Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head,
“One” , U2
Songs of the Year: “Smells like Nirvana”, Weird Al Yankovic; “One”, U2
In the year that They Might Be Giants released Apollo 18, Alice in Chains released Dirt, Blind Melon debuted and Dr. Dre changed the world with The Chronic, I was listening to Weird Al Yankovic.
My 1992 was two different years—half of the year capped off a bright and happy boyhood. The other half portended a mopey, angst-ridden adolescence. 1992 was a year of transition whose boundaries can be sensed in the music I listened to and the technology that provided it.
In one half of the year I was still analogue. At the zenith of my boyish geekness, a circle of friends and I (all male, of course) circulated copies of every Monty Python cassette and every Weird Al tape. The last cassette I ever bought was Off the Deep End. I wore that out by copying it, by listening to it while mowing the interminable lawn, and by rewinding and fast forwarding ad nauseam.
So, while the rest of the world was learning about the weather in Seattle and trying on flannel, I was doing my penance for geek heaven. I learned all of Weird Al’s polka medleys by heart. I knew every Monty Python sketch on tape. I think that my friend and I actually performed the “Lumberjack” sketch at a school assembly. Others were wearing Guns N’ Roses shirts and carrying skateboards (ridiculous things in a place with mostly dirt roads…); I sang about suspenders and a bra.
It isn’t that I disliked Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I just didn’t care much about it. It didn’t mean anything to me (yet). Now, Weird Al’s parody was a different story altogether. The tracks on Off the Deep End were the best produced of his career; the parody sounded like the original. In addition, the lyrics seemed, to me, to be witty and just juvenile enough (animal noises? Check.)
Now I’m mumblin’ and I’m screamin’
And I don’t know what I’m singin’
Crank the volume, ears are bleedin’
I still don’t know what I’m singin’
We’re so loud and incoherent
Boy, this oughta bug your parents
Could a set of lyrics better represent a “square” reception of Nirvana? If you hadn’t encountered anything like it, Nirvana did seem loud, incoherent, and confusing. Weird Al’s parody provided a frame for understanding and accepting the band without completely rejecting it. While I could never truly accept “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because of the cynicism implanted by the parody, I never would have started to love it otherwise. Sometimes familiarity and contempt are not bad things.
Perhaps this song was a harbinger of its own, then. During the year, something happened; my glorious geekdom began to crumble. I don’t even know what the cause was. I can only point to memory flashes and symptoms. Where in retrospect the sounds of They Might be Giants and Weird Al seem sunny, other memories are sodden and dark. This was the same time that it got in my head that I should write sad (and bad) poetry. My reading lists stopped consisting exclusively of Isaac Asimov and Stephen King. (But not too far: Dune.)
Sometime during this year, I started going regularly to school dances. At one of them, I heard the unmistakable guitar riff from U2’s “One”. This wasn’t the first time I had heard the song, but the context gave it a different charge. The lyrics were maudlin and uplifting (if that combination makes sense). I saw a cute girl in flashing lights while listening to Bono’s voice. It was over.
(I think I only danced with the girl once but it was during that song; years later, when I saw her I still thought of “One”. I never kissed her, never dated her and never made an attempt at either. But she did make me swoon.)
Then, I joined a CD club. Viva la revolucion digital! I became a U2 fan. I no longer bought cassettes, but I joined enough of those penny-a-cd clubs to bankrupt my parents. I acquired Nevermind. I acquired Pearl Jam’s Ten. I learned about Nine Inch Nails and lesser known lights like Gwar. But one CD was not enough; I had to have every U2 album. I had to have every TMBG album (they were ok; they were still considered alternative).
And just like that, all my cassettes were boxed away. No more Monty Python Sings on the way to school. No more polkas in the afternoon. Suddenly things were very, very serious. I can distinctly remember sitting in my room during a snowstorm, looking out into the dark of night, writing something terrible in a Mead composition book after making sure that Achtung Baby was on repeat.
(On other songs: I still remember being shocked to learn that “Under the Bridge” might be about drugs (!) only to pretend that I knew all along. Who can forget the epic yet senseless “November Rain” video? That year, there was a furious debate about whether the school dance should end with “November Rain” (the majority vote) or “Stairway to Heaven” (a traditionalist voice). I just wanted the redhead to dance with me to “One” again. Beginning, middle whenever. I think GNR won out.)
As solace: I could have taken “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred seriously; I could have been entertained by Ugly Kid Joe. Top Hits apart from “Smells like Teen spirit?” “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney, “End of the Road”, the forgettable “Rhythm is a Dancer” and Mr. Big’s “To Be With You”