On Friday night, I’m going to see The Breeders celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their album Last Splash as a part of Pygmalion Fest in Champaign-Urbana. They’re playing the whole album in its entirety and it should be a good time for Gen X types to consider their own mortality while being enthralled in the nostalgia trip that we had all promised ourselves we wouldn’t get caught dead doing while flying the flannel all those years ago in somebody’s basement bedroom. Earlier this week, Nirvana’s In Utero was a bonus-laden remastered/reissued/re-release replete with obligatory deluxe 180g vinyl issue (I pre-ordered mine weeks ago) at a price tag of about fifty bucks. While twenty years ago, the third (and ultimately final) Nirvana album would cause hours of fanboy debate over its uncompromised sound and its willful transgressed denial of a post-Nevermind world, most of these memories have been glossed over by revisionists who see it now as a document standing in the shadow of Cobain’s suicide. Much like Pink Moon or Closer, the music geeks and cultural soothsayers dig through the vinyl entrails to piece together letters and phrases which seemingly unlock the coded suicide note these great albums obviously are with an egocentric blind eye turned to the context of the albums as a whole. We don’t reverse engineer each album to determine the mental health of its creators, only the ones where the story ends in a greenhouse with life’s grip wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun, right?
The nostalgia market is nothing new, especially to music. In the compact disc boom of the nineties, we were bombarded with hundreds of Greatest Hits albums and best-of’s which attempted to recreate histories for bands that had maybe one hit, let alone sixty minutes of listenable music. I remember being station manager for my college radio station and receiving a cd like Firehouse’s Greatest HIts (not fIREHOSE mind you) and not knowing what was more ridiculous: the concept of Firehouse having “hits” or the snakeoil-pitch in the liner notes trying to recast the band as something beyond Aqua Net also-rans. Now, I guess you would lump bands like Firehouse, Trixter, and Britny Fox as “Second Wave Hair Metal” or “Post-Arena Rock” or “Pre-Grunge Glam Metal.” Any of those labels would fit, and suddenly, you have a movement to consider waxing philosophic on—or at the very least, a Rhino compilation documenting this “heretofore critically overlooked and commercially undervalued movement in American rock music.” The music geek a generation removed from the era would suddenly feel like they’ve possibly missed out on said unheralded scene and buy the compilation, unbeknownst to them that they are really just buying songs which made up the other twenty minutes of Headbanger’s Ball which aired between the final interview segment and last call at most bars on a Saturday night.
We ripped on these bands then, as well as the Sixties/Seventies acts which were paving the way for the nostalgia/reunion tour. Somewhere in the middle of my college years, the Harvey’s Lake Amphitheater was cashing in on Northeastern Pennsylvania’s reputation as a cultural wormhole (being about 10-15 years behind the times—an entire area code full of Woodersons from Dazed and Confused) and brought in bills such as Steppenwolf and The Edgar Winter Group or Deep Purple/ELP/Dream Theatre (yes Dream Theatre skipped ahead right to nostalgia, do not pass Go, do not wait to be mocked as uncool prog rockers). The “amphitheater” also tried to bring in Ani Difranco, but its bread and butter were classic rock with bad backs and receding hairlines. Being in college and commercial radio at the time, I had free passes to most shows between Philadelphia and New York, usually getting the “and plus one” guest list treatment, but for these shows, we were thrown fistfuls of tickets. So, out of the imp of perversion comes the desire to see how the years have treated John Kay, or to discover what does Deep Purple even sound like without their lead guitar player (Ritchie Blackmore having jumped ship to record acoustic background music for Renaissance Festivals). We would load up my minivan, laugh, rock out to the songs we knew (only with a partial self-conscious irony which would serve to sum up my generation), and watch them desperately hawk their own merchandise as if they were playing an all-ages show at Metropolis and celebrating their first release on No Idea Records. We would riff and rip on the bands while driving on our way back to the dorms, listening to Clutch or Urge Overkill or Buffalo Tom or whatever band had been pounding the airwaves at WCLH. It was a good time, and more often than not, the show wasn’t a five alarm dumpsterfire (save for the forty five minute rendition of “Frankenstein” which resulted in the Edgar Winter Group nearly getting booed off stage). Then again, most of my college friends weren’t full-on music geeks like me. The real music egg-heads, who would sit around the staff lounge at the campus radio station, would routinely take turns trashing these nostalgia acts.
Now these same former college dj’s will stand in pissing down rain to watch the bands that meant something to them get back on stage and attempt to rekindle some lost magic. It would be easy for me to offer the argument that bands like The Breeders or Soundgarden or Girls Against Boys or The Pixies are different because they were critical darlings who made a career out of creating albums which defined genre and generation, but in other ways, how different is it really? Only those who have remained silent seem to remain above the fray (Nirvana, Husker Du, and until recently The Replacements or Black Flag—but that’s a whole other can of worms), but what has changed? Gen X is slouching towards middle age and twentieth anniversary high school reunions—we’ve gone from newlywed to recently-divorced; from Keystone Light to Samuel Smith to Bud Light Platinum. Our record collection is now old enough to vote. For some of us, we are as much Wooderson when it comes to music as anyone wearing a Doobie Brothers t-shirt getting a farmer’s tan across an exposed beer gut at an Allman Brothers show just twenty years ago. Some would argue that life has caught up and lapped them when it comes to taste—things like mortgages and school clothes for the kids have trumped the need to know when the new Neko Case album drops or who the fuck are The Chvrches.
In some cases, we have just lightened up. Is it a cardinal sin to see a band from our youth reunite and play their best album? It’s a slippery slope both for the audience and artist, yes, but sometimes we have to learn to let go our critical eye and remember what made us love this music in the first place—it wasn’t some Pitchfork-level meta-discussion of the critical implication of LCD Soundsystem’s post-celebretist position to break up with one last show at Madison Square Garden—you lost your shit because “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” is fucking incredible. Moreover, buying Nirvana In Utero isn’t wholly an act of critical re-examination in the diminishing line between rock myth and Albini-produced fact—it’s the full-on assault of “Scentless Apprentice.” Teenage angst has paid off well; it’s just a far different currency being tendered than I thought all those years ago.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL and got The Chvrches LP limited white-label pressing (#101/500) from Joe Nardone’s Gallery of Sound. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.