X. The Nineties

It was a strange decade. Since the beginning of rock and roll in the mid-50’s, these ten years were the most splintered in terms of genre and quality. For a fan who grew up on classic rock, they were confusing and lacked a center or unifying force, a la The Beatles, Dylan and Motown in the ‘60’s or The Who, The Stones, Led Zeppelin and the singer/songwriter set in the ‘70’s. Even the ‘80’s had a feeling of unity on the pop charts and in the album cuts. You had Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and Bruce Springsteen on top and U2 and the burgeoning alternative scene underneath and bubbling.

The closest thing to a center from 1990 to 1999 for the rock and roll fan was Kurt Cobain and the cultural shock they labeled ‘grunge’. A catchy enough term for a combining of the punk attitude developed organically the decade before and an over-the-top regurgitation of Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin-derived guitar riffing. Looking back, the decade was a replaying of old riffs in music and making them seem ‘cool’ and ‘nouveau’ and a replaying of old movie plots in film and making them seem the same. This trend worked best in the work of Nirvana and Quentin Tarantino, respectively. My favorite film of the decade was Pulp Fiction, a ramshackle send-up of the great B-films of the past filtered through the skewed mind of a slacker video junkie genius with huge talent, an amazing ear for dialogue and no fear. The same can be said of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who combined a Lennonesque sense of gibberish lyrics and melody with Black Sabbath riffs and a Pixies-ish attitude to create the monolithic album of the ‘90’s in Nevermind. Whatever you have to say about this record, the rest of the decade (and rock music in general to this day) could do nothing but humbly follow suit. There has rarely been a rock and roll record as influential. Meet The Beatles, Highway 61 Revisited and Are You Experienced? come to mind. Pet Sounds. Led Zeppelin II. The Who’s Tommy. Van Halen’s first album. All records that changed rock and roll and made all kinds of kids put on all kinds of guitars and turn up loud. The same can be said of Nevermind.

Whether this is a good thing, I’m not sure, because most of the rock music made in the wake of Kurt does not appeal to me at all. I find it repulsive and for the most part, unlistenable. Nothing I hear these days seems to come close to his melodic invention and subtle, sad sense of humor. But his influence remains undeniable. I would choose Nevermind as The Album of the decade. Was it my favorite of that ten year span? No. But it was one of them. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" remains one of the most galvanizing moments in all of rock and roll history. I place it with "She Loves You," "Satisfaction," "Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Won’t Get Fooled Again," "Whole Lotta Love," "Superstition," "Born To Run" and "Pride In The Name Of Love" as an all-time great. In fact, it might be The Last Rock and Roll song. And sales of rock music in general these days seem to confirm this statement more closely than I’m even comfortable to admit. It seems there is nothing really left to say in rock and roll. Until someone else powerful, funny, daring and unique enough comes along to say it.

Does this mean I’m through with rock and roll? Not at all. I still find new music to enjoy. I like Beck and Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds and Fiona Apple and lots of other talented people. Have any of these artists changed the way I think about music? Lyrics? People? The World at large? No. Unlike the giants of the past, these are just talents, not geniuses. Do I think Kurt Cobain ranks with John Lennon in the upper echelon of pop/rock genius? No. Just below, yes. His is the last great shift. There’s been nothing remotely close to a tremor since. I wait for the next one, although I probably won’t recognize it until it’s half over. It took me months to get Kurt and what that whole thing was about. I was scared of him when he appeared on MTV. I didn’t know what to make of it. He was kind of good-looking, but you couldn’t really tell with all that dirty hair in his face. And why was he so slumped over? And why was his guitar so broken down and beaten up? And what was the 'hello, hello, hello, hello’ all about? I was confused and annoyed. Then I heard "Lithium" on the radio. The rest is history.

The first half of the ‘90’s was a vibrant and vital time for rock music. After the dearth of ‘89-’90 (which I still view as the nadir of the whole ride thus far), rock was making a rebound with the release of three spiritually powerful records in 1991. R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, Sting’s The Soul Cages and in November of that year, the record that marks the beginning of my own journey toward adulthood, U2’s Achtung, Baby. I’d been a fan of all three since the previous decade, and I was heartened by the quality of their new releases. In fact, I was sure R.E.M. and Sting had never sounded better. I still feel that way about The Soul Cages, my personal favorite of Sting’s, while I feel Out Of Time has now taken its place in the R.E.M. catalog just behind their best record, Lifes Rich Pageant and their autumnal masterpiece Automatic For The People. These were heady days. If rock and roll was stretched out on the operating table and fighting for its life by early ’91, then R.E.M. was its respirator. Just the fact that a mandolin was getting airplay was proof that things were looking up on the rock front. In the annals of rock and roll, it’s "Maggie May" and "Losing My Religion" that have achieved this feat. And R.E.M. has still yet to sell out with a disco record or spandex. Out Of Time is a life affirming record, a beautifully recorded collection of acoustic grace and the husky forest voice of Michael Stipe. It remains a high-watermark. It's impressive and almost Beatlesque that they bettered it the following year with the lush melancholy of Automatic For The People. This stretch marks the peak of R.E.M., a span of work that saw them reach new heights in songwriting, performance and production. Both records hold sunshine and water, happiness and memory, sadness and moonlight.

Sting’s The Soul Cages is a work of spiritual yearning and power, produced and performed to near-perfection with a sheen of silver spread across it. For the sound alone, it deserves mention, but it is in the content and beauty of the material that it continues to resonate. A song cycle about his father, The Soul Cages captures Sting at his most vulnerable, and combined with those characteristically cool surfaces, it makes for compelling work. "All This Time," "Why Should I Cry For You?" and "The Wild, Wild Sea" are the stuff of an artist reaching maturity and are exciting examples of pure emotional power and depth captured in pop song. This is his All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. He would never venture this deep again. It probably would have driven him mad to do so. But one like this is enough. You can only do one Plastic Ono Band, one Blue, one Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Any more than that is dangerous for the listener and the artist. In Sting’s case, it’s The Soul Cages.

Heading into the late autumn of ‘91, I was feeling renewed about rock and roll. Both R.E.M. and Sting had come through and I was excited to hear that U2 were finally releasing a new album after the two year hiatus following the unwarranted critical and popular backlash to their exceptional and well-intentioned Rattle and Hum album and film. I remember first hearing "Mysterious Ways" on the radio that September and being taken with its groove and wah-wah guitar textures. Bono and the boys would surely re-emerge with a masterpiece to rival The Joshua Tree. And what was with the new clothes and those buggy, oversized sunglasses? What about that knowing smirk on Bono’s face when the band appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone that fall in anticipation of the release? Something was up. Ironically, what it was confounded me completely. I remember putting on Achtung, Baby the night it came out and being unmoved and unimpressed. It was noisy, out of focus and obnoxious and lacked the passion and purity of what I’d come to expect from U2. I lay there in a kind of numbness to it. I thought the third track, a ballad called "One," was pretty good; kind of song-like. I thought there weren’t many songs. Just noise and strange ‘90’s distorted production. If this was the new U2, I wasn’t sure I was along for the ride. And yet something told me to continue with Achtung, Baby. They had never let me down before; I owed it to U2 to give them my time and attention. I’m glad I did. Ten full listens later, the songs of Achtung, Baby began to peek out from behind the shiny, distorted, surreal black leather surfaces of this unusual and unconventional record and happen to me. Like every great album I’ve ever heard, this was an experience of sight, sound and glimmering emotion; an entire world to inhabit, to walk and dance in, to drink in, to wander in the fading light of day in, into a deceptively still night where it seemed like anything could and would happen. Soon, I felt as though I was Bono, lost in some starlit Moroccan town, looking north to the Mediterranean, half-drunk, the sounds of some underground discotheque in my head, heading toward a hangover and collapsing on the sidewalk, looking for some kind of redemption in the dawn but knowing it wouldn’t be there when the sun finally did come up again. Line by line, Bono reached further and further into the scary, stark truth of this dissolving moment he had probably dreamed, but was living every day: Time is a train, makes the future the past, leaves you standing in the station with your face pressed up against the glass; We’ll slide down the surface of things; Did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?; In the garden I was playing the tart, I kissed your lips and broke your heart; You left my heart empty as a vacant lot for any spirit to haunt; Danger the drug that takes you higher; Yeah, I’m running out of change, there’s a lot of things, if I could, I’d rearrange; If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel; You’ve been fallin’ off the sidewalk, your lips move but you can’t talk; When I was all fucked up and I heard opera in my head, your love was the light bulb hanging over my bed…; You can swallow or you can spit, you can throw it up or choke on it; (and finally in submission to the overwhelming spirit of the thing…) A little death without mourning, no call and no warning, baby, a dangerous idea that almost makes sense…

And here is the key to the whole thing. A rock and roll band willing to destroy itself just long enough to reinvent itself. It’s dangerous and it almost makes sense. It’s commercial suicide, isn’t it? Like The Who introducing their followup to Tommy with a synthesizer chorale? Who did Pete Townshend think he was? I’ll tell you who. He was the man who pissed all over The Monolith. And Achtung, Baby was just that: The sound of the greatest band of their moment pissing all over Their Monolith. The underlying connection between bands was exciting. The new sound was reckless, stormy, sexy, free. It was the sound of four distinct identities convoluting themselves, breaking with their own conventions and preconceptions, rebirthing into something different, and yet so totally invested in the act of changing that they demanded full appreciation of the daring new identity left by the transformation. By January of 2002 I was a true believer and ready for more. It easily added another seven years to an already incredible and enviable run. There are few records that shoot as high and achieve as much as Achtung, Baby. I can only think of Abbey Road, Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s fourth, Born To Run, Purple Rain, and Songs In The Key Of Life in the same starry echelon. Without question, it gets my vote for album of the ‘90’s and remains one of my favorite records. If they had stopped here, their place in the lofty hierarchy of Greatest Rock Bands Ever would be secure. Thankfully, they didn’t. They tumbled on into Zoo TV, Zooropa, Pop and Popmart, and then defied the odds again with the scintillating, life-invigorating All That You Can’t Leave Behind almost a full decade later. All I can say is thank God. There is still a rock and roll band left that strives to reach the summit and actually does so most of the time. It’s even further testament to the achievement of Achtung, Baby that in the storm of publicity and album sales that surrounded Nevermind throughout 1992, it not only sold well, but continued to grow in the consciousness well into 1993 with the ongoing beautiful chaos of Zoo TV and the over-reaching orgasm of the Zooropa LP. Bravo boys. I am still rocked.

Another good thing about the floodgate busting phenomenon that was Nevermind was that in its wake, several other good bands surfaced and achieved mainstream success; perhaps the most satisfying of which being Pearl Jam. To me, the exceptional Ed Vedder and his band mates came the closest to the transcendent fury of The Who than any other band since U2. Nowhere is this more clear than on their excellent second album, Vs.. I was a convert by the time Vs. came out in late ’92 and was affected by the sheer ferocity of the recording and the performances. This was Eddie’s moment and he was making the best of it. The singing on "Go," "Animal," "Daughter," "Glorified G," and the most potent rocker they ever assembled, "Leash," is as good as any intense rock and roll ever. I place it with ’70 Lennon and ’78 Springsteen. And with the beautiful "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town" proving to be The Song of the early ‘90’s, you’ve got a modern day rock and roll classic. They would never be this clear or focused again. If anyone could carry the torch of Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen to the new youth, it was Eddie Vedder. If anyone could make a rock record as personal and powerful as Quadrophenia, it’s this fucking surfer. But in sensing he was the prime contender for the title, Eddie withdrew, taking his band and most of their popularity with him. With the death of Kurt Cobain, he did the right thing and chose survival. Any photograph or footage of Eddie in 1992 and ’93 shows that he’s inches from self-destruction. The punk meets the godfather and can’t handle it. So, he opts to continue in a more Neil Young kind of way, slow and steady, kind of boring with glimmers of inspiration, on and on like a train in the night. The truest triumph of Pete Townshend is that he has miraculously done both. He’s gone on and on carrying the weight of an entire generation’s psyche with him the entire way. And that’s why we refer to him as Quantum. No one shoots higher than Pete Townshend. Except maybe the last two heirs to his chair: Bruce and Bono. Eddie could have. He held the torch in trembling hands and placed it back on the fire, knowing he would have perished under the weight. And yet the force he harnesses on Ten, Pearl Jam’s monstrous debut, and Vs. remains potent and transcendent, worthy of the bloodline.

Along with Achtung, Baby, the other major piece of art from ‘90’s rock comes from the throat and mind of Jeff Buckley. Grace was way too far out to ever reach the masses, but in the eleven years since its release, it has grown in stature, legend and power with each passing day. Hardly ever has a record been so far to the other side and come back to share what was experienced there by the traveler. Spooky, liberating, heartbreaking, transcendent. It is possible he not only was aware of his coming demise, but had been expecting it for some time. The sound of his voice arching and careening over the thunder of his music is unlike anything in rock. His is the great loss of the decade and one of the worst in rock history. It is unfathomable what he would have come up with had he survived his seemingly pre-destined fate. Grace remains a testament to the greatness, freedom and power of music.

A few years passed in the mid-90’s with nothing of note to grab me. Chris Cornell and Soundgarden made the ultimate Beatle-grunge album with the stellar Superunknown, The Smashing Pumpkins released the conceit of the decade with the half-good Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, Joe Jackson made a beautiful classical pop record called Night Music which moved me at the time and my favorite act of the '90’s, Indigo Girls continued to make exceptional, thought-provoking music. Their first two records of the decade, Nomads*Indians*Saints and Rites Of Passage remain two of my favorite albums. But other than that, the mid-90’s were dull. Some good groups came out of this period, most notably Radiohead and Ben Folds Five; both interesting and tuneful bands who had been filtered through a punk rock sensibility, but who really housed some strong musicians and melody-makers. Thom Yorke and Ben Folds also both possess some of the sweetest voices in rock. The Bends and Whatever and Ever Amen are both good records and worth investigation. Just the fact a nerdy guy was banging on a piano was heartening in an era when most young people were using a turntable or tracks to get their message across.

The next album of the ‘90’s to blow my mind and melt my heart was Painted From Memory by the strangest of duos, rock poet laureate Elvis Costello and schlock-meister Burt Bacharach. From the first I heard about it, I was sure sparks would fly. I believe it is Elvis Costello’s best work in a career of unparalleled creativity and consistency. It is without question Bacharach’s best in a career of many, many hits most likely to cause tooth decay. Where you would imagine an oil and water scenario, the meeting is anything but. The sweetness of Bacharach’s melody and chord changes come alive and gain realness in a way they never before have with the stab and snarl of Elvis’s lyrical thrust. Conversely, Elvis is forced to rein in his rodeo wordplay to fit Burt’s structures. The result is intoxicating and proof that unlikely marriages just might make the most beautiful offspring. With each song, a new melodic design takes shape and takes hold, breathing forth a gorgeous series of notes that offers romance and yearning, the bittersweet bouquet of emotional upheaval and experience. It’s a watershed in both careers. It remains one of my favorite records and a tearjerker of an album. For the singing alone, the best Elvis has ever done, this album is a classic. But the songs are right there with the voice, goading him, chasing him, enveloping him in the shadows of what love becomes when it goes bad and faith in romance is questioned and arguably lost. It’s a monster and quite the reward for all Elvis fans who thought he might be slipping after the uneven experiments of The Juliet Letters and Kojak Variety. Everyone of any worth in the history of rock and roll should write songs with Elvis Costello. They’re guaranteed to hit new heights and break new ground. Burt Bacharach should send him Christmas cards twice a year every year.

To close, I would like to cite the work of three artists who finished out the decade with fine work. The first is the auteur himself, the little man who could do no wrong in the ‘80’s, the squiggly symbol of a freak with a cause and that cause is total artistic freedom, the Peter Pan of Pop Funk, Prince. While most of his ‘90’s work resides in the ultra-competent but somehow missing the mark category, he did release one truly good album in the ‘90’s. It was called The Truth and was packaged almost secretly in 1997 as the fourth CD inside the sprawling 3 CD set of previously unreleased par to sub-par recordings called Crystal Ball. The exorbitant ticket price was validated by the inclusion of this terrific mostly-acoustic recording from the man whose main reason for making music seems to be to prove to anyone within earshot that he can and will make every kind of popular music better than everyone else. Put an acoustic guitar in his hands and he damn near pulls it off, too. It’s a great album, worthy of Joni Mitchell at her most colorful, and includes several new Prince classics, including the title track, the gently steamy "Circle Of Amour," the freaky "Animal Kingdom," and the scintillating "Dionne." Worth your time if you like music at all, it’s a trip and proof that he indeed has the goods and always did. We’ll see if he always will. It’s a good bet.

The funniest album of the ‘90’s was actually an over the top homage to Prince by one of the better artists to surface during this strange and topsy-turvy decade, the folk/rap wunderkind, Beck. Right down to the inside photograph of him stretched out on a couch with the title of the album spray-painted on the wall behind him, and the fact that it was released in 1999 of all years, Midnite Vultures is a Prince album in everything but name. At last, someone took the time to express their appreciation for the most important artist of the previous decade. This was not a hip thing to do for some time, as Prince had become the object of ridicule by the mid-'90's, only to enjoy a major popular comeback in the following decade, where artists like Alicia Keys and Outkast made it known he was still very much The Man. But Beck was doing it years earlier with this psycho-sexual freak out of a record. Midnite Vultures is funnier and funkier than most albums and one hell of a satirical send-up of the sexual come-on. Upon the third listening, I realized it was something special and very unique: A tribute album that worked on its own merit and its own rules. Midnite Vultures is the sound of the freak funk fantasy inside Beck’s skewed head. It’s as important to his development as Dirty Mind (the album it most resembles) was to Prince’s. And along with some inventive songwriting and arranging, it features the very best male falsetto singing of the decade. Only the man he’s paying homage to comes close to the flawless, effortless, and ridiculous sexiness/humour of Beck’s upper range. I was shocked when I heard it and I’ve been a fan ever since. Then he made Sea Change. He’s for real, clearly.

And finally, mention must be made of a beautiful record created by former Soundgarden singer and songwriter, Chris Cornell, who after leaving his band, produced his one solo record, the fantastic Euphoria Morning. A lifelong Beatle fan and perhaps the greatest rock singer ever, Cornell teamed with two members of the band Eleven and made his best album, featuring the best songs of his career. The Elton John balladry of "Preaching The End Of The World," the careening psychedelic rock of "Disappearing One," "Moonchild," and the outrageous "Pillow Of Your Bones," and maybe his best overall song in the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" meets "Living For The City" magic of "Flutter Girl," make a strong case for Chris Cornell as The Voice of The Nineties. Cruelly overlooked by everyone but Soundgarden fans, Euphoria Morning is a lost gem that will reward rediscovery by anyone looking for stellar pop music or any Audioslave fan looking for any other Chris they can get their hands on. It's so good in fact, it made Audioslave a bit of a letdown. 

Rock and Roll is far from where it started and probably not as good as it once was. But these records continued to keep me interested through a spotty stretch of time in which it seemed rock had finally taken a back seat in the minds of anyone who was interested in the first place. Here’s hoping it’s not really dead and someone is about to kick its ass off the operating table and start the stone rolling all over again.

All in all is all we all are.