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[December, 1995] Bad Omens, Soggy Hopes

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12/3/95

In an attempt to expand my creativity (and use up paper in this thing to start writing in this other notebook I got), I’m going to write down the exercises I do from Rivers of Writing, this manuscript I took home. Here goes…

Hear: The ringing in your ears after a loud show, chimes from anywhere, the wind howling and pounding against the window…

Touch: The hard plastic of CD cases slipping through your fingers as you flip through, the shiny surface of a postcard, the raised letters of a typed page…

Smell: The incense on the corner of 6th Ave and 8th St, hazelnut coffee, the rain on the asphalt…

Taste: Mocha frappachino, melted cheese on eggs, salty mushy fries…

See: My silver satin skirt, glittery purple lipstick, a clean snow-covered city…

Wednesday it snowed, a gorgeous powdery snow that clung to everything and made living in such a dirty city euphoric and lovely. I grabbed my camera, all set to capture the postcard-ready scenery and daydreamed about the romantic possibilities of the lush crisp weather. Perhaps I should have heeded the bad omen of a snowball sailing hard into my right eye. No. I would quickly heal and assume prettiness when casually visiting my love (though he doesn’t know it) that afternoon. Besides, my camera was hungry for the images of a tranquil early winter. Then all the snow melted from the trees. My purposes of going downtown had whittled away to basically one: yes, him. But a busy store prevented much interaction so I was stuck with soggy hopes, praying I don’t come to despise the snow.

The writing exercise obviously called for descriptors for the five senses and then a paragraph expanding on one of them. I actually wish I did more of this kind of exercise to offer a more concise and interesting snapshot of my life-at-that-moment than my usual teenage blathering (I’ve edited some of the more redundant entries out of this blog).

So yeah, I was haunting Record Rabbit, and while I guess visiting a record store two-to-three times a month does not technically constitute stalking, the care and plotting that went into each visit was maybe a wee bit frightening in retrospect. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for Anita, my best friend at the time, to hear me go on and on about him. It’s one thing to share a mutual obsession (U2, in our earlier teen years) but another to be on the receiving end of the minutiae associated with someone else’s fixation. Sometimes I had to have Anita stop from paying a visit too soon (like more than once a week) for fear of appearing suspicious to Nathan. I was sensitive about saturating him with my presence, so I didn’t hound him with phone calls or leave notes or do anything super-creepy (though I confess I did sometimes call him when I knew he wouldn’t be home to hear his answering machine message, which is utterly bizarre because it wasn’t even his voice but a recorded clip from a Charlie Brown cartoon). This made it all the more disappointing if I timed that biweekly visit poorly and didn’t get to talk to him much or at all.

Being as impatient as I was am, more decisive action would have to be taken soon. A plot was about to be hatched… 

[February, 1995] Outcrowd at CBGB’s

CBGB

Should have been a historic landmark.

2/28/95

Nothing to say that I can state plainly. Um…the Outcrowd CD is okay, love the T-shirt. I wonder when they’ll do CBGB’s again.

Friday should be cool, I’m seeing Dandelion at Coney Island High (a new place right near Venus Records). Hope they don’t cancel (bands like that have a tendency to do that). Don’t know if Anita will be going, hope so. The ever-generous Claudia is letting us stay over (again). I’m so glad I’m not going to the semi-formal, this is so much cooler.

When I was a teen, going to see obscure bands play small venues, part of me hoped that one day they’d become superstars and I’d be able to tell the story about how I saw them live back in the day.

This is not one of those stories.

The reason I had to be vague in the journal was because I lied to my parents about studying with Claudia when it was really about going to the legendary CBGB’s, a tiny graffiti-covered punk rock shrine with bathrooms that would give you nightmares. 

I don’t remember why we chose that night to go. It might have been an all ages night or I might have won free tickets from a local radio station to see Outcrowd (they had one song played on college radio). It wasn’t really about hearing the band in question. Seeing a show, any show, at CBGB’s was something of a musical pilgrimage in itself—back in the day, bands like Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie played there. Later on, even Debbie Gibson made a surprise appearance during a Circle Jerks show (which my inner 10-year-old secretly hoped would mark a comeback for her; it did not).

If this toilet could talk...

If this toilet could talk…

The interior of CB’s was rather small and narrow (I don’t think more than a few hundred people were able to fit without violating capacity laws) and I heard enough horror stories about the bathrooms that I didn’t brave it, even for a peek at its squalor. I recall doing a lot of people-watching, though the crowd was more “normal” than I expected; still, there were a smattering of punks, maybe a rude boy or two (of the ska—not impolite—variety) that night, even though the band was more indie-grunge-pop.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the music or band.

What I do remember, to this day, was the band throwing a CD out into the crowd towards the end of their set. I caught it. A little while they threw a T-shirt in my direction. I caught that, too. And even though I wasn’t a particular fan of Outcrowd, I was so excited and thought I was so lucky.

After the show, Anita told me about these two pretty girls standing behind me, who were talking earlier about how the band members promised to throw merchandise their way. When I caught the CD, Anita heard them say, “Damn!” Then when I caught the T-shirt, one of them said, “Again? I can’t believe she did it again!” I laughed.

Unfortunately, CBGB’s closed in 2006 and the space that once housed this iconic club went on to be repurposed. I think there’s a restaurant there today, and I refuse to ever set foot in it, or anything else that may appear in its place. To me, the spot will always be a place where music history was made, a place where the creative New York City spirit thrived, and the place where I caught swag from a go-nowhere band that was meant for groupies.

(It wouldn’t be the last time I saw band play CB’s—in fact, a few years later, it would be the setting for a (melo)dramatic story involving a very pretty boy… but that is another diary for another time…)

[January, 1995] Sponge

September 4, 2012 3 comments

I still think of this album cover when I see candy corn.

1/21/95

Anita and I went to Tower Records in Paramus. The Q104 people were there and I got a hat, after identifying 3 DJ’s (including my favorite one, Trent Tyler). First they quizzed the crowd on what bands they play.

“Do we play Metallica?” they shouted.

“Yeah!”

When they asked, “Do we play U2?” I shouted “You should.” And some people replied “Yeah!”

So the guy asked “Should we play U2?” and at least half the people yelled “Yes!”

Then Sponge came out (the drummer wasn’t there though). Vinny (lead singer) played percussion for the first two songs (“Rotting Piñata” and “Molly” or “Drownin’.” I’m not sure about the order. “Plowed” was last, though). For the other two, he got a boy from the crowd to do drums (the first was good, the second a little off, but he wore a Pretty Hate Machine t-shirt).

I was afraid they wouldn’t sign stuff after they performed but they did, and we were near the front of the line. They signed our cardboard flats of the album and Vinnie signed my Converse (the toe of it). I asked them what bands they liked and the blond guy answered “Live.” They were so nice, Anita and I hope they tour soon (and I know their music’s good because I got Rotting Piñata today—I heard it before at Anita’s though).

I got Afghan Whigs’ Up In It today. Very screamy, I can get used to it. Can’t wait to get Congregation

Over the years, I’ve seen a fair number of musicians do record store appearances. Since many were cataloged in my diaries, I’ll leave out the full list, but I did get to meet Cyndi Lauper at a Tower Records about ten years ago, which was a special moment for my not-so-inner ’80s fangirl, and a future journal entry (spoiler alert!) almost certainly describes having a famous ’90s singer/songwriter sign my yearbook. There’s something a little odd about the experience, even though it makes sense for a band or soloist to meet (and often perform for) their fans in the establishments where their music is purchased. But on the other hand, squeezing people in among racks of CDs is awkward at best, crowd control can get tricky, and sightlines can be a nightmare depending on where you end up. Nevertheless, there was something terribly exciting about meeting musical talent that you’d seen on MTV in the flesh, even if it was a band that wouldn’t go on to super-stardom and few would remember years later. Even if it was a band like Sponge.

[Edited to add: Anita saw this post and reminded me of another detail about this outing. “Remember that my mom drove us to the mall, where we thought the Tower was, but it wasn’t there? We’d sat in traffic for an hour and she was in such a bad mood that she wouldn’t get back in the car. So we had to walk a mile, along the shoulder of the highway, to get there?” I do remember walking along the highway now (which we had to do there and back). But I’m sure I just saw that as another part of the adventure.]

For those who don’t remember (and/or are under 30), Sponge was an alternative rock band who had moderate hits with “Plowed” and “Molly.” I still feel a twinge of guilt for asking lead singer Vinnie to autograph one of my stinky Converses. He signed his name “Vin-e” so it looked more like the word “vine,” adding curlicues to the first letter. I wore those sneakers for years after.

And gee, I wonder if my favorite Q104 DJ had anything to do with the fact that he was named Trent, much like the object of my obsession, Mr. Reznor.  No matter how many other bands I listened to, Nine Inch Nails and U2 were still my top fixations and any reference to them (even something as small as seeing a boy in a Pretty Hate Machine t-shirt, which could outshine a flaw like poor rhythm) brightened my day.

There are many reasons to lament the closing of bricks and mortars record shops, and these in-store appearances are one of them. I know nowadays social media makes it even easier for bands to connect with their fans, and some large acts still do occasional gigs in smaller venues or secret shows, but there was something special and endearingly dorky about all of us being crammed into a record store like that. There were no fog machines, no fancy lights or costumes, and an adequate-at-best sound system. It was just the performers and us, and music everywhere.

[January, 1995] Like The Breakfast Club

[The following journal entries are sponsored by great big globs of disdain.]

1/13/95

“This is the first day of my last days” – NIN

Roller coaster is beginning its slow descent. At least I might be able to write something decent again. The writing activity helped a little. Actual interesting ideas would help more. Maybe one brilliant line that just sparks an entire story. The first day of Creative Writing we just wrote anything that came into my head and the first thing I put on the paper (which turned out to be a quote) ended up being the opening sentence for Raphaela

Here I am in Physiology watching a ridiculous film on muscle. I can barely see this as I’m writing.

Had a dream with Wonderfully Random, don’t care. There was a round candle lit and I was looking through a couple of CD’s (that were Anita’s friends’ or something) one of which was an old Lemonheads, one of which was an old Killing Joke CD. On the way back to WR’s house we mentioned the amazing way in which the radio switched on.

The mood I’m in now would have been the perfect time to write a letter to Tim, but I already mailed it.

H.S. is so much like “The Breakfast Club” it makes me sick.

Keeping this log is not helping me at all. I hope Ms. Donaldson reads this. 

MS. DONALDSON:

THIS LOG IS NOT HELPING ME AT ALL!!!

[note from Ms. Donaldson in green pen: “This is pretty hard to miss. Perhaps you need to alter your expectations of what you should get out of writing a journal.”]

I stopped keeping a diary for a reason, I hardly ever wrote about nice things. For the most part, it was a depressing read. There are some things I’m glad I wrote about, like events that I want to remember.

Right now I’m listening to “Just Like Heaven,” I never realized that the Cure could in any way be uplifting. Just ordered Disintegration from Columbia House (nasty scam artists). This will have to be my last entry now, seeing that I’m sitting outside of Creative Writing.

“’I wanna be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights.’” – The Breakfast Club

Writer’s block is the worst. You can try to discipline yourself as best as you can as a writer (never something I did effectively) but if the ideas aren’t there you just can’t force it. When inspiration struck, I could spend hours lost in putting words to paper/word processor (it would be a few years before I got another computer). When it wasn’t there, I endured a limbo fraught with frustration and insecurity that I wasn’t cut out to be a “real” writer. I still get that way today.

Social divisions in school were getting to me, which meant I probably had a crush on a popular boy. Again. The fact that I can’t remember who it was today could only mean he wasn’t that special or worth all the agonizing I did over him, but really, how many unrequited crushes really are? My depressed penpal Tim was another crush, even though I knew he was too gloomy for me.

As I mentioned before, the headline for my high school experience was John Hughes Lied to Me. While the films accurately portrayed high school to an extent — especially the cliques represented in The Breakfast Club — I was growing more dubious that an 80’s magical makeover and/or happy ending was in store for me. I had given up on popularity and tried to take ownership of my misfit-but-not-quite status and develop my own identity. Which would have been easier if I was able to channel continuously channel all that teen discontent into creative outlets, but I was being failed on that front. I had nothing new to articulate, and the journal we had to keep for Creative Writing wasn’t providing any comfort or catharsis.

Ms. Donaldson had a good point. My expectations for the journal were unrealistic, much like my expectations for lots of other things (love and life, to name two). I thought the log would be some magical source of insta-inspiration, but it often became a chore to fill those lined pages. Much like writing of any form can feel like a chore. It didn’t dawn on me just how much discipline — and even tedium — was involved in being a good writer. It’s something I still struggle with.

Luckily, I was still expanding my pool of musical muses, with the Cure, patron saints to angsty teens everywhere, entering into the rotation. Nine Inch Nails was my gateway drug into goth/alternative music, but the Cure was another catalyst. Robert Smith provided a musical prism of bipolar despair and a catalog a less agressive than Trent Reznor’s, but more nuanced in its emotion. It was still taking me some time to adopt the classics, but slow and steady I was getting there.

And a film on muscle? 17 years later and that still sounds ridiculous to me.

[December, 1994] The Concert That Changed My Life

After all the waiting and obsessing, it was finally time for the Nine Inch Nails concert. I expected an intense, thrilling show that would blow me away and that night I got one… only not from Nine Inch Nails.

The Limelight

12/7/94

“Nothing quite like the feel of something new” – NIN

NIN COUNTDOWN: 1 DAY

Robin sprained his finger. It bloody figures. My face got comments. Claudia and I were one of the first ones to find out (“don’t say ‘cancelled’ POSTPONED” I heard through the walkie-talkie).

The Limelight was fantastic, my ears are still ringing with Killing Joke (more likely feedback). Maybe I’ll write a story about that. Hmm… I’ve gotten over my fear of mosh pits. If we don’t find a way to get floor seats tomorrow—no we will find a way. We have to.

“Uncertainty can be a guiding light” – U2

Claudia and I got to Madison Square Garden early and lined up outside the arena. The reason my “face got comments” was because I drew three black spikes under each eye with eyeliner (inspired in part by The Crow without copying it straight out). We stood near a security guard and when I heard the words “cancelled” and “postponed” I thought I was in for one of the biggest disappointments of my teenage life. All that anticipation, only to have Robin Finck, the guitarist for Nine Inch Nails, sprain his finger and unable to play that night. However, there were two saving graces. The first was the fact that the NIN show would only be delayed by one day, with all existing tickets being honored the next night.

The second was a group of guys handing out free passes to a different show that night at The Limelight: Killing Joke. I heard of the band but was only familiar with a song or two of theirs from their latest album, Pandemonium, which were played on MTV’s alternative shows late at night. Seeing as my parents gave me a free pass to stay out late and sleep over Claudia’s house that night, I didn’t want the evening to go to waste and hoped we could still get an adventure out of it.

...

The Limelight was a converted church that played a prominent part in New York’s club scene in the 1990’s (the movie Party Monster was based on the gruesome true events surrounding the club kids and this venue, which was central to their partying). I had never been in a nightclub of any kind before and could sense the dark and debauched vibe when I walked in. Much of the church décor still remained, the pews and filigreed arches mixing with disco lights, dry ice, and metal catwalks to create a dim, disorienting, multi-leveled maze of a club.

I don’t know if it was an all-ages show, but I was just shy of 17 then and too intimidated to do much exploring, so I kept to the stage area, hoping the live show would live up to the surreal surroundings.

The opening act involved an array of sideshow performers eating glass, laying on a bed of nails, and spewing fire. The finale was particularly disturbing and featured a young woman cutting her arm, filling a cup with her own blood and then drinking it. At one point, her knees buckled a little and it looked like she would faint. This may have been part of the act, but I believed it all and was utterly riveted. It was the type of act The Jim Rose Circus, who found pop culture fame as a notorious part of the early Lollapalooza festivals, took on the road, but seeing it up close like that shook me up, in a good way. I was equally fascinated and repulsed.

Finally Killing Joke took the stage, and their metal/industrial-edged music quickly inspired a mosh pit (my first up close experience with one). I remained at the edge of it, avoided the kicking, thrashing whirlpool of bodies and felt like I was absorbing the music with all my senses. The songs were surprisingly melodic despite the aggressive guitars and Jaz Coleman’s vocals, which altered between singing and shrieking.

I had never experienced music on such a visceral level before. Between the setting, the gory opening act, and the mosh pit, there was this sense of barely-controlled chaos to the evening. And as dramatic as it may sound, there was something almost transcendent about it. I knew music was a powerful force, but that I night I experienced a whole other level to it, and even though I can’t exactly say how, I know it changed me.

[November, 1994] The Crush Report

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11/9/94

“I’m drunk and right now I’m so in love with you.” – NIN

NIN COUNTDOWN: 28 DAYS

Yes, the countdown has moved up 2 days because I’m going to the Wednesday show (after Claudia the Wonderful gets us tickets). It was an up day. Don’t care about randomness too much. T.W. Wrote back, just what I need. Wonders indeed (I use that word too much. Even though I don’t use it all that often). Chorus sub looks like a Depeche Mode reject. Bad thing? Naw.

“Love comes in colors I can’t deny” – S.P. [Smashing Pumpkins]

More of my teenage code in this entry, but I’m actually able to decipher most of it.

Collecting crushes became something of an inadvertent hobby for me when I was 16. It was rare for me to go more than a couple of months (or even weeks) without having at least one target for my boy craziness, but sometimes I accumulated a few. I remember a lot of them today, but still can’t recall who “Wonderfully Random” was. If it wasn’t Neil, the younger punk kid, it was some classmate I decided was cute and crush-worthy.

However, none of that mattered because I was smitten with Tim Wunderlich from his first letter (and because of his last name, I was fond of making bad puns using the word “wonders.” Sorry.). He was frustrated and jaded and had the furious male scrawl of a teenage malcontent. Tim lived in a small town full of ignorant people, where he was called a “faggot” because he wore his hair a little long and listened to bands like The Cure and Cocteau Twins. He felt imprisoned and misunderstood, which was something I could identify with (as could just about any other adolescent, I imagine). Even though I lived in one of the most dynamic cities in the world, Hunter was a small school which felt like a microcosm unto itself, a brick prison full of kids who were smart, but not wildly eclectic or unusual–at least not on the surface. And while I had momentary escapes from the school, it dominated my social existence for a long time, and I felt more pressure to fit in than stand out. Tim did as well, but fought back against that pressure and did not pretend to be something he wasn’t. That quality in both Tim and Neil were big reasons I had crushes on them (on top of finding them generally attractive, of course).

You could do a lot worse than having your sub look like this.

Then there was, of course, the “Depeche Mode reject,” which was in reference to a substitute teacher who bore a striking resemblance to Dave Gahan, the band’s lead singer. Even though I was not a fan of the group as a kid, I did gradually like them more and more as my music tastes evolved. And while Dave Gahan was no Trent Reznor, he did have a certain physical appeal at times. And having a temporary chorus teacher who had a similar slender, dark-haired, broody, pale British look to him made me… rather uncomfortable. It was the first–and possibly only– time, I felt attracted to a teacher (not counting my girl crush on Ms. Donaldson, which had no sexual component to it). I was embarrassed by this crush, because it felt taboo to have lustful feelings for a so-called authority figure. Much like the crush on Neil felt wrong because he was so much younger than me, this felt wrong because Mr. Pseudo-Gahan was considerably older than me…  and because I kept picturing him starring in music videos wearing leather pants. I could barely even look at him in the classroom for fear of blushing. Luckily, he only subbed for a few chorus sessions.

[September, 1994] Liz Phair Brought Me Up And Let Me Down

January 12, 2011 5 comments

 

What Liz Phair was...

9/22/94

“Some things are melting now” – Tori Amos

I went to HMV today and got a great tape, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.  Her second release, Whip-Smart just came out and I’ll probably get that fairly soon.  Exile is just so good, there are 18 songs and not one of them suck.  Her voice isn’t amazing or anything but I like that, it’s earthy.  I’m also interested in getting some earlier Afghan Whigs.

Oh Liz Phair. There’s such a muddle of impressions that comes to mind when I think of her. So much surprise and admiration at first, so much disgust and disappointment later on, so much indifference in-between.

Let’s go back to the glorious beginning, when a girl in Chicago recorded an album in her bedroom or basement on an eight-track or four-track or however many tracks it is that gives you the most indie cred. This evolved into Exile in Guyville, and was hailed as an 18-song lo-fi masterpiece.

It wasn’t the sort of music I would normally go for. Phair’s range as a singer was (is) limited, so the vocals were flat/monotonous. The production values weren’t spectacular, and all the songs were rough around the edges. The album’s title was cheesy. And yet…

From the first song on the first side (yes, let’s not forget I got the cassette), I was hooked the moment she sang, “And I kept standing 6’1″, instead of 5’2″, and I loved my life, and I hated you.” Here was a woman we could all relate to. She got hung up on the wrong guys, she was ostracized, but deep down she knew she was worth something. She had moments of triumph, she had orgasms, she got pissed off, she talked back. If Tori Amos was the crazy aunt who baked pot brownies and pranced around the backyard in fairy wings, Liz Phair was cool older sister who teaches you about what guys want, remembers what it was like not to be cool, and reassures you that you’ll come out okay on the other side.

Exile in Guyville was a raw and sexy breath of fresh air for me (as were Afghan Whigs, in an irresistible-boyfriend-from-hell kind of way). I got Phair’s first album just as the second one, Whip-Smart, was making her an alterna-MTV darling. Whip-Smart was more hit-and-miss, but had enough remnants of the debut sound to make it acceptable and also got more commercial attention. So Exile remained more of a gem for the “true fans.”

Then I went off to college and got her third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, which was surprisingly slick and striving to be pop-like and utterly forgettable.

...and what she became.

And then in 2003 came a fourth, self-titled album. And yeah, she was straddling a guitar in a way that looked more contrived than empowered, and yes, she collaborated with a duo who wrote songs for Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne, but maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad.

And then I heard the single, “Why Can’t I?” and it was all that bad and a bag of crap chips. I didn’t get the album, but I did see her in concert, hoping that the earlier better material would redeem the show. It didn’t. To make things worse, she acquired a dull, generic fratty crowd that looked like they were there to see Dave Matthews Band. To make things worse, the songs they cheered on the most were the new ones I couldn’t stand.

In interviews, Liz Phair defended selling out, saying she had a son to support, and who doesn’t want success, and blah-blah-look-at-me-posing-in-a-trucker-hat-wearing-an-american-flag-in-the-shower-like-an-idiot-blah. Attaining commercial success is one thing; doing so while stripping all quality, charm, talent, and intelligence from your creative work is another.

I’m not happy to write this, but I wonder if Liz Phair was never a real artist, if she was just a fluke. She used to use her sex appeal in an unapologetic, playful way, to spread the word on her music, which was actually worth something. But ever since that commercially-successful/creatively abysmal fourth album (to this day, I could only hear it all the way through once) there’s been something increasingly used up and desperate about her, like she knows nothing she ever does again will have the same magic of Exile in Guyville, not even a little bit. And I can’t help but feel somewhat betrayed and swindled for ever loving her in the first place.

Who knows, maybe she still has a great album in her somewhere, maybe that gritty/clever/smirking woman will be ressurected and prove me wrong. Can’t say I’m counting on it, though.