When I moved to Eugene I knew about Punk Rock in an abstract sense. My mom had let me listen to a Sex Pistols album, and Alex Otto had played for me the Dead Milkmen and The Clash, so I felt like I knew what the music sounded like. But my experience of it was so limited as to be pretty funny. I listened to Uncle Tupelo and They Might Be Giants. I had been a fanatical Dr. Demento devotee, and my first two concerts were Robert Palmer (on November 8th, 1988 at the Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon) and Bon Jovi (on May 8th, 1989 at the Memorial Colosseum, at which they were filming the “Lay Your Hands On Me” video). My tastes – thanks to my parents – skewed hard rock, but my sensibility was so comedy driven that I was more “Weird Al” than Jello Biafra.
While I was in High School (1989 – 1993), “Alternative” music broke in America in a big way. My mom had cable in those days, and the used books / comics / records shop that she ran started to see a slight shift in the music that was coming in. But the lens through which I experienced all of this was through magazines: Rolling Stone and Spin, and the obsessively-watched MTV, itself going through a revolution at the time, too. Alternative Nation and Headbanger’s Ball were both setting the blueprint for what was to come, and this nascent media empire nurtured “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the point nearly all DJs were confused. You would hear Juliana Hatfield’s “Spin The Bottle” side by side with “Psalm 69” by Ministry, and it was all being jump-cut with a hundred other ideas and images along the way. Everyone was desperately looking for the next “thing” that would be bigger than Nevermind, and in that search the most dada RIYL game was being played, with bands like Blind Lemon & Collective Soul having brief but uninspired careers that seemed even smaller scale that flash-in-the-pan.
Amidst the media stew that was being turned over around me this word – punk – bubbled beneath the surface of culture. I had missed it (and then some) with a 1975 birthday, and by the time I was 14, bad country music and hair metal dominated the world in my universe. But with this “Alternative” media blitz that was ushered in by Saint Cobain, hillbillies in rural Oregon were turning away from Classic Rock radio to this “heavier” sound. In a way, it was like putting a converter on foreign voltage, so you could “step down” the intensity of punk rock, and instead make it acceptable for widespread use in middle america. It is safe to say that in my family, we found have continued to listen to Hair Metal and hard rock, and that I probably would have become a KISS fan, eventually get into Van Halen, and follow that particular path as a teenager. (Think a milder version of the kids in River’s Edge.) Without Alternative, how would I have ever heard of Black Flag?
With hindsight, it is difficult to explain how secluded small town life was in a pre-Inter-Web-A-Tron world. I really had no concept of “college rock” or the pre-Alternative world of indie comics, ‘zines & records that was happening, and in some cases, within my own state. There was nowhere in Cottage Grove that carried small publications, and I didn’t know about KRVM (or KWVA) to even try and tune in to hear this other music. We had cable, but I was only able to watch during the day, and didn’t even know about these other shows that were on, late at night. The breakdown in communication was extreme, and while Rolling Stone gave me some context, they didn’t cover a lot of “indie” music until after Alternative broke. In many ways, I WAS the indie press in Cottage Grove, and I didn’t have access to anything stronger than what I heard on the radio. Living in Cottage Grove was like living on the moon; you were as far away from Seattle as you were from New York or LA. By the time anything cool came that way, it had already been everywhere else.
Alternative not only leveled the playing field, but it became the synthesis of all of this work the independent underground had been doing since the rock and roll revolution of the late ’50’s. Being “subversive” and “against the mainstream” was finally cool and acceptable in a way that it hadn’t been since Elvis Presley made rock and roll okay with housewives and teenagers. Alternative was finally an outlet were the maligned and ignored trends and undercurrents that were already dominating subcultures throughout America could find their way into every corner of this country in a way that Punk & Post-Punk had failed to do so, and as much of this movement was lumped in with “grunge” at the time,” it failed to encompass all the kinds of music that was reaching larger audiences. It was clear to me then the origins of Pearl Jam & Nirvana – two drastically different bands that were lumped in together often – might have been drawing from the same source material. But from where I was from, all of this history was absolutely inaccessible. It was take years before I would be able to put the puzzle together.
Once the Alternative Bubble broke, my interests went everywhere, and soon I was obsessing over every new band that appeared on MTV. New music seemed great at first. But as I read interviews and started to understand that there was a world of music that came before that I was unfamiliar with, a new interest began to come to my mind: what music inspired this? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer at first, but I knew that Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin were not the only reference points that new bands were riffing on. This word punk seemed to be the cypher, the way to uncovering some of this trail that had been blazed before. But how to find it in Cottage Grove? Where? How?