What’s Happening – 1994
Torn from Nirvana’s breakthrough “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the unending mantra for the first half of the 1990s was “Here we are now, entertain us.” The mores of Grunge – and anything remotely smelling like it – had created a firestorm that was still raging by the time the curtains parted to reveal 1994. Nirvana, Soundgarden (who had one of the year’s biggest hits with “Black Hole Sun”), Alice In Chains – this triumvirate had captivated multitudes of followers the world over, and so all-encompassing was this new musical expression that there was still plenty of room for the lighter sonics of Pearl Jam, and the rock-eratic glitter stomp of The Smashing Pumpkins, and all their up-and-coming offspring.
And, if it was Nirvana that kicked off the whole shebang at the beginning of the decade, it would be their lead singer, Kurt Cobain, who’d carry the music headlines for the first half of the year as people followed the butcher’s list of a downward spiral that didn’t end until months after his suicide on April 5th. For many people, this would be the only news of the year that sunk in and stuck, the rest – music-related and otherwise – was little more than white noise dancing on his grave.
For everyone else, however, 1994 was packed to the gills. It was a year of extremes – of highs so bright that they seemed to be good beyond belief, and lows that proved just how far as a society we’d sunk. And, through it all, the scattershot musical hits and misses of the year seemed somehow an astute background to reflect it. It was a year filled with the oddest sorts of violence possible, commencing in January when skater Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped on the eve of her Olympic performance by order of peer Tonya Harding. 60s superstar Grace Slick was arrested for pointing a gun at a cop; serial killer John Wayne Gacy was executed and Lorena Bobbitt was put on trial for cutting off her husband’s…well…you know…with a knife and tossing it out a car window onto the side of the road.
And, of course, who could ever forget the longest low speed car chase in history, as O.J. Simpson was pursued by police along California highways, after possibly shooting his ex-wife and her consort on June 13th. California, still reeling from January’s horrendous Northridge earthquake, probably wasn’t completely ready for that kettle of craziness.
But they were ready to grandly re-open San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore in April, just in time to herald the upcoming summer’s festival season, and usher in a return to the hazy spirit of the Sixties. First the Fillmore… coming soon, Woodstock, as a completely new batch of upstarts planned to launch their own summer of love, in a field in upstate New York. Talk about bizarre – this weekend of mayhem and mud, ostensibly commemorating the 25th anniversary of the original bean-feast, saw nu-punkers Green Day rubbing shoulders with Carlos Santana, rubbing shoulders with Salt ‘N Papa, rubbing shoulders with Traffic, rubbing shoulders with the Cranberries, rubbing shoulders with the craziest industrial motherfucker of them all, Trent Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails.
Flaying open the other side of the festival circuit this year was Perry Farrell, still master of his Lollapalooza, the psychotic bed of excess that had established itself as a disseminator of politick and a purveyor of new tastemakers….welcoming headliners the Smashing Pumpkins (taking the reigns from the obviously disbanded Nirvana), George Clinton, L7 and Nick Cave to the main stage, while body piercers and fire-eaters wandered the ground and groups as disparate as the NRA and PETA boothed up to spread their news to anyone who wandered by.
There were plenty of hot (and not) button politics to be found outside the grounds as well, as the horror of the Balkan conflict eased somewhat when the warring parties hammered out a peace plan, while President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin inked the Kremlin Accord and South Africa proudly elected Nelson Mandela as that country’s first Black president. The music world saw its own share of glad-handing and courtroom gabbing as well, when Pearl Jam took on Ticketmaster for price gouging, and the Supreme Court ruled that parodies of original songs were legal, and defended by the already existing Fair Use Act. Somewhere, Weird Al Yankovic breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
Many other musical milestones were reached during the year, as ground was broken in Las Vegas for the Hard Rock Café, with B.B. King and Eddie Van Halen on hand to mark the occasion. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was busy, too, welcoming The Animals and The Band, Duane Eddy and the Grateful Dead, John Lennon and Bob Marley, Elton John and Rod Stewart, Johnny Otis and Willie Dixon into its hallowed halls.
The Grammys rolled around with few surprises – Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton were big winners, while U2s Zooropa took the “Best Alternative Music Performance,” proving that the selection remained as skewed as ever – and leaving 1994’s true alternative pioneers, Offspring and Autechre, Ween, Beck and Portishead, wondering just what they needed do to break through the comfy blanket of old guard reactionaries.
1994 was the year that Grease was revived on Broadway, and Phil Collins, Sting and Rod Stewart shared the top of the chart with Sheryl Crow, Gin Blossoms and TLC – proving that a little something for everyone remained the golden rule in the American mainstream market – the eclectic mishmash that had been shoved aside by grunge and would shortly lose another toe-hold when the upcoming rap-boom exploded, was still thriving (sort of).
The late 80s bust was turning into a boom, as start-ups and dot coms exploded across the country – but there was still a schizophrenic sense of separation rippling through the country, a vague feeling that all was not well, heightened perhaps by the news that former President Ronald Regan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and was retiring from the public eye. The country mourned the loss of Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil and AIDS activist Randy Shilts, and actors Telly Savalas and William Conrad.
The music industry lost some of their own as well, saying goodbye to Harry Nilsson, Papa John Creach, Dan Hartman and Dinah Shore during 1994. And, although all those losses were very sad, the most profound departure was that of Kurt Cobain – an event that, for the Gen Xers’, was the equivalent of losing John Lennon. The shock of his untimely death unraveled – if just for a moment – the entire fabric of contemporary music. But of course that tear would mend, and quickly, because memories are rosier than reality and truth is usually stranger than fiction. So, 1994, then, with its absurdist mix of beauty and brutality, and a musical soundtrack that reflected it all, was (to quote a song from another year entirely), just another brick in the wall. (AH)