Introduction: How I Started Thinking About 90s Music Again

I never stopped liking my old favorite bands. I just quit listening to them.

To my surprise, I didn’t turn out to be one of those people who graduated from college and kept listening to the same music. Instead, I found new bands, even when they were old bands from past decades—6os garage, 50s jazz, 2008 bedroom pop, whatever was new to me. And although I still thought most of the music I liked in high school and college was good, I rarely listened to it. Fishbone, Monster Magnet, and Wonder Stuff CDs gathered in a big box full of various bootlegs that ended up in various apartment closets as I moved. The box eventually settled in the basement of the house my wife and I bought, along with a box filled with three decades’ worth of concert flyers, show posters, ticket stubs, print music magazines, alt-weekly clippings, a letter from a member of Mr. Bungle, and live rock ephemera. We organized all the jazz, Blues, soul, and evergreen CDs like The Clean, Thee Oh Sees, and Jodi Mitchell on tall shelves. The artifacts of adolescence stayed in the boxes.

Then one spring I got an email from a man named David. He was a busy German student in Frankfurt, three weeks away from completing his master's in computer science. In his limited free time, he volunteered as an administrator at Live Nirvana, a web archive dedicated to preserving Nirvana’s legacy.

He’d seen a tweet of mine where I mentioned that the first show I ever recorded was a December 29, 1991 Nirvana show, twenty-five years ago. Pearl Jam opened. Their debut album Ten had only come out four months earlier. The only reason I remembered this twenty-five year anniversary was because that night, a friend had posted live footage of Pearl Jam playing in Daly City, California, a show which took place two days after the show we saw in Phoenix, Arizona. The band’s perpetual pogoing and swinging hair, the way singer Eddie Vedder climbed the huge speakers that hung dangerously high above the stage, how he stage-dived multiple times during Nirvana’s set, which probably pissed off singer Kurt Cobain—everything in the footage looked as I remembered from my show, and for the first time, in that impossible way, it felt like reliving it.

Sure, I know Pearl Jam is no Radiohead. Back in the late-90s they weren’t as cool to like as, say, Fugazi or Seattle garage bands like The Fallouts, and Pearl Jam isn’t really cool to like now, but back but in late-91, seeing them leaping on stage was as powerful a spectacle as seeing Fugazi’s singer Guy Picciotto jump loose-limbed up and down on stage in 1995 screeching “You’re a target!” Both bands crackled with these combustible compounds of youth and imagination, that fleeting energy that powers a ferocious band for just a brief time before their time runs out. Watching Pearl Jam on screen over twenty years later conjured as powerful a sensation as hearing Fugazi tear into the first verses of “Turnover” live in front of me. 

David wasn’t interested in Pearl Jam. He wanted to know if the Nirvana recording I’d made was different than the recording he already had from that concert, which his colleagues had digitally transferred from the master tape. He sent me a link containing audio so I could check. Yes, it was a different recording. His sounded clear. Mine sounded like I’d dropped the microphone inside a washing machine.

According to David’s records, this other bootlegger taped the show on a Sony WM-D6 cassette recorder with a Realistic Miniature PZM microphone, whatever that was. I’d taped mine on a Panasonic handheld cassette recorder with a built-in microphone that my dad gave me, and also on the kind of microcassette recorder people used for dictation. Since it was my first time bootlegging a show, I used two separate machines to make sure I captured it. Both sounded awful. Yet David was excited to discover that three different recordings of this show existed. So, he said, could he get copies for the archive?

Before replying, I checked his website. Its design looked ancient but its contents were incredible. Live Nirvana had compiled an exhaustive database of every live and studio date Nirvana ever played, including demos and setlists dating back to the bands’ first show in 1987. It invited fellow collectors to contribute information about unsurfaced recordings and songs the band played but were absent from circulating sources. The site’s administrators scoured the world to make copies of the best sounding version of every Nirvana recording, coming from sources closest to the master. Fans had created similar websites for many ‘90s bands like Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, collecting setlists, concert chronologies, flyers, photos, bootlegs, and interviews all in one place. Live Nirvana took its documentation to the extreme, transcribing every word band members said between songs at every show, providing the date that new recordings surfaced, and the website’s dizzying concert lists broke down all the different partial and complete concert recordings that existed from different sources, often with the names of the people who taped, mixed and speed-corrected them and their equipment. “While not sounding quite as good as AUD #1,” one entry said, “This source is not to be confused with the old mislabelled AUD #2, which turned out to actually be an inferior dub of AUD #1!” It was out of my league. Only completists appreciated that level of detail, but a commitment to detail was still important to history. Everyone benefits from a robust historic record.

I wrote David back with mixed news. Unfortunately, the recording he had sounded a thousand times better than the blown-out ones I made. ASU Activity Center was a vacuous high-ceiled venue with horrible acoustics. My equipment couldn’t handle the distortion. “The only song that sounds listenable is ‘Polly,’” I told him, "since it's free of the bass and kick drum that blew all the other songs out.” He was doing important work, I said, but all I could offer were scans of two different Nirvana concert flyers. My tapes were unlistenable.

“Despite your description of the sound quality of your recordings,” he said, “we’d still love to properly archive those as we aim to do that with any Nirvana recording we come across, no matter how bad it sounds or whether there are other (better) recordings around.”

It seemed nuts to go through this much trouble for something he couldn't listen to, but I understood. As a writer, I’m a partial documentarian, recording stories and preserving experiences. In the ‘90s, instead of writing, I constantly tried to bootleg shows; unfortunately, security was so stiff back then that I could only record a few after Nirvana: Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Wonder Stuff, The Bomboras, Mr. Bungle, Fishbone, Calexico, The Ziggens, and Modest Mouse. Maybe it’s my appreciation of death and the value of time, butfor some reason, my documentary impulse has always been strong, so along with audio and video recordings, I collected tons of concert flyers, and I clipped concert listings from Phoenix’s local weekly, the New Times. I still have all this stuff, along with tickets from most shows my friends and I saw—even ones we didn’t. As a diehard fan of live music, I’ve collected scores of unofficial concert recordings over the decades by trading with other fans and buying bootleg albums. I felt a kinship with these Nirvana archivists. They knew the value of bootlegs, and they were determined to gather literally every possible scrap of Nirvana data before sources died and details got lost. Unlike bootleggers, they didn't sell recordings to make a profit. They valued the music above all, and simply wanted to tell the band’s complete story in a free digital archive other fans could enjoy. Their motto: “Relive the concert experience.” I’d been trying do that for the last twenty-five years.

Yes, I said, I'd be happy to help.

He gave me the address of a collaborator in Washington that had devised ways to digitize microcassettes to get the best sound.

“Really appreciate your trust in us,” David said, “and I promise we will not disappoint you.” I didn’t just trust them. I admired them. They were exactly what the music world needed: passionate fans presenting bands’ totality in ways commercial record labels rarely do. It just felt strange to have my youth become archival material.

As thanks, David sent me Kurt Cobain’s infamous 1986 Fecal Matter home demo. I appreciated it, but weeks passed before I played it. I rarely listened to Nirvana anymore. It all sounded too familiar now. The significance of our exchange interested me more.

His message arrived like a transmission from another era, or a reminder about what had happened back then. When he wrote in 2017, many elements of ’90s culture have returned to mainstream America. People wore Birkenstocks again, high-waisted “mom jeans,” Nirvana t-shirts, beanies, and flannel. Dreadlocks were becoming popular again among young white people, like they had during the Soul Asylum days. And of course the music got popular again, too. Young bands cover Nirvana. They cite Gish as an influence. On its website, Mr. Bungle started selling baby onesies featuring their band logo. This is a good thing.

For laughs, every once in a while my wife Rebekah and I will go down a ’90s video rabbit hole on YouTube, bouncing from one forgotten single to another for hours on a Friday night: Nirvana leads to Cracker leads to Veruca Salt leads to Oasis, then to Charlatans UK, James (“This bed is on fire with passionate love!”), Ned's Atomic Dustbin, The Jellyfish, Destiny’s Child, PM Dawn (which I love) and Jodeci. “Wow,” we’d say, “I’d totally forgotten about Jodeci!” But of course we did. Twenty-five years had passed.

Twenty-five years. It isn’t often that you can say you did something twenty-five years ago. At least, it didn't use to be. I used to be young.

I was 42 when David contacted me. I’m 45 now. I've reached that age where the bands of my youth have started dying or releasing 25th anniversary editions of the albums I saw come out: Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de Lo Habitual (classic), STP’s Core (sucks), Pearl Jam’s Ten (watershed moment, even if you don’t like the music). Mr. Bungle’s insane self-titled is 25 years old, though no commercial publication seemed to celebrate that. Bands like Soundgarden repackaged early albums like Ultramega OK with outtakes and unreleased tracks. Sublime has now released more albums posthumously than in life. Temple of the Dog and Pixies did reunion tours. Mother Love Bone even has a box set. (Mother Love Bone is such a horrible band name.) Recordings you could only get on bootlegs have finally ended up on official albums, remastered and polished from original sources—not that many people buy albums anymore. The music business has changed. The necessity of music has not, and listeners all over the world still dig hearing the music of the ’90s. Some of them lived it. Some of them listen and wish they had.

My conversation with David put me into a nostalgic state, thinking hard about my '90s coming of age, for the first time in a decade. This all accelerated after my daughter Vivian was born the summer after David contacted me. Few things make you feel further from your childhood than having a child of your own. Digging through old photos expanded that gap, like this pic from 1994 that our friend Candy sent:

JR’s gorgeous golden locks, and my big ’70s chops.

And this pic at Dean’s high school graduation. Look at my thrift store collared shirt and Jason’s wildly striped shirt. I used to wear a hair tie around my wrist. Now I’m so bald I’ve shampooed with dish soap in a pinch!

But it was the music as much as the pics that kept me connected and uplifted me when I missed our past.

Rebekah and I were driving to a wedding. Our two-month old Vivian slept in the back seat. Feeling old and wistful, I brought Jane’s Addiction’s first album, Triple X, with us to play in the car. It used to be a favorite, but I hadn’t listened to it in at least 10 years. From the moment the first song “Trip Away” came on, it hit me with the same force it had as a teen. My head filled with thoughts that only my adult self could think, like how certain Jane’s lyrics influenced me as much as things my parents taught me, and how nervous that made me for our daughter. As I drove, I scribbled these revelations down in my journal. (Safely. I set the notebook on my lap and don’t look at what I’m writing. Then I pray it’s legible.) As Rebekah and Vivian drifted to sleep, I listened to the whole album front to back, and I had the best time drumming on the steering wheel and hearing Perry's banshee voice howl over Dave Navarro’s guitar. Once we got home, I started digging through that box of old CDs in the basement. Yes, CDs. We have records, too, and mp3s and streaming services, official and bootleg live recordings. As long as I can hear music, I don’t care about the medium. But some of these CDs have traveled with me through life since they came out, moving from high school to college, Arizona to Oregon to New York and back, through countless boxes and living situations, until finally settling on the shelves or in the box. One day the CDs will all belong to Vivian, if she wants them. For now, I keep digging deeper into my collection, blowing the proverbial cobwebs off old favorites.

Like scents and certain foods, music brings back memories, and the feelings aren't always good ones. Certain songs reminded me of fights with my parents. They reminded me of dark times doing drugs when I should have been studying, or how I failed to honor my Granddad's invitation to spend time with him in his home workshop, learning to work wood, before he died. I felt as much guilt from that era as I did happy memories. But the same mix of emotions marked those days. My grandparents had died. My dad was sick. I was married and had a kid. A kid! My nieces had kids. I wondered if I had my first ulcer. Seeing my beloved Chris Cornell die suddenly, and Perry Farrell get plastic surgery, really hit me hard, but seeing the release of an expanded edition of the 1992 Singles soundtrack hit me harder. Midlife itself is a kid of rerelease, where you get to expand on your life in a new improved edition and reflect on the original. As I returned to that beautiful time in life, in history, I figured I might as well use my nostalgia constructively, so I started writing essays about America’s musical past. To my surprise, I’d already written stories about a few favorite 90s bands like Meat Puppets and Flat Duo Jets without thinking of them that way. I just liked the bands, so I’d written about them. That was my natural impulse with favorite things, and it turned out to be one way the 90s came with me into the 21st century. Looking back, it’s shocking how many of my favorite musicians were killed or nearly ruined by heroin in the 90s—a shock and a shame. How do I explain the drug’s prevalence to my daughter? Or explain my attraction to bands that used heroin? Or explain my own use to her? Obviously drug use is not something to glorify, and hopefully these Alive in the Nineties stories don’t glorify it. But no matter the havoc it’s brought, musicians keep using it. Looking back at my 90s bands, I was relieved to see other musicians who never used drugs at all.

Having become a devoted rock ‘n’ roll fan in my youth, my dedication never wavered, so I’ve kept going to shows, kept discovering new bands, and kept writing about music. As important as music is, time has showed me that music isn’t everything, and I am grateful to have a family to share this abiding love with, and a daughter to introduce music to. For me, family and music have always been connected. Although the 90s made me a lifelong listener, it all started with my father long before.

When I was a kid, my dad and I played a game. While he drove me to elementary school, we would listen to jazz or country on the radio, and I had to guess the musician. “Who’s that?” Dad would say.

I’d tilt my ear toward the speaker. “Duke Ellington.”

Then during the next song Dad would smile and glance at me sideways. “Who’s that?”

“Sachmo,” I’d say. And Count Basie, Bennie Goodman, Bob Wills and Buck Owens. After a few years, I could name scores of them. I’ve told this story before.

We were a musical family, and Dad came from one, too. His brother Rick played piano for a lot of country bands around Phoenix, Arizona, and eventually spent years touring and recording with outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings. Dad played a little piano himself, but never at the level he wanted. It was a hobby. So was his love of music, even though his knowledge was vast enough to be scholarly. Big band and swing were Dad’s thing, not bop, so as a kid, jazz became our thing. We listened to it at home. We listened to it on family road trips. Dad and I listened to it when he drove me to school. My parents and I sang Bob Wills songs on family drives around Arizona and Bing Crosby’s Christmas album every year while setting up our Christmas tree. He knew a lot about music, from technical info about piano playing to the history of players and recording techniques. Clearly I grew into his own image, except adding rock ‘n’ roll to the jazz foundation. His jazz resisted aging. It was timeless. That wasn’t so clear for the music of my youth.

Mr. Bungle, Soundgarden, Friends of Dean Martinez, Butthole Surfers, Monster Magnet, Sublime, Flat Duo Jets—did any of this stuff hold up? Or was its power so intimately linked to the period when I first listened to it that I could never separate quality from context? Sometimes music is strictly of its time and place. A lot of local bands are like that. The further you get from the town where they play, the less impressive they sound. Music from childhood can work the same way. It’s linked with the memory of youth. How does the scatological Mr. Bungle sound from age 42? How do they stand up next to experimental rock today? Or the world music that mainstream 90s America paid too little attention to? The Sundays’ debut album Reading, Writing and Arithmetic came out in during the first month of 1990, but it sounds timeless. So does its timeless quality make Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love sound dated? As happens with every generation, a lot of new music is heavily influenced by the old music, which is the stuff I was listening to in high school. So when Ty Segall’s band took the tiny stage in Portland in 2011, I wasn’t surprised to see bassist Mikal Cronin wearing a Nirvana shirt. It was inevitable.

Nirvana is now this legendary band, and many young people are shocked that I saw them. In 2020, a fellow new dad recently told me, “You’re old enough to have seen Nirvana?” What once made me proud now made me sad. I am, I thought, but don’t hold that against me. He thought I was in my thirties. I felt like I should have paid him for the compliment. I doubt my aging face will let many people make that generous mistake for much longer. Me and thousands of other people saw them. But still, to people who never had that chance, it seems very special. To me, that concert was special. But overall, my ’90s experience wasn’t special. I didn’t have backstage access. I wasn’t rooming with musicians whose friends got famous. My friends and I weren’t sitting on stage while Mudhoney played “Touch Me I’m Sick” in 1988. We were just another bunch of longhaired dudes jumping around in the crowd, with me trying to preserve shows on a tape recorder and live my best life. What made it special was the way history deemed so much of the music as special, and how that music shaped me. Being shaped by music is one hallmark of youth. Music defines us. It marks eras in our lives, and you never forget the soundtrack of your formative years. 

Every child of the '90s had their different gateway ‘80s music: The Cure, Love & Rockets, Liz Phair, Bauhaus, Oingo Boingo. For me, my life as a hardcore music fan started around fifth grade with INXS’s song “Original Sin” from their new wave album The Swing, and Duran Duran songs like “Union of the Snake” and “Wild Boys,” from Arena. This led to Depeche Mode. Bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Mudhoney opened the gateway further, leading me deeper into the musical underground just as it crossed from the subculture into the mainstream. The experience left me here in my forties, still listening to rock ‘n’ roll as passionately as I did in high school, still discovering old bands like The Macs and Nights and Days that I’d missed back in the day.

These are the stories of some of those bands. They’re the bands that helped define me and define a decade after Mother Love Bone launched the whole Grunge thing, and it’s the story of one fan’s coming of age to music in youth and into midlife. Every era has its definitive music. Unlike the 1960s, music, more than politics or any cohesive movement, helped define the early ’90s. As Beck told a crowd one time, he wrote “Pay No Mind” as a protest song, but back then, there wasn’t much to protest. This was my ‘90s. Maybe it was yours, too. 

One thing to remember about the ’90s is that it wasn’t one thing. There were many different ’90s. There was the late ’90s and early ’90s, rock to hip hop to country ’90s. (Shout out to The Real Book Dude, who’s writing a book about ’90s country.) It’s dangerous to think of the era in absolutes: grunge and flannel and big pants sagging down your ass. My experience in Arizona was a universe apart from the countrified ’90s someone had in North Carolina listening to Garth Brooks, or the hip-hop ’90s of Bed Stuy. Or the pop-punk experience of Warped Tour and all those sound-alike, neck-tattoo “SoCal” bands wearing long shorts and socks pulled up to their knees. Sorry, I hated that stuff. Just like I was back then, I’m still an opinionated listener, just less of an asshole about it. Like whatever you like if it brings you joy. We need joy in our lives, and music forges deep human connections, so why should anyone care what music you like?

Which is to say, my early ’90s was stomping boots and distorted guitars. My ’90s wasn’t Front 242 or Elliott Smith, Built to Spill or Grateful Dead tours. It wasn’t the Liz Phair and Enya of my wife’s adolescence, though I came to love Liz Phair later and reget the time it took. My ’90s was The Flaming Lips’ “She Don't Use Jelly,” Pharcyde and Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys. It was Fugazi’s Repeater and Red Medicine and Bad Brain’s cover of “Daytripper” before I started listening to The Beatles. It was Birkenstocks and Converse, Vans, and Fresh Jive shirts, vintage clothing stores and head shops where you had to call drug paraphernalia “water pipes for tobacco.” It was girls wearing low-top Doc Martin’s with no socks and a beaded anklet. It was a deep reflective hatred of hippies and their weaved hemp chokers. You were supposed to hate hippies. I don’t anymore, and I learned to like the Dead, thanks to the Meat Puppets covering them. And of course, it was a lot of flannel. As a skater, I'd worn flannel since the sixth grade, so that transition was easy. I still love the stuff. And my ’90s was me smoking Winstons while wearing a rainbow jumpsuit I found at a thrift store.

Speaking of Birkenstocks, vintage tees, and Fresh Jive shirts: Here’s a photo of my best friends and I messing with these cops in Newport Beach, California. We asked them to hold our hands against the wall for a photo. Naturally, they refused but offered this pose instead. JR of the left was imitating them. I just can’t believe I wore socks with Birks. Man.

Another thing about the decade is that so many so-called ’90s bands like Soundgarden and Meat Puppets got their start in the ’80s, and their sound defied eras as much as genres. Decades are arbitrary divisions, but as a common language, we have to go with it.

My ’90s started when I first heard Jane’s Addiction and Mother Love Bone in 1989. My ’90s ended when Calexico grew from a two-piece to a full band in 1999, and when I discovered Sleater Kinney’s album The Hot Rock. Both bands represented opposite poles during a time in life when I felt pulled in different directions. One band hailed from Arizona, where I’d lived my entire life. One hailed from the Pacific Northwest, where I planned to move after college. Geographically, one pole represented my childhood, my past, my struggle with sobriety; one represented adulthood, clarity, and the future. The fact that Sleater-Kinney lived halfway between Portland and Seattle only confirmed the wisdom of my decision to move to the Northwest: If music this powerful came from this region, I belonged there, because I planned to become a writer, and the PNW was a land of creative people who defied convention and valued free expression. Never mind that Meat Puppets wrote some of the most original, transportive music right near my house in Phoenix, Arizona. I would only see that later. For now, I needed out.

Technically, the last show I saw in the ’90s was Calexico opening for Pavement at Alice Cooper’s club in downtown Phoenix. I came to hear Calexico and left during Pavement. I hated Pavement. Now I just hate the lead singer and regret not having stayed for his show. (My friends and I went to a huge rock show in 1992 to see Faith No More open for Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. Half the audience during Metallica seemed to be fist-pumping and literally playing air drums, so we left during that, too. I was like Fuck GNR. I'm too cool for these sell-out metalheads. I regret that now.) Then again, the ’90s also seemed to end on the night I saw Modest Mouse, another Pacific Northwest band, play in October 2000.

By the time a friend introduced me to Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica, the calendar had ticked to the year 2000, the world hadn't ended with Y2K, and all the popular bands I grew up on were no longer cool to listen to. In the fall of 2000, I filmed that Modest Mouse show right up front by the stage. The Shins opened. Sub Pop’s co-founder Jonathan Poneman saw their show in San Francisco on this tour and quickly offered them a record deal. But that night in Phoenix, The Shins had no label, and few people outside of their native Southwest had heard of them. I don't remember much about their set except it was loud and not that catchy and had too much keyboard. Maybe they didn’t have a keyboard at all? I never would have guessed that their music would end up on a movie soundtrack as as influential as Singles had been, and would help define the subsequent decade. (Hell, The Shins and Modest Mouse still play so regularly in shops around Portland that we joke about innoculating our daughter by playing her The Shins, since she’ll clearly be listening to them the rest of her fucking life.) Only years after I and everyone else fell in love with Oh, Inverted World did I realize that the band on the Garden State soundtrack was the band that dry-humped Modest Mouse’s drum set at the show I filmed. I wish I’d filmed The Shins’ set, too. For me, the '90s ended right then, with Isaac Brock singing “And that's how the world began / And that's how the world will end,” with his cuffed dark jeans and military hat looking very early Northwest, because the following week I made good on my promise and left Arizona for Oregon.

The music wasn’t the only force that led me to the Northwest. It was a trip my parents and I took to Seattle in 1994, where I fell in love the city and region that I’d come to know through the music, and I knew, just days into that trip, that I belonged in the Northwest.

More to come.