Still Alive (Mostly): Gen X at 40
By James Tressler
In the Summer of ’92, a new generation, and a new music were coming of age. Twenty-five years later, teacher and author James Tressler takes a look back.
Summer of '92. You were a few months shy of your 21st birthday. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam were among the headliners at Lollapalooza, and you desperately wanted to be there.
“Have you heard this song, ‘Alive?’” your friends would ask.
“The singer (Eddie Vedder)’s voice is fucking unbelievable.”
You listened, and you listened again and again and again.
It was like that all summer. By then you were already rapidly trading in your '90210' look for flannel shirts, denim shorts, and Doc Martens. You were thinking of getting a nose ring and a tattoo, perhaps a praying mantis design on the shoulder like Perry Farrell, lead singer of Jane's Addiction, which had broken up the year before. You wanted to live in Seattle, where the new music was coming from, but anywhere on the West Coast would do, as long as it wasn't L.A, which was so Eighties.
The summer of '92, you didn't own a computer (only geeks did then) or a mobile phone (only pretentious L.A. jerks did then). You did own a Walkman and a big home stereo to play all the new music that was coming out that summer. That summer, you hung around record shops daily, browsing Rolling Stone for inside information on the latest bands. You also took in liberal doses of Spin Magazine and that new one, Details.
The new music was everywhere that summer . . . Ministry, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Temple of the Dog. Even Perry Farrell had a new band, Porno for Pyros, and you were curious about them. At home, you listened to the new music and devoured interviews in the magazines, interviews with Farrell, Henry Rollins, Kurt Cobain, Kim Deal, Ice Cube, these arbiters of taste and cool, the ones who seemed to know where we were all going.
It had all been "going" for about a year then, ever since the fall of '91, when Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had sounded a generational cannon blast across the airwaves and on MTV. Ever since then, you and your friends had worn out your copies of "Nevermind," and suddenly a host of other new bands were riding the wave, which was carrying you along with it. Overnight, the rest of your music collection was dusty, irrelevant.
That summer you bought the “Singles” soundtrack, and started haunting cafes and coffee shops. You could still smoke in coffee shops then, and you enjoyed nothing better than staying up all night at Denny's smoking cigarettes, drinking countless cups of coffee and trying to write your own songs. Your friends would join you and everyone would debate such serious issues as whether or not Nirvana had already "sold out," the reasons behind Jane's Addiction's break up, and whether Eddie Vedder was really sincere or just a poseur.
You wanted to be in a band, and it seemed that if you were in a band you would write the kind of lyrics that you were now hearing in this new music, lyrics that were pained, cryptic, honest. Like in Soundgarden's "Seasons," off the "Singles" soundtrack, another song playing everywhere that summer. "I'm lost/behind/the words I'll never find./And I'm left/behind/as the seasons roll on by -- yeah-eh"
So you wrote, or tried to write songs. They were about as patchy as your budding goatee, but it was OK; you figured the less anybody could understand, the better.
You also began that summer to take a more active interest in your feelings. You became more, like, introspective, as you listened to the new songs. The emotions in the music attracted you, powerful emotions--rage, pathos, emptiness, despair--and you wanted to feel those things too, did feel them. You wanted to scream like Eddie Vedder on "State of Love and Trust." "And I listen/for the voice inside my head/Nothing!/I'll do this one myself.
Arrrrghhh! Myyy-self!" So would we.
Of course, this was the honeymoon period, that summer of '92, but we didn't know that. Like when you first move out of your parents’ house, it’s great and then you realize you have to start paying the bills.
Anyway, soon, the mainstream media was all over it. “Grunge” was the name the media christened the new music with. Soon grunge was everywhere. Grunge fashion, goatees, and tattoos and piercings became de rigeur, and when you read in the press of Pearl Jam’s “Ten” album selling out at Walmarts in Idaho and South Dakota, you sensed that the moment was already passing.
In response, some of us plunged frantically into the underground record shops in Berkeley, in search of the next-big-thing. The more obscure, the more outré, the more angst-ridden, the better. It was like a race to find the cool new band before anybody else did.
Angst. That was a buzzword in the mainstream press that year as they scratched their heads about us. Time, or maybe it was Newsweek, running a cover story on grunge and the New Angry Young Men, and “what it all meant,” put Eddie Vedder on the cover, in full angst mode. "Now," the magazine insisted on the subhead, "if we could only figure out what he's saying!" But Time, or Newsweek, in their obsession with the literal, couldn't figure it out. We already had. There was a code to decipher in these mumbled phrases, these primal screams. But you needed the password of youth to gain access. “Stay away!" screamed Kurt Cobain. "God is Gay!!!!" It wasn't the literal meaning of the words, but the rawness of the feeling behind them.
It was around that summer that the term Gen X, or Gen Xer, began to feature more and more in the press. That was us, supposedly, according to whoever it was who decides such things. We were that generation born in the late Sixties and early Seventies, children of the Baby Boomers, those hippies who smoked grass in Haight-Ashbury and soldiers who went off to Vietnam. We were their children, and pretty much treated as such in the press. Lower expectations, if you know what I mean.
I suppose it was inevitable that we would get labelled sooner or later, since that summer of '92, we were coming of age and beginning to make a lot of noise with the new music. Older pundits, the Boomers in the throes of middle age, were both sympathetic (as seen in the curious subhead on the Time cover) and condescending ("We had the '60s man! The '60s!")
OK, it was true. They had the '60s, and the '70s. By the summer of '92, we had begun to warm up to these decades. Having grown up in Reagan's '80s, the '80s of Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis, and MTV. We had always been inclined to look down on our parent's stories of protests, pot-smoking, and ash rams. We tended to side with Alex P. Keaton, the spunky young Republican played by Michael J. Fox on the popular sitcom Family Ties, in thinking that his hippy parents were “nice,” but hopelessly dated, embarrassingly so, and needed our strict guidance.
But with the new music, which even we knew was heavily influenced by that past era, by The Beatles, Zeppelin, et al, as I said, we had repented.
Now, we wanted respect. It was our youth after all, our generation, and we wanted our own labels, and, for Christ’s sake, our own soundtrack. That summer of '92, that soundtrack was on full blast. "In through the flood again!" screamed Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, blasting from the car tape deck. "Same old trip it was back then! / So I made a big mistake / try to see it once MY WAYYYY-yeah-eah!" Yeah, just once, we thought, screaming along to Staley, turning up the volume, stepping on the gas pedal. And we were singing it not only to ourselves, but to our parents, and to the press, and its dirty, easy labels.
So who were we then, that lost summer? The thing was, we didn't know. But we wanted to know real bad. And the answer, we felt, was somewhere in the music. Having grown up in the 80s, we listened to our parents reminisce (or regret) about their time. We knew that this new decade, the 90s, was supposed to be our time. But nobody seemed to expect much from us, or else they expected too much. Ourselves, we were already sophisticated
enough to distrust labels, and yet were not sophisticated enough to be able to express ourselves without them. We called anyone who had not heard of Alice in Chains before the "Singles" soundtrack a "Johnny-come-lately." Anyone who discovered grunge through Pearl Jam's "Ten" album was a "bandwagoner." Perhaps that's why we were so drawn to the music. There was a rawness, a force, in those inarticulate, obscure ravings that defied categorization. It was direct, honest. We didn't want to be defined--yet.
We had a deep crush on Winona Ryder that summer; or more precisely, those of us who hadn't, already did. She was still going out with Johnny Depp that summer, I think. Johnny was in one of his early phases of cool, a protean cool that he hadn't "sold" for big box office and Captain Jack blockbuster cool. We were all in serious lust with Cindy Crawford that summer, Cindy in those black-and-white Herb Ritts photographs. Cindy, compressing all of a generation's sexual yearning into a single mole above her upper lip. Up in the air, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird were leading the Dream Team to gold in Barcelona.
When we weren’t busy being angst-ridden, we all wanted to be like Mike. Mike was our overachiever.
Politics? We didn't really have time for politics that summer, but we knew it was an election year and we knew, somehow, that Bill Clinton would win.
I mean, we weren't surprised. We knew he "didn't inhale," that he had played saxophone and went on MTV. He was cool, sort of. Cool for a politician anyway. Politicians were lame. All we really knew about Bush was that he said, "Read my lips--no new taxes." Bush was lame. The fact that few, if any of us, actually voted that November is not important: we would have voted for Clinton, but “they’re all corrupt.”
"Underachiever . . . and proud of it, man!" Ah, Bart Simpson speaking for us all. At least that's what the media said, and President Bush agreed. We were all underachievers, and they had all the declining test scores, increasing drug use, and political apathy stories to prove it. We weren't going anywhere, and we didn't care: this was the verdict on Gen X. Outwardly, we agreed (Bart Simpson was cool that summer), although inwardly, we rebelled, we couldn't really fight back. I think, looking back, we were still writhing, almost masochistically, under the whipping indictment delivered in "Smells Like Teen Spirit," our generation's unofficial anthem.
"I'm worse at what I do best," moaned Kurt ironically, "and for this gift I feel blessed."
This song hung over our generation, over all the other new music, like a ghost all throughout that decade. It was, if you will, our "This Side of Paradise," our "Catcher in Rye." Of course we weren't capable of reading anything so long as a book--alas, attention deficit--so a song would have to suffice. It was a story of our apathy, our cringing self-satisfaction, our herd mentality, our fast track to the middle, delivered by Kurt Cobain in blistering, self-castigating fashion. We knew he was right, and something rose in us. I think even then we knew that our hero, our spokesman, would in a very short time blow his brains out with a shotgun. That made us trust him. Here was a guy with nothing to lose, who was gonna take a few of us with him before he left this earth, and leave the echo of that shotgun blast, the music, reverberating in the night.
Why is it that all generations of youth seek heroes who ultimately self-destruct? Think Byron, or Rimbaud, or Morrison, Cobain because dead heroes can't fall short, or at least so we believed at the time. They don't compromise. The rest of us do. Twenty-five years on . . . most of the great bands had long since broken up, the grunge sound faded and died with Cobain. Alice in Chains front man Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots and, later, Velvet Revolver) both saw drugs take them to early graves. (Just this past month, we also got word of Soundgarden screamer Chris Cornell’s untimely passing, at age 52; on a side note, it was nice to see, in his New York Times’ obit, a clip of “Seasons,” that old favorite from my youth).
Pearl Jam, which electrified us that summer with “Alive,” survives, but Eddy Vedder is a middle-aged ghost of the god he was that summer. Perry Farrell and Janes Addiction are still putting out half-decent records. Ironic. Hell, we all thought Farrell would be the first to go.
I had to look on Wikipedia to see if Lollapalooza, the great show of that summer, was even still around (it is, and has actually expanded to include Lolla-Brasil and Lolla-Chile).
Our sweetheart, Winona Ryder, got convicted of petty shoplifting and even worse, of acting in a stale comedy with Adam Sandler. Cindy Crawford is now a middle-aged mother of two. Air Jordan is a now desk-bound owner, and not even for a good team. Nothing really comes out of Seattle these days, except Microsoft and Starbucks, corporate giants. Today's millennial youth don't want to live there; they are scattered around the globe: to London, to Prague, to Nepal.
"Early 90s music was pretty good," concedes one such millennial, a 21-year-old Welsh girl who works with me at my school in Istanbul. "But early 90s fashion ...? Ewww! All that flannel, and dirty, grungy clothing!"
Nowadays, we're turning 40. Most of us have long since eschewed the "dirty, grungy clothing," since most of us have jobs, even in this economy. We keep track of each other's doings on Facebook, which is highly preferable to high school reunions. We've got spouses, children, mortgages, taxes (old and new). Some of us even vote. We've got gym memberships and are actually using them, going to karate lessons and a few of us have even taken up kayaking and mountain climbing. Others are taking vacations in Italy, the Seychelles, Malta. We've settled down, except those of us, like this writer, who will probably never grow up, and are teaching English abroad. Actually, on a side note, my students here in Turkey are big Nirvana fans. Turks tend to be fatalistic, and have the same fascination with Cobain that we did.
We have become--achievers.
That summer of '92, as I said, was a kind of honeymoon for us, a honeymoon of young adulthood. We had left home and were beginning to find our own way, make our own rules, and we had our own music. What we didn't have yet was our identity, or expectations. But they were a lot higher than we knew then, higher than we were given credit for. The question now is if we have become achievers, what have we achieved then? I would say the White House, but Obama, born in 1961 falls just outside.
No, what most of us have achieved is: mediocrity, normalcy, disappointment, but also the conjugal life, a modicum of success and (gasp!) happiness. This may sound strange, but in the summer of '92, it wasn't really "cool" to be happy. To be happy, at our age, was to be conventional (think of REM's "Shiny Happy People," which was on the radio then too), dull, and clueless to life’s hard realities. We all wanted to be unhappy, howling in the dark like Eddie Vedder at our lonely existence, of our strange searches, of our murdered innocence. We all wanted to live violently, to die a romantic death. Later on, we found out that living alone is enough and that death is not romantic, except in Titanic. Shotgun solutions sound very fine, but only when fired from a very great distance and not in your direction.
You could say 9/11 helped drive home that point; certainly it coincided with the end of our youth, the dawn of a new decade, a decade that would see the nation plunged into a seemingly endless war and economic crises. Certainly 9/11 showed that suffering and tragedy are real and not "cool," but I don't think the Gen-Xers can claim that event, except as marking the death of our youth. At any rate, we have learned to live with ourselves, to deal with what hand we are given. Is that selling out? Of course it is, Kurt.
"Love myself, better than you/I know it's wrong but what can I do / I'm on a plain / I can't complain."
But twenty years on, the summer of '92 still reverberates within us, defines us. We’ve aged gracefully. And we’re still alive, most of us anyway.
James Tressler is the author of Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman, and was a journalist for the Times-Standard in Eureka, California. He currently is living in Istanbul.