1991: Rock’s Last Great Fall
How the rock music of 1991 transformed my life as an 18-year-old college freshman
Note: This post was inspired by one of my favorite YouTubers, Rick Beato, and this recent live stream, which you should check out.
I’m 18, sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car and Led Zeppelin’s epic “Kashmir” is caravaning through my headphones off the mixtape in my Walkman and I’m getting excited. We are about to ascend off the floor of California’s boring, sunny San Joaquin Valley into the mountains that mark the psychological northern boundary of one of the world’s great cities.
Los Angeles. Home for the next four years. College. Who knows what will happen?
Sure, there will be study sessions, new friends, football games and frat parties. But that’s just college life. What about the city itself?
Surely I’d venture to Hollywood where the Mighty Zep made their mark 20 years earlier with legendary rock n roll debauchery in the hotels, bars and strip clubs of the Sunset Strip. After all, no 18-year-old leaves their suburban town for Tinseltown without a dream of something at least a little dangerous, do they?
No matter what would happen, I was sure that the music of Led Zeppelin would remain a steady companion. In my last year of high school, no other band satisfied the command of the testosterone bubbling within me while also providing the mystical qualities that my previous favorite, U2, had delivered.
In short, Zeppelin was the perfect soundtrack for a young man on an adventure. As our car reached the top of the Tejon Pass, I made a vow: So long as I was on this adventure music would be my guide.
Boy, did the stars align to give me a playlist for the ages.
Setting the Stage
In the fall of 1991, the president was not the Bush who would lead America into the Iraq War based on lies, but the one who would ride the coattails of his predecessor into a recession and be elected out of office after only one term a year later. That recession, which began in 1990 and was characterized by a jobless recovery that lasted to 1992, was likely one of the reasons so many young people spent time fiddling on instruments and forming the bands that would lead to what many, myself included, consider the last great Age of Rock (you gotta capitalize such a term and I probably shoulda spelled it rawk).
To understand just how big of an earthquake 1991 was to the rock music and cultural landscape, we need to talk about popular music in the 1980s. To do that, you need to know three letters: MTV. If you were an artist and you had a popular music video on MTV, you were going to be heard — and seen — all over America.
Unfortunately, because MTV presented music to its audience through a visual medium, the popular acts of the 1980s had to have a look. As a result, one of the biggest genres in the rock scene was hair metal in which band members all had big-ass hair, wore crazy makeup and dressed in outlandish clothes. This scene was ruled by Los Angeles-based bands such as Motley Crue, Ratt and Poison.
For the most part, I hated these fucking bands.
Not simply their look, which was ridiculous but in line with how I felt about most 1980s fashion, but more importantly, their music felt shallow and lame. I wasn’t the only one who was growing tired of this scene.
“By the time 1990–91 happened, you started to get bands that were a copy of a copy of a copy (such as Warrant’s “Cherry Pie”),” Rick Beato said in his aforementioned YouTube video. “I don’t want to say scraping the bottom of the barrel but that kind of metal was beginning to get very old. People were ready for a change.”
Ironically, one of the bands that signaled a change was in the air seemed to burst out of that LA scene in 1987. When I first saw the “Welcome to the Jungle” video I thought Guns N’ Roses were yet another hair metal band but when I listened something felt different. Unlike the hair metal bands, the music of Guns N’ Roses had an edge. More than that, it fucking rocked.
Several years back, I read the autobiographies of guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan and learned that the secret Guns N’ Roses formula was that each member brought an appreciation for different musical genres. Slash loved 1970s classic rock, especially Aerosmith, while Duff came out of the Seattle punk scene. And both felt like I did about hair metal.
Meanwhile, vocalist/pianist Axl Rose brought a love for songwriters like Elton John and stadium rock like Queen. In addition, Rose had a very troubling childhood that gave his performances an element of psychological danger and one could hear that in the performances on their monster debut Appetite for Destruction.
So along with U2 and Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses was my band in high school and in August 1991 I went to see those rebel rockers from L.A. in what was my first true rock show (sorry, but Huey Lewis and the News with Bruce Hornsby and the Range opening in 1986 was a fun show, but not rock).
I can still remember being on the floor of the Tacoma Dome when the boys broke into “Mr. Brownstone” and how the crowd was moving like a giant blob with a mind of its own, my skinny self just trying to stay standing, the danger of that and, well … it felt fucking great.
The next day my ears didn’t feel so good, though — they rang like never before or since, but man, what a show! The band played most of the tracks off Appetite for Destruction but also gave the audience a preview of their upcoming album.
The moment I most remember was when, during “Rocket Queen,” a giant biker just in front of me lit off a bottle rocket that exploded right between Axl and Slash and Axl got super pissed, stopped the song and forced the band to leave the stage, telling the crowd they were quitting until security tossed out whoever did that. My brother, who always has had a wry sense of humor, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You gonna rat that dude out?”
Eventually, the band came back and finished the show. Even on the walk back to our car danger was in the air as we heard through a security guard’s walkie-talkie that some dude in a neighboring parking lot was apparently threatening people with a baseball bat! Rock ‘n’ fucking roll!
So yeah, heading down to Los Angeles in 1991 I was well aware I was headed to the city where the mighty Guns were from and that they had an album of solid new tunes coming out soon.
Still, despite this experience, when I got to my college dormitory I found something out: The bands I liked were too popular. I didn’t know about the bands that were played on college radio so I didn’t have the cred that some of the others in the dorm had. I was simply a suburban kid who mostly liked classic rock.
Fortunately, there was a band from Seattle who was about to change all of that.
How I Became “The Nerdy Nirvana Guy”
One of the coolest things about my college was that its students came from everywhere. In its literature, it bragged about having the largest international population of any university in the nation and how it had students from all 50 states.
In my dorm, we had a kid from Saudi Arabia, a giant dude from Puerto Rico, my roommate was from North Platte, Nebraska (which someone dubbed “West Bumblefuck, Nebraska”) and there were students from cities, suburbs and the sticks. It was a diverse group and all of us were vying to find ways to fit into it.
Maybe because I’d vowed to myself that my adventure would be guided by music, I made it a mission to find a band that could be mine to introduce to everyone.
In addition to wanting to fit in, my other goal that fall was to get a 4.0 grade point average. At my core, I’m kind of a nerd.
As a result, most of my time was spent either studying while listening to the radio or my growing CD collection or going to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard to find an album that could be mine.
Now this is where my memory gets hazy: I honestly don’t recall the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but I think it was likely on what was Los Angeles’ budding alternative rock station, KROQ. To be honest, I mostly preferred classic rock stations because I still had so many bands from that era to discover. However, I had to become hip. Such is the world of an 18-year-old college freshman living in a dorm, is it not?
Anyway, what I do remember is the first time I put Nevermind on my headphones, enjoying the heck out of “Teen Spirit” as usual and then, well, becoming totally transfixed, putting down whatever I was studying, listening closely until “Something in the Way” finished and then running up and down my dormitory hallway, holding the CD jacket high above my head like a wandering prophet waving a Bible and preaching, “This! This! This! This is the album! This! You guys gotta hear this!”
Fortunately, my dormmates were also blown away.
Well, most of them were. There was this one dude who wasn’t impressed. He was from Alaska and loved Journey. Need I say more?
Apologies. First, I’ve known several folks from Alaska and they have all been some of the most iconoclastic, nicest people I’ve met. Including that guy.
Second, I’ve actually re-discovered Journey over the past few years. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them in the 1980s — they had some great tunes. But like a lot of bands of that era, I marked them down because of their look. Like I said, MTV was a big deal back then and, well, I still stand by my feeling that the 1980s look is pretty fucking lame.
So yeah, listen to Journey — they’ve got some class tunes and Steve Perry truly is one of the great vocalists of that era. But in 1991 to be an outspoken fan of Journey? Well, I’d found someone I was musically hipper than.
Back to Nirvana and my dormmates’ reaction to them. The fact that, like me, they were from the Seattle area both made me identify with them and also, I think, made it easy for my dormmates to identify them with me. Plus, I was (am) blonde-haired and blue-eyed like Kurt Cobain.
However, had my dormmates not loved Nevermind I’m pretty sure I still would have. I loved it that much. While I know In Utero is a great album and Bleach has its fans (usually the Nirvana music snobs, ha ha), Nevermind remains, in my opinion, one of the few perfect rock albums.
And it took the world by fucking storm. It wasn’t long before the iconic video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” migrated from MTV’s late-Sunday-night show, 120 Minutes, onto the regular playlist.
Of course, not everyone was pleased to see Nirvana go so, well, viral (we didn’t use that term back then but it fits). One person is one of my best friends, who I didn’t meet until 1999 but who grew up going to shows in the Seattle area. In a recent Facebook post, he recollected how in fall 1991 he was scanning through the radio dial and accidentally landed on the local pop station. Normally it played Michael Jackson and Paul Abdul so he was shocked to hear “Teen Spirit.”
“I heard the song a couple more times throughout the day,” my friend said. “How could this happen? Nirvana wasn’t a band I thought would ever be big. We all know it got beyond big. It’s still weird to me today.”
He’d seen Nirvana opening for other bands in small clubs and all of the sudden they were the talk of the rock music world. And beyond.
“When I hear fans talk about the desire for their favorite bands to get big or popular, I always think of Nirvana,” he said. “At one point I could see them for four bucks in a club. Everyone had fun. Not that much in the future, prices more than tripled, and the band was not having fun. 1991 Nirvana burned way too hot for everyone’s good.”
Yeah, I get that.
Then again, had they not burned so hot perhaps I would have just stayed in my musical shell? Probably not, but one wonders.
The Monsters Known as Use Your Illusions I and II
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself again. Because amazingly, just one week before Nevermind came out, Guns N’ Roses released the album I was waiting for it and it was a fucking double album, Use Your Illusions I and II.
Had they whittled it into one album, it would be one of the greatest rock albums of all time. That said, I always had a soft spot for some of the lesser-known tracks, such as the folksy “Yesterdays” or the rocker “Don’t Damn Me.” Also, there were two stunning epics, “Estranged” and “Coma” and while I definitely prefer the former, I’d hate to have lost the latter to the cutting room floor.
Plus, I preferred Use Your Illusion II but most critics, such as the AllMusic website, rated Use Your Illusion I higher and that makes me nervous that the stuff I preferred would have been sacrificed.
Anyway, because Guns N’ Roses fans had spent three years with only one studio album and one album that had four live songs and four acoustic numbers, none of us were really complaining about getting two huge albums.
Thus, in fall 1991 I spent more time listening to these two albums than any others I’ll mention in this essay but that doesn’t mean I think they are the best of the bunch.
No, the best of the bunch, or at least the one I’ve listened to the most over the years since, is the one I’m going to get to next.
Blood Sugar Sex Magick: Gimme Some Bass!
I remember it well: I’m walking down the hall of my dorm after a day of classes and I hear this bass. And locked in drums. And a guitar that sounds like something Jimi Hendrix might have played.
It’s coming from the room of the guy in my dorm who I’d elevated to the top of the Hipster Music Lover standings. I dump my backpack and head to his room where several dormmates are there already, listening intently. I squeeze onto a corner of a bed and again, there’s that fucking bass.
Now, I think I’d heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers by then, likely their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” But they just weren’t on my radar screen. Until that day.
Blood Sugar Sex Magick was unlike anything I’d ever heard and the main reason was just how out in front of the mix the bass was. At least that’s how it sounded to me then. Having listened to it hundreds of times since, now it just seems like the mix is really well-balanced but it speaks to one of my issues with a lot of rock records — too often the bass is so far down in the mix as to be almost indecipherable.
But when, at 13 seconds, “The Power of Equality” in earnest opens with Flea’s descending bass line, it announces that this was a rare band that was going to showcase its bass player. Now, I could go on for days about how much I love Flea and, well, if you really need convincing I implore you to read my short story “Free Flea” and you’ll understand. You’ll also understand how much I love the Chili Peppers.
Funny thing is, much as I liked the album, I don’t think I bought it until a few years later. Why? Well, the Hip Music Lover became my best friend and roommate the next two years so I could just listen to his copy. And boy did we all listen to it. It was hard to go to a party and not hear it. Not that I was complaining. As I said, it has grown into my favorite of the crop and now I would rate it in the upper echelon of great rock albums.
Before I go on, I don’t want to be misunderstood — this album (and band) is not strictly about Flea. No, they are the rare band that I think has four equal members and this is an album where every one of them fucking brings it. From Anthony Kiedis’s confident half-rap/half-singing style to Chad Smith’s solid work on the skins to John Frusciante’s funky, soulful guitar licks, this is an album of creative equals. To top it off, they hooked up with legendary producer Rick Rubin and made a very smart decision to rent an allegedly haunted house and record there (and all but Smith lived there during the recording). Check out this documentary for more!
It’s time I return to where I started: Led Zeppelin. Despite my growing appreciation for bands like Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and my love for the new GnR albums, I was still looking for the next Zeppelin.
One day I was perusing one of those record club mailers where you could join their club and get 10 CDs for the cost of a penny and I found two albums that made references to their Zeppelinesque stylings: Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger.
I ordered them both and listened — and boy, was I disappointed! Consider it the first of a lesson I’ve learned many times since: the danger of firm expectations.
There were two reasons beyond mere expectations that I didn’t hear it: first, while the drummers were good, they weren’t John Bonham good. Then again, who is? Remember, though, I was only 18 and just getting into the catalog of rock music so I didn’t know that I’d probably never find someone with that rare combo of power, groove and swing that Bonzo possessed.
Second, the vocalists each had big pipes, but neither sounded like Robert Plant. In fact, I didn’t really like either Eddie Vedder’s or Chris Cornell’s voices on those first listens. But like the Chili Peppers, both would grow on me. (If you want to hear just how great Cornell was, stop here and listen to his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, while watching my favorite YouTube reaction video guy!).
As a result, while both Ten and Badmotorfinger got some plays in my dorm room in fall 1991, it wasn’t really until Pearl Jam blew up in spring 1992 that I gave the band their due. And it wasn’t until I saw them open with a killer cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” at 1992’s Lollapolooza that I became convinced of how good they were and how big they could become.
Unfortunately, like Nirvana, Pearl Jam got too big too fast and I jumped off their bandwagon pretty quickly. I still liked them, but they were just everywhere. In fact, when the “Jeremy” video broke big, the running joke I had with my roommate was before we turned on MTV we’d bet whether it was on or not. More often than not, the answer was yes.
All that said, I’m not surprised Pearl Jam has stuck around as long as they have. They are a solid live act, write great tunes and, like the Peppers, are made up of hard-working, excellent musicians. And while they’ve had several good albums, in retrospect I think Ten remains their best.
As for Soundgarden? Well, I think their next album, Superunknown, is their masterpiece but Badmotorfinger has some truly badass tracks and some lesser-known ones like “Mind Riot” and “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” that I always dug. If I really wanna get my rawk on, I can’t go wrong with Soundgarden.
Now, there was one more major album that would come out that fall: U2’s Achtung Baby in mid November. Before I tell the story of my first reaction to it, I think it’s important that I talk about what was going on in the world beyond music.
In short, the late 1980s and early 1990s were world-changing times. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished and throughout fall 1991 many republics of the USSR proclaimed independence leading to the official dissolution of the USSR and the founding of Russia in late December.
No other major band was as known for its politics than U2. So it came as no surprise that U2 went to Berlin in fall 1990 to take advantage of the revolutionary spirit sweeping the reunified city to record Achtung Baby.
Still, when I walked into the room of the guy in our dorm who I thought of as the most outspoken U2 fan and heard “The Fly,” well, I was not feeling it.
Turns out two things were happening here. First, “The Fly” is just not one of my favorite songs off that album. Second, U2 was doing what every great band does: evolve. Problem was, they were leaving behind a sound that I loved for one that I merely liked. Still, like these other albums I’ve brought up, Achtung Baby is a classic and has a few of my U2 favorites. I suppose it’s a testament to how good we had it that I initially felt this album was a disappointment.
Two more albums came out in 1991 that need mentioning: Temple of the Dog’s self-titled album and Smashing Pumpkin’s Gish. The former wouldn’t enter my life until 1992 when it started to get play as Pearl Jam made their mark on the scene. Temple of the Dog was made up of members from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and I feel fortunate that I was able to see one of their rare performances at the aforementioned Lollapalooza.
In fact, that 1992 Lollapalooza gig in Irvine, California deserves a mention in this essay. It was the last of the tour and it was a who’s who of early 1990s acts, though we didn’t necessarily know it at the time. Bands like Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and Stone Temple Pilots were on the side stage.
Of those bands, I saw Cypress Hill and remember the singer smoking a big doobie during the set, which was a revolutionary act in those days, and Porno for Pyros, former Janes Addiction lead singer and Lollapalooza creator Perry Farell’s new band, which didn’t impress many of us (a dude next to me yelled, “You need to lay off the smack, Perry!”). I’d appreciate their albums when they came out, though.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, I lost track of how many members from other bands came out to join the acts in wild crossover appearances, including several guitarists joining Pearl Jam for “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Ice Cube joining Soundgarden for a cover of the controversial “Cop Killer” and just about every band on the ticket joining the Chili Peppers for Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” to close things off. At least I think that’s how that crazy day ended.
Doing a bit of Internet digging, I was reminded that, during the intense industrial band Ministry’s act, crowd members set several bonfires on the steep Irvine Meadows hillside and were dancing around them like denizens of a demonic bacchanalia. Rock n’ roll, indeed.
To finish up this recollection of the mega-concerts I would attend in the wake of fall 1991, just a few weeks later, I’d go see my old favorite Guns N Roses in a double-billing with Metallica at the convenient-for-us-USC-students Los Angeles Coliseum.
You might be wondering why I didn’t write about Metallica’s Black Album which was released in August 1991 and turned them mainstream. It’s not that it isn’t a great album or they aren’t a great rock band. It’s more that neither ever became a huge part of my life. That said, this album was hard to escape in those years and in my senior year when I took a beginning guitar class I had to learn a basic version of “The Unforgiven” for my final exam.
At that concert, what I most remember was a group of unruly Metallica fans slam dancing into me and my friends and feeling annoyed, and then as the show ended, some of the crowd leaving during Guns N Roses’s “Paradise City” encore, which didn’t please Axl. GnR played kind of a subpar show that day, though, nothing like the year before at the Tacoma Dome.
Don’t Forget The Smashing Pumpkins!
What, did you think I’d forgotten about the Pumpkins and Gish?
No way that’s going to happen. Along with the Chili Peppers, the Pumpkins are probably my favorite mainstream 1990s rock band.
Still, I can’t remember when I got around to hearing Gish— probably sometime in 1993 or maybe even 1994 — but definitely after I fell madly in love with their big 1993 hit, Siamese Dream.
Yet, as Rick Beato said in his video, “If you don’t know (Gish), do yourself a favor — oh my God — it is one of the best listening records.”
Like its follow-up, Siamese Dream, Gish is just one great tune after another. Shoegaze psychedelic stadium rock at its best. But I wouldn’t learn how good the Pumpkins were until a few years after the fall of 1991.
I’m 21, sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car again and the Pumpkins’ epic “Soma” is cascading through my headphones off the CD in my portable CD player and I’m a bit worried. We are descending through the mountains of British Columbia, it’s snowing like crazy and I’m asking myself if we are going to safely reach one of the world’s great cities.
But Vancouver isn’t really on my mind — it’s just a city we’ll hopefully reach and pass through on our way back home — and I trust my dad. Instead, I’m enveloping myself in the music and asking myself a question: Would I still love this music 20 years from now, after the intense testosterone years were long past? Would it stand the test of time?
30 years and almost 5,000 words later, I think I’ve answered that question.
Those albums weren’t just epics in their era, they are epics of any era. And while none of those bands are Led Zeppelin, none had to be; they are all classics in their own right. Classic rock, indeed.
In closing, I’d like to ask you a question: Will rock music ever have another epic, revolutionary year like 1991?
NOTES: Dates of releases of the 1991 albums mentioned in this essay
April 16: Temple of the Dog, self-titled
May: Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
August 12: Metallica, Black Album
August 27: Pearl Jam, Ten
September 17: Guns N Roses, Use Your Illusions I and II
September 24: Nirvana, Nevermind; The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magick; and Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger
November 18: U2, Achtung Baby
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