U2 – “Mysterious Ways”

When: November 1991
Where: My dad’s ’88 Corolla (radio tuned to KROQ-FM), southbound on Mariondale Avenue, Los Angeles
Who: My mother
Weather: Overcast

There isn’t much to say about my memory that isn’t already above. Although since starting up a Background Music playlist for my mom, this is the first memory that we seem to share. I’d rather talk about U2.

U2 is the poster-boy for “Better to burn out than fade away.” Most bands stop being good 10 years after their first LP, and while U2 beats that rule by a year, they had already ruined their public persona when Achtung Baby was released. “Rattle and Hum,” the documentary on the making of The Joshua Tree, had portrayed Bono and company as selfish, ruthless yuppies doing anything for a quick buck; a sharp contrast to their diplomatic image.

Achtung Baby was three years after this PR disaster, and while it was a good album, it was their creative dead end. While the band is still commercially successful, the newer music is poorly-received and gives the impression that U2 is on a never-ending reunion tour. One can only wonder how people would feel if they’d called it quits after releasing this single.

Have you had your Lucky Clovers?Next: 1992 arrives, and Trip-Hop helps a decade take shape.

Blur – “There’s No Other Way”

When: April 1991
Where: My dad’s ’88 Corolla (radio tuned to KROQ-FM)
Who: My mom
Weather: unknown

The first time I heard this song, my uncle Jay was still referring to me as “The Baby,” so excuse me for what happened next.

“There’s No Other Way” by Blur has the honor of being the first song ever to get stuck in my head. After 1991, I never heard it. Which is why, after a while, I became convinced that I’d invented it. All I remembered of that song was Graham Coxon’s iconic opening riff. No lyrics, no band name, no information to speak of from the DJ.

Flash forward to February 2009. Things weren’t going so well at college, and I decided to get into Blur. I downloaded their first album, Leisure, from back in their shoegaze days and I play the first song, which is kind of long, so I skipped to the second track. What happened at that moment was the best possible outcome of this long, impossible situation. The very next thing I did was enter it into the playlist.

My teaser for this article was “What do you do when a song gets stuck in your head for 18 years, and you don’t know the name of the song, the artist, or the lyrics?” The answer unfortunately is nothing. I came across this song out of dumb luck. And it isn’t the only one I’ve had this problem with. Sadly, humming into your computer microphone will not get you very far.

Note: Certain memories are stronger than others, and as such I tend to focus on the song itself when it’s weak.

And a legend was bornNext: The People vs. U2

The La’s – “There She Goes”

When: January 1991
Where: My father’s 1988 Corolla, with the radio tuned to KROQ-FM
Who: My mother
Weather: Unknown

Living in the future often puts you at a disadvantage. People living in, say, 1978, have no idea that the terrible clothes and music they have to live with will soon be completely swept away. On the other side, people living in good times never seem to think that bad things are coming. Most people who thought about it would put 1991 in the latter position, but when I first heard this song that January, nobody knew what would happen next.

In January 1991, The Soviet Union was our nominal enemy, The Cosby Show was on the air and Whitesnake was on tour. After all the changes of 1989-90, one could reasonably step back and realize that things had changed very little.

While The Stone Roses had swept through Europe, there was no indication that Britpop would ever reach America (it did, but not for years). Even this ubiquitous single, lost right in the middle ground between The Byrds and Best Coast, only peaked at #13 in the United States. Only when it was covered by Sixpence None The Richer (about which more later) did it appear seemingly on every TV show and advertisement for the next ten years.

Sixpence’s version is a simplified and feminized version of this otherwise dynamic song. One-album-wonder The La’s had infused it with a complex harmony and ambiguous subject matter; the band members had teased the idea that it was about heroin, already becoming the defining drug of the Nineties. So while Sixpence’s softer version may have been a hit in the boardroom, the original stands alone.

Next: What do you do when a song gets stuck in your head for 18 years, and you don’t know the name of the song, the artist, or the lyrics?

Background Music: Snap! – “The Power”

We begin the 1990s in the most stereotypical way possible – the sudden and rapid decline of Communism, hip-hop rising to international prominence, and the appearance of vague “empowerment-chic” that would dominate the decade.

Having “The Power” stick in my personal memory is kind of embarrassing. The song has appeared in at least 13 films, as well as a long-running promo for PBS’ local content for the Pasadena-Los Angeles area. On the other hand, 1990 remains the go-to year for embarrassing/kitschy music (Ice Ice Baby, The Humpty Dance, U Can’t Touch This, Vogue, Free Fallin’), not to mention the fact that Hair Metal was still a point of discussion, so things could have been a lot worse.

The memory associated with this song isn’t so strong. In all likelihood I was crawling around pushing the buttons on my family’s 13-channel, fake-wood-paneled, no-remote RCA television; back when music videos were shown on network TV.

Where: Probably my family’s den (which later became my bedroom)
When: Likely July 1990
Who: Unknown
Weather: Probably around 27 C

Next time: The La’s are either twenty years ahead or twenty years behind with “There She Goes”

Background Music

Holy Generation-Y, Batman!

In case you were wondering.

Here is something I’ve been working on that isn’t easy to describe. You know how a certain song reminds you of a moment in your life? Everything is there, the sound, the smell; you can remember the weather and everything you were talking about at the moment that song was playing.

I have 236 of those. And by arranging them in order, I have a record of my life that shows, rather than tells. Sort of like tree-rings.

Usually I add more, as time increases and as I suddenly remember something. Rarely I’ll remove a song, usually a recent addition. I started this project in the summer of 2008, I think for my girlfriend at the time, but at fifteen hours it would be quite unwieldy for anyone but myself, or possibly someone mourning my death. This would’ve been impossible ten years ago.

This will be a series called “Background Music,” in which I discuss the various songs, the moments, and how that significance has changed. Though I plan to write these in chronological order, if I add any retroactively they’ll show up here next.

Also, without looking too deeply into it, it occurs to me that some of these may have been (but probably weren’t) number-one hits. If you’re interested in the evolution and devolution of the charts, I urge you to check out Sally O’Rourke’s blog No Hard Chords.

Our first entry is for December 1989, the month I was born. Disturbingly good memories run in my family; my father has one, as did his, so don’t think I’m bullshitting you. Having said that, I don’t actually know when I first heard our first song:

Where: My family’s den (which later became my bedroom)
When: Sometime after dark, December 1989
Who: My mother
Weather: Below freezing.

Writing this, it suddenly occurs to me that Star Trek: The Next Generation was probably the first TV show I ever watched. My mother was the president of her high school science fiction club so it stands to reason. Unfortunately, TNG was a first-run syndication show (remember those!?), so there’s no way of knowing when it was on in my market.

As a side-note, my uncle was very disappointed in my mother for not showing me Monday Night Football the night I was born. The Saints went up against the Eagles and won, which just about describes me as a person.

Next time: House-rap ushers us into the very early nineties with Snap!

“Capre Alleate”

30 Rock speaks clearly in all languages.

When I was living in San Francisco, I still spent summer vacations in my hometown of Pasadena. Once while I was down there, I discovered that a girl I fancied had just taken a boyfriend. It was liberating. Suddenly, I was freed of any desire to go back to SF State. I had no reason to be up there in the first place; too expensive, the school was terrible, the film department was completely belligerent and I didn’t even want to be in film anymore. San Francisco itself almost made up for my horrible experience at the University, but it didn’t matter now anyway.

Being away from home so often made me feel like an outsider now, so my first instinct was to find new friends. I looked up some stuff on Meetup and chanced on a fairly new screenwriting group that met across the street from my apartment. On that note, please check out Planet Writer. All of this was a direct influence on my current project Totally Radical.

Which brings us back to 30 Rock. As I already liked the show and knew the main points of their plots, I decided my first spec script would be a 30 Rock script. “Capre Alleate.” Basically, NBC is in danger of being sold again to an angry Italian businessman played by Bob Odenkirk, so Jack foolishly attempts to set him up with Lemon in the hopes that it will crush his spirit. Meanwhile, Tracy goes to accept an Albany Regional Grammy that turns out to be a prank by some zoo-crew radio hosts. His absence causes Toofer to step in as TGS’ star.

The script actually wasn’t badly received. It was too short, and iffy in the third act, but at least somewhat cohesive and everybody liked the aside jokes. The problem was that I’d spent hours watching the best episodes of 30 Rock and taking notes about the pacing, placement of the jokes, etc. (Did you know that there are twice as many jokes in the first half of each episode?) And, as copying is rampant in Television, showrunners these days prefer pilots. But that’s a story for another day.