Where were you in 1991? Do you remember the first time you heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” I remember that I was at my guitar teacher’s home, strumming the guitar as I did a couple times per week. At 14, I sat on that stool, with my electric blue Fender guitar plugged into my Marshall amp, wearing ripped jeans, a flannel shirt and my worn-out Doc Martens. I had become one of them, one of the people that got suctioned into the early 90’s music revolution known as “Grunge.”
Although grunge had hit me a couple years earlier, by this time, it had taken over my music collection and become my lifestyle. See, grunge wasn’t just about the way you dressed. It was also about the way you thought and behaved – the way you related to everyone around you.
A few weeks ago, after seeing the movie Singles (one of my favorites from that time period), I caught myself thinking about how everything was back then. I remember the friends I used to have, the music that I used to listen to, the clothes I used to wear. This inspired me to write a column to think back and reflect on what that period of music meant to me.
So much has changed, so many faces are gone (Kurt Cobain, Lane Stanley, Mike Starr, Shannon Hoon, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell), and so many others have moved on. But what exactly was grunge? Does anyone have a definition? Was it just about the music that was being played or the area where it had originated from? Was it simply a fashion statement that became a lifestyle to so many of us?
I can’t really tell you what grunge meant to society as a whole since it affected people in so many different ways, but I can certainly tell you what it meant to me growing up.
I was in high school, 9th grade, and had been completely submerged in the heavy metal/ glam rock scene – which can very well be a whole other column on its own. Once 1991 came around, something changed. While the other girls in my high school spent their afternoons shopping and pampering themselves, I spent hours per week taking private guitar lessons. What once started as learning the acoustic guitar, soon moved onto electric and later the bass guitar. I had found one of my passions:performing music. Many hours of practice lead to my performing at many of my high school’s talent shows with yours truly strumming the guitar for the students and proud parents attending.
At 14 years old, like many other teenagers back then, I was hit by the tornado that was Nirvana’s Nevermind. That album was a gold mine to everybody, and a big slap in the face to anyone that still considered their music relevant. Just like that, I went from learning how to play Guns N’ Roses “Patience” to Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” It was also that quickly, that I went from wearing skin-tight denim jeans and Metallica t-shirts to wearing baby doll dresses with black, worn-out Doc Martens and a messed-up hairdo.
MTV Brazil was eating it all up by putting grunge bands on heavy rotation at all hours of the day and night; making us thirsty music fans absorb it all like a sponge. Besides, who better than teenagers could identify with and relate to couples such as Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain? They were like the Sid and Nancy of our generation!
When Nirvana came to Brazil in 1993, they performed in the no-longer existing Hollywood Rock Festival at Morumbi Stadium in Sao Paulo. I dolled up in my dirtiest, most grunge-looking outfit and went to the show thinking I looked the part. To my amusement (or my parents’ amusement, I shall say), everyone at that stadium looked alike, wearing the same outfit and rocking out to the hits we all knew. English may not be our first language, but trust me when I tell you that everyone in that stadium knew every single word to the Nirvana songs – and sang quite perfectly in unison.
With great music, comes great chaos and the drama that goes along with this lifestyle. It’s like an open wound, fresh in your skin, bringing all these feelings of pain and anger and you wear the emotions on your sleeve.
The way that people felt during those times were expressed quite different than other decades. The ’60s were about the hippies, peace and love, singing about the war in Vietnam. It was very poetic and carefree. The ’70s was disco fever, about confetti and disco balls, wigs, and big bell bottoms. The ’80s were quite interesting. The first part of the decade was filled with pop icons such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, who rushed the airwaves with their contagious dance grooves.
However, the latter part of the decade encompassed a new generation of rockers who loved decadence, loud guitars and long hair. Heavy metal was taking over as almost every person in American started to grow out their hair, get tattoos and listen to the music as loud as they possibly could. Although some of these bands streamed from the ’70s, the 1980s were when metal hit its all-time high.
That period lasted until a young man from Washington started the subgenre – as many would call it – to alternative rock and took America by storm.
When I think of the grunge area, I think how it all began when I first heard that song on MTV, just like everyone else. But it didn’t stop there. It consumed me. I wore the outfits, I played the songs on guitar and I rebelled against society just like anyone else my age would do. For me, it was beyond that, though, as I found that I could relate to the raw emotion, confusion, the passion in their lyrics. Like many other teenagers in decades past, I understood what my idols were singing about.
To this day, I remember how dumfounded I was when a friend called me one day after school to let me know that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. The whole world stopped, just as I did. There were no words to describe the loss that we all felt, for the one person who had guided us through our troubled times was gone.
The other bands that were popular back then – which for some, were not nearly as good as Nirvana – were also a big influence on fans back then. For me, there was one band that really stood out for me and that I fell in love with as soon as I heard their first note. That band was Alice In Chains.
With songs such as “We Die Young,” “Sea of Sorrow,” and “Man In The Box” off their 1990 album, Facelift, Alice In Chains was exactly what I needed. In my mind, they were not as “cliché” as Nirvana, but they were the real, raw, and hungry band that would feed me exactly what I needed. Jerry Cantrell’s lyrics and Lane Staley’s voice showed the emotion that was coursing through my blood in my teenage years. As many of my friends went on and on about Nirvana, I had found a little goldmine of my own that was creeping to explode onto the surface, only not so many people knew. Not long after, Alice In Chains erupted and they became bigger than ever.
Album after album, Alice In Chains made as much of an impact as Nirvana. To many, they may not have originated grunge, but they certainly surpassed their time. If you take Cantrell’s lyrics and dissect them, you will see that those were not happy, go-lucky times he was writing about. They were tormented and confusing times from which he looked for an escape. Back then, people were not afraid to let their feelings out as they only longed to belong and have their voices heard.
Aside from Nirvana and Alice in Chains (which were my top favorite bands back in the day), many other bands followed suit and made themselves known. Though some may say Nirvana was overrated, they made it possible for an array of new bands to come out of that scene. Cobain sang with honest intensity that was unmatched at that time. It was real and honest. It was raw and original for its time. Ironically, in 2009, I booked the entire Alice in Chains’ “Black Gives Way To Blue” tour in the United States.
I miss everything about the grunge era when I look back at those years. With so many weak bands creating music nowadays – including the inexplicable emo genre – it pains me to see what the music has come to. Aching for new music only makes me miss those years even more. At times, I find myself submersed in that period of time again, and often laugh because I have lost myself in it. I read the old magazines, look at the old photos and listen to an old record as I think to myself: “Yeah, I was there and I loved every minute of it. I wouldn’t trade that back for anything else in this world.”
Although, there were several bands that branched out of this genre, I would like to share with you a few bands that had a great impact in my life in the early ’90s. I urge you to take the time and listen to these albums, for they represent in essence what that period was all about:
• Alice in Chains – Facelift
• Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
• Pearl Jam – Ten
• Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog
• Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion
• Dinosaur Jr. – Whatever’s Cool With Me
• Candlebox – Candlebox
• Blind Melon – Blind Melon
• Mudhoney – Mudhoney
• Meat Puppets – Forbidden Places
• Nirvana – Nevermind