Liz Phair circa 1994 was my everything.
I’ve been thinking about this post for over a year now. In 2013, through the magic of calendars and the internet, I discovered the following year would be 2014. What is so special about this fact you may ask? Well, I’m happy you did.
1994 was a pivotal year in several ways. My first serious girlfriend. The transition from middle to high school. Most importantly for me, was music. I wasn’t the most social and willing to cultivate new friendships, so music was a constant companion. This was the year I went from whatever MTV was playing and heavy metal to music which really resonated with me.
I could write about musical movements, Lollapalooza or Kennedy when she was just a quirky MTV VJ and not a wacko right wing nut job, but I’m going to keep the focus squarely on me here.
As a 14 year old in the mid-90’s, access to good music was not easy to come by. No internet and no ride to the only true local record store in town. In the later half of the year, I would rely on my trusty subscription to Spin magazine, which in no way resembles what it eventually turned into. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
This is the year I would go from Metallica and Slayer, to Pavement and Liz Phair. From Pearl Jam to Sonic Youth. Now, I’m not saying I still don’t partake in any of the aforementioned bands. That would be at the expense of the truth in order to sound cooler than I really am. I am not cool. I never have been. And I’ve never been a person to say there isn’t room for music of all types on your shelf, or your electronic music playback device doohickey, as the kids call them.
In the first half of 1994, I was in 8th grade. The culture of my class in middle school was metal. Pantera released ‘Far Beyond Driven’ around this time, which was the absolute apex of their career. Metal, metal and after that, have some more metal. That was until a classmate of mine in Pro Time (code for homeroom) for misbehaving adolescents suggested some modern day punk/hardcore. Enter Green Day, Fugazi and NOFX. This ultimately led to Bad Religion, Shelter (punk rock Hare Krishnas. Seriously), Pennywise and The Offspring. Basically, anything on Epitaph Records. Which in turn gave way to classic punk. The Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Descendents. But again, let’s stay focused on 1994.
Speaking of the above mentioned ‘Far Beyond Driven’, this was my first purchase from the also above mentioned local record store, Ernie November. Anyone from Sioux Falls reading this post knows what I’m referring to. It’s still in town, as far as I know, just not in the same old location, which is kinda sad. As an East Side kid, it was quite the bike ride from Hilltop across town to West 12th Street. I’d have to convince my dad (never my mother) to take me and hang out in his truck while I perused the CD and vinyl racks. Side note. You know how vinyl would periodically be on the verge of a big comeback? This was one of those times, and we still had a working turntable at the house. I still have ‘Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star’ on CD and vinyl. Don’t ask me, I was 14 and didn’t know how to manage money. Buying the same album in two different formats seemed reasonable.
At the time, Ernie November was staffed by guys much older than me who were very serious about music and played in local bands. If you went in and bought something dumb, like Candlebox (not sure if they even sold this album there, but just for the sake of this scenario), you would be laughed at as you left or get a heavy sigh and eye roll while at the counter. I can’t imagine how the cash register held up from the drawer angrily slamming. I could write more about the loud music, overbearing patchouli smell and other scandalous items, and believe me we could go into great detail on the impression this left on a 14 year old, but this is more about the music.
Grunge music. Oh, grunge music. This was the year Kurt Cobain of Nirvana killed himself. I don’t remember lighting a candle or shedding a tear for him. At this point, I was sort of over Nirvana by the time 1994 had closed out. I liked ‘Unplugged…’ and fell asleep to it quite a bit, but the whole Seattle movement had started to die down at this point. At least for me. Soundgarden released ‘Superunknown’ in the spring, and Pearl Jam released ‘Vitalogy’ later in the year, but other than that, Seattle didn’t have a ton to say. For me, this was the year the following bands came out of nowhere and onto my stereo.
While on a Sunday afternoon trip to the 1/2 Price Store (remember those?) with my mom in the fall, I moseyed on over to Best Buy next door. I remembered an article or review from Spin letting me know Liz Phair was the “queen of indie.” I’m not sure what that meant, but they said it was awesome, so I bought it. This was a period of time when you just had to buy a CD based on a review or hearing a couple of songs. Or one song. If the album sucked, sorry kid, you were out $15. The first track is “Chopsticks” and it is literally Liz Phair talk-singing in the way she does while the piano tune we all know is played underneath. The lyrics immediately struck me. It was all about her meeting a random dude at a party and having sex with him. Here’s the line that really jumped at me. “He said he liked to do it backwards/I said that’s just fine with me/That way we can fuck and watch TV” Now, my mom would probably like to think I didn’t use this language or knew what Liz was talking about, but I was trading baseball cards for N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew tapes when I was 11, so, sorry ma. What was shocking for me was a woman sort of owning objectifying a man and using him for her own ends. Music had never really been about that for me. It had been a lot of male bravado up until that point. The rest of the album was like nothing I’d heard. For as grunge as grunge was, it was still produced in a very slick manner. This was not. The songs were short like punk songs, but were something entirely different.
A couple weeks later I purchased an album I had read about over and over again and finally decided to buy. ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ by Pavement is one of my all-time favorite albums to this day. It was sloppy yet effortless and masterful, and the guys who made it didn’t give a shit. But they did give a shit. Did they give a shit? Wait, I don’t give a shit if they give a shit or not. Anyway, if I ever had to write a sentence or thought about Pavement, that would probably be the best way I can describe them. These two albums really changed the way I thought about music and what music could be. They were artists who were given some time in the spotlight so the few who were paying attention could hold on to them as long as they were around or making quality music (ahem, Liz Phair). It opened the door to bands like Superchunk, Guided By Voices, Archers of Loaf, Built to Spill and on and on and on. I could literally list dozens more. I have several Spotify playlists dedicated to this personal musical review journey thing I’ve been on this year. All this made me realize that just because a band wasn’t constantly in rotation on MTV or “commercially viable,” it didn’t make them invalid from a quality perspective. It also opened my eyes to music that was already out there and had been around for awhile. With the help of friends and cool uncle, I was turned on to the likes of the Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Smiths, the Clash, Minutemen and the Velvet Underground.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to fly a snob flag here. I bought that Hootie and the Blowfish album, although I never dabbled in Phish. Proto-bro rock, I suppose you could call it. I went through a Led Zeppelin phase, a Beatles phase and so on while in high school. I bought popular grunge and alternative albums in the 90’s. I have almost every Smashing Pumpkins album from the 90’s. We all like what we like. If your thing is 80’s hair metal or gangsta rap, that’s fine. This was just my little musical journey. And this was just the year I took a hard left and went beyond Billboard and MTV.