Sunday, January 31, 2010

90s Nostalgia

I can’t believe it, said it could never happen, still don’t think it has in any traditional sense, but I can’t deny it: lately, I’ve been feeling some sort of half-assed 90s nostalgia.

I hated the 90s. Man, I just hated that decade. So many things went wrong that decade, especially in music. But also, political correctness fully-flowered, as did this shithead Democrat/Republican, black/white way of seeing the world. People surely felt that way before this, but the second term of the Clinton presidency, in which blow jobs and the meaning of word “is” became hazy in their definitions, was surely when all this kicked in, spurred on by the success of Rush Limbaugh and such on the conservative side.

The thing with nostalgia, though, is it disregards politics and the state of the world or nation at the time. The most nostalgic time of my life, my childhood in the 70s, had virtually nothing to do with “the tenor of the times.” I was a fucking kid; I didn’t care about Nixon or Watergate or the gas crisis or inflation or whatever. Since then, I’ve realized there is shit going on in every decade that inspires “end of the world” scenarios among intelligent people. Even something like the ’72 Olympics … I have great memories of emulating those games with other kids in the neighborhood, along with the birth of modern-day terrorism that occurred there. We all get by somehow.

The 90s started for me in my mid-20s and ended in my mid-30s. That was pretty much my first adult decade, nip to tip. It felt ragged in many senses. Getting adjusted to real adulthood is a mouthful of shit sandwich those first few years. When I moved to New York, I was living in the Bronx, which may as well have been Mars to most people I knew, and did have an isolating effect on my life in that sense. Opened me up in many other key ways, and taught me about the city in ways most white folks don’t get. And it took me awhile to acclimate to white-collar work – something that’s second nature to me now. But it’s still a way of life I can’t fully embrace with its meaningless rules and deranged money-based value system, despite making reasonably good money doing my thing. Being organized and calm has always served me well in NYC.

I don’t mean to paint the decade as wall-to-wall depression for me. In fact, I was happy most of the time. I learned how to keep my head on straight and recognize the best attitude was just to live life, not pass judgment on myself or sink into depressions based solely on negative self perceptions. Frankly, it was pretty easy as NYC is home to so many manically depressed people, and they set a bad example that’s obvious and preferable to avoid at all costs. Really no different from my childhood and teen life in Pennsylvania: never had much to begin with, never had much to lose, when they put me in a box (hopefully) many years from now, all I’ll have will be my body, and even that will go.

It was an awkward time, which is good for me to remember, as I look at photos of myself in top physical condition and wonder where in the hell that went! Still in good shape – honestly, better physical condition now than I was then – but built more like a wide receiver than a middle linebacker. So when I see those pictures of me smiling in the sun, I can also recall I had my nuts in a twist over some woman who was just as crazy and off as I was. People tend to forget the 20s are very much a learning decade, learning how to be an adult, and it seems like as time goes on, that age of adulthood keeps veering closer (and maybe even past) 30 as opposed to 25 or 26. I can see this now in twentysomethings, especially the more arrogant ones, thinking you can’t fool me, douchebags, I know how insecure and lost you really are … because I was the same way, only much less of a prick!

Musically? I can remember being just on the wrong side of Nirvana. Still recall seeing that album cover for the first time, in the now-defunct Record Warehouse (or something warehouse), this cheapy knock-off chain in Manhattan, their store on 42nd and 5th, where I bought the first Stax Volt box set even though I was unemployed and hurting financially (perhaps the dumbest thing I did in the 90s, albeit with the best consequences). But that Nirvana cover … the naked baby, underwater, going for a dollar bill. Very cool stuff.

So imagine the let-down when I finally heard the music and realized these guys weren’t all that different from the indie stuff I had worshipped through the 80s. Only that stuff was better – less pretentious, more real in its emotions, less directed at impressing depressed teenagers (although Cobain was roughly my age). That’s what I disliked most. Kids tend to get depressed enough without having it culturally validated like it was in the early 90s with Nirvana and the following wave of grunge. That whole scene felt bloated and deeply pretentious to me from day one, a put on, a marketing scheme, whether or not it was sincere, and I believe Cobain was serious as a heart attack. Just a lot less fun than The Pixies. A lot less honest than The Replacements. Not as good an indie choice to make it big as REM was.

I knew things were out of control when I went to visit my friend J in Delaware, and he was blasting Nirvana from the stereo of his rented jeep as we tooled around that weekend. It wore me out on Nirvana, fast! When “Lithium” came on, we’d both be shouting that prolonged “Yeahhhhhhhhh” … J seriously, me in jest. I knew he was locking in on this stuff because it was immediately trendy … and I don’t doubt he genuinely liked it, too. But he knew, and I knew, we were slightly long in the tooth to be listening to this stuff that was aimed at kids, by someone our age wandering around in Salvation Army sweaters while we became adults the hard way (i.e., getting up at 6:30 am and going to work every day, hi-ho, hi-ho).

He’d later do the same with the first Snoop Dog album. I recall at the time he was living at the Cavalier Apartments, a dumpy complex filled with younger folks like him. Every time we’d drive by and he was saying something, I’d respond, “You know, that’s a pretty cavalier point of view you’re espousing.” And he cracked up, knowing that I was making a reference to that crappy complex. He was blasting that god-damned album all weekend, the worst being at 8:30 on a Sunday morning when we got up. I’d go over and turn it down, he’d get pissed and turn it up, I’d ask don’t you worry about bothering your neighbors, he’d reply fuck the neighbors, and I’d just shake my head and give him the silent treatment until we drove off to Denny’s for a gut-busting breakfast.

I doubt he still has the pictures, but at the time, he had a black afro wig that was extremely weird. I put it on and laid on his floor with no shirt on, pretending I was passed out when he came back from the grocery store. It was good for some big laughs. He told me he and his nephew used to drive to convenience stores around that part of Delaware and wear the wig into the store – everyone in there completely freaked out and waiting to get robbed by the weirdo in the afro wig and shades – but he'd just buy a gigantic Diet Cokes and walk out, cracking up the whole time.

As I recall, J got smoked out of that apartment – can’t recall the exact circumstance, but there was a smoke condition in the apartment that ruined most of his clothes and furniture, that was luckily covered by apartment insurance.

But that’s indicative of the kind of weekends I’d have in my 20s. I visited friends in the northeast much more than I do know. Delaware, West Chester, PA, New Haven … in the first two cases, both guys moved away and in the third, that girl just got weird and wholesale dumped a few people from her life, me one of them, so what the hell. That was a big part of my 20s to me – figuring out novel ways to spend weekends. Whereas now I’m more than content to kick back, do some yard and sidewalk work for the landlord, hit the gym both days, make a big meal Sunday for the rest of the week … shit I never did in my 20s. When people ask me at work what I’m doing for the weekend, well, I don’t like answering simply because I’d rather not share that much with coworkers in general, but the truth is I’m rarely doing much but recovering from a crazy week of work and recharging my batteries in a good way.

But I think the 90s nostalgia I’m feeling now is much more tied into music, as I pretty much ignored anything that was popular at the time, which wasn’t hard, as most of it sucked. Hiphop should have died out by the early 90s, but it kept going, like a brain-eating zombie that still wanders the land today. Grunge was a pile of shit for the most part that turned rock into a morose “daddy doesn’t love me” pity-fest of the worst kind, a gob in the face of true rock and roll, which was a celebration of teenage fun once upon a time, starting with Chuck Berry and Elvis, and leading straight up through the Beatles and Stones, Springsteen, and Cheap Trick, and The Ramones, and well through the 80s. “Fun” became a bad word to these dipshits, which was a radical error in rock and roll.

Still … why is it that I’ve found myself lately downloading a lot of Soul Asylum, Lemonheads (who were actually a very good pop band I skipped on because of their popularity), Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Collective Soul, Sugar Ray, Alice in Chains … fuck’s sake, even Candlebox! I assure you, I HATED this shit at the time. But even that Candlebox song, I can hear now, it was just a reasonably good pop song, despite it’s heavier/dopey leanings. “Seasons in the Sun” was a pretty morose, dopey song, too, and I somehow wrapped my mind around that when I was a kid. I think the problem with the 90s was I was becoming an adult, with serious indie rock credentials from the 80s, and in some senses, I felt left behind by this newer stuff (but time has shown me that wasn’t true at all). It made sense for me to not like it at the time – it was out of my context and against my more broad taste of what rock and roll was meant to be (i.e., a range of emotions, as opposed to full-on angst and depression). I found a lot of that music offensive at the time in the previously-mentioned intent to make kids even more melodramatically morose than they already are naturally. Just seemed like a shit deal to me.

And it was. But within that shit deal, I can hear now, some good music, go figure! Jonathan Richman has a great line in his song “That Summer Feeling,” in which he puts forth about why that feeling will haunt you the rest of your days, as opposed to filling you with hope and joy. The line: “Do you long for her/Or the way you were?” That pretty much says it all about any kind of nostalgia. You don’t miss people and places, so much as who you were at that fixed point in time. Not realizing time keeps moving, and there is just as much to pine over about yourself now as there was then … and you probably will in your 60s and 70s! The weird thing about this 90s nostalgia is I don’t miss how I was then – maybe physically, but that’s about it. I don’t even miss the music. Maybe nostalgia isn’t the right word, but I don’t know what that word is in this case. As enigmatic as one’s first tattoo that looks like a meaningless blob of ink 20 years on.


Andy S. said...

"Still … why is it that I’ve found myself lately downloading a lot of Soul Asylum, Lemonheads (who were actually a very good pop band I skipped on because of their popularity), Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Collective Soul, Sugar Ray, Alice in Chains … fuck’s sake, even Candlebox!"

If there's an argument against the cheap and easy availability of music on the internet, you've just illustrated it here. A higher barrier to acquisition forced us to be more discriminating in our buying habits, and that was not necessarily a bad thing.

John S. said...

Hey man, the Jeep wasn't rented.