When I was between 7-9 years old I started getting into music. We’d listen to a fair amount of typical 90’s stuff together while jumping on a neighbor’s trampoline: All 4 One, Coolio, Alanis Morissette, Salt’n’Pepa, etc. That stuff was fun, but never captured my interest to the point where I’d lose myself in what they had to say.
Like most people of that period of time, I’d turn to three sources: Friends, Radio, & MTV – namely the last option more than others. I vividly recall being at a friend’s house as an 8 or 9 year old with MTV on as we watched videos, and when Live’s “Lightning Crashes” came on, he excitedly told me about the story it told and how the video tapped into that.
His older brother, a budding musician himself, had a bedroom I loved to sneak looks into. His CDs, cassettes, posters, etc. all had vivid and wonderful artwork, and it seemed to fuel the fires for who I felt was a very interesting and ‘cooler than cool’ person. My friend, his younger brother, was privy to absorb and interpret the Cool Older Brother vibes in full. I as the oldest had no such figure beyond my dad. As my pops seemed only to listen to Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul, & Mary (awesome though those both are and held dear to my heart), I naturally gravitated toward the rebellious, the dangerous, and the unknown (all by 8-10 year old standards, anyway).
Names started peppering my consciousness: Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Blind Melon, Green Day, Collective Soul, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers to name a few. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first song I ever headbanged to, with my aforementioned friend in his living room, lost entirely in the anthemic grunge poured forth by Kurt Cobain (who I don’t recall was dead by that point, but I digress).
While I fell in love with Jesus Christ Superstar on long drives to Chicago with my mom, part of me was absorbed with the odd videos I’d see on MTV that either made me uncomfortable or engaged. One that really stood out to me was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Aeroplane.” The video is some odd combination of Sonic The Hedgehog patterns, sequin overdose, Rocko’s Modern Life architecture, and Dave Fucking Mustaine, forever out of place in a band that was worse for having him present.
I convinced my mom to go with me to Positively 4th Street Records in my hometown of Charleston, the record store that also in no uncertain terms had a collection of glass “tobacco” bowls in their front displays, black light posters for sale, and I’m pretty sure a selection of pornographic materials for the enthusiastic buyer.
As I passed One Hot Minute to the punk-y chick at the counter, she looked in my eyes and said, “Good choice!” I was enthralled beyond words. Unfortunately for One Hot Minute, it was itself a forgettable and ultimately dogshit record that I think even the Peppers themselves have mostly disowned.
There was a breach about to occur in my being, however, that would last well until I was in my 20’s (and still speaks to me even today). It happened when watching MTV, and this extremely weird video featuring an all-too-catchy song captivated every atom in my DNA. This guy with unwashed hair, piercings, and sleepless eyes railed manically about….whatever bleak confusion and madness plagued teenagers and adults.
A college kid up the street was moving out, and he was selling a bunch of his crap to anyone with the cash. I had scrounged up about 6 bucks in loose bills and change, determined to get something, anything that could help me relate to and understand grown ups and teenagers. I found the cassette of Dookie in a cardboard box and a sweet butter-yellow beret with some odd pattern on the rim. He sold me the hat for $5, and Dookie for a fucking dime.
I don’t know what happened to that Dookie cassette, but it was with me well into my 20’s. My parents had a portable stereo that ran on either 6 D batteries or a power cable (the power cable was almost exclusively utilized). There were countless afternoons where I’d have the boombox on the back porch blasting Dookie while I played basketball in the driveway, listening to Billie Joe opine about jerking off, listless apathy, and the appealing crumble of jaded friendships and loves . My mom probably looked through the lyric sheets at some point and was absolutely horrified.
In a similar vein, one evening I turned on MTV to see a music video from a band I had heard of but never really listened to: Metallica, who had just debuted a new single from a new album, and the video was beginning to make the rounds. “Until It Sleeps” was a slithering, gilded nightmare oozing with anger, confusion, and the rarely-tapped danger of human suffering within the storyteller. Like the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight” video, “Until It Sleeps” was a painting-come-to-life that to a young kid was inescapable.
Looking back on it now, it’s somewhat weird to see the guys from Metallica clearly trying to desperately get some artistic validation, but I mean…whatever. I can forgive it now. James Hetfield was tortured, furious, and shouting at me, a young kid, some kind of story that I needed to know, but couldn’t understand.
Convincing my grandma to buy Load was thankfully easy. The cover of the cassette, a literal glob of semen, and track 1, a song called “Ain’t My Bitch,” was mercifully overlooked. As I listened to side 1 on long drives, I’d try to see a story unfolding in my mind, actions of faceless characters reacting in time to the tempo and in tone with each song’s musical portrait. Each song had a unique set of colors, textures, and feelings that I explored with relish.
Those are several albums and songs from my childhood, but there’s so many others that I wish I could wax poetic about. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Melon Collie & the Infinite Sadness had a couple songs and videos (“Tonight Tonight” and “Bullet With Bufferfly Wings”) that I was absolutely entranced by and consider music video artwork in its last real vestiges.
Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” and “Sober” videos, The Offspring’s “Self Esteem,” Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” cover, and more, so many, many more, all had a pronounced impact on my childhood.
My parents, although likely never fans of the music I listened to (then or now, but especially then), never prevented me from exploring and enjoying it. I’m forever grateful that they let me be a weird, angsty kid, listening to muses and mediums that more shrewish parents would’ve crushed underfoot. They let me have my weird tunes and own my weirdness.
I can’t say enough how happy it makes me to hold onto those memories in a little pocket of my brain. It helps me remember where I came from, what the world looked and sounded like then, and what it was like to grow up in the 90’s.