Friday Five: flannel shirts and cigarettes

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” turns 25 years old this weekend. Originally released on September 10, 1991, the song became the biggest hit for Nirvana, and the signature tune on their breakthrough album, Nevermind, released September 24th that same year.

In many ways, “Smells” ushered in the mainstream success of Nirvana. In the same way, their mainstream success ushered in the mainstream success of the grunge genre.

When a song, album, and musical movement I associate firmly with my youth reaches the quarter century mark, well, you know you’re getting old. But it’s also probably a great time to walk down memory lane and revisit some of the other songs that defined those times.

There’s lots of ways to look at grunge. I could think out a “best of” list but, really, that’s too hard. I can appreciate (and anticipate) the arguments on multiple sides, too. Maybe it’s just safer to go with 5 of the other biggest hits that I also thought were good. For those of you born after these years, I feel safe in saying each of these songs is worth knowing.

5. “Alive” (Pearl Jam)
If I was doing this in order, and being totally personal about it, this would be my favorite song of the era. While I liked Nirvana, this song kind of did it for me more than “Smells Like” ever did. The song “Black” (also from from Pearl Jam’s album Ten) is my favorite song of theirs, even though it wasn’t a big crossover hit.

4. “Plush” (Stone Temple Pilots)
I can taste the 90s in my mouth when I hear this song. Certainly one of their biggest hits, “Plush” and Stone Temple Pilots never really got the respect of critics back then, who often saw them as more of a rip off of bands like Pearl Jam (or Alice in Chains) than as their own thing. But this song stuck it out in the end, didn’t it?

3. “No Rain” (Blind Melon)
Maybe the best indication of how much I love this song (and its almost iconic, genX video) is the way I find a way to work it into my music posts. It ain’t the first time and it won’t be the last!

2. “Outshined” (Soundgarden)
I first heard of and saw Soundgarden in October 1991, when they played the Claremont Colleges. There were less than 30 of us in a ballroom that could fit 200. We had a blast. After that concert they toured around a bit for only a month before becoming the opening act for Guns ‘N Roses Use Your Illusion tour. I suspect it was the last time they ever played for so few people. What I loved about them then, as I do now, is all in this song. Is it metal or is it grunge?

1. “Rape Me” (Nirvana)
My favorite song of Nirvana’s was “Lithium,” the fifth track on their 1991 hit album Nevermind. But when In Utero came out in 1993–their follow-up to Nevermind, which would also turn out to be their last studio album–I felt like grunge music reached its full maturity. This song is perhaps as much a source of that sentiment as any other, but I really think its the album as a whole that left me feeling that way. “Heart-Shaped Box” was a bigger hit, but this always felt more revolutionary.

Friday Five: JuanGa

In the few days since Juan Gabriel’s passing it’s been interesting to see the struggle of English-language media outlets as they try to comprehend who the man (and the artist and the industry) was. We’ve heard comparisons to Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Price, and so many more, but all of them really fall short.

On Sunday, when I first heard he died from an apparent heart attack, I immediately turned on the TV to “channel 34,” Univision’s KMEX. They and other Spanish stations were covering the story, interrupting whatever was scheduled to provide the latest report, share the shock, and begin the process of celebrating a phenomenal career and legacy. All afternoon, nothing interrupted the normal broadcasting of English-language TV. JuanGa’s death was’t even the lead story on their 11:00 news broadcasts that night.

There’s a world beyond what people know in the US. We live in a culture that doesn’t always recognize that. Moreover, a lot of that world is living–and dying–right among us, right under our noses.

Anyone who lived within the social world of Mexican America knows Juan Gabriel. His stature and visibility were such that he defied being missed.

I can’t pretend that I was a huge fan, but I do have my favorite’s from his vast catalog. Here are five:

5. “Querida
4. “Se Me Olvidó Otra Vez
3. “Hasta Que Te Conocí
2. “La Muerte del Palomo
1. “Amor Eterno

Lucky Guy

Today is the start of the 2016-17 academic year!

This year marks the start of my 15th year as a professor and 21 years since I first taught at the college level (as a TA at UC Berkeley). To look at it another way, since I started college in the fall of 1990 and didn’t take any time off between college and grad school and my two tenure-track jobs, this is also the start of my 27th year in higher education.

More than a quarter of a decade!

I’m coming off a year-long sabbatical, where I spent my time researching and writing about the Vietnam War and Mexican Americans. So I haven’t been in the classroom for awhile. Truth be told, I’m excited and a little nervous. But that’s part of the norm for me anyway.

No matter how you cut it, I’m a lucky guy. I get to read and write and teach for a living. I get to spend my time learning more and more about subjects I’m still passionate about. I get to work with young people–smart and eager young people–who help me develop a greater appreciation for the subjects we learn about.

It’s good stuff. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I remind myself daily how lucky I am to be able to say that about my work.

So happy new (academic) year!

Friday Five: Rick Rubin

Whenever I take a look at the life and career of producer Rick Rubin I’m reminded of how diverse and impressive his catalog of music is. I’m also reminded that I need to start working on my beard length and my casual pants collection.

Here are five of my favorite songs he’s had a hand in making:

5. “Angel of Death” (Slayer, 1986)
4. “Chop Suey!” (System of a Down, 2001)
3. “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1991)
2. “Walk This Way” (Run-D.M.C., with Aerosmith, 1986)
1. “Hurt” (Johnny Cash, 2002)

Friday Five: Nostalgia (late 80s version)

I’m going to see Guns N’ Roses tonight.  As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve gone to a show by a band that was big “back in the day”–when that “day” was my teen years.

I’ve been to lots of shows like this for other eras.  I’ve seen Steve Miller at least five times, for example.  I’ve seen the Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and a whole bunch of other 70s rock bands.  But each time I went to those shows I was in my 20s.  The audience, though, was filled with mostly middle-aged folks reliving their youth.

Well now I am that middle-aged guy reliving his youth.

I could say a lot about GNR, and it would be easy to pick five songs from them for the occasion, but I think the thing on my mind more right now is a general appreciation for my youth. And, so, here you go…

5. “What It Takes” (Aerosmith, 1989)
4. “Still of the Night” (Whitesnake, 1987)
3. “Finish What Ya Started” (Van Halen, 1988)
2. “Fire Woman” (The Cult, 1989)
1. “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses, 1988)

August 16, 1977

It’s the 39th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

If you’ve ever read this blog you likely know I’m a big Elvis fan. (My very first blog post on the first iteration of this blog–on Blogger–was on the 30th anniversary of his death!) It’s a fandom that stretches back as many years as I can remember, even though I was born in 1972, after the height of the Elvis phenomenon and just 5 years before he died.

That’s probably because I was born into a time when Elvis was still very much a part of the popular culture. His music was everywhere and his movies were regularly on TV. I also came of age at a time when the mainstream culture was popularizing narratives about the 50s. Documentaries about Elvis and about the early years of his stardom were common.

I think that shaped a particular kind of fandom in me. I love the phenomenon of his stardom. I have a great appreciation of his role in popular music but also his role in popular youth culture. I’ve always loved his “story”–the poor, white boy growing up with Black music; the rise to fame; the cultural phenom; the frame and fortune; the marriage and love affairs; the string of corny movies where bits of his brilliance peak out; that brilliance on full display in his ’68 “comeback”; and even the later years as a jump-suited impersonator of the star he once was.

And, of course, there was the shock and spectacle of his death. I remembered where I was when I heard Elvis died, and I was only 5 years old.

Through it all, there’s the music. I think we can often lose sight of his special talent when we get caught up in all the rest of it. Maybe that’s a good way to mark this day.

Here are his two first recordings made on July 18, 1953 at the Memphis Recording Service (later called Sun Studios). As the story goes he recorded them to give to his mom as a gift. He paid $3.98 for a double-sided acetate press of “My Happiness” and “That’s When the Heartaches Begin.”

Friday Five: Les Paul

Today is the anniversary of the passing of Les Paul, who left this planet on August 12, 2009.  What better way to mark the occasion than to celebrate some of the music that lives on because of what he created.

Here are five songs with amazing performances by guitarists playing their Gibson Les Paul electric guitars:

5. “Mr. Brownstone” (Guns ‘N Roses, 1987)
Slash is a Les Paul man, a dedication that pays off on the band’s legendary debut album, Appetite for Destruction. In an album of memorable solos, this song about heroin (the first released on L.A. radio in advance of the album) holds its own.

4. “Sympathy for the Devil” (Rolling Stones, 1988)
Keith Richards is the best of the best.

3. “Whipping Post” (The Allman Brothers Band, 1969)
When I watch Duane Allman play all I can think of is that line Marlene Dietrich delivers at the end of Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man.”

2. “Hideaway” (John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, 1966)
Clapton’s work here sounds like he lets the guitar do what it was meant to do and, yet, makes it do what it never did before.

1. “How High the Moon” (Les Paul & Mary Ford, 1951)
And the man himself, showing off his skills on the solid-body six string he made.