This is the theme song for a graduation ceremony honoring the high rulers of a new galaxy. You are on the way to this ceremony, and you are one of the honorees. Your transport is a rocket ship with “Victory!” painted on the side in blue letters. The rocket launches into the atmosphere, diving up and down, doing barrel rolls above the earth.
The rocket is fueled by pure electric ecstasy, shaking and unsteady in its course. You’re burning up inside a screeching metallic inferno as the rocket nearly drops into chaos, but suddenly pulls up and ascends from danger just in time. Meteorites fly at you from all directions, missing by mere inches. Streaks of blue, white and silver form a kaleidoscope above your head.
The sound defies gravity with every movement, every wild and meandering note. Clouds fly past at impossible speeds while the moon and the stars spin around.
Now we are back on Earth. We are children at that perfect moment on a swing set — the moment when it’s time to jump. The swing lurches forward. Now or never. We feel the force of gravity. This is it. Now!
Siamese Dream delivered sunshine and eternal blue skies; green hills stretching every way to the horizon. It delivered dangerous jungles where blades of grass turned into knives. It delivered a sweet, gentle moon over clear nights and the white picket fences of childhood. It delivered the shadowy backyard of childhood abuse behind so many fences.
Mellon Collie delivered rivers of disillusionment; bending mirrors of perception. It delivered a circus of lost dreams, moments of breathless optimism, and an intense longing for love.
He stood in silence for a moment, staring ahead in stern concentration. He waited. His fierce eyes changed color as the violet light passed over them. Suddenly, he jumped forward and attacked his guitar. A wild, otherworldly cascade of notes screamed into the atmosphere — a raw torrent of sonic fury. The audience screamed for their lives. We were assaulted. We were found.
I was blown away. Roky Erickson’s haunting, reverb-saturated voice blasted through the speakers and created a resounding echo in my living room. A very strange whooping sound flew back and forth across the speakers. I turned the dial up. The music shifted suddenly and dropped into a swirling whirlpool of menacing blues guitar and raga.
The lead guitar cut through the mix with alarming precision, and the overall effect was masterful. A kind of magnetic force or energy drove the entire sound which can’t be explained in standard music terms — there was a conviction, an absolute now or never attitude. It sounded like a group of fire and brimstone preachers decided to form a rock band.
Here we arrive at the mystique of innocence — that moment of discovery when you absorb information for the first time, but you have no idea who the author is. You have no precedent for the information you are receiving — no historical context for whatever theory, song, or piece of knowledge is imparted to you. It was just new, strange, and exciting.
It’s an alternate universe; a sonic island that redefines the concept of what music is. It’s a philosophy, an experience, and a dream — alive and pulsating in time. It shapes your mood and your perception of the environment around you. When you connect to music this good, you transcend your life. You transcend into a power connected to everything.
I was a warrior woman on that Viking boat. I stood near the bow with a sword in my hand and copper cuffs on each wrist. My eyes were narrowed, the ocean sprayed my face, the boat bobbed up and down over waves, and I experienced the greatest endorphin rush of my life. Sexy bearded men stood all around me, and they all had great legs. We were Vikings, and we were going to win.
The interplay between the various instruments and the two voices — Grace Slick and Marty Balin — was unlike anything I had experienced. Complex layers of minor key madness danced around soft rhythm brushstrokes. The music flashed with colors while the lyrics evoked rich imagery.
As a result of Hendrix’s influence (and as a result of the emerging drug culture), some incredibly weird albums emerged in 1968. After Bathing at Baxter’s was one such album.
Baxter’s is a big yellow jazz room with wooden floorboards and xylophones. Men wearing top hats and red suspenders pound on drums. The guitar becomes a spaceship, Grace’s singing sounds tribal at moments, and the lyrics are surreal.
“Wild Tyme” has a marching band feel, the sound of excitement and determination. Flower children march through the streets and over fields. Now they’re pouring out of buildings and the crowd is growing. A couple observes all the changes happening everywhere. They’re wild with joy. They have each other, their friends — everything stretches out in endless possibilities.
He stands beneath a street lamp on the cracked pavement of life, electric guitar in hand, singing as the light fades into dusk. He watches birds fly across the pink sky above city power lines, his voice straining out broken cries of reality under immense skyscraper gloom. His voice glides up and down in ethereal passion; his eyes follow summer birds into dreams of rapture as they glide away into visions of spring’s promise and reunited love.
“Mojo Pin” from Grace is the height of Buckley’s sweeping passion. Listeners are pulled into the vision of a shimmering beach; a brilliant sun at high noon shining on water between flashes of cloud breaks, oysters in the sand, surf crashing, and sea creatures bowing and praying to the power of love. An image of a beautiful woman with black hair is traced in the passing clouds. The palpable, yearning heartbreak of this song will induce immediate chills in any listener. The long and languid notes Buckley sings in the introduction glide you through the sky, above the earth, and back down through snow drifts on a pond.
Finally, we entered the auditorium and took our seats. Murky red lights glowed on the carpeted walls. Hushed voices whispered all around us, rising and falling in crescendos of excited anticipation. The lights dimmed, and Billy Corgan’s profile stalked across the shadowy stage. He picked up his acoustic guitar and stood in the dark.
I stiffened to attention immediately. I sat up straight on the edge of my seat, erect as a steel rod.
“Is that him!?” she whispered in my ear.
“F — yes, that’s him!” I whispered back impatiently, reeling with barely contained joy.
It was unmistakably Billy; his figure loomed over 6 feet tall, wearing his trademark black suit, sporting his notorious bald head. That was him. His long arm reached for his guitar. The house lights came up. He stood before us in a single spotlight.
As he scanned the crowd, his eyes lit up with love and appreciation. He smiled. The look in his eyes was genuine and unmistakable. His eyes shonewith affection. So much of what he is (and what fans are) is The Child. That brief flash of his eyes was everything. He has a reputation for being the most arrogant and incorrigible asshat in the music world. Fans know a whole other side of the man — we laugh at the interviews, push them aside in amusement, and listen to the music.
I was surprised the first time I popped Da Capo into the player. I was expecting the typical Big Brother and The Holding Company blues arrangement. I heard something else instead.
I heard “Stephanie Knows Who” with its skipping carnival clowns and choppiness. I was delighted. A jazz breakdown drops in out of nowhere half way through the song, and it sounds just like midnight dropping into the bright sun of high noon.
After I heard Da Capo, I started listening to the album constantly. I remember picking up a friend to give him a ride while “Que Vida!” was playing. He hesitated and listened. A moment passed, and finally he said, “Dude, this is some weird shit you’re listening to.” I smiled broadly and let out a cackle. His reaction validated my belief that I’d stumbled onto a work of genius.
The album themes echo concerns of the era coupled with Lee’s personal reflections. Lee’s intimate delivery is the secret sauce here. Throughout the album, Lee’s voice sounds like a movie voiceover that only you can hear. He’s minding his own business while having private thoughts, and you’re a secret party to those thoughts. It’s a mirror of your own private concerns and fears. It’s the clouds battling sunshine in the spring, the sound of struggle quietly straining toward rebirth.
Lee’s singing bursts in with a windswept symbol crash; the song is set outdoors with festive horns. This song conjures up summer music festivals in Alaska in my memory. People mill around in crowds having a good time. It’s the one overtly joyous song on the album.
The ringing phone woke me from my stoned alcoholic stupor. This was serious business, so I quickly roused myself into a waking state, and did my best to answer questions while hiding the fact that I was both drunk AND stoned.
The man on the phone was hilarious. This guy would have been funny if I was sober. His voice was baritone low, and he drawled out sentences in a slow, languid growl. Every other word was a long, painfully drawn out groan. This was his style of speech, it wasn’t just my perception.
My intoxicated perception of his voice did magnify the whole experience, however. He sounded like a middle-aged frog with a mustache. I covered the receiver and laughed noiselessly.
I thanked him for his time, hung up the phone, and released suppressed peals of laughter. Then I laid down and passed back out.
Grunge was a visceral introduction to the rock universe. It was unbelievable. Together, all the albums released by each band created a unified alternate world. This world mirrored the dark emotions we lived inside, but the music made it beautiful.
Grunge was raw emotion behind soaring voices, screams, otherworldly guitar phrases and lyrics that touched our souls. A handful of bands defined our experience, and those bands were larger than life.
The red sun peeked over the horizon, blazing a thin line over mountains beneath a dark sky. The guitars echoed to the mountains; mean, cold, and brittle. The drums vacillated between a steady battle march and unhinged madness. The whole thing sounded like a glacier splitting in slow motion.
Soundgarden’s early music is hypnotic and full of stark imagery; dark pines, eerie lakes, power lines, and grey skies marbled in clouds. I listened and flew across the sky. I gazed down on a vast portrait of nature in still life. Cornell’s soaring voice pulled you into a vision. You didn’t jump or head bang along with this music — you brooded to Soundgarden. It was menacing, and the intensity pulled you in. Your soul moved into the songs.
“Room A Thousand Years Wide” is a great example, it churns through desert surrealism, blinding sun, and strobe lights. Soundgarden’s music was a vehicle into imagery or a feeling you couldn’t place. You broke through the mirror and emerged into a realm halfway between artist and audience. Waves of saturated guitar washed over and you were reborn in an instant.
I write to escape. When I write about a band, the last damn thing I wanna do is repeat the same stuff you can find on Wikipedia. I’ll reference some facts (sparingly) to ground the article and give it structure, but I won’t dive into a detailed marathon of facts. I’m here to dance. I want to braid memory with illusion and craft a vision out of artistry.
You can find the full stories to which these passages belong if you visit my blog found here.
I almost put a picture of a beaver in the moon just to get your eyeballs.
(beaver moon is actually a thing).