“Not Too Soon,” from the 1991 Throwing Muses album The Real Ramona. Guitars, growls, and girl-group gusto!
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
In 2018, I wrote a super-long, quite in-depth, shoulda-maybe-had-an-editor-but-I-do-this-for-free-so-bite-me piece about my obsession with certain songs. That post is about my 100 Fave Album Star, by Belly. (Go check it out! I’ll wait.) Song obsession is a jumping off point for that album because I’ve probably been obsessed with Throwing Muses’ “Not Too Soon” longer than any other song[ref]I’ve loved my favorite song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” since the 1970s, when I was 8 or 9, but favorite is a different quality than obsession.[/ref]. The song introduced me to Belly, as Belly leader Tanya Donelly wrote and sang it for Throwing Muses, her other band, the one with with her step-sister Kristin Hersh.
From the opening, furiously strummed, fuzzy electric chords, and Donelly’s committed opening word, “She …” the song has a certain distorted, singular sound that I love. It’s not just those chunky guitars and soft-but-hard voice. It’s also the drum beat, by drummer Dave Narcizo, a wizard who rarely uses cymbals. (Take a look at the video – his kit only has one cymbal, a high-hat. Or does that count as two?) It’s a modern (for 1991) take on the classic “Girl Group” sound of the 60s, in which bands with names like The Ronnettes, The Shirelles, The Shangri-las, and, of course, The Supremes would harmonize about their men over a thump like a Roman warship time-keeper.
“Not Too Soon” has multiple overdubbed guitars played by Donelly and main Muse, Hersh. They bow out during the chorus, allowing that girl-group thump (and a few haunting wails) to support the antagonist/boy in the song’s lyrics. “It’s not too soon, he said/ it’s not too soon at all/ You might as well be dead, he said/ If you’re afraid to fall.”
Then comes the killer hook: five words, stretched over four bars (“I said, ‘I know her'”) then four bars of Tanya’s growling, purring vocal riff. It’s catchy as hell, and as the songs move along, the guitar will frequently repeat that riff. In the second verse a few more guitars are added, and we hear the girl’s perspective, clearly baffled by the boy’s interest. “Why do you stare so hard/ Wrapped up like a doll in bad dreams and broken arms?”
When I wrote about the Belly album Star, I mentioned my love of Donelly’s lyrics. They’re very Steely Dan-ish, impressionist verbal paintings that give you just enough detail so your brain can fill in the rest of the story. In the case of “Not Too Soon,” it sounds as if Donelly, the narrator, is observing an interaction between a boy and a girl. And she’s clearly been in the girl’s situation before (“I know her…”) It may even be a story about herself. It’s enough to “Make these old bones shiver …”
The boy’s pressuring the girl (For sex? Commitment? As a former boy, I’d guess sex.) The girl, inexperienced (“colorblind”) yet intrigued (“her hallway aching”), is clearly not interested (“she’ll never move him – likes it that way”). The boy appears to “fall apart” in the spoken bridge. This is when the guitar really runs through that catchy-as-hell riff, sounding watery and distant and super cool. Donelly was the band’s usual lead guitarist, but a live video shows Hersh playing the riff, so I don’t know who plays it on the song. The boy offers one more plea – restating that “it’s not too soon,” and “you might as well be dead … instead of afraid to ‘fall[ref]I’m pretty sure he means ‘fuck,’ not fall. There’s such a weird history of songs about either boys pressuring girls to fuck (“It’s Now or Never,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Go All the Way,” “Do Me, Baby,” “Come On, Eileen“) or girls worrying about that pressure (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Anticipation.”) There are also some with the roles reversed (“We Don’t Have to Take our Clothes Off,” “Fuck and Run” and (as a 53-year-old white dude, it would horrify my family to know I typed this, but I mean, come on …) “WAP“) but generally it’s horny dudes and reluctant girls. It’s a weird, skewed message.[/ref].'”
And then Donelly finally, in a gush of words, lets him have it: “Done your time, been in your place/ I couldn’t look you in the face/ And tell you that it turns me on/ It makes my stomach turn!/ I know her!” Look dude! I’ve been there! I know her! She’s saying “No!” It repulses her!
OR??!! Did the girl fall apart in the bridge? It’s not clear. Did the girl, against her better judgment, give in to the boy? Is Donelly’s stomach turning because she’s been there and remembers the pain of caving in? Is she saying, “Look, upon reflection, I cannot honestly say I really liked that experience!”
Girlfriend. Matthew Sweet.
1991, Zoo Entertainment. Producer: Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet.
IN A NUTSHELL: Matthew Sweet writes catchy pop songs and beautiful sad songs, and sings perfect harmonies over flowing melodies – and then brings in angular, ripsaw guitars to disrupt everything. And it sounds amazing! 70s punk guitar virtuosos Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd take over most of the songs, and lap pedal steel king Greg Leisz fills out the tear-jerker pieces. It’s perfect guitar-pop that demands I make a Sweet pun.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
Damn. I forget what I was going to write about. It was completely relevant, too, and really captured my experiences with this album. That’s what I try to do on this website, give some background as to why I like a record, and how I came to like a record; to help provide an assessment apart from simply what it sounds like. There are a million lists out there of “Best Records Ever,” in which some person (or group) with a modem (or media jobs) tells you “this is awesome because …” as if they can judge works of art by tallying up some checkmarks they’ve made like they’re evaluating participants in a sheep-blocking competition.
But I can’t do that. I can’t remove my own self from the evaluation of the record. And my experiences are different with each record, so none of my imagined checkmarks would ever line up between albums. It would be like judging sheep-blocking where participants also bring pigs and raccoons and fish to be judged. So I don’t claim that I’m ranking these records objectively. I never said they’re the best; I said they’re my favorites.
Great, now I’m further away from remembering what I was going to say than I was at the start. But I am now quite used to forgetting. I’m very forgetful. My wife and kids can attest to the fact that whenever I leave the house there is about a 50/50 chance that I’ll come back in about 30 seconds later because I’ve forgotten my wallet, or the car keys, or my phone, or the shopping list or some combination of all those things, and others. It used to frustrate me. Now I’m used to it. It still bugs/amuses my family.
I forget to complete tasks – leaving half-folded laundry in the living room I’ve walked away from. I forget to start tasks – leaving my wife to call the garage to schedule an appointment a week after she first asked me to do it. I forget I performed tasks – leaving hardware store clerks confused when I call to tell them I lost the tool I rented, and they inform me that I returned it a week ago. Yet my memory for trivia is such that I appeared on Jeopardy! several years ago.
Memory is a strange thing. My wife, J., can remember entire plot lines of shows we’ve watched just by seeing one brief glimpse of it while channel-surfing. Me: “Hey, look, an old X-Files! I don’t remember this one!” J: “This is the one with the missing elephant, and the aliens impregnating the zoo animals.” But she’ll read stuff I write about our relationship and say, “I don’t remember any of that.” She remembers details she sees; I remember feelings from experiences I’ve had. (And trivia.)
Much of my forgetfulness I can’t explain beyond that fact that it’s just who I am. Maybe I had the information in my brain, and then I just lost track of its location in there. And maybe some stuff was never in there in the first place, and literally went in one ear and out the other, if that’s indeed how hearing works and heads are built. (Otherwise, it only figuratively slipped out.) But some stuff I can explain. For example, I don’t remember a whole lot of stuff from my 20s when I often drank so much that I blacked out.
A black out is really weird. It’s a real-life Quantum Leap[ref]Without entering someone else’s body. Usually.[/ref], an abrupt shift of reality in which, in an eye-blink, you go from having a normal, if drunken, time and then open your eyes to find yourself transported in space and time. You’ll be doing something … laughing, dancing, talking with friends … and then you wake up. But it’s different than waking up from a normal sleep because it’s generally very sudden and riddled with anxiety over questions like “Why do I still have shoes on?” “Whose house am I at?” and “How did I sleep so soundly lying on their brick walkway?”
In my 20s, those black outs were alarming and shameful, but I disguised my alarm by laughing along in the next-day’s amusing task of piecing together the night’s events[ref]I don’t know if it’s related, but I LOVED the movie The Hangover.[/ref]; and I hid my shame by pretending I wasn’t embarrassed by having been rude to some people and incoherent to the rest. I eventually settled down, did some work on my personal issues and as of February, 2018, haven’t blacked out in a long, long time. And now, years later, the alarm and shame of the blackouts has turned to a sadness over all the stuff I forgot.
Some of the best stuff I forgot[ref]Actually, in alcohol-based blackouts, the experiences never implanted in the brain, so in a sense one isn’t forgetting. The memories were never there to begin with.[/ref] is stuff related to music, specifically around the time I was playing music in a band, The April Skies. We played tons of shows, in tons of clubs, over a couple of years and I remember very little of that time. Some of that is just old age, and if my former bandmates were to say, “Remember the time we played with …” I’d immediately pull up the memory and join the conversation. But some of those memories never formed. I used to laugh about forgetting such things, but 26 years(!) later, it all seems sad and like such a waste. There are many, many shows and events from those band years that I don’t remember, and since memories are really all that’s left of those pre-ubiquitous-video years, I don’t have much.
In 1991, we played the prestigious “CMJ New Music Showcase,” in NYC. We had just gotten representation in New York City, so this was the first of what promised to be many trips there to play gigs. And it was my first time ever in The Big Apple. I took such a big bite of it that I remember almost nothing from the weekend. I do remember meeting Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who spoke with my bandmates and me about his love for “that new Nirvana album.” And I remember (thanks to a little prodding from Skies leader Jake) that we played a terrific set at The Nightingale Lounge. The rest is a blur.
Including Blur, on their first US tour and who we saw perform as part of the festival that weekend. See, as performers we got into all the shows for free, and we went to a bunch. But I only remember snippets. I remember Blur were very loud, and more raucous than their pretty-boy looks and house-beat songs would lead one to believe. I sort of remember Toad the Wet Sprocket nearly putting me to sleep, just like their songs on the radio did. I clearly remember Britain’s Slowdive … but actually I don’t, as I was informed by Jake that we never went to their show. (We did, however, see the tremendous Berserk!) And that’s just a little bit of all I don’t remember from that weekend. My memories are just a few drops in an otherwise empty mug of everything we did.
Worst of all, I remember very little of a performance by a guitarist who I’d never get to see again, performing songs from a new album that, although it had just been released, I’d already played a bunch. The album is Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet. The guitarist was Robert Quine, and even though I don’t remember details of that show, I do know I woke up the next day thinking, “I gotta go see that guitar player again!” Quine was in the 70s punk outfit Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and played for Lou Reed and others. His guitar work, along with that of former Television honcho Richard Lloyd, who also plays on the album, and Sweet’s catchy songs and (dare I say?) Beatle-esque harmonies propelled that album into heavy, heavy rotation back in ’91 – ’92, and it’s never fallen out of orbit.
I first heard of the record from the single that was released that fall, “Girlfriend.” It was all over MTV, which was pretty astounding, as MTV was then transitioning to mostly NOT playing videos.
If you’ve read about other albums I love, you’ll know that GUITAR is very important to me, and GUITAR is all over this song, from the very first rising sound of sustained feedback, which bursts into a boiling solo on the left speaker while some crunchy chords chop through the right. A bouncing bass and oh-so-1991-housebeat drums enter next, and by 33 seconds in I’ve already decided this is one of my favorite songs ever. That guitar player on the left speaker is Robert Quine[ref]Who led a pretty amazing life that ended very sadly.[/ref], and this song is just one on the album featuring his inventive, ranging guitar work. (He could pull it off live, too!) But it’s not just the guitar. The melody is catchy, and those harmonies, all performed by Sweet himself, are terrific. Check out the “ahh” at 0:50 and the “saw you comin’ my way” at 1:14. The lyrics are a plea, and turn a bit creepy at the end (“I’m never gonna set you free”), but meant something to lonely young men of the era, so I’m told[ref]I don’t know first hand since I myself have NEVER been lonely, and therefore NEVER would have put this song on mixtapes for women I dated at the time, as that would have CERTAINLY ensured I’d never see them again.[/ref]. Quine’s guitar is great throughout, but his solo at 1:46 is fantastic – swooping and wailing all over the place. The song has so much packed into a guitar-pop record.
Guitar is all over the place on this record, and it’s not just Quine. The aforementioned Richard Lloyd also laces the Sweet sounds with some sour spikes of angular guitar. The opening track, “Divine Intervention,” places Lloyd front-and-center.
That opening riff sounds all wrong, but it sounds so right! And the squawking lead guitar alongside it hits all the weirdest notes possible. Sweet’s voice is tinny and high-pitched, with a tone not too dissimilar from Neil Young’s. The song’s lyrics can be interpreted many ways, but he claims they were his “coming out as an atheist,” although I could see believers taking a different message from it. The harmony vocals he sings with himself – for example the “Divine – Intervention” at 1:47 – really make the song, and his bass line[ref]Sweet played guitar and bass and sang all vocals on the album.[/ref] and Ric Menck’s sloppy drums boost it from a typical mid-tempo slag. But Richard Lloyd is the real hero, particularly the soloing at 1:55 to 2:30 and 3:30 to the false ending at 4:20. (Sweet uses a Beatle-y “Strawberry Fields” ending on the song.)
Girlfriend is full of catchy little songs overrun with nuclear guitar assaults, as if a painting of kittens was trampled by muddy boots, but the result was way cooler than the original painting. Take one of my favorite guitar bursts on the album, “Evangeline,” another song commandeered by Lloyd’s ruckus.
At 0:15 the loopy riff starts over Fred Maher’s drum beat and Sweet’s playing. It’s a catchy song with lyrics about the eponymous comic book hero Evangeline, as sung by another character, Johnny Six. It’s more of what I love – terrific harmony “Ah’s” and “Evangelines” (2:00!) in the background, and that guitar. The solo at 2:10 is brief and brawny, but the one he pulls off at 3:58 is sublime.
As much as I love that softer side, it’s the electric guitars that keep bringing me back. This album came out in a magical year in rock music, and is what the 90s were supposed to sound like: catchy as hell with loud guitars. Instead it morphed into all those Matchboxes and Blowfish and Crows, Counted. That shit sounded week next to a song like “I Wanted to Tell You[ref]Which Beatle-fan Sweet knows is very nearly the title of a great George Harrison song on Revolver.[/ref].”.
Once again it’s Quine poking his sharp axe through the jangle of Sweet’s pop songcraft. I really like the chorus, starting about 0:54. You could probably read one of the previous paragraphs again here … blah, blah GUITAR; blah blah HARMONIES. It’s a song about regret, and Quine’s solo basically runs through the entire song. But the piece at 2:18 is special; the one at 3:33 is even better. The song has a counterpart, of sorts, in the Lloyd-guitar-fueled “I’ve Been Waiting,” another perfect pop gem, this one about desire. “Does She Talk?,” a rebound-romance questioning song, and “Holy War,” a wish for peace, feature different takes on the guitar/vocals motif.
But of course, the divorce songs I like best are the ones with the most guitar and harmonies, like the terrific headphones-enhanced-song about the after-effects of a breakup, “Looking at the Sun.”
I guess the bottom line is this: life is hard, and you’ll need as many memories as possible as you get older. But the memories in your head will evaporate, the edges will fade and increasingly the details will wash out. If you did something stupid, like drink so much alcohol that you forget a bunch of them, the best you can do is to try to recreate some feelings. Perhaps a great collection of songs from the era could trigger those feelings? In any case, take a lot of pictures and videos and look at them when you can. Because, as Sweet sings sadly, beautifully, “Nothing Lasts.”
“I’ve Been Waiting”
“Looking at the Sun”
“Day for Night”
“Thought I Knew You”
“You Don’t Love Me”
“I Wanted to Tell You”
“Your Sweet Voice”
“Does She Talk?”
1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
I used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes[ref]And my arguments against them certainly weren’t coming from an angle of concern.[/ref].
I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud of my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.
My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay relationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader[ref]The Googles tell me it was titled “Some Of My Best Friends Are …,” and debuted in October, 1976.[/ref] with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.
As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? They were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant[ref]Of course, I mean it was irrelevant to me in my appreciation of people as human beings. As a characteristic that has caused people to be excluded and degraded, thrown out of homes, beaten, killed, etc., it is quite a relevant distinction![/ref]. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!
Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to awaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”
When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. But if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors[ref]Assuming, of course, that I’m not a teen-age boy in an 80s movie who moves in next door to a sorority house whose residents regularly pillow-fight.[/ref]? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.
So, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”
As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. I came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.
In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at your grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.
Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.
Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release with a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation[ref]Generation X!! We were cool once, too, Millennials and Post-Millenials!! Although, to quote most Gen-Xers … “Whatever.”[/ref], were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us[ref]And don’t let people fool you. MOST folks were content radio-listeners in 1991. The college radio/punk thing was still way underground. You talk to 50 year olds now, and they all claim they were a fan of college radio all along. Like how 200,000 people attended Woodstock, but 12 million claim to have been there. Be skeptical.[/ref], Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.
Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.
It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write[ref]Of course, in 1991, Nirvana were three out of a few hundred thousand people who’d ever heard a Pixies song. However, it’s true that the Quiet-Loud-Quiet structure featured in “Smells …” is so related to the Pixies that a documentary about them a few years back was called loudQUIETloud.[/ref]. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after our set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching some spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.
Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people[ref]I’ll never forget the local AOR DJ Hawaiian Chris James blasting the band on the air for its lyrical nonsense every time he had to play the song.[/ref] and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.
While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”
The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! But what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.
The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”
The vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.
“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs[ref]”Smells Like Teen Spirit” is another one.[/ref] without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided excellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”
“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.
“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feminist “Territorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was always pleasing.
I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out[ref]Cobain wasn’t too happy about some evil folks’ reaction to it, either, as he described in the liner notes to the album Incesticide.[/ref]. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end[ref]In a futile attempt to mimic the album, in which a final hidden track plays ten minutes after “Something In The Way,” I’ve put a footnote here to mention the real final song, “Endless, Nameless.” While the rest of the album today sounds tame and acceptable, this one STILL sounds like INSANITY!!![/ref].
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA[ref]Shamefully, it wouldn’t happen in any other country.[/ref], were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.
But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.
Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“Come As You Are”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)