The Rise of Alternative Rado|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 5: Nirvana Vs. Pearl Jam
By the Fall of 1993 Pearl Jam was quickly becoming my favorite band. I liked Nirvana as well but their message seemed more garbled with ambiguous metaphors, which some poets might say is higher art. Even if Nirvana were more artistic, Pearl Jam seemed more direct. Many of our listeners also liked both bands, as album sales and requests confirmed. But there were also growing divisions among the audience. Some of the most diehard Nirvana fans (the ones who were there in the "beginning"), for example, thought Pearl Jam and other Seattle bands rode Nirvana's coattails, getting a free ride to the top. That's not what I thought, though. Nirvana's album Nevermind and Pearl Jam's album Ten were recorded around the same time, so it's not as if one was copying the other. Nirvana did make a splash first, but Pearl Jam actually took a slight lead in album sales over Nirvana. As far as the rest of the Seattle scene, only a few others such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains even approached those sales.
While Nirvana started to break nationally in September 1991 with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Pearl Jam didn't start to break with "Alive" until January 1992. The traditional album rock format trailed the modern rock format by a few months with Nirvana, but the two formats were in sync with Pearl Jam. Both bands had several follow-up airplay tracks throughout 1992 and 1993. While the lead-off "Smells Like Teen Spirit" proved to be Nirvana's biggest hit, Pearl Jam's third single "Jeremy" was the one that seemed to move them to monster status. It was a strong statement song about a school kid ridiculed by his peers. Several songs of this period began to focus on the alienated loner and the frustration of being a "loser." This theme was in sharp contrast with the hair bands of the eighties who bragged about sexual conquest and put themselves in the spotlight, posing as icons.
It was difficult to measure precisely who was more popular because both bands came on strong with several songs that got a lot of airplay. Pearl Jam's other songs such as "Even Flow," "Black" and "Crazy Mary" sounded more radio-friendly in the vein of traditional commercial rock while the other Nirvana hits such as "Come As You Are," "On A Plane," "Lithium," "In Bloom" and "Sliver" had an edgier sound. Even so, there was a sense that Pearl Jam had a more accelerating momentum going into the follow-up album, although Nirvana still seemed to have a slight lead in critical acclaim.
Another Seattle band that had emerged was Alice In Chains. Some of their music I thought was too hard to play on KWOD but we did play "Rooster" a lot because I thought the lyrics were very picturesque. A lot of modern rock stations jumped on many other Seattle bands but I didn't think it was necessary to play every so-called "grunge" band coming out of Seattle just because a few had made it big. It seemed that the press was annoyed by the growing trend that was not only transforming the album rock format, but the modern rock format as well. They began lumping all the Seattle bands together and labeled it grunge, although none of the bands used that term. The bands referred to their music as rock. The press even tried to spike in bands like Stone Temple Pilots under the grunge label, even though they were from San Diego. Anything with a heavy rock sound was starting to be called grunge. Music critics with diverse tastes who thought rock was dead started accusing all grunge bands as sounding alike. But the wave of cynicism only fueled the popularity of these bands even more.
Part of the reason for this criticsm had to do with the fact that Pearl Jam and Nirvana were starting to overshadow almost every other up and coming band, especially British bands. Modern rock had historically been tied to the U.K. since the late seventies. Suddenly the compass was pointing to America, especially Seattle. That may be why when the band Catherine Wheel stopped by KWOD for an interview with Giles Hendriksen on October 21, 1993 that the singer Rob Dickinson voiced a little of his own cynicism about Pearl Jam. Giles, in his genuine British accent started talking about how Pearl Jam thought the pop charts were "bullocks" and Dickinson interjected, "Everyone knows that's just Pearl Jam having the luxury of being able to look cool." Despite chart success in the U.K., Catherine Wheel had struggling album sales in the U.S. and later played that night for a couple hundred people at a small venue in Sacramento called the Cattle Club. Their songs "Black Metallic" and "I Want To Touch You" in 1992 along with the current single "Crank" were very familiar to the KWOD audience. Yet the airplay was not translating into huge sales as was the case with Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
But it wasn't just the Seattle bands that were criticized by the old guard of modern rock. Many people from various underground factions complained that the entire modern rock format was shifting to retro bands who were bringing back sounds from the sixties and the seventies. Counting Crows, for expample, were accused of sounding too much like Van Morrison. Other comparisons included Spin Doctors sounding like the Doobie Brothers, Soul Asylum sounding like Tom Petty, Gin Blossoms sounding like the Eagles and Blind Melon sounding like a seventies band that you couldn't quite put your finger on. Even though there was some validity to these comparisons, I thought that was a good thing. The new wave of modern rock artists may have sounded similar in performance, but I felt their songs were still very original. The songs "Two Princes" and "Jimmy Olson's Blues" by the Spin Doctors, for example, certainly didn't sound like a new genre, but I had never heard specific songs like that before either lyrically or melodically. I thought the anti-aristocratic storyline of "Two Princes" particularly echoed the sentiment of the emerging alternative culture. I was looking for fresh songs, not necessarily fresh genres.
Nirvana, who were actually one album ahead of Pearl Jam, put out their third release In Utero a month before Pearl Jam's Vs. came out in October. Nirvana's lead-off single "Heart Shaped Box" confirmed that they were a very hot act. Pearl Jam actually did something tricky that U2 had pulled off a few years earlier. They released a hard-edged track "Go" as the lead-off single and then a few weeks later when the album came out they released the more radio-friendly track "Daughter." Now Pearl Jam was two tracks deep into the album while Nirvana was still riding off the first single. Even so, modern rock stations jumped on both albums and began playing multiple tracks as if both albums were greatest hits collections. In this developing rivalry, though, it seemed that Pearl Jam had more radio-friendly tracks. Nirvana scored additional airplay with "All Apologies," "Rape Me" and "Dumb." But Pearl Jam flooded the airwaves with more songs such as "Animal," "Dissident," "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town," "Rearview Mirror," "Glorified G," "Rats" and "Indifference."
The themes of In Utero pointed toward depression and to some degree, a sense of self-defeat. The song "All Apologies," in particular, sounded like an admission of taking blame and giving up. It was as if it were meant to be a farewell song with the lyrics "what else could I write? - I don't have the right." It was the last track of the last studio album the band would record.
Both bands conveyed a left of center political stance. Both Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder revealed themselves in this vein through statements in the press and in live performances. I had a sense that there was an obvious connection between the definitions of progressive, alternative and liberal. Some may argue that there was just as much right-wing militant or even religious infiltration into modern rock at this time, but the bands that were happening were the ones who held positions of liberation on social issues. Modern rock was becoming a middle class phenomenon among suburbanites who had the leisure time to dream of better worlds. This audience was either college or self-educated and drifted toward the conclusion that corporate commercialism interfered with human spirituality. For that reason, modern rock stations had toned-down hype and in some cases delivered a humorous self-deprecating presentation. It was the anti-hero or anti-icon complex. It heavily tilted toward independent thinking. Glitter and glam were out. Now it was the underdog's turn.
On Halloween I went to Berkeley, CA and saw Pearl Jam for the first time at the Greek Theater. The crowd was full of body surfing maniacs. There was an electrifying spirit to the atmosphere even before the show began because the album had just come out the past week. Eddie Vedder had long hair hanging in his face kind of like Slash from Guns N' Roses. It was as if he were hiding from the crowd. But he sure put on an exciting performance. What made the show particularly memorable, though, wasn't so much the music as Eddie's talk in between songs. At one point he quoted Neil Young and talked about how hate could be overcome by trusting others. He also put on a Halloween mask and made the crowd laugh with devilish remarks that poked fun at religious paranoia. Overall, it was a mind-blowing show that combined strong performance with humor and social commentary. It put a lot of shows I had seen to shame because the typical concert consisted of musicians standing around looking bored with nothing to say to the audience. Pearl Jam was exactly the type of band I was looking for.
A month later on November 14 I saw Depeche Mode at Arco Arena in Sacramento. It was certainly a very different experience and a different crowd. In many ways it was a very ironic show. Not only did it not sell out like so many Depeche Mode fans anticipated in their rush to buy tickets, it kind of came off as contrived. Singer David Gahan seemed to be posturing like a glam rock star from the eighties. It not only didn't fit their techno sound, it just seemed overdone. Earlier in the year the album Songs of Faith and Devotion sold rather well fueled by airplay of several singles including "I Feel You" and "Walking In My Shoes." The album was supposed to mark a change in musical direction with more guitar and real drums. KWOD still played several Depeche Mode songs. But it was as if the band had figured out that techno was evaporating from modern rock radio and guitar music was taking over, except they were jumping on the earlier hair band antics instead of the new anti-icon complex. Depeche Mode had been one of the top bands in the format up until this point. The following April the band would return to Sacramento only to play to an even smaller audience, half the size of the November show.
I saw Pearl Jam again in December 1993. This time it was in Reno, Nevada. Unfortunately the show wasn't as good because Vedder had a bad cold and he kept apologizing about it. I still enjoyed it but it didn't have the same compelling spark as the Halloween show. I actually passed on a chance to see Nirvana open for Red Hot Chili Peppers on New Year's Eve in San Francisco. I don't know what I was thinking, other than I was on my way to Los Angeles and didn't feel like stopping. I figured I would just catch them some other time. As it turned out, however, and what no one knew at that time, was that time was running out on Nirvana.
Even with KWOD embracing Nirvana and Pearl Jam as our top artists, our overall sound still had a pop ring to it. Our first Christmas concert held on December 8, was nothing but melodic acts playing acoustically. The show featured Matthew Sweet, The Wonder Stuff, Cowboy Junkies and Teenage Fanclub. From my perspective Cowboy Junkies had the most loyal following even though somehow the promoter wound up sticking them in the middle of the bill. We played a couple of their songs, which were "Sweet Jane" and the current single "Anniversary Song." I got to interview singer Margo Timmons live on the air but we were drowned out by the crowd noise. She was definitely my favorite female singer in modern rock, so it was really special for me. I also thought Matthew Sweet was pretty cool because he and I both liked the Beatles, which drove a lot of our conversation backstage. He had a string of modern rock radio hits including "Girlfriend" but he seemed a little frustrated that album sales had not broken big for him yet. The other two acts were essentially "two hit wonders" at modern rock radio and were probably equally frustrated that all of that national airplay and radio show touring still didn't equate to significant album sales. It may have had something to do with the fact that the modern rock audience was swinging toward a heavier rock sound than some of the sweeter melodic pop groups that I still thought could make it.
I felt we were lucky to have the bill we did for the Christmas show. We were not looked upon by the record industry as having the same mega-audience stature as KROQ, 91X, LIVE 105 or WHFS, all of which always had the best line-ups for shows. That's because they were all consistently able to fill big venues with capacities of several thousand people whereas KWOD's show was for about 500 people. Modern rock radio was never meant to be underground like freeform radio tried to be in the late sixties. The big shows were more evidence that proved there was a big audience for modern rock.
Three days later I saw Counting Crows and Cracker play at the Warfield in San Francisco. Both bands had convincing artistic performances at the sold out show. I was very impressed with the Counting Crows' album August And Everything After which produced the current radio track "Mr. Jones." The song was about the fantasy of being a rock star and the frustration of being stuck in the local bar scene. Just about every modern rock fan could relate to that theme. Cracker also had been carving out a string of modern rock hits the past few years. The recent hypnotic riff-oriented hit "Low" and now the more upbeat party rock song "Get Off This" helped propel them to the foreground of the format. Backstage I hung out with Judy McNutt, Program Director of 93 Rock and Dana Jang, Program Director of San Jose rock station KSJO. I was impressed by both programmers on their achievements and knowledge of rock radio and culture. Of course, Judy was now my direct competitor in Sacramento and I had no idea that competition between KWOD and 93 Rock was about to become hot news. I just figured Judy did a great job knocking out a legendary rock station and taking command of the rock scene in Sacramento. Little did I know, however, that within a month 93 Rock would have a new Program Director.
Up until this point 93 Rock had no reason to fear KWOD's shift to more guitar-based music. KWOD was still far behind in the ratings while 93 Rock had been sitting near the top since the withering away of KZAP from the late eighties on. But when the Fall 1993 Arbitron ratings rolled in, KWOD stayed flat while 93 Rock took a big fall. In the last book they had maintained a two point lead over KWOD, which had now been reduced to a one point lead. Every point meant several thousand people listening for several minutes per day. For the first time it occured to me that beating 93 Rock was a realistic possibility in the near future. That was the exact kind of drama that I had been hoping to explore all my career.
Nationally the album rock format still led modern rock in the ratings. But with the Fall 1993 book, the percentages and the bets on what was the most powerful winning rock music of the day, seemed to be shifting in favor of modern rock. In his Feb. 18, 1994 R&R article entitled "New Rock Continues Upward Spiral," Shawn Alexander wrote about several indicators that the underdogs were about to take over. Sixteen modern rock stations were now moving toward the top in the 18-34 age demographic. That was about ten more than normal. KEDG (The Edge) in Las Vegas turned out be the only station to hit number one in this highly cherished target demo. In the younger 18-24 demo over half of the entire "panel of stations" were now top five. Even KWOD, which was steadily paying more attention to the tastes of people over 25, had moved to number two in that younger demo. At this point there were a little over forty major market modern rock stations in the United States.
Another test that showed modern rock's strength was the new competition in San Diego. It actually marked the beginning of exciting modern rock rivalries. 91X had been one of the two most successful modern rock stations to this point besides KROQ and now had a direct competitor. XHRM, known as "The Flash" came on in 1993 to create a challenge for listenership. While 91X maintained it's guitar-based rock sound with diverse suprises spiced in, The Flash was trying to present a more conservative pop sound, anchoring with the more adult-sounding current hits of modern rock. They avoided the harder groups and took few chances on new music. They sounded like the modern rock version of the adult contemporary format with minimal emphasis on personality of the jocks.
Regardless of whether or not San Diego was a conservative market, 91X was winning the battle by being adventurous. During the summer ratings it looked as if the Flash was going to cause trouble for the heritage modern rock station that had defined alternative culture in San Diego for over a decade. But with the Fall book, 91X widened its lead and moved up overall to nearly a five share. Operations Manager Kevin Stapleford talked in the Shawn Alexander article about how "there was station-switching - a lot of it was going on in the drive hours when people have the most access to hitting the buttons. They check them (The Flash) out but they spend the majority of their time with us, because we offer a much better lifestyle package. We're not a jukebox. We have good marketing, jocks and music."
There was a definite faction of radio industry people who were convinced that modern rock could still be packaged like a sugar-coated top 40 station. Whenever I met these people at conventions or backstage I would explain to them that KWOD had tried that and it only went so far and now the rock thing was working. Some of them were curious, others looked at me like I was a martian. One top 40 consultant who I sat next to at a San Francisco 49er game in January asked me if I thought a pop-leaning alternative station could work in Sacramento. I said, "no because modern rock is the new album rock and top 40 is still top 40. If people really like top 40 they'll just listen to top 40." For the most part, I wanted people to perceive KWOD as a rock station. Rock had serious fans who searched for meaning in the music, while the pop fan simply kept up with the latest hits and trends no matter how shallow the themes were.
There was also a certain degree of pressure from record labels to play more techno music. They still had techno groups on their rosters even though the rock bands were outselling them and most of the modern rock stations moving up in the ratings were more guitar-based. Every now and then I'd find a techno group that sounded so unique I had to play it, such as Course of Empire or Stabbing Westward. These bands had a more industrial sound with rock influence, as opposed to the more disco-sounding techno that was burning out. But for the most part, I told the labels that techno mixed better with the electronic sound of pop than with the acoustic and electric sounds of rock. That's why I passed on playing Ace of Base to the disillusion of the techno dance crowd. Anything that had a jingly or simple formulaic melody had become off-limits. The pop industry people were confused when I told them we were a rock station that didn't play much hard rock. To a lot of conservative pop people who completely avoided rock music because of its anti-establishment image, the idea of a new kind of rock station seemed a little eerie now that they couldn't just write off rock anymore as something from the past.
Even though the guitar-bass-and-drum sound was carving out a new piece of the mainstream, some of the guitar bands that did well in the electronic era of modern rock (early eighties through early nineties) were breaking up or fading out. Some of these bands included Jane's Addiction, the Cult, the Replacements, the Pixies, the Church and Concrete Blonde.
I saw Concrete Blonde at The Warfield in San Francisco on March 2, 1994, which marked the tail-end of their farewell tour. I thought it was ironic they were breaking up because some of the most mentioned songs on my lunchtime All Request Hour were by the group including "Joey," "Bloodletting," "Tomorrow Wendy" and their recent cover of the Tommy James hit "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Singer Johnette Napolitano called in and was interviewed by Giles. She told him, "I've been writing more outside the pop format lately." It was another clue that made me think "pop" was becoming a dirty word.
Lollapalooza had become a summer time marker. It was an annual alternative concert festival that mixed music with social awareness organizations. It was clear to me that the bands at these events overshadowed the booths and issues. Whenever I asked people who went to these shows what they thought, it was always a musical review and never a philosophical review. The brainchild of this annual festival that traveled to the biggest cities around America was Perry Ferrell, singer of Jane's Addiction and then Porno For Pyros. The show was becoming so big that it was losing its alternative image and becoming more of a mainstream event. The headliners were now top names of the rock scene. In 1993 the line-up had been Primus, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Arrested Development, Front 242, Tool, Babes in Toyland and Rage Against the Machine. The band slated to headline Lollapalooza in the Summer of 1994 was Nirvana, which generated intense enthusiasm and anticipation among the alternative community. It didn't seem to matter who the other bands would be.
But on March 4, 1994, news spread throughout the rock world that Kurt Cobain had slipped into a coma from an alcohol/drug overdose. The band was on tour in Italy. There had been other signals in the press that Cobain was suicidal. Although Cobain regained consciousness, less than a month later it seemed that Nirvana was falling apart again when Geffen reps informed me that Nirvana was pulling out of Lollapalooza.
Then a few days later on April 8, I actually read an industry news fax on the air as it came in about Cobain's death. The first report was that a body with gunshot wounds had been found in the house. The next report was a confirmation that the body was that of Kurt Cobain. All day several stations across America did Nirvana tributes. Many of them, including KWOD, ran a satellite feed of a tribute presented by Album Network. Several local media outlets interviewed me about my reaction. I was just as stunned as everyone else. Several people on national television said Kurt Cobain was the "spokesman of his generation." Usually, music news didn't make the national headlines, but this time it did. The cloudy sky and the topic of alternative rock were both kind of gloomy. That night I saw INXS in San Jose. Michael Hutchence paid tribute saying "we lost a great songwriter today." Of course, any band in the world playing that night probably had something to say about it.
Also playing that night was Pearl Jam in Washington, DC. According to WHFS Music Director Pat Ferrise, "We were backstage, seeing Eddie Vedder just pace around. You could tell that he was majorly bummed out about the whole thing. They went on and he addressed it. I remember him saying it was really hard for them to play that night and that everybody knew why." Pat went on to tell me in a 2000 interview for VirtuallyAlternative Magazine that WHFS aired as a tribute the interview Nirvana did with the station before the band rose to superstardom.
"Rock star Cobain found dead. Troubled singer for Nirvana left suicide note, police say." Those were the morning headlines of the Sacramento Bee on April 9. Writer J. Freedom du Lac quoted me as saying, "In retrospect, Kurt lived a very sad and angry life, and all of that came out in his music." I guess I should have pointed out that I never really met the guy, but I was going by what I had gotten out of the Cobain interviews I had read. In one local television news interview I said "he didn't want to become a pop star." According to later reports Cobain used heroin to ease stomach pain that his doctors couldn't figure out, but the pain had become too extreme. Some conspiracy theorists have speculated that Cobain may have actually been murdered. If that were the case, Cobain helped set it up by his suicide attempt a month earlier on top of making suicidal statements to the press in interviews.
A few weeks later I visited Seattle and hung out with a record label friend named Randy. He took me to the Crocodile Cafe where Nirvana and all the other Seattle bands played on their way up. Randy told me that a lot of successful players still hung out there. Sure enough, as we were leaving I met Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam standing outside the door. It was just a quick hello, but it still kind of blew my mind. Then Randy gave me a tour of Seattle, which included driving by Kurt Cobain's house. It was a pretty nice house in a scenic area surrounded by trees near a beautiful waterfront. I was still in disbelief and wondering about why an artist who had risen above all the hype and mediocrity of the music business had to go out that way. I had wanted to believe that "Come As You Are" was a defining anthem of a new conscious movement with the lyrics "I swear that I don't have a gun." But I guess it was just a song.
continue to Chapter 6: Climb of the Decade