I. THE NIGHT I WAS SHOT AT WHITE CASTLE AND DIED IN THE SHOWER
Long before I turned 27, I was always aware of all the rock stars who died at the age of 27, along with the fact that there were so many of them. I grew up with rock music being at the center of my life, and now squirming my way through my late 40s, not much has changed.
We grow up listening to the music of these people…idolizing some of them…aspiring to write or play like them…look like them. As kids, they’re our icons, and they seem so much older than us. They’re adults, but not adults like our parents. They’re cool, hip, and we want to be like them. Yet, they’re adults, and so much older than us. We exit our teens, hit our 20s, and suddenly we’re aware of something…our own age. At some point in my mid 20s, it hit me that one day I would officially have outlived all of those dead rock stars. It seemed surreal. Even when I was 25 or 26, artists like Hendrix seemed so worldly and evolved, as if he had passed through far more lives than I ever would have passed through by that same age. But on May 9, 1998, I turned 28, and it hit me that I had been alive longer than Hendrix was. And Janis, and Brian, and Otis, and Jim, and Kurt. I politely include Kurt in this only because he died at 27. I did not grow up listening to Kurt’s music the way I did the others simply because he was only three years older than me, and we were pretty much the same generation. There are rock stars of all ages who have died. The same profound thought has occurred to me every time I realize I’ve outlived someone. When I turned 33, I realized I outlived Keith Moon and John Bonham. I could probably come up with someone’s death for every year of my adult life, but I’m sure I’ve made my point. The point is, man, it’s just fucked up when you realize you’ve been on the planet longer than your icons were.
When I turned 40, I immediately calculated the time frame between John Lennon’s 40th birthday and his death. Lennon lived only 60 days past his 40th birthday. With that information applied to myself, and imagining myself as Lennon, I tabulated my death day as July 8, 2010. I remember a few days before July 8, thinking if I were Lennon I’d only have a few days to live. On the evening of July 8, I didn’t have anything in particular to do. While it was still light out, I sat on the back deck and watched some friends play horseshoes, a clanking, clumsy and lumbering game in which I could never take the noise of. I must have left and taken a lengthy drive somewhere because I remember being on the road as it grew dark. It makes sense because horseshoes bored the piss out of me and I probably left while everybody else clanked away. At some point, I decided I was hungry and ended up in a dreadfully long White Castle drive-thru line. The clock read 10:50-something as I approached the point of ordering. I sat there thinking to myself “If I were John Lennon, I’d be getting out of the limo right about now. I’ll be shot in another minute.” As I’m thinking this, I’m rudely interrupted by a woman named Paula who says in one breath, “Good evening, welcome to White Castle, my name is Paula, may I take your order?”
Paula is asking what I want to eat as I’m flashing on Lennon walking past the guard booth toward his bloody death.
“I’ll have a number one with a Coke please,” I tell Paula.
Lennon is shot four times as a fifth bullet ricochets around the archway of the Dakota, cracking the glass of the guard booth. The sound rings out and echoes across 72nd Street, up and down Columbus Ave, and into Central Park West and beyond.
“Would you like that with cheese or without?”
Blood spills everywhere as Lennon stumbles up six stairs and collapses into a vestibule. Yoko shrieks out a blood-curdling scream and falls to her knees over his body. Lennon’s bloody glasses would soon be imposed on the retina of the world some six months later when they appeared on the cover of Yoko’s Season of Glass album.
“With cheese. And can I get one bacon and cheddar slider in addition to that?”
My mother tells me that I danced with the refrigerator to “Maggie May” at the age of one. I have no memory of this, but as the story goes, I was just learning how to walk, and when the Rod Stewart classic (brand new at the time) would come on the radio, I’d stand with my hands against the green Frigidaire and sway back and forth from leg to leg. I suppose this was the first music I was affected by. Slightly off topic but always crucial to the point, I’m one of those people with Superior Autobiographical Memory. Those are the people who can literally remember every day of their lives. You can throw any random date at them and they’ll tell you what they did that day, what they wore, what they ate, where they went, what day of the week it was, and things like that. Anyway, I’m sort of one of those people. Sort of meaning there are less than 50 confirmed cases around the world, and I’m not officially one of them, as I only have a mild case of it and I’m not nearly as endowed in the details of memory as the most severe cases. Most memories I have though, are accompanied by music. Memories and music seem to go hand-in-hand throughout our lives. This can be said of most people, although many are not aware of it, and many who are aware don’t spend too much time contemplating it. I contemplate it.
My memory is very calendrical. If no such word exists, I’ve probably invented it. It means guided, informed, or pertaining to the calendar. In my mind’s eye I see calendars floating everywhere…just kind of like hovering in mid air. Sort of like icons on a computer desktop. You click on whatever you want to enter. If somebody asks me about December 5, 1980, I immediately see a timeline in my head, floating up there in space with 1980 pushing its way up front in a Mandelbrot Set effect, the fractal being a calendar marked December, as the zoom lens of mid air pulls up Friday the fifth so close that I’m transported back to that day. I’m suddenly inside it. I automatically know I’m in fifth grade, and I’m on the school playground playing kickball with my class. As I’m running from second base to third base, some fat douchebag charges into me and knocks me well into the outfield where I land and hit the back of my head on a rock, splitting it open. My head, not the rock. I remember this Friday not only because of such a traumatic event, but because John Lennon was still alive, and come Monday, he’d be dead.
At the age of ten, I wasn’t yet a Beatles fan and wasn’t all that familiar with Lennon or his music. I had heard of the Beatles, but for reasons beyond my comprehension and reasons we will get into a little further along, I thought they were Elton John’s backing band. Yet, it was the event of Lennon’s murder and the way in which it dominated the news for the next few weeks that left an indelible impression on me for the rest of my life. I remember some teachers crying the morning after it was announced. My teacher kept mentioning it all week and saying how sad she was and how important Lennon was to her and to the rest of the world. At this point in life, I was still listening to my Kiss records and was just beginning to branch out in my interest in rock music. I really had no idea. Two weeks later on a Sunday afternoon, I was at my grandparent’s house in Elizabeth, New Jersey. For some reason most of the family was there as we often were on Sundays….aunts, uncles, cousins. In the dining room, the talk was split between English and Italian conversations on various different subjects going simultaneously. I was in the living room focused on the TV where every channel had cut to a Special Report (“Breaking News” in today’s terms). Reporters were camped out with thousands upon thousands of people in Central Park where Yoko Ono was about to lead a vigil for John and a worldwide ten minutes of silence. Not a moment of silence. Ten fucking minutes of silence. That’s how big the death of this one person was, and as a ten year old kid who didn’t yet understand the magnitude of the loss, the vigil made the whole experience that much more intense and intimidating. Even my family, none of whom are Beatles fans, reacted with complete quiet. Somehow all of the conversation broke up into dead silence as we all just sat or stood there with our eyes on the TV. It was an excruciating ten minutes that lasted forever. Silence. Nothing but silence as the TV kept cutting to people standing outside in the cold crying. People crying everywhere. And silence. Nobody in my family was crying. They seemed rather indifferent to the whole thing. But nobody said a word for ten minutes. That’s very telling toward the power of who this man was.
Seven years would pass before I would begin to become personally effected by the death of Lennon. On December 8, 1987, I was hanging out in the bedroom with WNEW on in the background as it always was. They played one of those “today in music” segments where they recounted 1980’s WNEW Christmas concert, an annual fundraiser that featured a different artist each year. The narrating voice of this short segment spoke about the event of that year as a success, and briefly mentioned how everyone was feeling festive and in good spirits, and how the good cheer of the holiday season was present throughout the evening. And then in words and a changing tone that I’ll never forget, “It was an evening of the highest highs……to the lowest lows.” Suddenly the narrator’s voiceover cuts to a clip from the night of December 8, 1980. The voice is Vin Scelsa’s. He doesn’t sound his usual talkative self. In fact his voice is trembling and hesitant. He then says something to the effect of “I just got an official report that John Lennon died tonight.” Then an uncomfortable silence rarely heard on live radio. Scelsa continues, “I…I…I’m at a loss for words. I think for the first time in my career on the radio I don’t have anything to say.” There in my bedroom, following those words, I was instantly hit with a flashback of my initial experience with Lennon’s murder. I remembered not fully knowing about him or how significant his death was. I also remembered the ill feeling of knowing something extra terrible had happened by the way so many adults were crying, and when you’re a kid that young, nothing scares you more than seeing grownups crying. It was a memory that I suppose I had hidden since then, or blocked out so to speak. By this point in my life, at 17, I had a much better perspective on the history of rock music, and through this brief radio clip, was hearing for the first time what it sounded like if you had learned of Lennon’s death from radio. The sound of a broken up Vin Scelsa also left a heavy impression on me, almost as traumatically indelible as the event itself through the eyes of an unknowing child.
From that moment, December 8, 1980 was never at any time all that far from my imagination. For the better part of my adult life, John Lennon’s murder has been something of an obsession. I’ve studied, dissected, and analyzed the shit out of the subject from every angle possible. I’ve retraced John’s footsteps on that last day of his life, and with further extensive research was later able to retrace his final week on the planet. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve stood outside the Dakota trying to envision his view every time he left home and walked out on the street, so freely and unprotected. Of all the celebrities and music artists who can’t go anywhere without bodyguards, John was one of the four most famous people in the world. We don’t have to go over the importance of The Beatles. In the world of music, there was the Beatles and there was everyone else.
And there were only four of them.
Four people who wrote and recorded a major chunk of the greatest music of our lifetime. And one of them trusted mankind so much, that he put himself out there unprotected and accessible to anybody who wanted to meet and talk with him.
You wanted to meet John Lennon?
Stand outside the Dakota for a while and eventually he’d come out. And even back then, long before the word stalking became an everyday vocabulary word in the tabloid press and the pop culture it reflected, you couldn’t just stand around and meet anybody. It didn’t work that way even back then. Most stars were inaccessible, and the thought of even getting near someone was far-fetched. Not with John Lennon.
And so he went out one night in early December unprotected just as he always did, and he came home to meet the bullets that ended his life. Almost eight years later in October 1988, I went with a bunch of friends to the opening night of Imagine John Lennon, the first and only real feature film with a theatrical release to celebrate and mourn the life and loss of Lennon. It had been almost a year since I heard the Scelsa flashback on the radio, and memories of that entire weekend in December 1980 began haunting me. I’ve heard of people blocking things out of their memory, but as someone who remembers everything, and more than most people, I’ve realized that I must have been blocking out Lennon’s death as first experienced from the viewpoint of a ten-year old. And starting late in 1987, I began to remember it and think about it regularly. Within the course of the next year, I’d begin getting into the Beatles catalog very quickly. I went through a heavy metal phase during my teens, and at 18, I was outgrowing it with my tastes expanding and evolving. By the end of the summer of 1988, I had been through every Beatles album and was around five albums into Bob Dylan’s catalog. I had taken a genuine interest in the counterculture of the 1960s, and was beginning to let my musical tastes travel back 20-25 years. I had just graduated high school, and as someone who hated school, got atrocious grades, and found history boring, it was a remarkable transformation as I quickly began to delve into modern American history and pop culture as it was reflected through music. The Beatles, although from across the ocean, had left a permanent mark on the States, and the States had left a permanent mark on the Beatles. I identified mostly with John and later on, George. Going into the fall of 1988, Lennon and Dylan’s music had spoken to me in ways that no other music had ever done before. For the first time, lyrics began to take precedence over the music. It helped of course, that I liked the music of both artists, but for the first time in my life, I was getting things out of the words to songs that I never got in the metal stuff I had been listening to for years. Bruce Springsteen would be an exception through those years. But even though I knew I was finding something substantial in his music, my connection with the Boss was kept in the closet around my metalhead friends who were beyond redemption and caught up in the total superficiality of metal and the 1980s metal code, which read: If you listen to any music other than metal, you’re a fucking homo.
Going into the theater in South Amboy, New Jersey on the night of Friday, October 7, 1988, I had already been profoundly effected by Lennon’s music in the months prior. Imagine John Lennon was set for release during the weekend of what woud have been John’s 48th birthday, so this was something we had been looking forward to. When I say “we,” I mean my core group of friends (Tom, Eric, and Chris) along with a host of others associated with us. It was true, what they said about graduating high school. Once you leave, you never see any of those people again. And in my pre-Facebook life, it was mostly just me and my inner circle of people with whom I’ve always been unapologetically myself. There were around a dozen of us in the theater. I remember some girls who were there to hang out with Chris were talking through most of it, and Tom got pissed off and quietly got out of his seat toward the back of the theater and went to sit by himself down front. For some reason, that always sticks out when I think of that movie. Regarding the movie itself, I only ask you, the reader, to put in perspective the timeframe we’re dealing with. It had only been eight years since we lost John. A lot of the footage we’ve seen so much of and often take for granted had not been seen before. At the young age of 18, I was still soaking everything in. Watching this film was an experience of one revelation after another. By the time it ended with the expected and inevitable death report and aftermath footage, I lost it. The credits rolled, the lights went on, and people filed out of the room. I remember sitting there with tears streaming down my face and taking several minutes before I got up to go meet my friends out in the parking lot.
And so, on the night of July 8, 2010, sometime between 10:30 and 11:00, I drove away from the White Castle with my number one and an extra bacon cheddar slider. Being the obsessive motherfucker that I am, there isn’t a goddamn thing that I don’t consider or think of going into any situation. I miss nothing. That means don’t ever try to pull one over on me because it will backfire on you even as it’s happening. That said, it hit me as I drove home: John and I were born at different times of the day. If I were measuring my time on the planet against John’s, I would have been dead a few hours already since I was born earlier in the day. But the drama of the evening that John’s murder took place was far too indelible not to recreate in my mind in real time. So I ignored the fact that I was dead, and kept driving. As I pulled up and parked my car, I envisioned the police arriving at the Dakota in response to shots fired on 72nd Street. I grab my Coke and White Castle bag, get out the car, close the door, and head up the walkway toward the stairs. Jose Perdomo, the doorman at the Dakota is pointing out the guy who shot me. He has a copy of The Catcher in the Rye with him. It’s one of my very favorite books. Pretty soon, he’s going to use it as his reason for killing me. He sees himself as Holden Caulfield and he needs to free me by removing me from the planet. He saw me as an innocent about to be corrupted, so he saved me.
I call bullshit.
Holden Caulfield, as confused and miserable as he was, never hurt anybody.
I go in the house and shut the door. My two friends, Stick and Stick are comatose on the couch and the chair next to the couch. The television is on showing Woody Allen’s Interiors. Both Sticks are looking at the television, but neither of them can see it. I sit down at the table in the kitchen and begin inhaling my food, barely chewing it. Just devouring it. I think of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever as he’s shoving the burgers into his fat Tony Manero face and his friends are ridiculing him for not chewing. Big chunks of hamburger going down my throat.
Ya know what, Joey? I’m gonna turn into a dog.
I sit staring into my food for longer than I would like to. After this is all over, it’s around 11:10, and I head upstairs for a shower. As I’m lathering up my head with shampoo, my mind wanders over to Roosevelt Hospital where I’m in the hands of Dr. David Halleran. Throughout the rest of my shower, my mind is flashing on what the chaos in and around the emergency room must have been like. I’ve often wondered what went through John’s mind in those initial moments after he was shot. As freely as he lived, venturing around town unprotected on a daily basis, he still carried around a sense of paranoia until the day he died. There was always that sense of they.
After fighting to remain in the United States, a certain level of fear resided within him. Nixon had an FBI file taken out on him less than a decade before. Once he was hit by those bullets, there had to have been something going through his mind, even if only for a fraction of an instant where he thought, “They finally did it. They got me.”
He never got to know his killer the way we did. He was never told why he was killed, yet we were given very specific reasons for it. Yet, for a brief flashing second after hearing his name called, followed by the burst of gunfire that ripped four holes in his body with extreme precision, John Lennon must have thought or at least wondered what the hell kind of government order was behind this. Of course there remain the conspiracy theories that suggest Jose the Doorman, a supposed former CIA agent, was the real shooter, but that’s neither here nor there, and it doesn’t really matter. Either way, John Lennon was still fucking dead.
I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off at around 11:20. It was then that I was pronounced dead. I threw on some shorts and a t-shirt and headed to the living room where my two friends were still seated in the same spots, their heads bobbling around in Oxycontin nods. I lay down on the other couch pinning the hair on the back of my head to the pillow. My hair has been in that shit stage between short and long that happens when you skip a few haircuts and it begins to take on length. It has a natural wave to it, so I lay against a pillow to make it dry straight. Summer is a bitch. The TV is still on but nobody is watching it. I fall into a deep zone-out trance reflecting on the past night, realizing I’m very much alive and quite happy to be. Amidst all of that zoning, my mind begins to fade and my body begins to drift.
II: THE REAL 1989
It’s mid August and it stinks like it. The flagrant stench is always much more noticeable in New York City than it is in the suburbs of New Jersey. The ten year old 1979 Datsun B210 dumps us off on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street. I step onto the southeast corner where a bunch of table vendors are selling books in front of a B. Dalton bookstore. Across the street is a place called Gray’s Papaya, a takeout hotdog joint that sells fruit drinks as their beverages. How ingenious, I think; a takeout hotdog place. We don’t have those in Jersey. In fact, no fast food operations ever really gave much time, thought, or attention to the hotdog. I also think, how weird; the marriage of hotdogs and papaya juice going down my throat, into my stomach, and then back up again as I’d burp up the combined taste for the rest of the day and night. The smell of hotdogs was always part of the New York of my imagination drawn from memories of childhood trips to the city…those midtown nights wandering around aimlessly with my aunt or cousin who took me to a museum uptown and then wanted to walk around Times Square or something. That smell of hotdogs, rotting garbage, sewage, and piss had adorned the walls of my brain any time I thought of New York City, so it’s like stepping into some warped version of home from the corner of my mind as I cross West 8th Street to go check out Gray’s Papaya. I’m with Eric, my next door neighbor. I’m 19, he’s 17, and we’re both exploring the city for the first time on our own. For us, the city means the Village. Sure, we’ve been to baseball games and museums and musicals, and climbed to the tops of the Empire State Building and World Trade Center, and been to the South Street Seaport and been all around Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown all accompanied by adults, but it’s the music we’re listening to along with the Counterculture and Beatnik history that leads to our fascination with the Village, and the Village is where we need to be.
It was at the tail end of the summer of 1989 where we became suburban hippies. It was the summer of Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, and the tumult of Brooklyn couldn’t have been farther from the landscape of bridge and tunnel pilgrimages streaming in from the suburbs to Manhattan in search of the counterculture. The 1960s had come full circle, which meant that they were back in fashion, and the music was being revisited by those who had lived it, and discovered in depth by those who were too young or not around yet. It takes approximately 20-25 years for popular music to come full circle. Ten years after its heyday, it sometimes becomes irrelevant to what is currently happening, and is very often considered passé. After around twenty years, the nostalgia factor kicks in enough to make it all cool again. For example, the 1950s came back in the 1970s (think Happy Days, Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, and Grease). That was followed by the 1960s coming back in the 1980s. The 1970s came back in the 1990s, and so on and so forth. That trip in August of 1989 was the first time I explored Greenwich Village; this place that I had heard so much about through word of mouth and through legend. That day, Eric and I spent hours wandering up and down West 8th Street on a four-fold mission. First, hit the many clothes and shoe stores in search of the wardrobe that would make us look hipper than the average suburbanite. Everything we took home was covered in paisleys, flowers, stripes and mandalas, along with some Beatle boots and beaded necklaces and bracelets to go with it all. I personally went for more of an intellectual look than a hippie look, and opted for blazers over tye dyes. Second, we finally got to see the unorthodox collections of It’s Only Rock and Roll and Revolver record stores. These places were loaded with rare and out-of-print albums as well as bootlegs we never imagined existed. Holy hell, I thought. I could get a tape of The Who at Shea Stadium in 1982? Or Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 New Years Eve show at Nassau Coliseum on vinyl?
You can’t get stuff like this in Sam Goody!
We were nasty scumbag pigs rolling around in shit for a day. Third, just off the point where 8th meets MacDougal, we finally made it to Psychedelic Solution, a store dedicated to psychedelic artwork and videos. The most shocking thing we found that really informed us of where we were, was the vast collection of head shops lining West 8th Street. Stores were unapologetically filled with glass cases of pipes and bongs of all sizes with no attempts at hiding them. It really felt as if we had entered an alternate universe that we had long dreamed or imagined could exist someplace else, but just not in our own reality. And there it was. New York City. And it was a lot closer to home than we’d realized. So we went crazy that day, knowing it would have to become a regular thing for us. Between posters, music, and clothes, we must have dumped a dozen bags into the backseat and trunk of the Datsun B-210 as it picked us up on the corner of Sixth and 8th at the end of the day.
It was in some ways a crossroads, 1989 was….a musical reckoning of sorts that culminated the past 25 years and set the tone for the next. Where the decade had been a rather dry and uncreative period for some of the biggest acts to come out of the 1960s and early 1970s, it proved to be downright embarrassing for others. By embarrassing, I mean the same people responsible for giving us “White Rabbit” in 1967 were also responsible for unleashing “We Built This City” on the world 19 years later. Yes, these were the same people who screamed “UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERFUCKER!” As for dry periods, I don’t necessarily mean there was no work from these bands or artists. Just not their best work. Bob Dylan entered the 1980s in his Christian phase with still two more gospel albums to turn out. In retrospect, the Christian era turns out to be a brilliant and highly respected body of work, albeit much too short-lived, but at the time, he was crucified for it, pun intended. He followed that period up with the Mark Knopfler-produced Infidels, one in a handful of albums post-1966 that was good enough to provoke the critical response “Dylan is back.” However, Dylan quickly fell into a run of disoriented studio albums and mediocre-at-best live releases (Real Live, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan and the Dead, Down in the Groove).
The Rolling Stones entered the 80s extremely successful, and with a run of hit songs off back-to-back albums, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. The latter saw a world tour immortalized in Hal Ashby’s concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together. It was a version of the Stones, 12 years removed from Altamont, and it served as a visual documentation of what happens when a band gets so big on their name and history alone. Where rock began in its blues-on-the-front-porch embryonic stages and made its way toward the seedy clubs and dive bars, to well-promoted early rock and roll shows in theaters to the arenas and eventual science experiments known as festivals where the occasional clusterfuck situation could arise, it settled mostly for theaters and arenas once the 1970s allowed a clear definition of what rock concerts were, and what they could be. The acts of moderate popularity did the theaters and amphitheaters, while the larger acts played hockey arenas. Football stadiums were the last option before festival territory would have an audience set up in a vast sea of grass in the middle of nowhere. But football stadiums were mostly reserved for special one-off package jams such as JFK Jam, Texas Jam, or Oakland’s Day on the Green; events that saw anywhere from six to a dozen acts on the same bill. It wasn’t often that one band would headline a stadium tour with only one opening act. But that’s exactly what a small handful of acts were able to do by the late 70s and early 80s. The Rolling Stones pretty much set the precedence for this, one of several in the rock world. I personally discovered the Stones in 1973 at the age of three when the second LP of their Hot Rocks album became a steering wheel in the imaginary car I drove. It was my uncle’s album but I somehow inherited it when I went over his house and fucked it all up. My uncle was always fucking with me when I was that young. He knew “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin scared the shit out of me, so he always made it a point to play it on the long four-legged coffin stereo. I’d hear that tiny hiss at the very beginning and it would immediately send me running into the next room where I’d dive behind the door to crouch into a fetal position and cover my ears before the inevitable wailing of Robert Plant’s voice cried out that horrendous opening shriek that horrified me. But as for the Stones, I was well aware of them by the age of three, and I’d come to know many of their hits by the age of ten. Going into the new decade, the Stones were pushing their late 30s and had long been thought of as old. I was in sixth grade during the 1981-82 school year when the Tattoo You tour happened, and word was out that it might be their last. This was never officially confirmed nor denied, but the Stones did not tour again for another seven years. In between they’d release two albums three years apart. Mick Jagger would fall prey to the worse trends of the 1980s and release a couple of embarrassing solo albums, and he and Keith Richards would feud. We’d hear about it in the news. Over a period of years, it became common accepted knowledge that the Stones were a thing of the past and it was never going to happen again. At least that was the consensus among rock fans as my teenage years progressed.
The Who were also pushing their late 30s in the early 1980s. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Kenny Jones decided to call it quits in 1982 and announced their Farewell Tour late in the summer. Jones had been the drummer for three years since the death of Keith Moon, and it radically altered the chemistry and dynamic of the band. Daltrey wasn’t happy, and Townshend, still crawling through the abyss of drug and alcohol abuse had had enough of the rock and roll life, and wanted to do other things. But whereas the Stones seemed to embrace the stadium circuit, the cavernous venues only made Townshend more contemptuous of the whole thing. On October 12th, he’d sit in a limo on the way to Shea Stadium where the band was headlining the first of two nights, and instead of being appreciative of the opportunity to play to so many adoring fans, he’d express his disgust over how ridiculously huge and out of control rock had become. What happens when the demand gets so big that you have to play football stadiums? What happens when you lose the connection you’d normally have in a smaller venue?
Your fans pay for the ticket, they go to the concert, you perform, and you make lots and lots of money. Shut the fuck up.
So The Who embarked on their Farewell Tour in the fall of 82, and although I had heard of them and knew all about them, I hadn’t really gotten into them. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, I had the utmost respect for them just knowing who they were, no pun intended. I knew they were legends, but I just hadn’t gotten the chance to get their albums and listen to their music beyond the obvious select songs that were played on the local rock stations WPLJ and WNEW. On the night of December 17, 1982, they ended it in Toronto. And that’s exactly where I began. I was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, sleeping at my grandparent’s house, and for some reason, turned in for bed a little on the early side for a Friday night. Just before ten o’clock as I was getting into my pajamas, I turned on the clock radio sitting beside the bed and tuned into WPLJ where Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” was playing. I jumped around the room playing air guitar. By the end of the song, I was no longer tired, and as the hour began, the radio station entered into the very first satellite broadcast of a live rock concert. The Who were about to play their very last concert ever, and it was going out live on the radio…in real time as it happened. Cool, I thought; an actual unedited concert in real time that I can rock out to. At around 10:10 PM Eastern Time, the Who took the stage, slamming into “My Generation.” I was immediately transformed, and decided then and there that I was going to get into The Who. Me being the anal obsessive person that I am, went into the kitchen to grab a pencil and some paper and brought it back to the bedroom where I tried my best to write down the setlist as the band played it. I successfully wrote down the first three songs either because I knew them, or they announced the title (My Generation, I Can’t Explain, Dangerous), but by the fourth song, “Sister Disco,” which I didn’t know, I wrote it down as “The Disco Song.” Of course “Baba O’Riley” was written as “Teenage Wasteland,” and little mistakes like this happened throughout the night as I tried my 12-year old best to capture the Who’s set on paper, so I’d know which songs to look for in the record store. For the songs that I didn’t know, I listened as closely to the lyrics as I could just to leave myself the best description I could. Initially I heard “Boris the Spider” as “Horace the Spider” so that’s what I wrote down. I knew “Long Live Rock” from the radio, but only knew it as “Rocky’s Dead,” only to later find out that Roger was saying “Rock is dead.”
Rock is dead, I thought.
The 1980s moved along with the underlying understanding that we’d never get to see bands like The Who or the Rolling Stones live again. And with regard to the biggest bands and artists of the previous two decades not firing on all cylinders, it wasn’t exclusive to the 1960s acts. 70s bands like Cheap Trick, ELO, Yes, Boston, Styx, and the Cars had either fallen apart, had an uncharacteristic commercial hit song or two (“The Flame,” “Hold On Tight,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Mr. Roboto,” “Drive,” “You Might Think”) and disappeared, or just disappeared without even that much. Artists like Billy Joel and Elton John who had done their grittiest, streetwise music in the previous decade had mellowed into the most unremarkable periods of their recording careers. David Bowie had a monster hit album in 1983, but spent the rest of the decade spiraling into the most irrelevant run of consecutive albums of his career. By the mid-80s, even Paul McCartney hit a bit of a dry patch. Acts that cohesively held the decade together even if it constituted patchwork were Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna along with a bunch of much smaller bands and artists and one-hit wonders .
The 80s were the decade of the American artist. The way British bands had dominated the previous decade and a half, American artists dominated the 80s. But then again, that’s always been the overall case throughout the history of rock music. Britain had the better bands and America had the better artists. Britain gave us The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Clash, …America gave us Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Of course, there are always exceptions in both cases. David Bowie or R.E.M. anyone? But by 1989, things began to turn around ever so slightly, and just enough to give you the sense that maybe everything we thought to be concrete and absolute, wasn’t in fact written in stone. In April, The Who announced a reunion tour to mark their 25th anniversary. In August, the Stones announced a new album and their first tour in seven years. So by that fall, I had gotten to see two bands live that I never imagined I would have the chance to see. The final season of the 1980s also saw the release of the monumental Oh Mercy album by Bob Dylan. He began what would become known as the Never Ending Tour early in the summer of 1988, shortly after releasing the yawnfest, Down in the Groove. Since he was a year into that tour by the early fall of 89, with more shows planned, Oh Mercy seemed to have come out of nowhere. Truth is, he was as busy as he had ever been. Releasing Down in the Groove, beginning a tour while simultaneously juggling Traveling Wilbury sessions, and managing to travel back and forth to New Orleans to record a new album between shows throughout 1989. Oh Mercy showed up unexpectedly and was met with the most critical praise Dylan had received since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. This piece is not the appropriate vessel to hold a review of the Oh Mercy album, but in reference to 1989, the year I’m attempting to convey, the album requires mention simply because Dylan, once again, was back.
And so was Ringo Starr. While the ex Beatle drummer had never really garnered much critical praise due to artistic merit from his solo work, he was still a Beatle, and that meant everything when it was announced that he was going on tour. No Beatle had been on tour since the mid 1970s, so the chance for my generation to actually see a Beatle was pretty fucking cool. Starr assembled what he called his All Star Band comprised of himself, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Clarence Clemons, and Jim Keltner. Over the next few decades, the band would take on a few dozen more members and guests as it became a celebration of talent without any set concrete lineup. Ringo Starr, a Beatle, was back on the road in 1989.
And so was Paul McCartney. The subtext to McCartney’s late 1989 effort, Flowers in the Dirt, was actually the true headline. The ex-Beatle was going to tour again for the first time since 1976. Let’s be clear in these astonishing facts. While the Beatles are undoubtedly by far the most popular band in the history of pop music, most people never got a chance to see them live. Their touring history from touching down at JFK to Candlestick Park only spanned two and a half years, so those who got to see them were the only ones who got to see them. For the anal retentive, I fully acknowledge the band’s existence pre-February of 1964, but let’s face it…there’s the story and there’s the Story. The story begins in Liverpool, but the Story begins in America and without America, there’s no Story. So while most people didn’t get to see the Beatles, the Baby Boomers finally got a chance to see McCartney in 1976 when he toured with Wings. People had had prior chances to see other Beatles with sporadic performances or brief appearances from John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, mostly in New York City, while Harrison had done an entire tour in 1974 to scathing reviews due to his Hare Krishna thing. McCartney, the favorite Beatle of many, at long last went out on the road in 1976, and by 1989, had not been on tour since. That however, was not uncommon. None of the Beatles had really been in the public eye aside from the occasional new album release. Harrison, after 1974 would never tour again. Lennon who continued to have albums released in his name although not to his knowledge, could not tour because he was dead. So when McCartney went out for the first time in 13 years, it was yet another chance for the Boomers to see him if they had missed it in ‘76 or perhaps ‘66. And it was the first chance for my generation to see him. It is quite something to think how I graduated high school believing that era of rock and roll was a thing of the past and that these guys in their mid-40s maybe were too old to do it anymore, while lamenting over the thought that I would never get to see any of them except maybe Dylan or the Grateful Dead who never really seemed to go away. Two years later, I had seen The Who, The Rolling Stones, and two Beatles.
Even Neil Young returned to the fiery vitality of his 1970s work by way of a new album called Freedom. After a decade of experimentation with synth pop, new wave, rockabilly and country, Freedom reached back to the sound of 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, balancing melodic acoustic ballads in minor keys and raucous celestial grunge. In the same way that Rust was bookended by acoustic and electric versions of “My My Hey Hey” and “Hey Hey My My,” Freedom was bookended by acoustic and electric versions of a new song called “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which held a mirror to a worldwide American reputation ravaged by the Reagan era and the beginning of the Bush post-script.
The 1980s decade was the Baby Boomers in their late 30s and early 40s. It was the 1960s counterculture generation coming to terms with not just adulthood (that came somewhat earlier), but with the knowledge that their way of life, the work they did through music and art, and the mark they left, may not always be relevant and may actually at some point be considered out of touch and out of time. Some such as Townshend believed this to be true early in the decade, which is why he took The Who off the road and ended the band as a recording entity. By decade’s end, most musical midlife crises had come to an end, and a new era had been born where these artists would enter the next decade as elder statesmen. This was something new. The term classic rock would seep into pop culture looked upon suspiciously, but eventually become a legitimate label, wrapped in reverence initially, although some despised hearing those words together…and gradually losing recognition with youth as the 21st Century would send it all to plunge inevitably down into the compartmentalized categories of dinosaur and grandfather music. Several years into the 1990s, we’d see the awakening of even more acts of rock’s second generation. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant would reunite to play Zeppelin music and even record an album of new material under the name Plant/Page. The Jefferson Airplane would reform without Grace Slick and The Kinks and Pink Floyd would return. Even Steely Dan, a mysterious ever-changing outfit of studio musicians with only two official members, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker holding it together over the years without having toured since 1974, would assemble an actual band again that would hit the arena circuit to much demand and success. The Eagles would play again after 14 years. We’d watch these artists cross over into their 50s and it would be unprecedented in rock and roll. With that obvious exception of those we had lost, many were still very present on the scene, and it was very easy to take that for granted. Within another decade or two, they’d be that much older, and the uncertainty of the future of rock would be that much more a reality.
And then came the dinosaurs.
Given that this sentiment has largely occurred during the first two decades of the third millennium, it is rather safe to say that as rock fans there were several things we just never considered would happen:
One, that our rock music, whether it be 60s, 70s, or even 80s, would one day no longer be the center of the world. The world would no longer revolve around rock and its glorious, celebratory, hedonistic, culture-informed self. What we once thought to be concrete, absolute, and eternal would run its course and fizzle out.
Two, the era we speak of would become just that…an era…and fall into place within history like anything else that gets classified as an era or a period, involuntarily lying down to accepts its inevitable fate of becoming irrelevant and obsolete to the next few generations and beyond. Historical significance notwithstanding, it would no longer have a stake in the future and vice versa.
And three, nobody would care.
How arrogant and self-important each generation is to insist theirs is the end-all-be-all…the absolute optimum of any given subject or situation. Each generation however, is on the cutting edge. After all, we’re moving forward, not backwards. There is only right now, the present, and the present at any given time in history is as far as technology has come, politics has come, sports has come, and the arts has come until the present becomes the past and the next generation pushes it all even further.
But does the passage of time necessarily always mean progress?
Do periods of stagnation exist?
And to what extent can the answers to such questions be objective?
A song that lends itself in some small way to these thoughts is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” It climbed the charts during the last months of 1989. It traced a mere 40 years of history as seen through the eyes of the Baby Boom generation; a generation, again, coming to terms with its own mortality and possible irrelevance to the big picture. By no means did they start the fire. It was burning long before them, and it will burn long after them. Same goes for my generation. But from my own personal viewpoint, much closer to Generation X than to the Boomers, I didn’t philosophize and break it down to such a level in analysis as I sat in my car in the parking lot of Metro Park Train Station hearing the song for the first time on the radio. All I thought was hey Billy Joel is back with a new album! And while my friends and I (possibly a microcosm of the larger concern for the state of rock and roll throughout the rest of the world?) often lamented about the state of rock and roll at the time, along with the drought of anything significant happening, we still spoke about good things ahead in the future. We didn’t know the what, when, or who, but we knew that rock was going to get better. We had many of our classic artists active and vital again. Were they going to lead the charge into the future? What did the 1990s have in store for us? Would it take the old and decrepit bands now in their late 40s to turn it all around and give it the swift kick in the ass it so desperately needed? Or would something totally new and unexpected shake up the rock world in its own modern day revolution?
Back in the present day for a moment, we assess the barren landscape of music, devoid of much originality or blood, sweat, and tears soul. Without harping on the synthetic, airtight sound of the 21st Century and gutless Autotune that would-be artists rely on, I can’t help but be reminded of two critically –acclaimed albums that were released in consecutive years 2014 and 2015. One was called 1989, and the other was called 1989. The first 1989 was done by Taylor Swift, one of the more respected artists to come out of the new millennium. Unlike most of her millennial peers, Swift actually writes most of her songs and knows how to play actual instruments. There is enough talent to insure that unlike most of her millennial peers, she was not processed and manufactured in a lab. Swift named the album 1989 after the year she was born, as well as the pop music that supposedly inspired it from that same year. That however, is where it ends. While the songs have some artistic value within today’s musical standards, which are several notches below having actual talent, none of it remotely resembles the sound of 1989. With respect to Swift, the biggest pop music of that year was breaking color and religious taboos with political and social undercurrents driving the motivation of artists. Madonna’s Like a Prayer and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 come to mind. But even considering a host of other pop acts that released albums that year…Prince, Richard Marx, Gloria Estefan, Stacy Q, Jody Watley, Debbie Gibson, Neneh Cherry, Tears For Fears, Taylor Dayne, Terrance Trent D’Arby, Queen Latifah, Milli Vanilli, or Technotronic…as brilliant, disposable or fraudulent as some of it was, it was still recorded in an era that could deliver a somewhat organic sound and feel to a pop song…something that could never be comprehended by the people behind the production of today’s records. That 1989 won the Grammy for Album of the Year is far more telling of the state of music today than of Swift’s album. Like her other albums, it is a collection of break up songs that so inspired one of the other respected artists of current times, Ryan Adams to remake the entire album song for song just one year later. Adams version of 1989 bears little resemblance to Swift’s, and again, the supposed inspiration for the album other than the year of Swift’s birth, has no weight on either project. So it is in name only that the recent 1989 albums come to mind when reflecting on the real 1989. Long before 1989 became a punch line, the real 1989 looked and sounded much different. And it was much different. Things were happening.
III: GREED, THE SUMMER OF LOVE AND HATE, SINEAD O’CONNOR, AND THE FIRST DEATH KNELL FOR ROCK AS WE KNEW IT
I’m standing in one of the stalls of a men’s room on the 200 level of Madison Square Garden with my dick in my hand. It’s Friday night, October 16, 1992, and I’m witnessing history. I’m drunk but still very aware of the significance of the night and all I am taking in. From the farthest reaches of the Garden, I can hear the echoing sounds of the Clancy Brothers making their way through Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.” The sound bounces off every rafter and section wall, ricocheting across the arena and beyond, as it becomes cushioned and muffled by the time it reaches the halls and even farther, the restrooms. I’m usually pee-shy and prefer to avoid urinals whenever I can. So in the stall I stand. The pee arrives. It is happy to come out as I’ve been holding it in all night having stalled through one exciting act after another. In the past few hours, I’ve seen Stevie Wonder, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Booker T and the MGs, Eddie Vedder, Tracy Chapman, Richie Havens, Ron Wood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, George Thorogood, Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter, and Kris Kristofferson. They were all paying tribute to Bob Dylan on the 30th anniversary of his signing with Columbia Records. I was hoping, even praying for an act that I had no interest in seeing, just so I could get up and pee. It was at the arrival of the Clancy Brothers onto the stage where I jumped out of my seat, left Tom and Eric, and headed for the aisles. As I recount this story, let me once again veer off track into the underlying subtext that accompanies the story. In the weeks leading up to this particular event, one that was heavily promoted and talked about with intense anticipation on rock radio, it became widely speculated upon whether or not Bruce Springsteen was going to be there. As reality would have it, Bruce was on tour and scheduled for a show in Washington State that night. Yet, rumors persisted of the Boss cancelling his gig to quickly fly across the country from the opposite coast to pay tribute to one of his biggest influences. There were rumors of Mick and Keith showing up as well, but for me personally, the hope was that somehow by some miracle, Bruce would show up. So as I walked through the halls of the Garden toward the nearest men’s room, I could hear the sounds of the Clancy Brothers performing “When the Ship Comes In,” and so could lots of other people who made their way toward some other form of arena civilization aside from watching the Clancy Brothers perform “When the Ship Comes In.” Assorted stragglers in various forms of intoxication squantered up, down, across and around the narrow halls of the Garden in search of food, drink, or a place to pee. A designated smoking area was not one of those destinations, as this was before you had to go outside near the escalators to smoke. Smoking was still allowed in the Garden in 1992, so it was one less inconvenience. But I had to pee, so to the men’s room I went, and as I walked in, I was pleasantly surprised by the vast emptiness where only one or two people were up against urinals. Still, I chose a stall and was finally able to unleash the torrent of the last three hours of beers. As I stood there drunkenly swaying back and forth trying to direct the flow as best I could without creating a fucking disaster, I laughed to myself at the thought of what an amazing and mind-blowing night I was having, and of all the legendary artists I was seeing. Damn, I thought. I had just seen Johnny Cash! And Stevie Wonder! And George Harrison was still coming up…another Beatle that I would get to be in the same room with! What a night it had been and still was!
As I stood at the bowl watching the final broken streams of pee trickle down into the water, it had become apparent to me that some point during my deep contemplation of the night, the Clancy Brothers performance had come to an end and the background noise was reduced to a distant applause.
The final pee trickled out. I watched it. The applause began to die down. Something deep within my drunken state had suppressed the urge to want to get back to my seat in order to see who the next act was for fear I might miss something. I had gotten complacent in the stall and just stood for a few seconds watching the broken flow turn to eventual isolated drops. Staring down into the toilet, I lost focus as my stare morphed into complete zoning.
And then I heard it.
At first it was as unpronounced as white noise, not fully getting my attention…until I realized what it was.
I looked up, startled!
The distant roar of the crowd.
“Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuce!” they screamed!
I let go of the band of my briefs as it snapped back, pinning my penis flat against the surface of skin beneath my belly button, the head sticking out from the top of my underwear like the gopher in Caddyshack peeking out of the hole in the ground.
I put everything back in place, zipped my jeans, and ran out of the men’s room.
“Fuck!” I screamed, booking through the narrow halls of the Garden feeling as though I were on a treadmill and getting nowhere. I was pissed off and panicking at the same time. I sat there the entire night, and the one time I get up to pee, Bruce shows up. Typical!
As I got closer to my section, the crowd roar grew louder and more intense. God fucking damnit! He’s onstage already, I’m thinking. I’ve missed his whole introduction!
I approached my section and walked in where I was eventually able to see the circular shape of the ceiling as I got closer to being inside. As I came up between sections walking inside, the screen hanging from the ceiling over the middle of the Garden floor became visible, and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw…and for what was actually taking place. On the screen was the face of Sinead O’Connor in full close up. The camera then panned back to reveal her standing onstage, arms at her side, face looking down. And the Bruce chants were not Bruce chants, but boos. Loud relentless boos.
Sinead had ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live about a week before. A while back, she refused to go onstage in Holmdel, New Jersey because the venue played the national anthem before each show. Indeed, she had ruffled some feathers as of late, so on the surface it wasn’t surprising that they booed her. What blew my mind though, was that it was at an event for Bob Dylan. This was an audience made up of people who had protested the Vietnam War. It was an audience that had stood up and protested for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and social justice across the board. So when Sinead was protesting the silence of the Catholic Church in the face of child abuse or the sexually abusive actions of many a Catholic priest, or protesting oppression by not wanting nationalist sentiment imposed on her performance, it probably should have registered to the children of the 1960s that this was an extension of their counterculture. Instead, they booed. Not all did. Many applauded. But the booing no question drowned out the applause. I stood there frozen in the aisle. I had stopped walking, and I was frozen. I couldn’t move. My eyes shifted back and forth from her image on the screen, to the stage where I could see her actual tiny frail figure standing there. She just stood in place, taking in a monstrous wall of shouts and boos all around her. I was witnessing a massive public condemnation of one human being, and it was both surreal and frightening. It reminded me of one of those scenes of ancient Rome where a gladiator or slave standing in the middle of the Coliseum is being shouted down or condemned with a cheering crowd calling for death. I thought of Jesus at the moment the Jews chose Barabbas. The intense screaming surrounding one central figure had to have been similar. I had never witnessed anything like this, and it wasn’t what I signed on for when I bought my ticket. Regardless of how you felt about Sinead at the time, it was a scary and ugly scene. Between the cheers and the boos, it was an overbearing clash of sound unlike anything I’d ever heard at a concert. I’d heard similar sounds at football games, but never such collective and sustained booing at such a volume.
Sinead O’Connor stood onstage at Madison Square Garden waiting for the crowd noise to die down so she could begin her performance of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You.” The crowd, however, would not let her. She was there to pay tribute to Bob, and the crowd, his fans, would not let her begin. The booing was relentless. After two minutes of nonstop cheers and jeers, the keyboard player began the song, probably hoping people would settle down, but Sinead immediately cut him off, motioning for him to stop. She then ripped out her ear monitor and told the sound guy to turn up the mic. Seconds later, she ripped into an accapella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” the same song she had performed on SNL. This time she screamed out the lyrics, determined to get above the volume of the crowd. The defiant look on her face seemed to have come as a result of possibly being appalled by half the audience’s hostile reaction. It was almost as if she were thinking this is what happens in America if you speak out against pedophilia and child abuse? Fuck you all! She shot the crowd one more disapproving look upon finishing the song and walked offstage where Kris Kristofferson stood by to greet her in an embrace. Sinead hurried off behind him however, cupping her mouth as if she were going to vomit. The crowd roared in satisfaction as if delighted that they had shaken her up enough to run off the stage. At that instance, I realized that I had been standing in place between sections for about three minutes, so I continued walking back toward my seat. When I reached my row, Tom and Eric were looking at me in shock as if to say Holy shit… What the hell just happened?
I sat in my seat stunned. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen take place. I was so consumed by the thought of it that it wasn’t until halfway through Neil Young’s second song that I even realized he was playing. I missed most of Neil’s set and he was right in front of me the entire time.
I wasn’t a fan of Sinead O’Connor. I don’t think any of us were. I had her first album and thought it was okay, but never followed up with anything else she did. “Jerusalem” and “Just Like You Said it Would Be” were really great songs I thought, but I wasn’t crazy about much else. But that said, I was taken aback by the audience’s reaction to her in that… one, here was an artist standing up to injustices in ways that were absolutely traditional in the chain of rock and roll activism that went all the way back to Woody Guthrie. And two, it was a Dylan audience…children of the counterculture and their children. Hippies. Anti-establishment motherfuckers whose M.O. was sticking it to the man. One of their own would be elected president of the United States in less than one month.
What was going on here?
How could this happen?
How could they boo?
Almost everyone on the stage that night had something in their blood, in their DNA, in their artistic heritage and output that at least left traces of pissing off the establishment in one way or the other. In retrospect, it was probably the first crack in the foundation of what was once the rebellious spirit of rock and roll. It marked a softening in tone and a corruption of values, as a major part of a symbolic era chose to be offended over the actions of an artist rather than recognize and appreciate the human, social, and artistic integrity in it. O’Connor’s actions certainly garnered negative attention in recent weeks, but coming from a generation of hippies, the booing was almost as offensive and disgusting an act as many found her actions to be.
But were they all hippies?
Were they even Baby Boomers?
These were questions asked in all forums of discussion in the days and weeks following the event. Suddenly the socio-economic implications surrounding the show came into focus as it became apparent from fans having been there, that it was a gathering of suits of all kinds gobbling up the majority of the astronomically-priced tickets…CEOs, investment bankers, sports team owners, big business galore enjoying the benefits of first dibs. Within a few more years, as triple digit ticket prices became the norm, it would become customary for promoters to offer the best seats to the rich before tickets became available to the plebian public. A simple comparison of the before and after of this period of time: It used to be that we’d hear of a concert, and wait for the ticket information. When tickets went on sale, we stood on a line at Ticketron or Ticketmaster. If they expected extremely long lines, we were given a wristband the day before, which only guaranteed you a place on line, but not always a ticket. Still, everyone had a shot at a ticket, and everyone had a shot at great seats. By the mid to late 1990s, when a show went on sale, the first week was only open to the holders of the American Express Gold Card. The rest of us had to read about the Golden Circle seats or whatever the fuck else it was that we peasants couldn’t afford. And even if we could, we weren’t part of that club, so we had to wait for the shitty seats to become available, for which we’d still have to pay three times what we were paying just five years before. In 1986, Gordon Gecko uttered the arrogant line that became the catch phrase of the Reagan 80s, “Greed is good.” By the mid 90s, that greed would reach rock and roll.
So as concerts became excuses for very expensive social gatherings, the sacramental experience for diehard fans became watered down and cheapened as prices went through the roof. To explain this thought in more detail, I will give two examples drawn from actual conversations that occurred between 1999 and 2003. The first took place on the golf course of a country club in central Jersey on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 14, 1999:
Mr. Ashkeeshkenshkeez: Alright I gotta head back to the office…Connie is meeting me there with my grandson. Tell Twiggy I’ll pass on the hot dog when he gets back.
Roberts: (laughs) okay, will do
Mr. A: Oh, by the way, Connie’s got a…some extra tickets to see the ah…ahh…that Bruce Springstreet tomorrow. What are you and your wife doing tomorrow? Ya wanna come?
Roberts: Uh…I can’t stand him but Sheila’s firm was given 24 tickets and I’m already stuck going on Saturday.
The second conversation happened in the break room of an insurance company in January 2003:
Jennifer: Oh my God, Matt got us tickets for La Vesta De Zortda.
Heather: What the heck is that?
Jennifer: I’m not really sure. I think it’s an opera.
Heather: You like opera that much? You seem excited.
Jennifer: I don’t know. It’ll be something different.. ya know?
Heather: David and I are going to see the Rolling Stones in New York on the 17th.
Jennifer: Wait. You guys got tickets?
Heather: Yeah, we’re going with some guys from his company.
Jennifer: Heather, we have like a dozen tickets for that show.
Heather: You and Matt?
Jennifer: No, us! The company! You know we get tickets for every concert. You could have gone with us.
Heather: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t even care for the Rolling Stones that much. Matt’s just going because they talk business at these things and it’s just a place to go. They do it all the time at the Knicks and Rangers games. I mean it’s the Stones and all, and I do like some of their really early stuff. What that’s song they have? You can start me up? That was one of their first songs when they first came out in the 80s. I liked that song.
So it’s people like Heather, Matt, Roberts, and Mr. Ashkeeshkenshkeez who have to fuck it up for the real fans who just want to go and see their favorite band or artist. Yet the majority of the tickets go to non-appreciative cocksuckers in suits. Unaccountable assfucks who without thinking twice would hold a meeting on the upcoming fiscal year at a Roger Waters performance of The Wall just as easily as they would in the food court of the Mercantile Exchange building.
Honestly, I was disturbed by the booing of Sinead O’Connor at the Dylan tribute. This was an audience that had burnt their fucking draft cards in the 1960s. Even if we rule out all of the martini assholes, it was still largely a crowd of Dylan fans who knew exactly what Bob Dylan was about, even if Bob Dylan had never said so himself. They were thinkers…humanists…social justice advocates…hippies…
At what point did half a generation get the granddaddy of all sticks up its ass? If there had been anything noble about music in the 1980s, it’s the fact that it had become socially and politically active along with consciousness-raising. The 1960s counterculture was coming full circle, and its influence and spirit was seen in everything from U2 to REM to USA For Africa to Live Aid to Janet Jackson to Public Enemy. Earlier in the year, a massive rock and roll revolution happened, ignited by MTV catching up with some underground music that would prove vital and relevant to its own time. The media had to hang a label on it as they do with everything, so they called it grunge. In the fall of 1991, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” appeared on Music Television near its last days of actually playing music, and blah blah blah, we know the rest. By the summer of 1992, we had seen the rebirth of the long-lost festival in the form of Lollapolooza, then in its second year. The radio playlists as well as MTV’s were rock and grunge-heavy. There were also equal parts rap and R&B to strike a harmonious balance of co-existence not seen in music since. If you were of Generation X, 1992 was your 1967. As my friend Pat Ivanitski once said, it was our playground. In rock, there was a blurred residency among bands and fans alike, made up of hippies, punks, rap, and metal, all interweaving as closely as they ever did or ever would again. Across the country however, heightening tensions between black and white, and citizens and law enforcement were a foreshadowing of the brutal 2010s two decades later. And while not everything was quite a peaceable kingdom, as the strains and echoes of the L.A. riots still reverberated throughout the States, it was as close to my generation’s Summer of Love as well as to the tumult of 1968 as we would simultaneously get in our youth. There also lay the promise of a liberal Democrat from Arkansas that fall, the first counterculture president who was about to pull the country out of twelve years of Gordon Gecko-style greed and ineptitude, only to be met eight years later with a conservative backlash that would profoundly make the world a much more dangerous place in the 21st Century. Little did we know of the civil unrest and chaotic times that lay ahead well into adulthood. For the time being, 1992 was our summer of love and hate. Whatever the case, there was a spirit of rebellion, social activism, and political awareness in the air.
But out of nowhere, the brakes screeched inside the Garden and brought that spirit to a sudden halt. Sinead O’Connor declared war, walked offstage, and left a bunch of us wondering what the hell had just happened.
IV: A CHANGE OF SEASONS: THE DEADHEADS, THE DEAD, AND THE DEAD
I’ve always loved the Grateful Dead, but I was never a Deadhead. I’ve never followed them on tour, never collected all that many tapes of live shows, and never walked around outside the Shoreline Amphitheater holding one finger up in hopes of a miracle ticket. Sure, I’ve seen them live a handful of times and own every album, but I’ve invested no more significance in them as I have in most of the other obvious and usual suspects of classic rock. Oh, how it kills me to use that term willingly…classic rock… but the very fact of my using it is testament to the inevitable passage of time, classification of periods for historical purposes, and the idea that rock and roll as we once knew it has in fact passed us. More to my smaller point though, I never gave the Dead any special treatment over bands like…say…Led Zeppelin, The Who, or Pink Floyd. I think of them as one of the bands in that crucial chain of important bands. No more, no less. Of course, there are many bands that I prefer over the Dead hands down. But generally, I don’t like or dislike them any more than most acts lying around the classic rock gene pool. With this in mind, the fact that I’ve always been surrounded by Deadheads for most of my life is worthy of mention and exploration within these pages. That means that out of the common courtesy and good will of many of these people, I was always given many tapes of all the important shows and kept in the loop of what was going on. And even though I never had the urge to send away for enough mail order tickets for an entire tour, I still maintained enough interest when my friend Curley would call me from places like Atlanta or Albany at one in the morning to tell me the setlist. Even though I didn’t walk the walk of a Deadhead, I was informed, educated, and familiar enough to talk the talk with the best of them.
Deadheads are funny in that many of them don’t really care all that much for the studio albums. It was always about collecting and trading tapes of the shows. I guess that’s the one thing I always found unsettling about the Deadheads; their disinterest and indifference to the Grateful Dead studio catalog. Always driven by the live show and the spontaneity of the moment, they never had much use for the studio albums. Of course, like anything else, there are exceptions. However, for the most part, I’ve found it next to impossible to discuss the studio albums with my Deadhead friends. For instance, I can have someone sit in front of me and recite the setlists for every show played in 1973, yet if I ask what their favorite song is from Wake of the Flood, I’ve gotten things like, “What songs were on that one?” or “the studio albums suck.”
The world of the Grateful Dead was an island unto itself. It was a large and glorious island unlike any other entity in the history of modern music. But it was so self-contained, that the fanbase rarely strayed too far from the family tree. They listened almost exclusively to the Dead and Dead-related bands and artists. I always think of the line when you stand too close to something, you can’t really see it. It perfectly describes the conditions under which many Deadheads have been unable to view the Grateful Dead within the context of the rest of the rock world. It is difficult to observe something from the outside world and asses its place in the outside world when you are very much on the inside, and rarely, if ever, leave. So for someone like me, the studio albums have served as vital maps of the band’s evolution as well as markers of the band’s treasures. Sure, you can’t find gems such as “Wharf Rat,” “Jack Straw,” “Tennessee Jed,” “The Eleven,” and “So Many Roads” in the form of Dead studio recordings, thus dividing the two impressions of the Dead on the rest of the world. There is the Grateful Dead as a vital respected part of the rock and roll world with a worthy respectable catalog of classic albums and music…and there is the Grateful Dead as center of its own world, yielding an entire secondary catalog for the hardcore obsessed, none of that secondary catalog built from studio albums, but from solo projects or free-floating songs only played onstage. So with that, it is quite possible to watch the band improvise their way through fifteen songs over the course of two sets and an encore, and only have a third of those songs come from studio albums. This is one of the unique elements of the Dead. A large percentage of their most-beloved live tunes are not even featured on official studio releases, something almost unheard of within the rest of the rock world. It is difficult to imagine Kiss fans being pleased after having gone through an entire Kiss concert that featured maybe only four songs from actual Kiss albums. Same goes for Rolling Stones fans who are comprised of the ones who go for the hits, and the ones who go for the chance of the occasional rare album cuts…point is, those fans know the albums well. A Stones fan might come out of a concert saying, “Damn, they didn’t play anything from Exile tonight!” You would never hear a Dead fan coming out of a show saying “Damn, they didn’t play anything from Go To Heaven!” It’s just not the way the Deadhead mindset operates in relation to the setlist. It is purely about the moment and following it wherever it leads over the course of any given night. And while the Deadhead experience has been purely physical, mystical, and spiritual (I remain envious of the people who had the conviction and fearlessness to live that life) they’ll never quite know the intellectual masturbatory joy of pitting Side One of Blues For Allah against Side Two of Terrapin Station, and then analyzing and dissecting the artistic components that such a discussion would entail. In all honesty, I’d much rather be able to just experience the music and fill my downtime with something else such as reading books or watching films. Sometimes I think I’m cursed having to live a life where I spend just as much time thinking about music as I do listening to music. But then I consider the nature of my personality and how I’m just as insular in my own mind as the Deadheads are on their own island. Music is an intellectual experience as well as a physical and spiritual one. Anyone who might disagree with this sentiment probably is not paying attention, not thinking at all, or is probably just an asshole.
While in the middle of my Italian film phase of 1993, I took one particular afternoon to head over to the Angelika where some new movie, Especially On Sunday was playing. The movie was released and flopped rather quickly, and I don’t remember a damn thing about it, nor does anybody else. It was Monday, September 20, and I was in the city for a Grateful Dead show during one of their early 90s residencies at the Garden. After the film, I met Curley, Hurley, and Burley over at Hunan Pan for dinner in the West Village. Following a quick bite, we walked out on Hudson Street as the sun began to go down just after 7PM. It was the last night of summer and still fairly warm. We all got into a cab and headed north as Hudson turned into 8th Avenue until we got out at 31st Street and ran into the building at the Southwest entrance. The show itself had some standout tracks like “Baba O’Riley” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the setlist, although I was glad to get “Dire Wolf.” I think that fourth of six shows stands out in Dead history as the night Edie Brickell showed up to guest on a few songs.
I associate that particular change of seasons as the start of an underlying eeriness and just overall sense of something bad in the stars that seemed to hover over the next few years. Even though it was still a relatively remarkable time for music (and the arts in general for that matter), there was an undercurrent of fatalism snaking its way through the mid section of the decade…one that would short circuit the sense of community still alive within the rock world. Late in October, a massive retrospective celebrating the career of Italian director Federico Fellini opened at the Film Forum on Houston Street in the Village. Tutto Fellini was a monstrous six-week marathon that would see every single Fellini film shown in glorious restored print and would run through early December. On Halloween, I went into the city with my friend from work, Jorge. Jorge was a Seventh Day Adventist who was always wrestling with his faith and searching for answers and meaning in life and death. Jorge knew me as the long-haired crazy lunatic freak at work, but he seemed to be amused by my intellect and shared intolerance for common mainstream culture. He had a strange respect for the fact that I preferred tofu to meat, PBS to CBS, indie films to Hollywood, the New York Times to the News Tribune, cafes to bars, reading to sports, and museums to clubs. In other words, I had become a pretentious snob. Whenever he needed a “day of culture,” he’d hang out with me. Jorge wasn’t by any means hip. He was borderline- square, and experienced true culture shock as the streets became packed and closed-in with freaks from all walks of life converging on the Halloween Parade that would be starting at 7PM. We had tickets for the 7:30 showing of Fellini’s La Strada, and decided to grab some low grade Chinese food at the King’s Express on West Eighth Street. It was one of those brightly-lit takeout places with green walls that always had at least two or three tables in the back. As we ate, I gave Jorge a brief history of Fellini, his films, his influence, and why we were so lucky to be going into the city to see one of his celebrated works on the big screen. This was no ordinary film, I told him. You couldn’t just go see this at the multiplex in New Jersey. He asked me if Fellini was still alive and making movies. I told him the filmmaker was in his early 80s, not very active anymore, but was just honored at the Academy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier in the year. Jorge seemed to be looking forward to seeing La Strada. I gave him a background of the film and informed him that the actress Giulietta Masina who stars opposite Anthony Quinn was actually married to Fellini in real life and the two had been a longtime couple. Giulietta became the staple face to a handful of Fellini’s early works and she had indeed cast an indelible mark on Italian cinema.
After Jorge finished eating, he wanted to buy a t-shirt he had seen at the Postermat across the street. I was still working on my shrimp in lobster sauce, so to save time he got up and went over to the Postermat while I finished eating. As I sat there alone, I reached for the headphones of my Sony Walkman and put them on. I pressed play and suddenly the cassette inside was playing me a live 1970 Dead show from the Fillmore East. I finished eating, sat back, stretched my legs out, folded my arms, and closed my eyes. It was one of those moments where all was right with the world…those rare moments where you realize you are content with everything around you and there was no place else you’d rather be. I listened to what had become my favorite version of “Easy Wind,” at least out of what I’d heard. I let the eight minutes of the song play out until Jorge came back. He sat down and I took the headphones off. He showed my some shirt that read New York City on it and I politely responded with a “cool” or something. The radio in King’s Express which was tuned to one of those Hot-something stations that played Bon Jovi and Michael Bolton-style hits had gone unnoticed during the duration of our time inside the establishment. When the news came on, it quickly grabbed our attention and without warning, transported us into a world of the surreal. First, they announced that the young Hollywood star, River Phoenix had died at the age of 23. Jorge and I looked at each other. Holy shit, the collective look on our faces said. We were both 23 as well, and it was the first time anyone our own age who had gotten famous had died. Was this going to be our generation’s James Dean? Just as I was swallowing the news of River Phoenix, the next sentence to come out of the radio was that legendary Italian director Federico Fellini had also died. Needless to say, I was in shock at this news, especially under the circumstances in which I heard it. Jorge couldn’t believe it either. One minute I’m telling him all about Fellini while we’re about to go to a Fellini film festival, and the next minute we’re told that the guy just died.
We sat there stunned for a few minutes, but then got up without missing a beat, pressing on toward the exit to once again hit the street where we’d trudge through the Halloween Parade across Sixth Avenue and hit the Film Forum. Walking out, the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Gray” began playing as we stepped into the chill of the crisp mid-autumn air.
Shortly before twelve on the night of Wednesday, March 23, 1994, Curley, Hurley, and Burley were heading back from Uniondale, Long Island where they had just seen the Grateful Dead at the Nassau Coliseum. It was the first of a five-night run before the three of them would embark on an excursion down the East Coast to follow the remainder of the spring tour before it would wrap up in Miami within a few weeks. It was Curley who was driving and just getting back onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway while Hurley and Burley talked about the next night’s driving arrangements. Locked into the moment just as they had been all night, all three of them looked up and out the window where something caught their eyes from some 90 miles away back in Jersey. It was at least that far. Yet, it was untraceable as to where exactly in Jersey it occurred. It was in that very far distance on the horizon just southwest of their location, where they first saw the explosion and then the mushroom cloud. And then the sky lit up red and orange.
Shortly after midnight in what was the first ten minutes of the AM hours of March 24, 1994, I was at Eric’s house flipping channels on the TV. I was feeling under the weather and probably should have been home sleeping. The past few nights had been late ones, having gone to the David Letterman show on Monday where Tori Amos was his musical guest. She came out and did “Cornflake Girl” from her new album Under the Pink. The following night, a few of us went up to the Meadowlands racetrack to watch horseracing. I really should have been in bed as I sat there contemplating the chills running throughout my body. Inside the other room was Eric, his girlfriend Agnes, and two of our friends, Jay and Al. Going through the high-numbered channels of the cable spectrum, I stopped at CNN where Giulietta Masina was pictured in the top left corner of the screen. The Italian actress and wife of Federico Fellini had died at the age of 73, less than five months after her husband. The door opened and Agnes came out. She walked across the room and sat down on the couch next to me.
“Dude, put the Rangers rewind on,” she demanded, taking the control out of my hand and changing the channel to MSG. The nightly ritual was to get high and watch a replay of the Rangers game that usually occurred earlier in the evening. Within another minute or two, the guys would be coming in and hockey would fill the room deep into the AM hours. I wasn’t a fan, but I would always root for New York no matter what the sport. The Rangers were hot that year, and talk of the Stanley Cup was a constant. This was going to be their year.
Who gives a fuck…I’m going home.
As I got up, I was almost knocked back down on the couch by a powerful breeze of warm air that moved through me and shook the blinds on the window. Agnes felt it too.
“Dude, what the hell was that?” she whispered, looking at me.
Inside, the glass sliding doors were rattling. We could hear Eric begin to freak.
“Holy shit, man! What the fuck is that?!”
“Holy crap!” Al echoed him.
“What the fuck is that?!” Eric railed again.
I was almost afraid to get up, but I forced myself off the couch and went into the bedroom where Eric, Al, and Jay were looking out the glass doors. Beyond the doors was darkness…the backyard, a fence, and the Oak Woods beyond the fence. The woods extended south at least half a mile, but what lay beyond them were in no way visible from Eric’s windows. From our backyards, it was just solid woods.
Again…“What the fuck is that?!”
Eric was pointing out toward the woods.
And then I saw it.
Somewhere, possibly inside the woods…or maybe beyond the woods…so huge that it gave us the distorted perception that it was closer than it really was…was a fireball…a wall of flames moving and swaying violently like a King Kong-sized bonfire fire between the distant trees. We could not make out what it was, nor could we be sure exactly where it was. I opened the sliding door and we could immediately hear a roar in the distance. It was a blowing sound so overpowering and intense that the only way to describe it is to imagine the sound a 300-foot blowtorch would make. What was even more shocking was the amount of light outside. In the midnight hour, there was daylight over our entire development and beyond. It was a broad and eerie daylight, engulfed and enveloped in an ominous reddish orange that made up the entire sky.
“Are we fuckin’ nuked man?” Al screamed in nervous laughter.
“Dude,” Jay shot back. “If we were nuked, we’d be dead.”
Eric offered the next possibility.
“Holy shit…did a plane crash or something?”
I thought the same thing.
“Yeah, that’s gotta be a plane that went down in the woods.”
“That’s not in the woods bro, that’s too far away to be in the woods!”
It really was hard to tell where in the hell this giant wall of fire was, but as we all gathered out in front of the house, anyone on the block who was awake had wandered out of their own houses and into the street. Many were running down the street toward the main highway to get a clearer perspective on where exactly the fire was coming from. Rather than stand outside in the street speculating with the neighbors, we all got into Agnes’s car and drove toward Route 1 where once we got there, the entire fireball, much like a mushroom cloud rose high above the skyline of Central Jersey like an orange and red monster that could crush and swallow entire towns. When we got on Route 1 South, it looked as though maybe the Menlo Park Mall was on fire or perhaps even exploded given the massive size of the hovering flames. But then we rode past the mall and all of it was intact, empty, and without activity. We could see the fire but the more we drove, it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer. That’s just how big this fucking thing was. You could keep going toward it thinking it was maybe a thousand feet away, but you never got there. Kind of like having mountains on the horizon. Eventually, we stopped at Metuchen Train Station. Agnes parked, and Eric, Al, and Jay got out to run up to the track where they could get a better view of the massive wall of flames in the sky. I stayed in the backseat, not wanting get out and see it enough to etch it permanently into my mind’s eye. It wasn’t something I wanted an indelible vision of. I was also feeling feverish and really just wanted to go back. Agnes searched the radio for reports of anything. I told her to put on CBS-AM which was a 24 hour news station, and sure enough they were talking about a gas explosion in Edison, New Jersey. It turned out to be a long night for anyone who was awake in Central Jersey, and if you lived anywhere in the tri-state area, chances are you could see the fire from many miles away. Eric, Al, and Jay came down from the train platform after about ten minutes and got back in the car. We went back to Eric’s by 1 AM. Shortly after arriving back, Curley and Hurley came by after dropping off Burley. We all sat on the floor in Eric’s ground-level bedroom. We could see the fire through the trees in the woods just past his backyard. And we could hear the gas-fueled roar of the flames. Again, it was that gargantuan blowtorch sound that shot into the sky and lit it up like daylight. I sat there knowing I had to go home eventually and walk outside where the eerie orange glow of the sky would hover over me, following my every step as I ran to the front door fumbling for my keys trying to get inside as quick as possible, not wanting that God-awful sound and visual to permanently stain my memory. I sat there dreading that walk home, even though it was right next door. The outside was tainted. Haunted. The nighttime was scarred. I tried to take my mind off what was going on outside by asking the guys about the show. Curley happily read off the setlist:
First Set: Shakedown Street, Little Red Rooster, Row Jimmy, El Paso, Might as Well, Promised Land
Second Set: China Cat Sunflower, I Know You Rider, Women Are Smarter, So Many Roads, Truckin’, Drums, Space, I Need a Miracle, Standing on the Moon, Good Lovin’
Encore: U.S. Blues
The Grateful Dead were in Miami when Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body was found in Seattle. On April 8, 1994, the spring tour was wrapping up and our friends were about to head back up the East Coast. Back at home, a handful of us sat around quietly that Friday night, trying to make sense of what had happened. A month earlier, Cobain had OD’d in Rome. Early in those reports, there were already rumors he had died. Something like this seemed inevitable, which is why I really wasn’t surprised when I heard the news about his death late that afternoon. The immediate sense around the music world that seemed irrefutable was that something significant had happened, and a devastating blow had been dealt to the future of rock. It was not one of those things that occur in retrospect where critics and fans realize something important had happened and it constituted a full-fledged rock revolution. It was not one of those things you realize after the fact. We knew something big was happening all though 1992. 1993 saw grunge and alternative established as a full-scale rock movement. By 1994, we were right on the cusp of watching the earliest evolutions take place within this new kingdom of artists. Vedder got a chance to evolve. Cobain, not so much. 1994 began with the momentum of 93 still in full swing. It ended with the tumultuous release of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy amidst the defiance of a reluctant Vedder who was supposed to carry the torch. He was busy locked in a silly battle with Ticketmaster at the time. If only he could have picked his fight with the company in 2014 as opposed to 1994. Who knew that after such bad publicity in the 90s, 20 years later, Ticketmaster would be so out of control and corrupt, redirecting logged-in members on their site to a scalper’s site where customers were charged well over face value? Who knew that while scalping agencies were buying up lots and lots of tickets in the 90s, that Ticketmaster would get in on the action a few decades later? And who knew that while Vedder was expected to carry the burden of whatever had been up Cobain’s ass, Pearl Jam had already created their best music by 1994 and rock would fizzle out into parody, mediocrity, and eventual invisibility?
So what happened?
Well, it sure wasn’t Vedder’s fault, nor was it Pearl Jam’s. Vedder came down to earth, grew up, and surrounded himself with the right people…many of his own influences as opposed to his peers. He’d associate with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. He’d become politically active, immersing himself in social justice causes. He’d still rock, but he’d cross over into a world of adult concerns like so many of the best and most respectable artists did. And Pearl Jam would continue to turn out uninteresting music while still managing to sell out arenas in every major city for multiple nights. They would become classic rock, part of the establishment, and Vedder, like his heroes, would become one of rock’s elder statesmen. They’d be revered and respected just on their name alone.
But rock in the post-Cobain 90s wasn’t just about Pearl Jam. Radiohead, another of the alternative era’s most promising bands would turn out one of the great masterpieces of the decade, and then do a complete 180, striking their music out of shape and becoming the anti-rock band, all but eliminating guitars from their sound until they had their cliché return-to-form moment years after anybody gave a shit and they were already too old to be revolutionary. Stone Temple Pilots, a band that had some interesting songs, but couldn’t shake the Pearl Jam-wanna be comparisons had already bottomed out while their singer made junkies fashionable again for douchebags. Smashing Pumpkins quickly became irrelevant as Billy Corgan’s ego toppled over and he never quite lived up to the genius that his attitude proclaimed he was. Soundgarden was on the outs and so was Alice In Chains. By 1997, Lilith Fair was as “fuck you” as rock could possibly get. Only the “fuck you” wasn’t a revolutionary-movement-against-the-establishment “fuck you.” It was more of a male-bashing movement that saw a rise of women with acoustic guitars uniting in “we’ll show em” fist pumping solidarity. By that year, it had become all about Ani Defranco, Jewel, Sarah Mcgloughlin, Meredith Brooks, and Paula Cole. The only thing that resembled rock in the mid-to-late 90s was catchy and syrupy watered-down versions of whatever Nirvana and Pearl Jam were doing…bands like Bush, possibly the Bon Jovi of grunge. Catchy songs? Great. It was a sign of the beginning of the end. And if that was a sign of the beginning of the end, bands like Matchbox 20 and Limp Biscuit were symptoms of everything that went wrong with rock by the late 90s and into the new century. Rock was well on its way to a place where the idea of crossing over was no longer the exception, but the rule. The second half of the 90s barely resembled the first half. And while that is true for most decades of the rock era, the last few years of the 20th Century progressing into the new millennium saw rock having its testicles hacked off by paper cut, one slice at a time. Acts such as Kid Rock and Limp Biscuit represented a new era where artists had a foot and a half in rap, and half a foot in color-by-numbers rock. The era of originality in rock was over. Every important rock song had been written and now the next generation was about to dabble in a little rock and a little rap, and produce a whole lot of musical diarrhea as a result.
Mixing rap with rock always reminded me of that old commercial back in the 1970s about that guy’s chocolate falling into the other guy’s peanut butter:
“Excuse me sir…your chocolate is in my peanut butter!”
“Wrong! Your peanut butter is on my chocolate!”
Well, the moral of the story was that Reeces was formed because low and behold, the fucking taste was so incredible…who knew!
Fucking peanut butter and chocolate together at last!
But rest-assured…I shit you not…many were appalled.
And so, while many younger kids for whom Nirvana was the first and only rock to be exposed to, the combination of rock and rap was appealing. That wretched pathetic sight of white men in backwards baseball caps, no shirts, and baggy shorts, bouncing around the stage while grabbing their balls was far less rock and roll than anything we had ever imagined we’d see. To be fair, this was not exclusive to the confused antics of Kid Rock. Not to mention, Kid Rock after establishing himself as an obnoxious ball-grabber spitting raps onto generic rock beats, would later try to pass himself off as a rock artist. But no…that whole obnoxious silly style far preceded Kid Rock. It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly the murder of rock fashion began, but it’s precisely one of the major things that had always turned me off of bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was always repulsed by those bands that were always literally bouncing around the stage with shorts and no shirt.
Do you realize how uncool you look? Get a fucking grip!
So what is my point?
My point is that, by the late 90s, the cool had drastically fallen out of rock music. It became corny and clumsy when paired with rap. Regarding the bands that stayed within the rock framework, even they lacked the element of cool. Rock stars with character were suddenly endangered, as no-named, non-descript front men of the new generation all looked like models in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. Even so-called punk bands like Blink-182 looked as if they were fitted in the wardrobe department on the set of Beverly Hills 9021 for the episode where Brenda and Dylan get tickets for that rad punk concert at After Hours. And for any wiseass who feels compelled to mock my 90210 analogy, be warned…I was a closet viewer right up until the end, and no such episode exists. But that’s just how uncool and sing-songy rock had become.
Cobain’s death did not kill the future of rock music. It killed the present. It cut short the moment. It was a moment that while held up in hindsight to hypothetical scrutiny, might have lived up to whatever the myths suggest it could have been, or could simply just have evolved into something else. Instead it just became nothing more than a moment in time. The question of the legacy of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and grunge itself becomes more significant as time goes on, however. What was that legacy? How influential were they really? If in the 20-plus years since grunge, all we have to show for is Nickelback, Bush, Creed, and the token friendly rock guy face of the Foo Fighters, the true influence of that entire era seriously needs to be re-evaluated.
The wind went out of the sails completely some sixteen months after the death of Kurt Cobain when Jerry Garcia passed away in his sleep. They say he died with a smile on his face. I don’t know that to be true, but I like to believe it. It just works symbolically on so many levels. Jerry’s words about taking the whole fucking trip a step ahead or even a few steps ahead was as eloquently put as anything involving the counterculture and the push toward a more equitable civilization. On the night of the day Jerry Garcia died, I was at a Santana concert. It was August 9, 1995. Carlos Santana came out and told the crowd that he was playing for us with a heavy heart. The feeling was mutual all the way around the venue. It was a warm summer night, beautiful otherwise. But aside from that feeling of doom that seemed to still be pervading how our lives were affected in relation to the music, the 90s had turned a corner. But it wasn’t just the 90s. It was the beginning of feeling a stamp of permanence. Of finality. In a year and a half, the symbolic future of rock had been exterminated, while the symbolic past had begun to expire.