After graduation, I farmed CDs at Best Busy, the great beginning of the need to make sure everything would always be just so. I curated Aphex Twins and AC/DC according to their kind, sold DVD players for 400 dollars, caught kids stealing porn and shitty music. This came on every hour on the Summer of ’98 Best Buy Super Sampler, we played “Closing Time” to kick you out, Katie Holmes was Beatrice in songs sung by The Flys. How we sensed foreboding, how we savored loss. It was all we knew then, all we could. It’s most of what I miss.
I don’t agree with all of Hyden’s conclusions in this piece (and I’m certainly no Rush expert), but isn’t this a fantastic piece of writing?:
Resentment was very good to Corgan when he invented the original incarnation of Smashing Pumpkins and made it the biggest band of alt-rock’s last, lurching stand in the mid-’90s. It grew — as only the purest, most potent reservoirs of resentment do — from out of the Midwest, festering inside the pinched heart of a nerdy metal kid who knew he would never be accepted by the Thurston Moores and Stephen Malkmuses of the world, with their stupidly perfect mussed hairdos and mysteriously crucial connections to skateboard culture and world-class noise-rock collections. To them, no matter how fast he shredded or how high his choruses soared, Billy would always have sweaty palms and pockmarks and a ruthlessly flowing mullet. Guys like that can just smell the hayseed on you, even through your paisley-colored rock-star clothes, and they’ll never let you forget your place.
I also love this Corgan quote, which Hyden thinks is Billy talking about Billy:
“I can’t think of any people outside of Weird Al Yankovic who have both embraced and pissed on rock more than I have. Obviously there’s a level of reverence, but there’s also a level of intelligence to even know what to piss on. ‘Cause I’m not pissing on Rainbow. I’m not pissing on Deep Purple. But I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead, because of all this pomposity. This value system that says Jonny Greenwood is more valuable than Ritchie Blackmore. Not in the world I grew up in, buddy. Not in the world I grew up in.”
If you’ve been following Corgan for these last 20 years, and know how to parse the cogent thoughts from his thatches of twisty-turny grandiosity, you might understand that he’s not talking at all about Radiohead here, and only a little bit about Weird Al and perhaps slightly more about Ritchie Blackmore. That Billy Corgan quote is mainly about Billy Corgan; Al and Ritchie are manifestations of how Corgan sees himself and his place in rock music. He is criticizing the value system that says fashionable and arbitrarily acclaimed (in his view) bands are considered more valuable than he is. Unfortunately, this is the world you grew up in, buddy. Corgan’s feelings of persecution at the hands of a vast, underground, oppressively aloof hip-stapo have been central to his music since at least “Cherub Rock,” one of the few golden-era Smashing Pumpkins oldies that Corgan never seems to tire of playing.
He’s right, of course, that this really isn’t about Radiohead. And hey, I remember when Adore and all that came out and we couldn’t give it away at BestBuy. It must have hurt that Semisonic and The Flys where outselling the Pumpkins’ follow-up to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and it must have hurt more that no one who listened to the record seemed to like it. I remember Corgan saying he was being punished for being ahead of his time, and I remember thinking it was all an ill-informed load of crap. But Corgan’s right, isn’t he, about the value system of Whoever It Is that makes tastes and foments critical opinion? Yes and no, of course. But if you’re like me, the yes has found you really pissed off about these hierarchies on more than one occasion…typically when your heroes are passed over for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with merit or talent or art.
Billy Corgan was never a hero of mine the way, say, Noel Gallagher was/is, but I was 15 when Mellon Collie came out and I had all those thoughts. Maybe Corgan’s talking about himself and maybe he’s not, or maybe we just don’t expect this kind of angst about authenticity from people in their 40s. (Of course we don’t. Maybe we should.)
Hyden’s right, anyway, about the Mellon Collie Corgan being a Brill Building of his own. A Baxter Building, even. Listen to “1979” and don’t feel amazing about some sliver of your youth. Go right ahead. Listen to “Tonight, Tonight” and don’t feel like the un-vindicated sixteen-year-old you were. Not in the world I grew up in, buddy.
And so this post ends up not being about Steven Hyden and only a little bit about Billy Corgan. And that’s what great writing, like Hyden’s, and great art, like Corgan’s, find us doing. Sorting out our own histories and narratives and hard-won feelings. It’s why Mellon Collie soared and Adore didn’t. It’s why I share and quote from pieces like these in the first place. Buddy.
I figured out what the third song in the “Got You Where I Want You” (The Flys) and “Time Ago” (Black Lab) trinity of obscure songs from Summer of ’98 BestBuy sampler was: “High” by Feeder. Sweet. Of course, Semicsonic and New Radicals were on there, too, but they got way more radio play than The Flys, Black Lab and Feeder did.
Man. That is beautiful late 90’s hair. Before all the the spiky short dos.
And then there’s “Suffocate,” which is awesome and totally different.
Sometimes I mourn the loss of acts like John (I Still Call You Cougar) Mellencamp and Tom (a hell of a lot more so) Petty on Top 40 radio. This post, from June 2009, is about missing acts like Black Lab and The Flys. Remember them? They came out in the summer of 1998 along with bands like Semisonic and Harvey Danger and Days of the New. I worked in the music section of BestBuy that summer, so I remember these things…
…a week or two after I loaded my new dorm-room-employee-discounted-fridge onto my best friend’s Tempo and secured it with 300-odd feet of rope, I was in college discovering mp3s and file sharing. Even if you didn’t use Napster, you probably used your campus network to copy songs from your friends’ computers. It can’t be a coincidence that so many of the bands that came out right before the industry shift this practice created haven’t stayed in the Top 40, which is to say we have only ourselves to blame for forfeiting popular radio and the lost art of music video to the market defined by our allowance-spending, dial-up connecting kid sisters. Hello, Brittney Spears, Backsteet Boys, NSync, et al. Hello and you’re welcome. To all the good bands we killed in the process, I’ll apologize on behalf of all of us. We didn’t do it on purpose. We were just cashless and cheap.
It’s hard to think of a major pop or rock band to emerge circa 1998 that’s still super popular now. You might come up with a few, but they don’t spring to mind like bona fide stars of the mainstream. Go back to 1996 or 97. Where are the Wallflowers? Why didn’t Primitive Radio Gods become the new Peter Gabriel? Come on, Better Than Ezra! Maybe it’s all very zeitgeisty. Remember that “Take a Picture” song by Filter from 1999? That song killed. I know, I know, Coldplay. But they’re so post-2000.
Everyone knows the saccharine pop side of what happened next. There was also the continued hip-hop move to the mainstream that started with The Chronic and Snoop’s early records, continued through Tupac, Biggie, Puff Daddy and Missy Elliot. Streets Is Watching came out when I was at BestBuy and then Eminem came in the fall. Oh, how we laughed at Slim Shady. “Who is this clown? What’s Dr. Dre thinking?” Well, we know better now. But hip-hop and rap records, huge as they were, didn’t kill alternative radio. That was never an either-or kind of thing. Then came the post-grunge, which started okay but became something else.
Somewhere in all of this, people stopped purchasing alternative pop into the Top 40. And I’m not talking about all the high-brow indie stuff. I’m talking about accessible, quirky, well-crafted music with some hooks and a few jangles. I could tie this in to the recent posts about irony, about how our tastes shifted as a way of escaping sincerity blah blah blah. I always liked that “Old Apartment” song by Barenaked Ladies. But “One Week”? Come on.
“So long ago, remember baby….” I would hear this at BestBuy and sort of know I was in the process of losing something. How about that look at 00:28? Video here.
“I think you’re smart, you sweet thing…” This is one of my all-time favorite videos. Do I miss circa 1998 Katie Holmes the way I miss circa 1998 myself? I think so. Or maybe I just hate the 2000s.
“Phonebooth” is one of the smarter songs of the decade, circa 1996.
How about Tonic? (The “You Wanted More” video from 1999 is here). Lemon Parade came out in 1996: