Do you ever sit around and wonder what you were doing or thinking about a year ago? One of the things about the internet age is that you can almost always come up with some documentary evidence to discover if not what you were thinking, then at least what you were saying you were thinking (or something like that).
With a blog, it is a bit more official. last year, around this time, I was thinking about the songs of 1996. So, in the spirit of all things being cyclical, let’s go back there again.
She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers
Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins
Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies; “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre
1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”
1996 stands in my memory, for whatever reason, as a fairly dark year. In almost all of my memories from that year it is either raining or snowing. And I am almost always (a) in that car, (b) getting out of that car, or (c) getting ready to get into that car. Why, pray tell, was I in this accursed vehicle so often? I worked 45 minutes from my family home when I wasn’t in school; the Mix Tape Girl went to college an hour away and I seemed to try to do anything that year not to be at home.
The LTD was a great car for moving band equipment. And that’s about it. Terrible heat. No air conditioning. The speakers were almost blown. The LTD had no tape player, hence, it would not admit a CD player. So, I was at the mercy of the radio station whenever I was in it. Hence, my 1996 was dominated by the songs I heard on the radio.
The two songs I remember best are not very similar but both were hits. The Eels’ “Novocaine for My Soul” is a nice song—memorable, well-constructed and synthesized. The ambiguity of the opening lines “Life is Hard / So am I” coupled with later lines like “Jesus and his lawyer / are coming back” made it engaging. The lyrics of the bridge are at once simple and elegant: “Guess who’s living here with the great undead / this paint by numbers life is fucking with my head, once again.”
Altogether this song fit my mood that year: angsty, somber, and just then beginning to be ironic. (I wasn’t yet dabbling in any actual “novocaine for the soul”, which may or may not be a good thing. I also always thought there might be a premature ejaculation double entendre—an interpretation I never convinced anyone of. But come on? “Life is hard and so am I?” What’s that about? Oh. It’s figurative.)
Also big at the end of that year was the debut single of the Wallflowers, “One Headlight”. This band got a lot of press and coverage on MTV because Jakob the lead singer was the son of another Dylan. (Although, the genes aren’t as strong with this one: read some of the lyrics carefully from that album—not exactly sublime.) “One Headlight” had a driving bass beat. It made being in the car seem fun. It made being alive seem fun.
In many ways the ‘atmosphere’ of this song is the polar opposite of “Novocaine for the Soul”. Where the Eels’ hit was personal, ruminating, and angsty (and also terse), “One Headlight” was wordy, narrative and ultimately optimistic (it is not a happy song, but it feels open to the possibility of happiness: “come on try a little / nothing is forever / there’s got to be something better than in the middle”. That’s optimistic, right?).
If the Eels seemed ironic, then the Wallflowers seemed ingenuous. I don’t know what having a single headlight has to do with the rest of the song, but I do know about making things work when you’re clearly short of perfection (or completion). Driving all over in that LTD Station wagon in 1996, there were many nights when the check engine light were on, when the throttle froze open in a snow storm, when a tire blew out or the headlight broke. The Eels taught me how to give up; the Wallflowers reminded me not to give in.
Great Albums from 1996 I listened to later: The Score, Fugees; Tigermilk, Belle & Sebastian; Tidal, Fiona Apple; Sublime, Sublime; Fashion Nugget, Cake; Pinkerton, Weezer.
Horrors of 1996: Spice Girls, “Amish Paradise”, Weird Al; “Crash into Me”, DMB; “The Only Thing that Looks Good on me is You”, Bryan Adams; “The Beautiful People”, Marilyn Manson, The Macarena, “Quit Playing Games with my Heart”, The Backstreet Boys