- Pat Smear’s striped guitar
- Baby faced Dave Grohl
- All the cover songs
- The secret electric guitar on Man Who Sold the World
- Pennyroyal Tea (“Am I gonna do this…by myself?” — and the disastrous duet with Pat during rehearsal in the extras that explains the exchange)
- The guy who looks like a burly Cliff Clavin in the audience
- Screwing up the setlist to play Dumb / Polly back to back but requesting a sequencing edit for broadcast
- Playful, sarcastic, super smart Kurt
- On a Plain!
- Sweet Home Alabama!!!
- “What are they tuning, a harp?”
- Dave Grohl red-handedly caught smoking a joint on camera in close up
- Kurt in his swivel chair
- The vocals on Lake of Fire
- “Fuckin’ Nirvana”
- “How are we supposed to play In Bloom acoustically?”
- When Kurt slowly does the opening riff to Negative Creep while deciding if they can do it acoustically
- Kurt’s eyes / gasp near the very end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
- Between the Country — Ian Noe
Discovered this album via NPR First Listen on a whim (ala 2016s top album) and never looked back. A perfect mix of folky songs spanning a number of emotions and influences while still holding together as part of their own refreshingly new voice.
- On the Line — Jenny Lewis
A strong, cathartic, singable companion/sequel to The Voyager. Jenny Lewis just keeps getting better with each release. Bonus points for how my mind was blown when I realized you can (probably inadvertently) sing the chorus to Champagne Supernova over the opening verse to Heads Gonna Roll. The intentionally train-wreck-y launch day all-star telethon special was also a nice touch.
- Help Us Stranger — The Raconteurs
The best album Jack White has been involved in since Get Behind Me Satan — with the possible exception of Rome which I consider more a Danger Mouse album with Jack White guesting.
- Night Shift EP — Jenny Owen Youngs
I know every year I say EPs don’t count, but then almost every year I pick one anyways. This was a late breaking discovery a few weeks ago (thanks to the unexpected yet welcome return of TwentyFourBit), but I really dig it. Looking forward to diving into her back catalogue in 2020.
- Purple Mountains — Purple Mountains
Like many, my excitement over the triumphant return of David Berman was overshadowed by his death which put me on a nostalgic Silver Jews listening spree for the second half of the year. But this new record stood out as a highlight even before that shift in perspective. It’s sonically different than the Joos for the most part, but still very Berman on the lyrics front. RIP.
- Dog in a Manger — Smooth Hound Smith
Despite what you may assume from the title, this isn’t an Xmas record. Instead it’s a big step forward for the Americana duo (now with a full band at live shows!)
- Monster (25th Anniversary Remix) — R.E.M.
Still my favorite R.E.M. album (and the first record I ever waited in line outside a record store to buy at midnight on release day), I love how the remix raises the vocals way up in the mix to better understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics. There also seem to be a few additional flourishes ala the remix treatment In Utero got in 2013. I had a lot of fun revising Monster this year.
- Weezer (The Teal Album) — Weezer
Yes, it’s a guilty pleasure covers album. But it’s also the best Weezer album since Maladroit.
- Topo Chico — Robert Ellis
- Eyelash — Asian She (cowritten by Benji Hughes)
- Uh Huh — Jade Bird
- Jesus & Elvis — Hayes Carll
- If Today Doesn’t Do Me In — Ian Noe
- Rabbit Hole — Jenny Lewis
- Hold Me Anyway — Wilco
Gin Blossoms @ Scoot Inn 3/7
Spiral Stairs, Sweet Spirit, Carson McHone, Kevin Galloway @ Mohawk 3/12 (Nine Mile Touring SXSW)
Hayes Carll @ SXSW 3/15-3/16 (4 shows in 27 hours!)
The Tallest Man on Earth @ Moody Theatre 4/23
Lemonheads @ Barracuda 5/31
Felice Brothers @ Barracuda 6/12
Will Courtney (solo acoustic) @ Batch Craft Beer & Kolaches 7/5
Mason Jennings @ 04 Center 7/12
Ian Noe @ Scoot Inn 8/17
(biggest disappointment of the year – he cancelled to have his wisdom teeth out)
Black Pumas @ Mohawk 8/24
Guns N Roses @ ACL 10/12
Reverend Horton Heat w/ Alejandro Escovedo @ The Continental Club 10/22
Wilco @ Moody Theatre 10/27
Ray LaMontagne @ Moody Theatre 11/2
Smooth Hound Smith @ Mohawk Indoor 11/19
Robert Ellis @ Armadillo Christmas Bazaar 12/23
Since David Berman was already covered above, I’d be remiss not to give a little eulogy for Shawn Smith as a wrap up to the year in music.
This one hit me the hardest, as I’ve been a big fan for a long time. As previously mentioned, I sought out the first Brad album early on and ended up stumbling onto a guy they call “Seattle’s Best Kept Secret” in this singer.
His voice was amazing, and even more amazing was the volume of side projects he sang for. Brad. Satchel. Pigeonhead. All Hail The Crown. From The North. Twilight Singers. Vincent & Mr. Green. Plus a plethora of solo releases, many of them underrated classics. (Shield of Thorns & The Diamond Hand still slay me.)
I named the protagonist of my short story Fester after Shawn Smith, and still shudder in glee when I encounter the part where my Shawn Smith listens to THE Shawn Smith in the car. I never intended for the namesakes to cross paths in the story, but I love that they did.
Shawn Smith 1965-2019 RIP
1. Glorietta — Glorietta
Oh my! Another year, another supergroup on the top list. This one’s a little different with it being a supergroup where I wasn’t very familiar with any of the members beforehand outside of Wild Child — but their end results absolutely blew my mind.
2. Loner — Caroline Rose
Great record, great live show. It’s quite possible nobody has ever had as much fun on a record (or a tour) where they completely reinvent themselves.
3. Western Movies — Traveller
Two supergroups in one year. This long-awaited debut (hyped up by 2 Austin shows they played in 2017) didn’t disappoint with a Benji Hughes level of “goofy yet sincere” going on throughout.
4. The Tree of Forgiveness — John Prine
He looks like death on the cover (no offense intended), but the songs tell you he’s still got it and is totally fine if this ends up being his swan song.
5. Esher Demos — The Beatles
Acoustic demos recorded at George Harrison’s house, officially released as part of the White Album 50th anniversary re-issue.
6. Crazy Love — Will Courtney
Discovery of the year. Saw him on the actual 50th Anniversary of the White Album and he covered “Sexy Sadie” for the occasion. This album is great, but he has an older song called “The Days When Bands Could Make Your Cry” with an acoustic version that absolutely makes me cry.
7. Blaze (Original Cast Recording) – Ben Dickey & Friends
I was super late to the Blaze Foley party, but this soundtrack (and the biopic it comes from, and delving deep into the Blaze back catalogue) were big highlights of the musical year.
- Chevrolet Van – The Nude Party
- Soul #5 – Caroline Rose
- The Movie Song – The Record Company
- 19th Amendment – Dolly Parton
- Resignation – Paul Cauthen
- I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch* – Courtney Barnett
- I Ain’t Got Nothin’** – Willie Nelson
*Song title of the year
**Lyric of the year: “A lonely summer night and memories linger / of when I gave you a ring and you gave me the finger…”
Rhett Miller @ Antone’s – 1/27
Bahamas @Antone’s – 2/17
Cha! (Police tribute band) @ Elysium – 3/3
Caroline Rose @ SXSW (4 shows!)
Blaze Foley movie & Tribute @SXSW – 3/16
Mason Jennings @ Cactus Cafe – 4/20
The Breeders @ Emo’s – 4/21
Rivers Cuomo @ the Troubadour – 5/30
Paul McCartney @ ACL Fest – 10/5
Jackie Venson @ ACL Fest – 10/5
The Record Company @ Scoot Inn – 11/1
Will Courtney @ Sam’s Town Point – 11/9
Hayes Carll & Jack Ingram @ Luckenbach Dance Hall – 11/17
Glorietta @ the Heights Theater – 12/15
Heart & Bones play the songs of Dirty Dancing @ 3Ten – 12/29
Commentary coming sooner or later…
- Resistance Radio: The Man in the High Castle Album — Various
- Life Will See You Now — Jens Lekman
- Colors — Beck
- Like a Drunk in a Midnight Choir: RSD Celebrates the Music of Leonard Cohen — Various
- St. Mojo — Sweet Spirit
- Salutations* — Conor Oberst
- Pamela — Sweet Spirit
- Beat of My Heart — Benji Hughes
- Goodbye One More Try — Hunter James
- A Little Uncanny — Conor Oberst (with the Felice Brothers)
- 1234 — Kevin Morby
- Losing Interest — Wilco
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam @ The Teragram Ballroom – 1/17/17
John Aielli Ekliktikos 50th Anniversary @ Hogg Auditorium – 3/7/17
Spiral Stairs @ Mohawk – 3/17/17
Tom Petty @ Frank Erwin Center – 5/2/17
The Record Company @ Emo’s – 9/17/17
Traveler @ ACL Fest (day) & Stubb’s Indoors (night) – 10/7/17
Continental Church of the Reverend Horton Heat @ The Continental Club – 10/27 & 10/28/17
John Fogerty @ Auditorium Shores – 10/29/17
Jen Cloher @ The Moody Theater – 11/11/17
Ray Wylie Hubbard @ The Paramount Theatre – 11/17/17
Beck @ John Anson Ford Amphitheatre – 11/18/17
ATX6 @ Stateside Theater – 11/29/17
Mike Doughty plays Irresistible Bliss @ Largo – 12/7/17
1. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine — Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
I love when my favorite album of the year comes out of nowhere. I listened to this on NPR first listen because I liked the title and Hamilton’s last name. And I pretty much haven’t stopped listening to it since. Never been a big Walkman fan, though in hindsight I always liked the music of Vampire Weekend more than the lyrics. Sooo good.
2. Wild Dark Metal — Mason Jennings
Probably Mason’s best record since Blood of Man (if you don’t count The Flood as an excellent collection of older songs) — and somewhat of a companion piece with the electric guitar focus. He didn’t tour for this album, and an interview seemed to suggest he’s contemplating retirement. I hope he doesn’t hang it up for good, but completely understand if he needs a break.
3. Ruminations — Conor Oberst
This is the first time I’ve genuinely loved a Conor Oberst record top to bottom on my own vs. slowly come around to it based on my wife’s interest in it.
4. Give It Back To You — The Record Company
This one feels weird to me in some regards since I’ve been a fan of this band for so long that these aren’t really “new” songs to me. But super proud of the buzz they’ve achieved in the leap from “best local band in LA” to “Grammy nominated artist for best contemporary blues album.”
5. Songs in the Key of Animals — Benji Hughes
Another time travel moment since this tied for my second favorite album of 2014 in its original form, but got a re-issue on Merge with a different track order and some new flare to a few of the intros/outros of the songs. Love that Benji is getting more well-deserved exposure, though I’m still a little baffled by the re-ordering since I’ve always thought the “draft” version was especially well sequenced. Maybe I’ll get to ask him someday.
6. Emotions & Math — Margaret Glaspy
Favorite debut of the year — if “debut” is defined as “first release by someone I hadn’t heard of before.”
7. Life in the Dark — The Felice Brothers
1. Couples Skate — Robert Ellis
2. O’Brien is Tryin’ to Learn to Talk Hawaiian — The Mr T Experience
3. Two Dollar Man / Old Daze — Mason Jennings
4. Freaky Feedback Blues — Benji Hughes
5. Plunder — The Felice Brothers
Sweet Spirit @ ABGB 1/31/16
They did a cover from Blackstar shortly after Bowie’s passing — and then went straight into an awesome rendition of “Young Americans” that brought down the house.
Benji Hughes @ The Bootleg Bar 2/4/16
My grandmother passed away this year. The funeral was the weekend before this show. I was scheduled to go to LA for work and could have been off the hook no questions asked, but decided to keep the trip anyways. Whether it was too soon or not is still debatable, but seeing Benji and hearing “I Hate When Pretty Ladies Die” live at this show was exactly what I needed. RIP, Gram.
Smooth Hound Smith @ ON A RIVERBOAT (!!!) at SXSW 3/18/16
I already covered this show in the SXSW recap, but man was that fun.
Supersuckers @ The Continental Club 3/19/16
This one didn’t get too much detail in the SXSW recap, but was a highlight. When the schedule first came out and I saw the Supersuckers were playing the Continental at 1am I was pretty sure I’d be going by myself, but somehow managed to convince my wife to join me (as well as our friend Hunter) and a good time was had by all.
Reverend Horton Heat & Dale Watson @ Strange Brew 7/23/16
Dale Watson became our discovery of the year due to this show. And I fulfilled my musical bucket list item of finally hearing “Liquor, Beer & Wine” live. One of four times I saw the Reverend this year after way too many years off.
Felice Brothers @ the Sidewinder 10/5/16
Super cool venue, super cool setlist by a band that’s really coming into their own. And we kept up our remarkable run of consecutive shows where they play “Marie” — still my favorite song of theirs.
The Record Company @ Antone’s 11/12/16
Coverville introduced me to the Record Company years ago based on their awesome cover of “So What’cha Want?” by the Beastie Boys. My favorite part of this show was turning around to watch the crowd while they played it, watching everyone slowly reach the same revelation about what song it was when the signature guitar riff kicks in. I also got to ask singer Chris Vos about the lyric change on “This Crooked City” from “…and we shared a couple of beers” to “…and we shed a couple of tears.” Both work well, but completely change the interpretation of the song. He laughed when we screamed the older “beers” version during the set, and later told me “to be honest, I still sing beers sometimes too.”
My annual best of music list — which this year will hopefully not be among my only posts of the year.
1. Sound & Color — Alabama Shakes
No sophomore slump here.
2. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit — Courtney Barnett
Most anticipated album of the year (thanks, Bob Boilen!). Best album title of the year. Heck of a live show (we saw her twice, listened from outside when we couldn’t get into a SXSW show, and strongly considered going to see her open for Blur in LA.)
3. Eponymous — Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
This thing is just so damn fun on so many levels.
4. Here Come The Girls — The London Souls
2nd best discovery of the year thanks to ACL.
5. Slow Gum — Fraser. A Gorman
Best discovery of the year thanks to Courtney Barnett at SXSW.
6. Star Wars — Wilco
Surprise, it’s good.
7. Sweet Tennessee Honey — Smooth Hound Smith
This record grows on me more and more with each listen. Every time I forget about it, I fall in love with it again.
1. To Fill My Heart With Love Until It Almost Breaks My Heart — Spirit Family Reunion
2. Book of Love — Fraser A. Gorman
3. Dark Bird Is Home — The Tallest Man on Earth
4. Jazz x10 — Benji Hughes
5. Ghost Ship — Blur
1. Courtney Barnett w/ Fraser A. Gorman @ SXSW
2. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats w/ Caroline Rose @ the Historic Scoot Inn
3. The Record Company @ Sam’s Burger Joint
4. Smooth Hound Smith @ Stay Gold
For once I’m writing this at a not too unreasonable point after the end of the year in question, so no need for a backdated post inserted via time travel…
1. LILILIL — Benji Hughes
I can’t think of another album in the last decade — if not ever — that leaves me with such a big grin every time I listen to it. LILILIL is concept album Benji wrote for his daughter. The story is a time travel rock opera set in outer space and narrated by Jeff Bridges. Various characters leave “space messages” that are basically introductions to “space jams” by Benji. Plus the whole thing starts off with a repeated chant of “I am from the future…I am from the future…I am from the future.” You had me at hello…
2. OXOXOXOX / Songs in the Key of Animals / XXOXOXX – Benji Hughes
Yes, I really am saying my 4 favorite albums of 2014 are by the same artist. And it was pretty much a no brainer. Since they are only available for purchase as a set I’ll go Nielsen-style and group them together under a single number. (This also gets me off the hook from needing to rank them individually.) Can you say infallible band?
3. Supernova – Ray LaMontagne
Ray’s best record since his debut. Taking chances with vocal arrangements and cool stuttery noises that paid off big. Any other year this would have been number one with a bullet.
4. The Voyager – Jenny Lewis
Breezy, poppy, snarky, confident and fun.
5. V for Vaselines – The Vaselines
Kurt Cobain’s fandom and Nirvana’s 3 famous covers sent me seeking out the Vaselines 20 years ago. Some songs I have always loved (“The Day I Was a Horse,” “Teenage Superstars” and “Dying For It”), but mostly I respected them and found the other songs more interesting than good. The same was mostly true about their 2010 comeback record — but V for Vaselines is easily the best album in their catalog. I hope they do another one.
I know I go to more concerts than the average person. But October was nuts even for me. Let me count the ways…
October 1 – The Felice Brothers at the Roxy
The Felices are my wife’s favorite band, and have come to hold a special place in my heart too. Their show was a rollicking good time as always. Plus the opening act was Spirit Family Reunion who may have my favorite song title of the year: “To Fill My Heart With Love Until It Almost Breaks My Heart.” Highlights: “Marie” (my favorite Felice Brothers Song), “Silver in the Shadow,” “White Limo,” “Lincoln Continental.”
October 5 – Conor Oberst & John Prine at the Greek Theatre
More spousal influence: my wife has dug Conor since I dragged her to see Monsters of Folk at this same venue 5 years ago. (And she discovered the Felice Brothers when they opened for Conor at Pappy & Harriets.) His set here was pretty good, but John Prine really stole the show. Somehow I’d never heard of John Prine before, but when I checked out his back catalog in preparation for this show I was blown away. (Incidentally I had heard some of his songs before, most famously Evan Dando’s cover of “Sam Stone” from the Griffith Sunset EP.)
October 7 – Conor Oberst at the Grammy Museum
Seeing the same artist multiple times on the same tour isn’t a common occurrence, but it isn’t unheard of either. Shows at the Grammy Museum have a neat talk show style format with a short interview followed by a short set of music. They also keep video of every on site event in their archives that anyone can view when visiting the museum. Highlight of the live set was closing it out with a cover of John Prine’s “Pretty Good” — my favorite John Prine song that wasn’t played by Prine at the Greek show.
October 9 – Damien Rice at Immanuel Presbyterian Church
Between the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and this venue, the “concert in a church” thing is starting to really take off in LA. This was the first time I’ve had an opportunity to see Damien Rice since discovering him. Venue suited him perfectly and he nailed it. He didn’t play my two favorite songs (“Rat Within the Grain” and “Coconut Skins”) — but still blew me away. Highlights: “Rootless Tree” (on piano!), “Cheers Darlin” (complete with wine bistro skit lead-in), “Volcano” (with full on audience participation).
October 10 – Bahamas at the Roxy
Bahamas made my favorite albums list in 2011 & 2012 and are likely to do so again this year. I’ve seen him play twice before — both times as an opening act, and both times left me wanting more. This was the first time I got to see a full set. It was good, but the setlist left me wanting more. (No “Little Record Girl” or “You’re Bored, I’m Old.”) Sometimes I feel guilty for criticizing setlist selections since I agree it should be fully in the artist’s control. But I really was expecting more here. (Sorry, Afie!)
October 11 (morning) – The Record Company at the Taste of South Lake Festival
A rare day/night doubleheader featuring the best band you’ve never heard. Scrambled to get here on time after brunch for an 11am start time. Missed a couple of songs, but caught most of the set. These guys continue to blow me away every time I see them. They’re about to go on a national tour opening for Brian Setzer — check ’em out if you can.
October 11 (evening) – Ray LaMontagne at the Greek Theatre
At one point Ray said he felt bad that people think his old songs are better. I love Supernova — so much it might have been my favorite record of the year so far if not for the forthcoming trio of Benji Hughes albums — but the old Ray songs really are better. “Burn” / “Trouble” / “Jolene” / “Shelter” stole the show.
October 16 – Jenny Lewis at the Broad Stage
This was part of Q Live — a Canadian talk show I’d never heard of when we bought the tickets to see Jenny but has become somewhat infamous since then due to the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Jenny was great; I just wish she played more than 2 songs. I thought Q was a cool show and Jian was a great interviewer at the time, but now I’m second guessing myself and remembering creepiness in hindsight. #IBelieveThem
October 18 – Mike Doughty at the Mint
A Mike & Scrap question jar show is always a must see event. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every Doughty show in LA since 1999 (at least in part — I got lost and only caught the last 3 songs at McCabes in 1999, and didn’t go to the matinee of his 2 separate admission sets at the Hotel Cafe a few years back). I figured Soul Coughing was going to be reintroduced to the solo repertoire, but was actually a little surprised at how many songs made the cut. “Janine” and “True Dreams of Wichita” would have been fine by me. He didn’t play “True Dreams,” did play “Janine” plus the two hits. “Lazybones” was a nice bonus surprise. When it’s Doughty playing acoustic guitar with Scrap just about everything is a highlight, but if forced to single some out I’d go with “Janine,” “Looks,” “Put It Down / Pleasure on Credit,” “Ossining,” and “Train to Chicago” — plus his stopping to yell at chatty folks in the crowd!
October 24 – John Denver Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony
Fun fact: John Denver is the 2,531st star on the Hollywood Walk of fame. He was awarded the star in 1982, but never got around to scheduling the required personal appearance. His family accepted it posthumously in his honor, with the band Trampled by Turtles covering “Annie’s Song” at the afternoon ceremony and an exhibit of John Denver’s photography afterwards.
October 30 – Citizen Cope at House of Blues
I used to hate full-album shows, but now I think they are absolutely brilliant. The underrated yet iconic Clarence Greenwood Recordings record is 10 years old, and it’s still a humdinger live and by far his best work. Only downside were all of the chatty folks in the crowd during “d’Artagnan’s Theme.” (Where was Doughty when I needed him?)
October 31 – Nirvana Live at the Paramount
Ok, this one doesn’t really count. But I figured the 23rd anniversary of this legendary show was as good a reason as any to break out the DVD and send off Rocktober in style. I always forget how much the kinetic energy of this concert just sucks me in. It’s also one of the first bootleg cassettes I ever bought as a kid and wore out in my car. And it’s still powerful after all these years. Wow…
Fun fact: Searching for Cobain time travel on Amazon yields 3 results:
Lost in the ’90s by Frank Anthony Polito: A teenaged rocker stage-dives during a ’90s themed dance and wakes up in 1994.
Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman: An essay collection featuring unrelated sections on time travel and Kurt Cobain.
Timely Persuasion by JL Civi: A rock and roll time travel tale about a music critic trying to save his sister.
Discounting Klosterman (who I love, but isn’t directly relevant here), I was pleasantly surprised to find Lost in the ’90s. I’d never heard of it before, but immediately purchased it — and really dug it too! Not only had someone else decided to revolve a time travel story around a cultural red-letter-date, but they did so with a lot of other interesting overlaps to the way I handled things in Timely Persuasion. Song titles as chapter titles, lyrical allusions, musician fathers, and even bowling (!!!) pop up in both books.
I reached out to the author and he agreed to do a joint interview around our mutual inspirations. So without further adieu, here’s Frank & JL’s timely & persuasive take on being lost in the ’90s…
FAP: Hey, there! My name is Frank Anthony Polito. I’m a Detroit-based writer and Lost in the ’90s is my first YA novel — though you don’t have to be a Young Adult to enjoy the story. In fact, you may appreciate it even more if you actually grew up in the 1990s.
JLC: Thanks for taking the time to do this. I’m not a young adult anymore, but I did grow up in the ’90s and can say you are spot on that it does help you appreciate the book.
People on this blog likely already know me, but in case you’re coming in for the first time via this post my name is JL Civi. Timely Persuasion is a rock and roll time travel novel I released in 2008 — though the bulk of it was written back in 2003. You don’t need to be an obsessive music fan like me to get into the story, but as Frank said about his book it may give you some added appreciation.
Let’s start off with the most timely question with the 20th anniversary upon us: Why Kurt Cobain in a time travel tale? You nicely weave this throughout on a few different levels and have the bulk of the story set during those fateful days in early April 1994; my narrator tries to save Kurt as soon as he realizes what he can do…
FAP: Well, I hope this doesn’t come as a shock, but… When I began writing Lost in the ’90s I didn’t intentionally set out to include Kurt Cobain in my story. I’m a very realistic writer in that I write fiction that is fact-based. Based on my previous publishing experience, I figured (best case scenario) LIT90s would hit bookstores sometime in 2012. That said, I counted back 18 years in order to calculate my protagonist’s birth year — which took me to 1994. When I researched what was going on in the world that spring, I was reminded of the death of Kurt Cobain on 4/5/94 and voila!
JLC: That’s interesting. I had many similar “count back X years and research” moments while plotting Timely Persuasion, but Kurt Cobain was there from the start. My standard answer to the “If you had a time machine…” question has been “find out how Kurt Cobain died” for as long as I can remember, so I knew I had to explore that in Timely Persuasion. I was 17 when Kurt died, and it hit me pretty hard at the time. The Tom Grant murder theory started to gain press at about the same time I discovered the Internet. I became super obsessed with it right away. I’m not really a conspiracy theorist in general, but I’ve always been fascinated with unanswered questions. The hardest part in the writing process was figuring out a way to leave the suicide/murder question unanswered while still using it to explain the rules of time travel and give deeper insight into the narrator’s character.
FAP: Again, I hope this isn’t a shocker, but… Back in the day, I was not much of a Nirvana and/or Kurt Cobain fan. I didn’t find the music (or Cobain) attractive or interesting. In fact, I kind of sort of hated it (him). I was more into the music scene that had come out of Manchester (The Sundays, The Charlatans UK, etc.) Now that I’m older (and wiser), in doing research to write LIT90s I was happily surprised to discover that I honestly didn’t get Cobain back in 1994. I didn’t realize how ironic his lyrics were or what a supporter of gay rights he was, and how often he was misunderstood by his peers — something to which I could totally relate. Now I really wish I could go back in time to the early ’90s because I would totally change my tune.
JLC: Like many ’90s teens Nirvana was my gateway into music I could call my own, but I really dug the British music scene too. The Manchester bands you mention were great (don’t forget the Happy Mondays!), along with new britpop revolution led by Blur & Oasis. Plus my favorite band to this day is still Carter USM — and not so coincidentally they have the most lyrical references in TP.
Sometimes I wonder if the love of the Beatles instilled in me by my parents paved the way for that. Which leads into another interesting overlap our books have: protagonists who meet their parents back in time. In both cases they are surprised to learn that their father is a musician and decide to teach him some tunes…
FAP: When my father was in high school he played guitar in a band — which is actually how he met my mother. As a kid, I was always fascinated whenever he would drag out his Fender and plug in the old amp and crank out some Black Sabbath. I can’t say that I based the parental characters in LIT90s on my own parents, but I knew that I wanted my protagonist and his father to have a musical bond. I was also a big time-travel geek growing up (Back to the Future, Voyagers!, Somewhere in Time), and I always enjoyed whenever someone from the future would teach someone from the past something and they would try to take credit for it.
JLC: I was also (and still am) a big time travel geek. I knew I wanted to write a time travel novel, but I had a few options on what the main plot would be. A so-so musician going back in time and finding fame by stealing music was one of my initial ideas. Sort of a parable about the digital music industry. But I didn’t think I had enough for a full novel and scrapped it. Then somehow this story sent the narrator into the 1960s to meet his Dad (which wasn’t in the original outline), so I revived that older idea and ran with it.
FAP: My idea for LIT90s came from an obscure “After School Special” called My Mother was Never A Kid, based on an obscure book by Francine Pascal (Sweet Valley High) called Hangin’ Out with Cici. In the story, a teenaged girl travels back in time from the 1970s to the 1940s where she meets (and befriends) her mother, who she doesn’t get along with in present day. And of course the aforementioned Back to the Future.
JLC: At the time I was excited and surprised nobody had done a time travel story that stole music from the future. And even though I included a number of Back to the Future references, it wasn’t until years later I realized that the Marty McFly “Johnny B. Goode” bit counted. Duh…
FAP: Yes! This is exactly what I’m talking about… That moment when Marty is playing “Johnny B. Goode” with his band and that other guy is on the phone with his cousin, Chuck Berry, and he’s like “Listen to this!”
JLC: Classic moment. And tying it back to Kurt Cobain, there’s an episode of The Simpsons where they parody it by having “Marvin Cobain” call his cousin Kurt after hearing Homer’s band play grunge at a Lollapalooza type festival…
Sticking with music, we both also seem to weave little known “real” songs into the plot. I’m guessing “Basement Ghost” is by someone you know based on a few Googles, but I might be wrong.
FAP: You are correct. “Basement Ghost” was written by a friend of mine, Gabriel Grady. I have my MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon, and I knew that I would eventually adapt the novel for the screen. Because music is such a part of the story, I wanted to make sure there would be an original song for the soundtrack. I knew that Gabe — being a Class of ’94 grad and a musician himself — was totally the guy to write my movie’s theme song. Now, if I could only sell that screenplay…
JLC: I could totally see LIT90s as a movie. Or maybe even an “After School Special” if they ever revive that concept…
It was especially impressive that you managed to make “Basement Ghost” a downloadable single to go with the book. I wanted to do something like that but wasn’t ever able to find a musician to work with. It was always my secret hope that putting “Won One” in Timely Persuasion would nudge my college roommate into re-recording it for me (I lost my old cassette copy years ago). But it’s been over 10 years and the song still only exists in my memory and in my book. And I still dig it way more than he does. (Chris Evjy, if you’re reading this that was a not so subtle hint :))
FAP: Again, the credit for this goes to Gabe Grady. It also helps that Gabe was in a band at the time I published LIT90s, and he was looking for promotional opportunities for himself and his work as well. I’m a firm believer in the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours…” theory of life, and in helping others along the way, if possible. The great thing about “Basement Ghost,” I will say, is that I told Gabe the basic gist of my story (how boy meets girl) and he ran with it. The lyrics and subsequent music are all to his credit.
JLC: Another item we share along the lines of great music-themed minds is using song titles as chapter titles. Yours are all great ’90s tunes that often aptly summarize the action. What gave you that idea and how hard was it to pick the songs?
FAP: In my first two novels (Band Fags! and Drama Queers!) I did this same thing — only with ‘80s tunes. While LIT90s isn’t part of the trilogy, I wanted to continue using this technique, especially since music plays such a part in the story. In terms of choosing which songs to include, I have to say “Thank God for the Internet and Wikipedia!”
JLC: Originally Timely Persuasion didn’t have chapter titles. Then one night I woke up at 2am with this idea that every chapter was a song title that contained a number. It would start with “One” by U2. Just a single word so nobody realizes what’s going on yet. Then “Two of Us” by the Beatles. Then “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. And that’s when I jumped out of bed and made a huge list of candidate songs — first from my iTunes library, then falling back on the Internet like you did.
FAP: That is an awesome idea! (I wondered where you came up with “Tram #7 to Heaven” by one of my faves, Jens Lekman.)
JLC: Jens is one of my favorites too. “Tram #7” plus “Wounded Kite at :17” by Pavement were the two titles that made me so giddy I just had to find a way to make this work. And later figuring out I could slot “Won One” in as #11 sealed the deal. Hardest one was for 26 — it’s the only song I don’t like in the list. “Across 26 Winters” is a cool title and fits the chapter, but with apologies to Phoenix Mourning it’s not really my style.
Of your titles I especially liked “Fade Into You” & “Divine Thing.” And of course “Here’s Where The Story Ends” was the perfect ending…and it happens to be by another British group.
FAP: I’m particularly fond of “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star myself. I really think the song sets the tone for this particular chapter. “Action” is such a big component when it comes to film and, if memory serves, this chapter is almost all inner monologue for the female character as she rides along in the car with the two other guys in the story. I look forward to seeing how the scene would play out on the big screen — like an old-fashioned MTV music video.
JLC: Along with the musical nods taking the reader back into the era, I really liked the way you sprinkled references to other time travel stories throughout Lost in the 90s — and not just Back to the Future. Time travel seems to pop up all over the place. I’d never heard of Hangin’ Out With Cici before, but I do remember that time travel episode of Family Matters and liked the Somewhere in Time reference too.
FAP: Thanks. Like I said, I was a big time travel story geek growing up. And no surprise that you’d never heard of Cici — which most would call a “girl” book. I’m actually surprised that you know Somewhere in Time which is set in Michigan where I grew up, and I’ve somehow managed to reference in almost every story I’ve ever written.
JLC: I told you I was a time travel geek too! In TP my narrator sees a movie trailer for Peggy Sue Got Married on his second trip back in time (before he realizes that’s what’s actually happening). I picked it as a hybrid music & time travel reference — though it was totally one of those “need a movie from 1986” research happy accidents along the lines of how you picked Kurt Cobain for LIT90s. BTTF & Quantum Leap are where my love of time travel came from, so I felt it only fair (and polite) to tip my cap to the greats.
FAP: Kudos to you, sir! I appreciate your appreciation of the greats who came before us 🙂 I’ve seen Peggy Sue, but only once (years ago!) and I don’t really remember the plot. I also didn’t watch Quantum Leap for whatever reason. But, as I’ve mentioned, there was a time travel show back in the early ‘80s that I loved as a kid called Voyagers!, starring Jon-Erik Hexum, whose career was tragically cut short after he accidentally shot himself in 1984. If you haven’t seen it, you should totally check it out.
JLC: Yes, I like Voyagers! too. And the Omni is one of the coolest time machines, right up there with the DeLorean and the Tardis.
Anyways, this was pretty fun. Anything else to add in closing?
FAP: Thanks for finding me and making this happen. It’s been almost 2 years since LIT90s was released, which in book terms makes it “old news.” My goal was to do a big publicity push to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death… But having worked in the New York City publishing industry as a book publicist, I know what a pain — and how futile — it can all be. Here’s hoping we both will find some new readers.
JLC: Indeed. We write books so people can read them, right?
Anyone interested in learning more about either Lost in the ’90s or Timely Persuasion can check out both of our books below for a trip down memory lane via April 8th, 1994: