90s nostalgia: Brent Stavig | ‘Neverminding Seattle’

In case you missed it, yesterday I announced a last-minute post on the 90s nostalgia theme I want to feature, two other blogs with a call for content, and more. Today’s guest post is from my friend Brent Stavig, on the early days pre-grunge in Seattle.

Neverminding Seattle,
by Brent Stavig

In order to describe the impact that Nevermind had in my world I’ll need to delve into a brief history of the Pacific Northwest rock scene that led up to Nirvana. I turned eighteen in 1980, and the two most popular bands in Seattle were “New Wave” bands: The Cowboys, and The Heats.  Both mimicked the fashion of The Cars, Split Enz, Blondie, etc., and had that tough, post-punk attitude that defined the New Wave genre. While neither ended up having much success, they were treated like rock stars in a town where nothing else was happening. I recall going to see Pat Benatar at the Paramount Theater in 1980, and the front row of the mezzanine was cordoned off for The Heats. When they strolled into the venue everyone stood up to stare at them, like they were Seattle’s own Beatles.

I’d been playing guitar in my own New Wave band at Western Washington University, The Blitz, and we played punk and new wave cover songs at high schools around the state, usually for homecoming dances and Sweetheart Balls. I’m proud to say that my band probably introduced many unknowing youngsters to bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash, and Squeeze, and perhaps inspired some of them to form their own bands.

After one year of college I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in a rock band, and since Seattle didn’t hold much promise I set my sights on New York City. At the age of nineteen I packed a suitcase, grabbed my guitar, and took a Greyhound bus to Manhattan. Unfortunately there wasn’t much going on there either. The heyday of CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City were over, and the scene had become a droll collection of black-t-shirt-clad mood shifters, doing their best ‘Velvet Underground meets Talking Heads’ impersonation. I joined bands and played these now-legendary venues too, but the overall mood was dark and unpromising.

While this was going on in NYC, back home in a town called Olympia (south of Seattle) my childhood friend Bret Lunsford had formed a band called Beat Happening with two college friends. They started to make cassettes, and distributing them via their own label, K Records. By 1983 my cousin Sid had moved from Seattle to join me in my quest for rock and roll success, and we’d listen to the Beat Happening songs with a sense of wonder. They were so primitive and childish. Rudimentary musical skills and base lyrics. It was easy to dismiss them as a lark, but pretty soon they started to receive coverage in the national media, as well as the attention of a young Kurt Cobain (who would later slap a K Records sticker on his guitar). Beat Happening – Bret, Heather, and Calvin – visited us when they were playing in NYC, and it was hard to relate to their vibe, which I’d describe as latent-Hippie mixed with societal disdain.

Around this same time another childhood friend – Daniel House – also came to visit. He was living in Seattle and had recently formed Skin Yard with Jack Endino, who would later produce and record the earliest Nirvana tracks. Daniel told us stories of how the Seattle music scene was about to explode, and how A & R reps from major labels were always checking out the local bands. I found this preposterous. The Seattle I’d left behind for the greener pastures of NYC was void of any real promise, or so I’d thought.

In 1985 or ’86 (I’ve lost track) my band Lyrical Whips was playing CBGB’s the same night as Green River; a Seattle supergroup (in hindsight) that included Mark Arm and Steve Turner who would shortly form Mudhoney, and Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard who would shortly form Pearl Jam. We swapped stories about Seattle, and the challenges of playing in NYC clubs, and once again we heard amazing stories about the Seattle scene, re: the enormous number of good bands, the camaraderie, the promise of getting signed to a genuine record label, and how we should leave NYC and move back home. We decided to stay in Manhattan rather than retreat back to Seattle having not achieved our dreams.

However, even though a buzz was happening in Seattle, no one had really broken out nationally yet. The Minneapolis scene of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum was dominating the regional-scene attention. When I told New Yorkers that I was from Seattle they usually had a hard time visualizing where it was. “Is that sort of south of Alaska?” they’d ask.

Soundgarden was the first Seattle band to get some national attention. Their second album Louder Than Love was getting some radio airplay, and almost made it into the Billboard Top 100. By now I was starting to wonder if maybe there was something happening in Seattle.

By 1990 my cousin Sid had given up on making it in NYC, and had moved back to Seattle. One day I received a cassette in the mail he’d made, a collection of bands he thought I hadn’t heard yet. The first track was Nirvana’s “Sliver”, only released as a single in 1990. I was intrigued the moment I heard Kurt’s voice for the first time, and also by the nostalgic lyrics about mashed potatoes. I spoke to Sid about this strange band called Nirvana, and as a manager at the Seattle Tower Records he was enthusiastic about them, and told me that they were going to be huge.

I neglected to pick up their first album Bleach, but made a point of grabbing a copy of Nevermind the day it was released, and of course I was blown away. In the history of rock albums there aren’t too many opening tracks as powerful as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I stood in front of my speakers, volume cranked as high as I could get away with in my apartment, and marveled at the production, the guitar tone, the ferocious drumming, and Kurt’s amazingly shredded vocals. I played the album all the way through, and then played it two more times. It had been a long time since I felt like I was hearing something groundbreaking, but it seemed like rock and roll was about to head in a different direction, and Nirvana was blazing the trail.

The national media, as well as music fans around the world, latched onto Nevermind like they’d been waiting for it their whole lives. Virtually every magazine had Nirvana on the cover, MTV was drenched in Nirvana coverage, and everywhere were essays and commentaries trying to explain their rapid ascent. Some compared them to the Beatles, others dismissed them as talentless noise jockeys, but “grunge” was suddenly a household word.

I found myself proud, at last, to say I was from Seattle. Now when New Yorkers heard that I was from Seattle, they’d ask about Nirvana. Did I know them? Do I really think they’re any good? But the best part was that I no longer had to go into detail about exactly where Seattle was located.

Nevermind remains a touchstone for me. It opened the door for countless other bands, spawned many imitators, and inspired me to take more chances with my own music. It also kicked open the door of the 1990s, and paved the way for a wave of incredible rock bands who (I felt) stepped up their game a couple of notches after hearing Nirvana, and who released some of the best music of their careers. These include, Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom, Urge Overkill, Soul Asylum, Grant Lee Buffalo, and Smashing Pumpkins.

Of course the story of Nirvana is bittersweet, and to this day I still feel sadness when I think of Kurt’s death. Like Highway 61 Revisited, Revolver, Moondance, and Never Mind the Bollocks, Nevermind is firmly nestled in the pantheon of rock’s greatest records, and I feel lucky to have been paying attention when it landed.

Brent Stavig is a contributor to Seattle Music Insider.

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The end of nostalgia (no, not really)

IMG_3811First I need to come clean and say I’ve got one more 90s piece I’m sharing tomorrow even though I said I wouldn’t. It’s told by a musician trying to make it in Seattle pre-grunge who left for New York just as the scene broke here. Look for it tomorrow.

Thank you for the enthusiasm this week in a pretty self-indulgent project (but isn’t that the nature of nostalgia?) — it’s made me rethink what I like most about this blog, and that’s grooving off the joy of reading and writing, encouraging others to share their stories and indulge in our past, where we connect.

If you started writing something but were unable to finish it, send it to me when it’s done and I’ll feature more over the coming weeks.

You can also visit these other cool blogs: Michelle and Walt are accepting submissions on themes ranging from joy to horror, something we can all relate to.

In 1996 I was working at a Starbucks drive-thru on Mercer Island. Our lease was up at the Sponge Factory loft in Philadelphia and my girlfriend suggested we move to Seattle. My best friend Mike lived here and was trying to get me to move for years. My boss just called someone saying he had a guy who wanted to relocate and they said OK, and that was that.

Starbucks was celebrating the 25th anniversary of its inception in 1971 (which is a stretch, but you can get away with that in marketing) and the theme in the stores was around the psychedelia and music of the time. They had a CD compilation with John Lennon, Love and Traffic they were selling, and we all got tie-dyes we could pick from in three different color schemes.

One night I got a call at the store from someone at corporate saying they needed a shuttle driver, someone to drive people from a parking lot to the office in a mini-bus, and was I interested? I declined but asked what else they had, and that triggered me moving out of retail into corporate, and all that led to where I am today.

The guy who took that job I’m now realizing is the writer whose post I’m featuring tomorrow, Brent Stavig.

We’d climb into the shuttle and he’d take us to Pioneer Square over the lunch hour, or to our cars, as the main parking garage had a wait-list and most people parked a half mile away.

Brent always had good music playing and turned me onto one of my favorite artists to this day, Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters. We’d lend each other CDs and went out to a show once, the singer Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse — I saved a free button they gave out that night and still have it in the pocket of my jean jacket.

When I left Starbucks I hadn’t really thought through my plan. I knew we’d be relocating to Europe, but because I wasn’t sure I didn’t tell anyone, and it was strange for someone to leave without obvious plans to be doing something else. Over the course of a week I went around saying goodbye and Brent was one of those people I met with over a coffee to share my story and shake his hand, in hopes we’d meet up again one day.

So, here we are now:

Be sure to check out Brent’s post tomorrow morning, and thanks for reading this past week.




Starbucks tie-dye from ’96, in Connemara, ’09


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90s nostalgia: Jon Eekhoff | ‘From the muddy banks of the Wishkah’

Here we are now, on the day Nirvana released their breakthrough album Nevermind 25 years ago. I’m pleased to end the 90s nostalgia series with a piece by Jon Eekhoff today, and his memories of what it was like to live out here in the Pacific Northwest, where the band originates from. Thanks to all who followed along this past week and participated, it’s been a lot of fun!

Jon Eekhoff has several unpublished novels on his computer waiting to be held hostage by Russian hackers. His fiction tends to be about strange people who don’t understand how the world works. His non-fiction/blog writing focuses on how he doesn’t understand how the world works.  He enjoys cold beer, hot coffee, and warm socks right out of the dryer. 

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah,
by Jon Eekhoff

Most people haven’t been to Aberdeen, Washington, and that is a good thing. There aren’t more depressing towns in North America, the overcast skies, the deteriorating downtown, the muddy tidal rivers, and the rain…the rain is the type of rain most people think of when they think of Seattle, but Aberdeen has the real stuff: cold, blowing in sideways, and heavy. There aren’t many reasons to go to Aberdeen unless you are one of those people in search of Kurt Cobain’s hometown, or looking for a meth fix.

In 1990, I was living and finishing up my seventh year of college in Spokane. I worked evenings at Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park as I tried to cobble together my multiple years of education into something someone else would recognize as valuable. I had a couple degrees but my friends all agreed, we didn’t know anyone from our college who had a real job and that was what I needed, a real job. I had been married for a little more than a year and my wife had started looking for teaching jobs around the state of Washington. The late nights of neon Chinese restaurants and Spokane summers were coming to an end and it wouldn’t be long before my friends and I were separated by the pull of adulthood and responsibilities.

Todd and Scott were the guys I spent most of my time with. Todd worked for an environmental agency in a small office in a dirty part of Spokane and Scott was the Guest Services Manager at Cavanaugh’s. We shared a love of basketball and music. Our empty hours were spent in the rougher areas of Spokane playing pick up games on courts where scores were kept by someone on the sidelines to reduce the fights and in record stores looking for something new.

Todd was the one who found Nirvana first. It was only right. He always had a nose for the new cool thing. He rode his bike to work before it was cool, he smoked cigars before they were cool, and he had an ear for music that introduced me to Teenage Fanclub and The Stone Roses…he was one of those guys. (The last I heard from him he was spending summers in a van down by the Columbia River to windsurf and winters skiing at Whistler before anyone knew Whistler existed.) So when Todd popped the new Nirvana album into Scott’s tape deck and the noise started to fill the car, I held an open mind for as long as I could. I didn’t like it. The lyrics were convoluted and ridiculous. The self-absorbed lead singer was far too dark for me, but I hadn’t been to Kurt Cobain’s hometown at that point in my life.

A few months later, when Nirvana could be heard in places other than Scott’s car, I was in one of the branches of the Spokane Public Library looking through the Yellow Pages for Grays Harbor County which included Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Elma, and Montesano (the four horsemen of depression) because my wife had been offered a job at a small school, Wishkah Valley, near Aberdeen and we were considering moving across the state to start our lives. I looked for restaurants, movie theaters, and other things that could make our stay in a tiny town worth the move. There were no WebPages, no Yelp to help me know anything about this place other than what those yellow pages offered.

A job I was qualified to fill opened in a beach town nearby and before August was over we had moved into a small moss covered house in Westport, Washington. My wife commuted to her tiny school 45 minutes each way. It was a long drive for her, but we decided living at the beach was better than in Aberdeen because we only had one car and, well, I wanted to live near the ocean because I was still a Californian deep in my heart and living near the ocean was a dream I could only fulfill in a place like Westport.

The sun never came out. Never. On days that Seattle had sun it rained in Grays Harbor. On days it rained in Seattle it poured buckets in Westport and Aberdeen. By the time we reached October I understood Kurt Cobain’s depression.

Grunge filled the airwaves and Seattle suddenly became the coolest city on the planet. It was a shocking shift from Day-Glo Miami Vice colors to plaid flannel. I wish I could say I took advantage of it, but I didn’t. I knew people who traveled the two hours to Seattle to see Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains at the Showbox, at the Paramount, or if they were really lucky at the Crocodile, but I never went.

I didn’t really get how big grunge was while I was standing right next to it. I was the age when you figure that life is like that, everything revolves around you and your presence bends the world. There was the MTV Real World in Seattle, the MTV New Year’s Party where Nirvana played a disturbingly sloppy set, and then there was Nirvana Unplugged. Unplugged was where I finally recognized the brilliance of Cobain but by that time he was spiraling into the thick black abyss. He looked fragile in that pale green Mr. Rogers cardigan as he strummed through the acoustic set in a performance that even I couldn’t deny was otherworldly.

I remember traveling to California over a Spring Break and walking through a mall, there were Nirvana shirts everywhere. Girls wore flannels, combat boots, and ripped jeans in 90-degree heat. It was California grunge. It looked like grunge from a distance, but it wasn’t the real thing, it was the cleaned up corporate version stamped out in t-shirt factories around the world and shipped back to places like Wichita so kids could be cool. They didn’t realize the darkness of Aberdeen, they didn’t get that Cobain’s angst wasn’t like Kiss’s devil worship kitsch. Jocks liked Nirvana, popular kids liked Nirvana, and the outcasts who liked Nirvana were mocked for wearing a Nirvana shirt when they should have known better. Cobain’s lyrics resonated with kids who were grounded from their BMWs over the weekend, kids who hadn’t seen the Wishkah River when the tide was out and the mud looked like thick black tar.

It happened in a hurry and then it was over.

It wasn’t until years after Cobain’s death that I bought my first Nirvana album. By then the internet and iTunes made the purchase much easier than committing to flipping through the record stacks, picking an album that everyone already owned, standing in line with that album, and spending money on a Nirvana album as opposed to something I couldn’t hear on the radio.

For me, it’s still hard to separate Nirvana from Aberdeen. I hate Aberdeen. There isn’t much to see other than closed businesses, empty sawmill lots, and a busy Wal-Mart filled with desperation. People who survive there are heartier than I am.

Cobain hated Aberdeen too. The town motto is “Come as you are” and I do wonder if Cobain ever missed his hometown: The gray skies, the rain, the grit and dirt that soaked into him and made the world bend to his music.

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90s nostalgia: Walt Walker | Late night thoughts on a decade

We are winding down a great week of 90s nostalgia, prompted by the 25th anniversary release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I was hoping my friend Walt would come out of his box for the challenge, and he’s taken a pause from monocle-polishing to provide us his classic Walt insights, enjoy.

Late Night Thoughts on a Decade,
by Walt Walker

In the 90s I dated a girl who wouldn’t let me lie on the floor in front of the tv to watch Cowboys games without climbing on top of me. If my life had been a Hollywood movie — or I guess a Netflix original, these days — that might have been very cool. But I really wanted to watch those games. The Cowboys were good back then.

I tried really hard to stay offline until the year 2000. I mean, like, I had never been online, and I was trying to make it that far, as a point of pride. To not even experience the internet, I thought that would be a cool thing. I made it to 1999. When I got a free computer rebuilt by my (3rd) step dad, I couldn’t hold out any longer. Some people say I cheated because I had used email before that, but I don’t think so. I don’t think using email counted as being online. I hadn’t visited a website, hadn’t “surfed the net.”

I dove into internet dating pretty quick after I got online, though. I had to, because I was hurt bad by that girl who didn’t like me watching Cowboys games. She’d dumped me and moved to New York City.

People thought online dating was sleazy back then. I got a lot of flack for it. Now there is Tinder. Swipe left, swipe right. Seriously? To the people who got on my ass about online dating in the 90s, I offer as evidence of my innocence the stack of emails I printed out on my dot matrix and still have in a shoebox somewhere. It’s 19th century courtship, by comparison. I might as well have travelled by Hansom cab to meet at that TGI Fridays that always seemed to work as a halfway point.

Friends. That was a show that seemed raunchy to me back in the 90s. Jesus. What sweet innocence, by comparison.

Seinfeld. It’s funny how the first years looked so 80s. Go back and watch them. Very 80s looking. But that’s how all the decades go, in the beginning. The first years of the 80s looked very 70s. The later 90s looked very 90s, which is funny to say now, because it’s only recently that I realized the 90s had a look. Until recently, I thought the 90s weren’t all that long ago. I’ve only just realized the math says otherwise, as does the look (I found some photos of me and Ms. New York, and I saw what I was wearing). In fact, just this year I rid my closet of the last remnants of the 90s. A cross country move will do that to you. (You should do it before you move, though, not after.)

Speaking of Seinfeld, what a turning point. A show about nothing, with a rule of no hugs and no learning. Revolutionary at the time, and just what people wanted, or rather didn’t want, depending on your perspective. All in the Family had been funny and heartfelt, at times provocative. MASH had been funny and heartfelt, at times profound. Cheers had been funny and heartfelt, at times life affirming, or at least romance affirming. But Seinfeld was just funny, and heartless. Icy and mean. We didn’t notice because we were sick of heartfelt, and we loved the characters, they were so like us in their discrimination, their nitpicking, their heartlessness. Then came the series finale, which fell flat for everyone. Because in the end we wanted something more, despite what we thought were our calloused hearts. We didn’t get what we needed from the end of Seinfeld. We got the same old no hugs, no learning taken to the nth degree; our beloved main characters looking back — in jail, no less — and seeing a trail of scorched earth. And mocking it. Distancing. It hurt. Like when my girlfriend moved to New York because I wanted to watch a Cowboys game. What would Jerry do? Label ’em, shrug ’em off. No hugs, no learning.

I got over it. I drove back from Dallas one weekend morning listening to Lou Bega’s Mambo #5 with the windows down, wind in my 90s hair, wearing my tee shirt under my sleeveless sweater vest, really able to relate to “a little bit of Monica in my life / a little bit of Erica by my side / a little bit of Rita, all I need.” All thanks to AOL’s neolithic version of match.com, which didn’t exist at the time, and probably doesn’t anymore, because of Tinder.

The 90s. I’m not in the mood to write this, and I think it’s coming out that way. I’ve written about the 90s quite a bit, actually, especially Cobain, who was a big deal to me. He didn’t make it out of the 90s, and in a way, I’m not sure I did either. Did any of us who came of age in that decade? Don’t we all want a little bit of that innocence back? If you can even call it innocence, because it wasn’t, and we weren’t. But it seems like we were, in retrospect. But we are here now. Entertain us. We are stupid. And contagious.

In the 90s, Bill Clinton put on sunglasses and played saxophone on Arsenio Hall. Within a decade, late night talk shows were the place for candidates to relate to America, and today America chooses candidates from late night talk shows, from reality tv. Here we are now. Entertain us. It’s contagious.

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90s nostalgia: Chauncy Gardiner | ‘Threading Through Time’

We’re winding down the pieces I’m featuring for a 90s nostalgia theme, brought on by the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s breakthrough release Nevermind.

Today’s featured writer is Chauncy Gardiner, whose blog I’ve been following for a few years, with daily excerpts from Chauncy’s stories set in Europe, thought-provoking quotes, and images from urban art he’s captured around Paris. Enjoy his piece; the series ends this Saturday.

Threading Through Time,
by Chauncy Gardiner

My CD era started when my first marriage ended. I bought a boombox with CD player and she kept the hi-fi system with turntable.

Splitting the music collection was easy. The only overlap we had was U2. I was an early fan and my ex a more recent fan. She kept the albums and I made cassette copies that are still in a carton.

When I first moved into my new apartment the CD rack looked like wishful thinking. The albums were on Top 40 rotation.

I first learned about Nirvana from the local newspaper. One of those PR articles, with bio, that announced an upcoming concert or the release of a new album. Or maybe it was a profile in Rolling Stone. I did not keep a journal in those days.

Our honeymoon was a trip to my Dad’s place in Orlando. U2 was playing the Jai Alai Fronton. No one else was interested. By the time I next had a chance to see them, I was no longer interested.

In the beginning, most of my CDs were newer releases. I had cassette copies of my favourite albums.

Soon after the separation, their mother moved to England. The kids would visit during their school holidays. I asked them what they thought of the music. It was OK, in the way stuff parents like can never be cool.

I asked my son if he had heard of the Beatles. He rolled his eyes – music for old people.

I remember reading that Paul McCartney had a new band called the Wings. I shared the news with one of the cool kids. He snorted “everyone knows that.” Their first album had been out for a few months. His parents were probably Beatles fans.

I heard Sting say that he thought Police’s success was too quick. They had not had to pay their dues with years of playing small clubs. I think he was explaining the band’s breakup.

Kurt Cobain said journalists paid too much attention to his lyrics. I was disappointed when they cancelled their European tour. I was surprised he owned a shotgun.

My daughter was hanging out with some older friends. They were surprised how well she knew Nirvana. She thanked me for her musical education.

I’m at my son’s place after a long day with out-of-town family. I start improvising a playlist and start with the Chambers Brothers. It gives me 11 minutes of time to choose the next songs. We psychedelicize on to Rikki Illonga, inchkii, Beat Antique’s Grateful Dead cover…the next day he copies the songs from my hard disk. When I come out of the shower, he is listening intently to The Velvet’s Murder Mystery.

The learning never stops.

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90s nostalgia: Ross Murray | “Regret”

Last week’s call for content for 90s nostalgia pieces shifts now to the band New Order, and today’s featured writer Ross Murray. Ross helped me a lot when I started on WordPress and has promoted and supported many other would-be writers, a real mensch. I enjoy his bent take on life, and I’m about to enjoy his new book, which you can also link to at the end of his story below.

Note: this series ends Saturday, and I regret I’m no longer accepting submissions.

by Ross Murray

I was working in production at a suburban Montreal newspaper named, appropriately, The Suburban. It was 1991, and our first daughter had been born that summer – not an accident, we would later say to her, but a surprise, like we’d won something. We were awfully young.

After earning my first freelance writing gigs and in a fit of self-delusion, I quit the paper. The freelance gigs didn’t necessarily follow.

By the fall of 1992, things were feeling desperate. Claiming I knew Illustrator (I did not), I had faked my way into a design firm ruled over by a man whose managerial style could be described as yelling and sweating. It wouldn’t last. I had to find a real job.

Thankfully, I had enough bylines by then to apply for a job as news editor at The Stanstead Journal, a small English weekly on the Quebec-Vermont border. With virtually no newsroom experience, I got the job.

That newsroom, it would turn out, would consist of me and a part-timer who would fax in her copy, so really just me. It was that kind of newspaper. The entire staff could fit in my office. The Journal was located in half of a building known as Pat’s Mini-Mall. Pat was the landlord. He lived next door. He could fit in my office too.

There was a steep curve. I needed to learn the territory, the players, the issues. I had to learn layout. And I had to learn that this was not just a job but an institution. The Journal was nearly 150 years old, the voice of the English community, an advocate for the little guy, the place you went to for the social notes of the Stanstead County Ladies Institute.

It was also not 9-5. There were meetings to attend, festivals to cover, people to phone after supper, ploughing matches to photograph. I had to develop my own film and print my own pictures. I had to leave my wife and young child home alone. A lot. There were arguments about whether I needed to go out or whether I wanted to. When I think back on it, of course I never needed to, but I wanted to do a good job, so I needed to.

Among the late-night jobs was running the paste-ups to the printing press an hour down the road. The Journal was printed by our rivals, the daily Sherbrooke Record, but we were allies in the Battle for English Survival, so we were friendly rivals. While my paper was on the press, I would hang out in the Record newsroom (a real newsroom). Then we would throw the bundles into the back of the Nissan van and back to the border I would go.

En route, I would drop off bundles at local post offices for morning delivery or at the homes of the few carriers we still had. It was a twisting route through the back roads. Sometimes I would stop for coffee (“un petit wakeup” a French clerk once said to me, though I thought he said “un petit whacko.”)

And always there was radio. Even in this musical wasteland of top 40, classic rock and country, there was always something to find on those lonely Tuesday nights, most often on a French community station. The DJ – a young girl at this hour – did what community DJs have done for all time, that is play her favourites over and over. For her, this meant Jane’s Addiction, The Violent Femmes, Electronic, The Cure, New Order.

There were snowy nights when I wasn’t sure I would make it home. There were nights when I would go over and over the crisis that had occurred in our small but volatile newsroom. There were nights I could barely keep my eyes open. But the moment I hold in my head is driving from the Massawippi turnoff, down to Ayer’s Cliff, the moment the fields and trees transition into village, the headlights reflecting off the guard rails at the bridge. New Order’s “Regret” is playing on the radio. Warm power chords, jangles in the night, Peter Hook’s bittersweet bass, all making me feel not so alone at night while my family is at home sleeping without me. It makes me feel hopeful that they’ll forgive me for all the things I’ve already missed and all the things I’m about to.

Ross’s debut novel, A Hole in the Ground, is set in the nineties and involves a weekly newspaper called The Beaverly Modicum. You can order his book here.



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90s nostalgia: Kevin Brennan | nostalgia rocks!

Last week I announced a call for content for 90s nostalgia pieces, prompted by the 25th anniversary of the Nirvana release Nevermind, a great way for me to recognize some of my favorite readers and writers by celebrating your stories and writing.

Today’s featured writer is from one of my best blogger friends, Kevin Brennan. Be sure to read through to the end for links to his books and more.


One nostalgic musical thread that weaves through my life is Elvis Costello.

I’d seen him many times over the years, from the late ‘70s on, but when we heard he was playing the Fillmore in San Francisco just him and his Attractions piano player, Steve Nieve I knew we’d have to spend the big bucks to see him there. It was the Fillmore. It was Costello. This was a done deal.

We paid about three times face value on the tickets through a broker. A fair price.

This is 1996, and Elvis was doing a stripped-down tour for his latest record, All This Useless Beauty. Of course, we didn’t know what to expect, since we hadn’t heard even one cut from it yet, but the anticipation was soaring as we sat on the floor of the Fillmore’s ballroom (no seats at the Fillmore) while “The Girl From Ipanema” played on the P.A.

Lights down, spots on the stage, and here come Elvis and Steve, nothing but a piano and a mic stand out there, Elvis slinging one of his vintage acoustics over his shoulder and launching into “Just About Glad” from the new album. It was a slightly chubby Elvis who showed up that night, in a polka-dotted print shirt. Sometimes he was chunky, sometimes thin. You never knew till you got there which Elvis would be showing up. We were only about fifteen feet away from him and could see the sweat starting to bead on his forehead just a few bars in.

The way these two guys played together was like the sawyers of old, one on each end of the long tool, so in tune to each other’s timing they were probably breathing in sync.

Even the unheard of new songs were spectacular, from “Distorted Angel” to “Poor Fractured Atlas,” and Costello surprised everyone by singing much of “All This Useless Beauty” in Italian: Tutta questa bellezza inutile. He demonstrated how the basic riff of one of the new tunes, “Little Atoms,” ripped off “Deutschland Über Alles.” And he did his version of “Alison” that alludes to “Living A Little, Laughing A Little,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Tears of a Clown,” and “No More Tear-Stained Make-Up.”

Oh, how he brought down the house with The Dead’s “Ship of Fools.” This was the Fillmore.

Walking up Geary to our car after the show, we just kept mumbling, Unbelievable. Incredible. Never forget it.

I recalled the very first time I saw EC (or the original Napoleon Dynamite). I was sunbathing on the roof of a London youth hostel in Bloomsbury when suddenly I heard loud rock and roll echoing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. When I went to the parapet to see what was going on, a parade of flatbed trucks was passing by on the street below, with colorful banners proclaiming “Rock Against Racism!” And the truck going by just then carried Elvis Costello and the Attractions doing “Accidents Will Happen” (or something else from the new Armed Forces).

I always think of that day when I hear the crap-talk about Elvis and Stephen Stills. You can look that up if you want.

The gig at the Fillmore is the one I’ll remember most vividly as I go along, even though we saw him again at the Beacon Theater in New York, when I visited my agent and editor that year. It was the When I Was Cruel tour, and a great show, but it didn’t make its way into my guts like the Fillmore show did.

Funny about nostalgia, that for something to really “take” you have to be in a certain frame of mind. But more mysterious than that, you can’t really put yourself in that frame of mind.

It just happens.

Kevin Brennan is an indie novelist who lives in fabled Cool, California. His latest novel, Fascination, is available directly from him via what he likes to call #guerrillapublishing — a writer-to-reader mode of getting the word out. You can buy Fascination here. You can also grab the ebook edition of his novel Town Father for just 99 cents Wednesday through Friday this week. 

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