NOSTALGIA CRISIS: 90's Alt-Rock (Part 2)

The Past Is Gone, but Something Might Be Found to Take its Place
by C. T. Heaney

I drove 45 minutes into the Philadelphia suburbs last Saturday night to spend three and a half hours watching an utterly ordinary cover band. Why would I do this? Why would anyone do this?

The band I went to see is called Bonehead, and if you’re from the Philly area and listened to the radio a lot, you might have run across them. Around 1998 or ’99 they got a few spins on local alt-rock stations like Y100 and WZZO with a locally-released song entitled “I Know”. If you came along a couple of years later, you may recognize them under a different name: Familiar 48. They signed to big-name label MCA Records in 2002 and put out a fully promoted album under this name, managing some minor nationwide exposure. One of their singles, a breezy, wistful pop-grunge tune called “The Question”, even scraped the bottom of the Billboard radio charts. Success didn’t last long, though, and both the label and the group imploded almost immediately afterwards.

Familiar 48’s lead singer and songwriter, Jayy Mannon, subsequently tried his hand at a solo career. Since he had better name recognition locally as Bonehead, he eventually went back to using his (probably trademark-troublesome) old band name in booking local shows, which was all he could book at that point. He put out some new music a few years later, but was pretty out of it as far as new-media marketing was concerned, so the comeback EP more or less sank without notice. Mannon then did what any reasonable person would do, and found ways to pay the bills; he started a customized wedding-song service and got weekend gigs at suburban bars as a cover outfit, which brought in a lot more people than the originals did.

Scoff all you want, and prattle on about bad taste and artistic integrity, but the fact remains that this is probably exactly where Mannon should be in his career. He’s

Narrating the Pre Apocalypse
a competent but not impressive musician, rigidly locked inside the musical paradigms of the 1990s. His deep, raspy voice lands him somewhere in Eddie Vedder/Jason Ross territory (that’s Seven Mary Three, so you don’t have to look it up), and he can do a spot-on Scott Stapp impression. Familiar 48’s album was behind the times when it was released, and perhaps reminds one of no band more than Three Doors Down, whose spotty and often bland songwriting made much of their work forgettable despite a few standout singles. Mannon still does his hair like Mark McGrath, gelled up, with the frosted tips. He is, for all intents and purposes, a rock dinosaur, unable to change with the times, though a single released this year shows slight tinges of more modern electronic production. It could’ve graced any of the last three Lifehouse albums.

Given all of these factors, it's quite sensible that he is where he is. This is his social function – playing Rock Hits of the Nineties to a bar full of Phillies fans who would be paying for these songs on the jukebox if he weren’t there. Maybe that makes the bar owners idiots, but he brings his own devoted crowd, who probably buy enough drinks to make employing him worthwhile. His set list included a few older numbers (Tom Petty, Billy Idol, Bad Company) and a few newer ones (The Killers, Kings of Leon, Finger Eleven), but overwhelmingly he drew from the decade that brought you Pearl Jam, Goo Goo Dolls, Fuel, Matchbox 20, Green Day, Eve 6, Gin Blossoms, Foo Fighters, 311, Sublime, Creed, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sister Hazel, and Lit. And yes, he did “Kryptonite”, though technically that song came out in 2000.

Two things struck me about the evening’s performance. First, it was obvious that Mannon loves what he does. He was jovial on stage and off, having a great time chatting with the local yokels who spend their Saturday nights at the taverns where he plays. Furthermore, he’s playing his own favorite music. He plays the songs he thinks are the best of his generation, with a full electric band behind him. I think he recognizes how lucky he is to still be doing this, at any level, when he’s a few years shy of forty.

The second thing I found remarkable regarded the set list, which was mostly covers, but not all. I saw the band play about thirty songs, and five or six of them were originals, including their new song “Real”. As a fan of some of the old Bonehead and Familiar 48 material, I had come hoping for more originals, but I knew before I arrived that they’d revamped as a cover band, so I was prepared for the possibility of hearing none. What amazed me was how seamlessly the originals flowed into the tenor of the evening. That would make sense, since they were pop songs written in the nineties, bracketed by hit pop songs written in the nineties. Yet one might expect for them to stick out, as “the song nobody knows” or “what the hell is this? Play STP!” That didn’t happen; there were no boors drunkenly demanding Buckcherry, no mass exoduses to the restrooms. Many of the regulars were singing at the front of the stage, and I even saw a few people toward the back of the bar cock their heads, as if in recognition, and start to hesitantly mouth along as the choruses repeated. They seemed to think they knew the song from back on VH1 or the radio, which clearly they didn’t; they were picking it up as they went along. They did recognize something, but it wasn’t a specific tune. It was a more generalized recognition, the sound of a familiar era, one that evoked the musical signifiers of a time and place without actually being a part of these people’s lives in that time and place. It was a sort of nostalgia by proxy, if you will.

I grew up with this music, both the originals and the covers. I, like many people of approximate age, spent a lot of time and effort learning specifics about this music, concerning myself with the names of bands and songs, memorizing lyrics and buying albums. It matters to me in very specific ways. However, I recognize that people who did not live through this time, or who did not have the extreme leisure time that American adolescence typically provides at the same moment I did, may not care to devote themselves to attaining the level of expertise that I and many people (mostly men) of my generation have about nineties-era rock music.

This divide will only grow wider with the passage of time. Subsequent generations will devote more time to the music of now than the music of then, and this is inevitable, if perhaps not natural (our preoccupation with “progress” in art and the pathways of commercialism prioritize new things and make children generally hostile to cultural traditions). Specific artists and songs will fade, and they will be replaced with a delocalized notion of the epoch, the musical zeitgeist of the 1990s (or maybe, as time passes, an even larger time period). My generation thinks the same way about previous eras – take “classic rock” as an example. Most twentysomethings think of this less in terms of a constellation of unique musicians and more as a consistent whole, filled with singles whose artists they may not even know, and in many cases, aren’t familiar with beyond one radio hit: Blackfoot, Ram Jam, The Ides of March, Sugarloaf, Argent. Play them a song by Wishbone Ash, or Uriah Heep, or Humble Pie, or Delaney & Bonnie, and they’ll immediately be able to place it stylistically, but they’ll have no inkling of how important these bands were to young people forty years ago.

Take it back even farther; consider swing jazz. How many jazz bands can you name? How many swing musicians? How many songs? Only a few aficionados could count off more than a half dozen at most – far fewer than our grandparents. For most people, this genre doesn’t exist as discrete pieces of music that matter in and of themselves; they’re content merely to hear the sound of it, the familiar patterns. A new jazz band playing the same tunes – or new tunes in the same style – is just fine. Ragtime, boogie-woogie blues, rockabilly, reggae, bluegrass, trance, most varieties of classical music, anything non-Western – all the same. What matters isn’t any particular, beloved work; it’s the sound, the feeling of the sound. In time, this will occur to virtually every genre of music, even the ones you love or that you think are particularly diverse, unique, or artistically worthy. It’ll happen to ‘80s dance, to shoegaze, to ska, to modern indie rock, to post-rock, to anything we can put a name on. It’ll be cut free from the individual artists and abstracted into an archetype, into an idea, into a feeling.

This abstraction is already starting to happen to rock of the ‘90s, and that makes people like Mannon begin to look little more important, if we reposition him from has-been to ambassador. I wrote in my last post about the idea of rock being something perpetuated by a small number of acolytes who defend and maintain its stylistic positions, rather than the presumptive mouthpiece of a generation. The nineties sound will need such acolytes, people who go on playing this repertory and representing it for younger and younger people. They will be what Interpol is to Joy Division, what Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones are to Dusty Springfield and Carla Thomas, what Sara Bareilles is to Carole King, what Fleet Foxes are to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young – only less lucky when it comes to being noticed by a label's or critic's influential ear. They’ll be more like the streetcorner and coffeeshop guitarists who go on playing twelve-bar blues now that Muddy Waters, Skip James and Son House are long gone. If everyone stopped playing this music live, it would begin to die; any music without a living community of practitioners can be said to be dead, in perhaps the most profound sense.

It is of course too soon to pronounce alt-rock dead, but many of those bands have broken up, or have already reduced themselves to phoning in their old hit(s) on the casino circuit. The music’s long since lost its vitality (and most of the remaining bands are charging way too much for admission). How many of them did you get to see live, anyway? Of the bands whose hits Mannon played, I have seen the Goo Goo Dolls, Fuel, Matchbox 20, Foo Fighters, and Sister Hazel in concert. That’s probably more than most people, and if you really wanted to experience all your favorite hits of the decade live, you’d blow through hundreds of dollars in Ticketmaster fees alone.

I got to hear two dozen of them, in one night, for free.

I spent an evening listening to a live band play more than twenty songs whose words I knew in their entirety, songs I mostly loved and even a few I don’t like but didn’t really mind hearing so much after all. Of course, I sang along to everything; this is as close to karaoke as I will ever get. The most apt analogy I can think of is going to see one of those old doo-wop quartets, all but one of whose members are dead. The remaining member, who now owns the rights to the name, hires a bunch of geezers from other vocal groups of the day and tours, singing their one hit along with a cornucopia of other familiar ‘50s platters. To sit there and huff about originality or buck-chasing is to miss the point of being alive. Try shoo-bopping along with the bass instead.

I started this post by calling Bonehead an “utterly ordinary cover band”. Then I spent several pages explaining why, at least for my sake, they are anything but ordinary. To any casual observer, including some of the bar’s clientele that evening, ordinary is surely what they are. I might have said the same, until I realized how important and valuable than can be. And with it, I got to hear a few tunes that were, to many, pleasant if mediocre rehashes of a time gone by, but which I had been waiting to hear in concert for a decade or more. I got to sing along to those, too, something I’d never be able to do anywhere else, and which I may never be able to do again when I move away from this part of the country.

The Gin Blossoms song that Bonehead covered toward the end of the night was, naturally, “Hey Jealousy”, the Blossoms' most durable hit. This is one of the five best songs written in the decade of the 1990s, and I will physically fight anyone who argues with me on this; it is a song of explosive emotional power, and its lyrics cut to the marrow of human desperation like a scythe. I don't know that I've ever heard a counterpoint as expressive as the interplay between the lead guitar and voice in the chorus. You can see the Gin Blossoms on tour right now; they’re back together, though the member who wrote “Hey Jealousy” blew his brains out back in 1993. But even a standard-issue bar band can wallop you with that song, and every day the last line of the refrain seems to apply to more and more, including to the music itself.

1 comment:

Greg said...

"'Hey Jealousy'... is one of the five best songs written in the decade of the 1990s, and I will physically fight anyone who argues with me on this"