Welcome to Alive in the Nineties

Essays on 90s music, serialized as a kind of music memoir, sort of.

Welcome to my newsletter. I’m not sure this is a legit newsletter. It’s not newsy. It’s arguably too long to be a letter. Half of the content isn’t even new. Some is. Mostly it’s just newly organized into a sequence on Substack in order to serialize some rock ‘n’ roll essays inwhat I’d intended to be a music memoir. Instead of doing a traditional print book, I decided to publish these essays this way instead. I love peoples’ newsletters. I love how accessible Substack is, love the reach and long-tail of online publishing, and I’m burned out on certain aspects of traditional publishing. So here we go: Alive in the Nineties: Coming of Age as a Listener, published on a platform we never could’ve imagined in the 90s. Like a book with a back cover, this newsletter will have an end—maybe 13 installments.

Iconic and obscure bands it will cover include Beck, Jane’s Addiction, Meat Puppets, Calexico when they were a two-piece, Bad Brains, Mr. Bungle, Sublime (I know <eyes roll> but it’s their story through the prism of their final, fateful show), the instrumental desert lounge band Friends of Dean Martinez, guitarist Dex Romweber of Flat Duo Jets, the psychedelic surf sound of the Mermen, the cult Japanese dub rock band Fishmans, the pre-Grunge Seattle pop band The Macs, Rob Vasquez — Seattle’s most incredible and least known garage guitarist — maybe The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” and some other stuff that’s stewing in my mind, and closing with my embrace of elevator music in middle age, which would shock the young me.

This is the young me:

Do I look stoned? After I snapped this pic at my university student union, I walked straight to Supercuts and had them chop all my hair. I could tell I was balding up top, so I went with it. I also had a lot of split ends.

The point is, this newsletter covers some of my favorite old bands, which are bands that Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life didn’t, or couldn't, cover. Azerrad’s is a killer book. I reread it all the time, partly to keep educating myself on how to write about music, partly because the Butthole Surfers chapter is so hilarious. Sure, he left out lots of incredible underground bands. he probably left out some of your favorites, as he did mine. But Azerrad couldn’t possibly fit any more bands in his book. So I decided to write some of those bands’ stories, just not as well as he could have. When I’ve mention this Alive in the Nineties project, people often tell me, “Oh, you HAVE to write about so-and-so.” But I’m just writing about music I liked or that stayed with me. These are my bands. Maybe some are yours, too. If not, hopefully these essays will show them to you from a completely new angle. Hopefully some of it will leave you running to the music itself, leaving you laying on your living room floor, listening to headphones for hours like many of us did as teenagers.

My original plan was to publish Alive in the Nineties as a collection of rock ‘n’ roll writing about individual underground bands from this very musical era, with a personal through-line being my coming of age as a devoted listener during that time. Each chapter would focus primarily on the band’s biography, sound, and influence, while using some personal narration to move it along. Now each piece mixes band biography, cultural criticism, and memoir in different amounts. Or as we said in the 90s: whateva whateva.

Some of these stories appear here for the first time. Others were published elsewhere. Like you do in a book, I’m republishing them here to tell a larger story, and to rescue them from the void. Publishing on paper can keep your stuff out of wider circulation, but stories still get lost when published online. This newsletter is a way to share these stories with other passionate listeners, especially ones who grew up in the 90s, or who just dig the music from that time. I hope you dig these stories, too.

To start with some laughs, here’s a analog photo of my best friends and I in 1993. We found this sign while tripping on mushrooms:

Here was my early 90s thrift store fashion aesthetic, alive and well even on a forest trail:

I would never wear pants that baggy or that big a 70s-style collar anymore, but 25 years later, I still love me some surfy stripes. And I still can’t get enough rock ‘n’ roll music. Here’s Toody Cole from Dead Moon holding my daughter Vivian as a baby. We ran into Toody at Mississippi Records here in Portland. Kids need icons in their lives. Once COVID’s over, we can get her back to some live shows.

And here’s my wife and I dressed as Kurt and Courtney for a recent Halloween:

Super 90s, minus the hangover!

You can grow up and leave your hometown, but you can’t expel your childhood from you. Music hurls you right back. As a native of Phoenix, Arizona, it seems fitting that the best title I could come up with for this book is the title Phoenix’s own Meat Puppets gave their live DVD, Alive in the Nineties. Like so many pioneers, the Puppets’ timeless music reminds of a par of my life but truly belongs to no era. When it comes to fitting titles, of course they got here first.