ROCKTOBER 2012: 1992 - How Nirvana Reached ME, One Teen at a Time

Give it up for your host, Nine-Teeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen Ninety-Two!!!

[Loudly dressed host enters, smiles, nods, laughs, points to audience]

Give it up for my Posse! Give it up for the Dog Pound!!!!

[Insert happy band, fist-pumping audience, much barking, and an extra-long index finger here]

Wussup! What do Sinead O’Connor’s SNL Pope diss, Courtney Love & Kurt Cobain’s Francis Bean baby, Whitney H & Bobby B’s holy-moly matrimony, and Bill Clinton’s smooth SAXual relations on late night talk TV all have in common?

If you guessed ME, The Year 1992, then... Let’s! Get! Busy!!!  

Well at least it's not Roxette...or Chicago

Like the rest of my late-20th-century posse, I’m both just another year and also a very special snowflake. I’m special thanks in part to a seeming changing of the guard taking place in the world of rock, well captured in the performance lineup of the Me (1992) MTV Music Awards:

  • The Black Crowes — "Remedy"
  • Bobby Brown — "Humpin' Around"
  • U2 & Dana Carvey — "Even Better Than the Real Thing" (live via satellite from Detroit)
  • Def Leppard — "Let's Get Rocked"
  • Nirvana — "Rape Me" (intro) / "Lithium"
  • Elton John — "The One"
  • Pearl Jam — "Jeremy"
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers — "Give It Away"
  • Michael Jackson — "Jam" & "Black or White" (from his Dangerous Tour in London)
  • Bryan Adams — "Do I Have to Say the Words?"
  • En Vogue — "Free Your Mind"
  • Eric Clapton — "Tears in Heaven"
  • Guns N' Roses and Elton John — "November Rain"

But that’s not all: I’m special -- like each of you, including a certain Chunky reviewer to whom I dedicate myself -- for much more personal reasons:

  • I was Chunky Roddy’s freshman year, marking the beginning of that most formative teen journey we call high school;
  • I introduced him to his eventual-bride-to-be, over whom the initial heartbreak was so severe that Eddie’s “Black” burned a star-shaped hole into his broody, puppy-crushed soul. (I’m getting ahead of myself here.)
  • Finally, I was at the core of his most meaningful musical experience: the year he withdrew, grew (just the top of) his hair out, bought his first bass, and began to play.

The point is, you’ll have to forgive us, fellow music nerds, as there’s really no way for us to de-personalize this account. Because without the events of ME, there *is* no Chunky Roddy.

And really, what is music if not a deeply personal expression and connection, ultimately finding voice, then forming a much broader, more communal resonance and experience?

Speaking of broader, let’s zoom out a few clicks (even though that phrase meant absolutely nothing in 1992): Many musical happenings were underway during Me: From Lou Reed to Neil Young, Napalm Death to Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel to Pantera, Skinny Puppy to The Prodigy, new albums were released by rockers of all stripes, some of which began laying groundwork for, among other things, the rave years. Meanwhile, pop was doing its new R&B thing with Funky Divas En Vogue and the launch of Vibe magazine, and Whitney Houston made news not just with her off-screen marriage, but also made bank, waves, and an enormous hit single through and alongside her on-screen acting debut in The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner. (We will always love you too, Whitney.) And, lest we forget, the Good Doctor, Andre Young -- aka Dr. Dre, who split off from Eazy-E (who released a solo EP earlier in the year) to start Death Row Records with the infamous Suge Knight, then proceeded to drop on dat ass the phenom known as Snoop Dogg, all before wrapping Me up with a December bow in the form of a little album called The Chronic (thanks to which, “Hell Yeah” now has four syllables).

Back to the Moon Man Awards, where Dana Carvey circa Wayne’s World, alongside Beavis & Butthead cameos aplenty, made this buzz-generating event all the rage for MTV’s high-schooler target dem: Cable-lacking Chunky Roddy couldn’t afford to miss it like he’d missed the Guns n Roses/Metallica/Faith No More tour his parents wouldn’t let him go see just weeks before (And he dubbed them Unforgiven), so he had a friend tape it for him. Much like the audiotape overdubs he used to learn bass by ear, he’d wear out the magnetic ribbon completely over time. Look, if you think piracy dies hard in the post-Napster era, try to recall the world before internets, where connection meant a call on a land line (or, as it was better known then, the phone); media was still somewhat scarce, to be actively sought; and music was, especially to a provincial teen grappling for some sense of meaning and identity, nothing short of sacred, to be obtained at any cost and played until every bit of nectar was extracted. In this little world of sleepy Southern towns, kids like Roddy were damn lucky to even have a Discman (he didn’t) and mostly witnessed culture unfold before them in only the most garish, pop-obvious of ways. 

Against this backdrop, while the hair metal gods played their swan songs, even Roddy recognized a glimmer of what he was seeing: A passing of the torch from the glam generation to the grunge generation -- a shift taking the world by such storm that even he and his friends knew about it. These grunge giants, though part of a seemingly unified “Seattle Sound” and scene, were of course no monolith, full of their own drama and conflicts regarding who’s “keeping it real” and who’s a commercial sell-out, as Kurt beefed with Eddie in those early days. But these dynamics and players that would ultimately characterize the entire decade would only come to full light later. For now, Gen X kids in second-rate towns the world over were becoming newly aware of a magical, mythical rock paradise called Seattle; teens like Roddy, that hadn’t even heard the term “grunge” until the year prior when they’d first heard Nevermind and Ten, now had a new Mecca.

And here, collected neatly together for Roddy on the Moon Man Awards, it could not be more stark: His first two favorite bands (Def Leppard and GnR), playing side-by-side with his new idols (Flea! Jeff Ament!), clearly signified something big was happening here.

TRUE STORY: This song STILL f$%#ing rocks 20 years later

Truth was, this “alternative” sound that was “now” happening was far from new, and far from limited to Seattle alone: In ‘92 alone, R.E.M. released Automatic For the People; Nine Inch Nails sent Broken out into the world; Ween unveiled Pure Guava on Elektra; Alice in Chains dropped both Sap and Dirt on the ground; Green Day released Kerplunk; and Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, The Lemonheads, The Sundays, Sonic Youth, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin all had studio releases as well. Note: Not one of these was a first album. Some were nowhere even close, and many, many more foundational artists and albums have been overlooked here. 

Meanwhile, other acts were just stepping into the light, despite some having a history going back much farther: Manic Street Preachers, together since 1986, released their debut, Generation Terrorists, on Columbia; The Offspring, around since ‘84, finally set off Ignition. TOOL had just unleashed Opiate much to the delight of the underground metal art-prog world; Tori Amos let out her ground-shaking Little Earthquakes; Pavement debuted with Slanted and Enchanted; and lesser-knowns Sloan and Catherine Wheel both revealed their talents well. So did Rage Against the Machine, with their wildly successful eponymous first album. Not to be forgotten, the Stone Temple Pilots released their debut, Core, to both commercial success and critical scorn, for allegedly being too derivative of the already-accused-as-derivative Pearl Jam and others. You see, “grunge” was the “hipster” of the ‘90s -- snarky, exclusive and begrudging; its real or perceived vanguard, Sub Pop, even tricked the Paper of Record, NYT, into believing “grunge speak” lingo is real, in an effort to mock the press and resist the underground movement’s mainstreaming. Thus entered irony, in spades, because if anything, the whole incident only added fuel to the grunge-mainstreaming fire.  

Of course, I’m chock full of other non-grunge rawkstuffs as well: Zappa retires. Dylan is honored with an epic tribute. Madonna pushes her body (of/and work) even more overtly into the Erotic. Ice-T goes all “Cop Killer” and freaks out the PMRC again (See: 1985). Vince Neil quits Motley Crue to race cars. Billy Idol goes bezerk and punches a woman in the face. The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert raises money for AIDS research. Miley Cyrus is born. John Cage dies. (Not an even swap.) And the beat goes on.

What emerges just beneath the surface here is a bigger picture, not only of Me, Leap Year Extraordinaire 1992, but of rock during Me, revealing an utter wellspring of non-hair sounds, ranging from psychedelia to shoegaze to pop to folk to death metal to sax-happy presidential performances heralding the end of the Cold War and beyond -- with grunge front and center, taking the mantle. And though it’d be all too easy, we just can’t gloss over the myriad punks, post-punks, glams, metalheads and college/indie rockers who had long been laying the foundation for that Soundgarden/Pearl Jam/Nirvana-fronted mass-commercialized “Seattle” firebrand that catapulted into the stratosphere in a completely non-biodegradable way, even though the little people of the world still didn’t know any better than to take this meteoric rise at face value. For they -- armed with power chords, free time, shitty instruments, flannel shirts, undercuts, combat boots, heartbreak, hard-fought cassette piracy, and, if lucky, Discmen and cable -- were just now tuning in to what would be a lifetime of learning and rawktastic devotion.

Although we’ve come... To the end of the road... Still I can’t let you go... It’s unnatural... You belong to me... I belong to you...


 Nevermind the rest, here's your top 100-ish hits of 1992.