In a conversation at work today it suddenly dawned on me that A-level and university students today – the ones shaping our culture, for fuck’s sake – think of Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana the way those of us over 35 think of the Rolling Stones!
We are so fucking old. I know a large percentage of the readers of this blog are older than me, so, lest you think I’m a kid who’s just whingeing, let me reassure you that you’re fucking old too. I recognise that if I eventually quit drinking – and let’s not hold our breath for that – I could live another 50 years, maybe more. But the fun part is over. I already missed it. I’m not sure what I was doing when I was supposed to be having fun. That’s frustrating. I know I wasn’t studying, or working, or preparing myself for world domination. I was frittering away time, fucking around. I should have been having more fun. I think I just wasn’t sure where the fun was. I think the fun was avoiding me. I think the fun saw me heading in its direction, then turned and walked the other way, pausing only to push a grandmother in front of traffic and give me the finger.
Do you realise that Appetite For Destruction, a cultural landmark for our generation, the first album we ever heard that made smoking, drinking, drugging, swearing and whoring sound, hell, like a whole lot of fun … that album came out in 1987? 1987! That was 30 fucking years ago! Babies born when Appetite For Destruction came out are getting married, divorced and fighting over custody of the six-year-old. If you were old enough to be driving when Appetite came out, you’re well over 40. Guns N’ Roses is now classic rock, the station where your parents used to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger.
The year 1991, the year I finished my A-levels, was a groundbreaking one for music. Look at all the albums that came out that year: REM’s Out of Time, Metallica’s self-titled black album, Pearl Jam’s Ten, the Use Your Illusion albums, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, U2’s Achtung Baby and, of course, Nirvana’s Nevermind. Those albums laid the foundation for much of the music I listened to from then on, and if you look at some of my playlists, probably about a third of them is made up by those artists (hardly a week goes by when I don’t listen to Nevermind or Achtung Baby at least once). Those albums came out 26 years ago. Twenty-six years!
One of the first really great experiences I had at the cinema was Oliver Stone’s JFK. I was with Joe and a couple of other nerdy buddies, and we were absolutely entranced. Sure, I went to see movies all the time, but that was mainly just to get out of the house, or, if the stars were aligned perfectly, to find a dark place to make out. But JFK sucked me in. For three hours, I forgot who I was, where I was, what I was … I was only living in the land of Oliver Stone, a place I was too young to realise probably was not psychologically healthy to dwell. With about five minutes left in the film, right when they’re about to announce the verdict of the Clay Shaw trial, the projector broke, and I snapped back to reality with a jolt. I looked over at Joe and barely recognised him. It took a good 20 minutes to readjust to the world around me. I had been transported, and there was no going back. I devoted hours from then on to watching movies. I discovered Woody Allen, became a journalist and found my muse. That was also 26 years ago. (In a side note, do you realise Woody Allen has been making movies for 46 years?)
It was my old friend Andy’s birthday last week. I don’t get to talk to Andy as much anymore. He’s married, lives in the Caribbean and is a senior manager at Angostura – where they make the world-famous bitters and, even more importantly, rum! But apart from the rum, Andy and I don’t share a lot of common interests these days. I’ll talk to him from London like it’s Mars, and he’ll talk to me from wedded bliss like it’s Pluto. (Please give me credit for resisting a Uranus joke.) But he was my closest friend from the ages 11 to 16, and those are critical years. We went through That Awkward Stage together (Andy, unlike me, eventually pulled himself out of it), and we would stay up all night sometimes, talking about girls and wondering what, exactly, we were expected to do with them if we ever happened to find ourselves alone with them. Andy knows me as well as anyone, which might be a reason I always feel nervous talking to him. We went everywhere together, which was why I dragged him to my youth group’s weekend camp on Friday the 13th, 1986.
I was trying to set him up with my girl Michelle’s best friend. Julianne was sweet and funny and, girlfriend be damned, I found her pretty cute myself. (I would later spend a good four years of my life trying to court her, failing miserably.) Michelle and I thought they’d be just darling together, but it rained the entire weekend at camp, and even though Jules was interested, Andy decidedly wasn’t, telling me in an aside that “she looked like a drowned rat.” Fourteen years ago, I told this exact story at Andy and Julianne’s wedding. Thirty-one years. Fourteen years. Bloody hell!
I’m on the job hunt these days. There’s one I found that, if I do say so myself, I’d be awesome at, and I think they would hire me. It’s outside of this crazy world of school technology, but it’s still in my comfort zone, my sweet spot, right down the middle, I’d smack it for six. I was all ready for it, and then I realised…
There was this girl. I won’t get into the particulars, but I had known her for some time and admired her from afar. Then she announced she was moving to a different city. Almost accidentally, one drunken night, we confessed feelings for each other. Then she was gone, and I never saw her again. I was gutted for a while, but life went on, and I found a whole new set of problems and women to vex me. I left her well enough alone, kept my distance, never contacted her, figured she could go on with her life.
Then I applied for this job. And I realised, with a heavy sigh, that she now works there, a senior staff member, the type of person who looks at all the CVs, and there’s no fucking way in God’s green earth that she’d ever work in the same office with me. I’m an aberration, a tumour. The chaos with her happened almost five years ago, but with all that’s occurred since then, it might as well have been 20. We are old, and we know that we are old when five years is a lifetime. Five years is always a lifetime. It’s a wonder we live long enough to string so many five-year spans together.
But they add up, and next thing you know, it’s all history, and it never stops, and we leave trails of our past behind us, slugs of time. The Stones retire, Andy and Jules get older, Kurt Cobain gets dead. And we keep moving along, never quite making sense of all of it, wondering how and when, exactly, “Paradise City” ended up sandwiched between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California” on the radio.
When you add it all up, Manchester United and Woody Allen and the penis insecurity and the fear of ex-girlfriends and the whole I’m-a-bit-nerdy-so-bear-with-me thing that I fall back on when I get scared, little of it matters… of the few things that ever really made an impact in my 20s, one of the biggest was Nirvana. Little else, even put together, comes close.
It’s easy to forget this. It has been a long time. Over two decades since Nirvana first seared that thing deep into our brain, made us feel like there was this whole other planet out there, good lord, what is out there, could there be more people like this, there couldn’t be, no way…
You see… we have grown old. We have changed. We are working 9-to-5 jobs now. We are worrying about the economy. We wonder where we’re going in our careers. We don’t want someone to release the plague in Trafalgar Square. We wonder if we’re missing out on the primes of our lives. We wonder if anyone will ever love us. That thing, that part of us that once flared up, previously undiscovered, where did that come from? We try to muffle it.
We discover new things. We find our new obsession. Some of us get married. Some of us devote ourselves to making money. Some of us giggle when we see our company’s commercial come on television. We forget. We forget what happened.
We rationalise it. We were young and stupid, we didn’t know shit. Man, that was college, or that was uni, or that was my 20s, dude. Yeah, that was a great song and everything… but a song’s a song. We were just kids.
Don’t you remember? It hasn’t been that long, has it? Come on, man… you remember. I know you do.
Everybody remembers when they first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Laugh if you will, mock us for being stupid twenty-somethings who never had to fight for anything in our lives, we get it, and we agree. But you ask any of us, we still know where we were when we saw the video for the first time.
You have to keep in mind, we were listening to bands like Warrant at the time. We were listening to Guns N’ Roses. We were telling ourselves that Axl Rose was the new Mick Jagger. We were looking for something, and, unable to find it, we just figured we’d take what we could. You have to cut us some slack here. We didn’t know they were coming.
So when that happened, the experience bore such a deep hole in us, we can all tell you when we first saw it. All of a sudden, some other force showed up. All of a sudden, something new happened, something we never could have anticipated. Where did they come from?
This weird little guy, not singing, not really, but not just screaming either. He was like a bent garden hose finally straightened, a spring uncoiled, a live wire with too much current running through it, as Jimi Hendrix was famously described. Sure, the song rocked, which was what caught our attention in the first place, but there was something else, something authentic, something afraid and pained and sardonic and intelligent and hopeful… and furious.
This sound was so unusual, we had no idea what to make of it. Who were these guys? You heard rumours. They were bisexuals. They were Satanists. I hear Axl hates them. One of them had a baby born addicted to cocaine. A friend of mine, still confused, threw away his CD after hearing that Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had kissed on Saturday Night Live and became convinced Kurt Cobain’s garbled lyrics were going to make him gay.
But man, did it hit us. Everything changed… like that. Suddenly everything we’d been doing up to that point was ridiculous. Authenticity was suddenly what mattered. Really believing, really caring. Sure, like everything eventually, what Nirvana meant was warped over time, and you could buy pre-ripped jeans at Gap and “Grunge!” compilation CDs. But you can’t deny that it was there, and it was pure. Suddenly, something was important. We just wanted to eat something that wasn’t spoon-fed to us; we wanted that fire. It really was a revolution, however brief and fleeting it was. And it was all started by one song, one verse, one chord, one man.
Sure, we’ve changed. Nirvana is classic rock now. But Kurt is as woven into the fabric of our lives as our first date, or our first love, or our first death in the family, or our first broken heart. Or did you forget?
Don’t you remember the first time you got your hands on the In Utero album? Or hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” on the radio? Don’t you remember arguing with skeptical friends that “Rape Me” wasn’t really about rape? Or MTV Unplugged, back when there was an MTV Unplugged, where we were shocked to learn that not only was Kurt not incapacitated by heroin, but also that he could also produce 70 minutes of utter beauty that people would still talk about years later in awe. And you remember the pain, the worry, the fear, those hidden parts of you that sprung up when you listened, even if you weren’t sure why.
Admit it. You do remember now… don’t you? Come on, you have to.
Some of us follow foggy tracks, full of faith that, if we stay true to what brought us here, they will lead us right. Some of us have lost our way all together. Some of us can’t remember what it was like to have believed. Some of us are too busy to notice much of anything anymore.
But, remember, dammit! Remember what that was like. It’s as close to something real and binding as we had. Don’t rationalise it away.
Just listen. That is, after all, why they recorded everything in the first place. To remember, to document, to celebrate.
And, today, don’t forget to play it loud. Really loud!
Each day I live / I want to be
A day to give / The best of me
I’m only one / But not alone
My finest day / Is yet unknown…
Rare. Perfect. Glorious. Soaring. Whitney Houston’s voice was all these and so much more. From “I Want to Dance With Somebody” to the powerful “One Moment in Time” and, of course, the immortal “I Will Always Love You”, no singer, male or female, has had such an astonishing voice.
Her range was extraordinary, her pitch was perfection and those who were privileged to hear her perform live say she sounded better live than on a record.
Whitney Houston was an inspiration for millions of young women. Her aunt, Dionne Warwick, was a star of epic proportions by the time Whitney burst onto the music scene, but even Warwick was impressed by her niece’s power and grace. I’ve always thought that if there is a Heaven, the singing there might sound like Whitney Houston.
Like Amy Winehouse, Whitney’s problems were well documented. My reflection this morning on hearing of her death was how huge a challenge a life in the limelight must have been, and how always having to meet others’ expectations can so easily become the measure of one’s own self evaluation and validation.
But for now, I won’t remember the bad moments and I won’t dwell on the mistakes and stumbles. What I will remember is her smile, and her laugh and her voice. That incredible voice! And I will remember this Grammy Awards performance of one of my favourite Whitney songs, where she simply glowed with emotion and talent.
Today, I will mourn the loss of one of the greatest talents in the history of music.
R.I.P. Whitney Houston
No updates today: I’m celebrating my birthday! See you all next week!