Douglas Wolk compared this to a rainbow in Marooned, and I thoroughly agree. THIS is what I was looking for – something BEYOND
I have watched footage of them doing this song and it is like some kind of real therapy, as if things that need to be said are finally being said. People comment saying it makes them cry, finally release feelings they had had for some time. Suddenly the world is so much BIGGER
And it is a work of art, the sort that knocks you out, makes you sit down and wonder if it is actually real, and yes, yes it IS
Then the slowly descending cleansing waves of noise again and, AND
It. Keeps. GOING
THE SUN emerges from the clouds
“We’ve got to keep the lift hope & struggle.”
“Where is the lift, the hope & struggle?”
“Give me the strength to lift hope & struggle.”
How significant it is that these words are being sung by women?
Then comes a huge swirling all-encompassing wave wiping everything bad away, a little erratic but effective. And it comes back to a drone, a steady beat, a signal that all is fine....and next....
“All good things to come, will come. Wellcome.” AND “If there’s been a way to build it, there’ll be a way to destroy it. Things are not all that out of control.” A gift being given, a promise out of the fugue state, the non-being being, the amnesias. It will take effort, but it can be DONE
I needed this album, but unfortunately only got around to hearing it years later. When I asked my friends then if they knew about Stereolab and got nothing but incurious silence in return...well...I wasn’t surprised. But I felt more out of place than ever.
It is a Friday night and I am at home, having already had dinner with my mom, though I know I am going out to a restaurant this evening. I ate earlier than usual as I am not sure what I might find edible later on. The restaurant is in the west end, so once again I am on the 506 streetcar, going further west than Fran’s.
And I know; I know he’s dead.
The evening was strained. It’s a cold night, though it was a reasonably warm day, the snow melting and the streets bright with reflecting water. But by the evening it has turned dark and cold, and while there are people there – not just me and my friend – no one is talking about it. Everyone is avoiding it, though it is headline news. No one admits to me, save my friend, that this has happened; no polite words of consolation are said. They were never fans and maybe know that I am one but cannot find, somehow, anything to say. I am speechless; I cannot understand how this can be. These people, usually so voluble, are perhaps waiting for me to say something, but the restaurant is rather formal and so the awkwardness rolls around until somehow the dinner ends. They go their way, while my friend and I go back to her place. It was good to have someone to talk with about all this.
I cannot even listen to Nirvana as it is all so close. It’s all on the radio and tv all weekend in any case. I listen to Mary, Queen of Scots by Eugenius (it’s what I was listening to on the way that evening) and that is enough for me – it holds a special place for me and says a great deal to me, keeps on saying things to me the whole year through. I have no idea if Kurt got to hear it at the time (it came out in February), but the title song’s lyrics end with a call of “HHOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLDDD OOOOONNNNNNNNNNN MMYYYYYYYY SOOOOOOOOOOOONNGG!” and that’s exactly what I do. Eugene Kelly sings with passion and the guitars ring out and dive and lift, into a repeating slowing end, graceful, landing lightly....
It’s the first album I will take on wholeheartedly this year, but not the last. I have found that when you need music it will appear to you, a miraculous thing. I only wish it could be that way for others when they need it, because music does work. I sometimes wonder why it is I write about music, but then I remember this time and how vital it was, as important as air or water, as necessary as realizing you have a voice and agency.
*In case you are wondering if I have a story of travel, misunderstanding and abandonment to do with Plath in the future, you would be right, but that isn’t until the end of the decade. And it’s absolutely my story and I’m going to tell it then.
**When those live recordings of Johnny Cash playing there were released and “Delia’s Gone” became a single, I disliked every whooping voice in that audience, in part because they all seemed so pleased about a song – one of so many – about a young woman’s death. It’s grotesque.
***I will be writing about Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville in the due course of time here, but not right now – it was an album I had to catch up with, along with another I am mentioning here.
****Because of the impeccable logic that if something is British, it is therefore the best. Please note that all the music being championed in this cover story were/are English: Suede, Saint Etienne, Pulp, The Auteurs and Denim. Already Britpop was closing its borders before the whole Blur vs. Oasis business.
*****My mom was reading a book at this time on how to stop thinking catastrophically. I was staying at home to look after her as she was still adjusting to being a widow, and taking various medicines, some of which worked better than others. I wasn’t a total slacker.
******In this it owes a lot to Killdozer’s Twelve Point Buck, which pointedly repeats into absurdity so many clichés and tropes of rock that it can make listening to your usual rock bands into a hilarious joke. It’s blunt and fierce and Butch Vig produced it, of course.