Learning to love Blue and Lonesome When You Go are both available right now – try your favourite online store, request them at your local library and bookstore, or send a message to Saradha here. Thanks for watching!
This piece was originally written in 2016, following the release of my first novel, Lonesome When You Go (Mākaro Press, 2016), hence some out of date references to “popular” music.
Ed reckons Nirvana epitomised the peak of teenage angst, and the relevance of music to our collective consciousness has been going steadily downhill ever since.
Ed might be the fictional teenage drummer in my novel Lonesome When You Go, but he’s voicing a widely held opinion. Grunge died around 1996, taking the ‘alt’ of alt-rock with it and leaving us with highly processed, watered-down pop-rock – much like the brightly coloured ‘alcopops’ of the late 90s that distracted us with their pretty bottles but did nothing to validate our true teenage feelings.
The years between the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s death have often been described as the height of authentic alternative rock. Earlier this month Sean O’Neal at the AV Club wrote “The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released.”
Cue vivid flashback to the most popular, mainstream, best-grades-and-hair-award-winning girl at my school proudly wearing her orange ‘Live’ t-shirt tucked into her brand new Levis. A completely puzzling image to me at the time in my op-shop altered clothes and wearing-thin Converses. Alternative rock was no longer the alternative, but thank god the 90s gave us what they did.
Rolling Stone has a terrible list of the 100 best albums of the 90s.
It’s probably about 75 albums too long and although the top ten includes six alt-rock bands and only two albums released after 1996, it glaringly omits Radiohead’s The Bends and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, both from 1995. I was fifteen that year and am forever grateful for such perfect life-timing. If ever there was someone to take on the burden of voicing the complexities of teenage emotions for our entire generation, in the wake of Cobain’s passing, Billy Corgan was it. An unlikely hero by today’s standards, but a genuine one whose music burst straight from his own hurt soul to ours, making us realise we felt things, the names for which we had never known before.
Maybe one would argue that this new generation of teenagers have different emotions. Perhaps they don’t feel deep inexplicable sorrow or pure anger at the structure of society, and Ed Sheeran stating that falling in love is mysterious is just as meaningful to them as Corgan’s lyrics were to us. Or perhaps hearing over and over that Bruno Mars’ girlfriend’s face is amazing just the way it is is somehow empowering. But current teenage mental health is unfortunately not in good shape and Miley’s limited emotional vocabulary that reduces people and feelings to wrecking balls and Taylor Swift telling us just to “shake it off” can’t be helping. Emotions and love are much more deeply complex than that and 90s alt-rock allowed us to own those feelings and sit with them. On shuffle and repeat.
Music has always been hugely important to teenage culture and therefore holds a position of great power and responsibility. It’s not the teenagers’ fault it’s been doing a lazy job of connecting with them these last 20 years.
It’s not just the fault of the lyricists either. The need for rock music to speak an emotional truth to a generation appears to be woefully low on the musical agenda while production value and the dollar are high. Current music software is incredible and anyone with a laptop and a few hundred bucks to spare can set up a home studio. But the slick polished sound is a far cry from an authentic human voice, taking musicians yet another step away from their audiences’ hearts.
Back to the 90s and commercialism was already starting to break down the entire point of alternative rock before it had time to fully draw breath.
Some argue alternative music was doomed the moment it arrived. Like a baby born on the moon, emerging into a toxic context of an industry fundamentally devoted to the corporate dollar. Anger in the face of this brought us some of the best music we will ever hear, but the cage of capitalism was firmly locking in the passion and creative rage of not just Billy Corgan’s “rat”, but the whole spirit of the 1990s. A teen culture that was based on values of op-shopping and resisting the system, we were embracing feelings of hopelessness and frustration and sharing these through distortion pedals and low-slung guitar straps.
There’s much discussion about music in Lonesome When You Go – mostly in the form of sharing loved songs, finding the right album to fit a character’s mood, buying CDs and being completely precious about how other people handle your vinyl. It’s about having pride in your musical taste; being able to hold forth at a party and gain credibility from strangers. In one scene main character Paige says, “Music totally reflects the culture and societal perception of a particular time so even if we can completely dig the sound, since we weren’t alive during its inception, we can never really hold claim to the ideology – you know?” She’s perhaps defending why alt and indie rock can now only be emulated – covered and coveted – but never again will it be as truly authentic, pained, beautifully messy, sorrowful and angry, as it was in those heady days of 1995.
Listen to the Lonesome When You Go playlist here.
Buy Lonesome When You Go from Mākaro Press here.
Paige and Lily from Lonesome When You Go react to The Dylan News:
“Lily! You heard the Bob Dylan news?” I’ve run up behind her and grabbed her by the arm. I must be looking a little panicked. She whitens.
“Oh my god, Paige don’t tell me. Not Dylan. I’m still grieving for Bowie. I can’t…” her bottom lip quivers.
“No! God no! He’s still alive and he just won the damn Nobel Prize for Literature.”
“Oh thank god!” she breathes, “My Dylan life just flashed before my eyes – the first time we listened to Blood on the Tracks all the way through, every time I’ve been feeling low and then heard a Dylan song in a shop or café or from a busker… that road trip… he’s really been there for me.”
“I know.” I give her a hug, before remembering my excitement. “He won the Nobel! Holy shit! A song-writer – a musician!”
“You’re right, this is huge! Wow. I’m going to briefly ignore the fact that it’s yet another white American male being held aloft and also the fact that most of his songs in the last thirty years have been terrible and focus on the musician as celebrated poet part.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“It’s really cool.” she grins.
It’s Friday morning and we’ve just entered the school grounds. I have Like a Rolling Stone running through my head – “how does it feel?” – and whistle the next line of organ melody aloud. Lily stops walking and thrusts an arm out at me.
“Shut up! I was just up to that part in my head too!” Her eyes widen and we stare at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.
“I guess it’s pretty appropriate,” I say and we start singing it together, loudly and horribly, straining our voices on the lengthened vowels and ignoring the bemused looks from passing juniors. They probably only know Dylan songs from Miley Cyrus covers and references in young adult novels.
Musician as celebrated poet. I walk into class feeling like anything is possible today.
I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.
I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.
And of course I’ve been a long time plagiariser of Blood on the Tracks lyrics.
Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.
I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?
When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.
Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.
Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.