I remember going clothes shopping with my mother in the early 90’s. There was a shop I can’t remember the name of that had this upstairs section for ”young people”. The boom of MTV filled the warehouse-chic surroundings and somewhat bedraggled teenagers wandered around zombie-like. Too cool to look like they cared. On the prowl for some new item of clothing two sizes too big for them. Jeans that went up to their armpits and giant pullovers that went down to their knees. I hated going there. I guess I didn’t feel remotely like I was one of them. Plus, being a young teenager with your mother in the presence of others of your species can feel like that scene in Game Of Thrones when Xerxes is publicly humiliated. Shame! Shame!
It’s safe to say I was neither Beavis or Butthead but neither was I a skinny guy who wore sunglasses indoors and a smiley t-shirt in winter. That was the main alternative. To become a raver. Ecstasy use was the terrorism of the day. Parents up and down the country were ringing into afternoon chat-shows, up in arms that their kid was running off to some as yet unnamed destination, to dance like an idiot and take these pills that were probably going to kill them. The papers were full of headlines about the cases of teens who took the drug and died. It sure made it seem like most people who took them didn’t make it. At the same time, alcohol was directly and indirectly killing a hundred-times more people. The problem is that Mammy and Daddy also drink alcohol so let’s just concentrate on the ecstasy.
I went to an all boys school. I know, a nightmare. It was situated on a hill in my hometown with the girls school was at the bottom of the hill. All we had in common is that we were supposed to be Catholics. There were paths downhill through the briars for daring young men to take during school hours to catch a glimpse of one of these otherworldly beings. Probably having to slay some dragons on the way. I actually had music classes in the girls school. What a fantastic mixture of excitement and embarrassment I discovered going to those. Long before that though, I came to know that our class was divided by musical taste and musical taste ruled the fashion. The boys had the names of bands scribbled on their sad-looking bags with poorly imitated logos of the said bands’ names. This helped as much as anything to tell who was who. Plus the ones with the oversized clothing were into grunge and the ones with two many conflicting colours were into electronic music. Not to forget the ones at the gates of tie-dyed hell either.
I certainly didn’t fit into any camp. I spent my afternoons lying on my bed in the afternoon sun listening to Beethoven or writing about Bach in class cause I was bored. I gave up on popular music around the time that ballads were taking over the airwaves in the late 80’s. I didn’t like the new electronic sound but neither did I go for the Seattle sound not being a fan of rock to begin with. It doesn’t mean I didn’t hear grunge music. It was everywhere. On my first date, I remember the song ”About A Girl” and the guitar sound in the verse of ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” still takes me right back to that time. A kind of timeless trigger. My cousin was into the Nirvana and I heard a lot about them from him. The day Cobain died he was visiting my house and talked about how the girls in town were walking around crying and everyone was in disbelief. It seemed like something really big had happened.
As for Pearl Jam, the other massive band of the time, well there were two guys in my class at one point. One of them was nicknamed ”Bird” and the other one was nicknamed ”Pigeon”. I remember one day saying ”There are actually two birds in the class and one of them is a pigeon”. It got a laugh from a couple of the guys but the ”pigeon” was not happy. In return, he kind of payed me a compliment by calling me ”Jeremy” after Pearl Jam’s most played song. I guess he thought we were alike. Up to the point where Jeremy spoke in class today, of course. I was very quiet most of the time but more than a few of my fellow students must have thought I had a dark side. I guess I was a nerd before their was a group name for these people. I saw myself and a couple of friends I had at the time as ”outsiders”. Later, I hung out with the cool kids. I moved about between groups a lot. Nobody knew what group I belonged to in the end. Maybe cause I belonged to none.
So time passed and the music too. Of course I heard the music of Nirvana in particular on and off over the years but never took to it. I guess I was put off by the enigmatic lyrics and the thought that Cobain probably had no idea what he singing about half the time either. How this changed was interesting. I had a girlfriend who was into rock and I started to see more and more documentaries about popular music history and culture on TV. The BBC went through this phase of bombarding viewers with show after show about different musical periods and styles. This ignited my interest and understanding of the music. Mix this with increased nostalgia I was feeling as I was getting older and I started to like Nirvana more and more. I got to hear their music as if for the first time.
Pearl Jam however were my favourites and still are. I knew the song ”Jeremy”. Who didn’t? I remember I found their CD buried behind a sofa in a student flat I was living in outside Dublin. Amazingly it still played too. I took it with me to Slovakia along with my trusty portable CD-player and none other than their seminal album ”Ten”. One of the most solid debut albums ever. Like Portishead’s first album ”Dummy” from the same decade, an album that hasn’t a single weak song on it. I associate Pearl Jam with Slovakia in particular. The story-telling lyrics, the searching for some kind of spiritual catharsis sets them apart from Nirvana who, for me, inhabited a cloudier and more toxic world.
I don’t want to ignore other bands from the time. Soundgarden’s album ”Superunknown” helped me through one of the darkest times in my life. It was suggested by a friend at the time to serve as a kind of therapy. Rage Against The Machine, although not really grunge, were also very big back then and I rediscovered them as recently as last year. Their eponymous album is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned.
It happened to me many times that I missed the boat initially when a style of music was trendy and discovered it later. I am the reverse of the cool kids who try to say they were into a band when nobody liked it but now they don’t like the band cause too many people like it. Even though the music is the same or better. It is crucial to continue to explore new musical horizons. There is so much out there to be found and the rewards are not something you can even really measure.