Too many subjects in just one post? Probably. As obvious as it may sound, I do not even know where to start. But, since we seem to live in an emotional capitalism, let’s start this way: about a feeling: being a teenager and playing in a band in the Nineties.
I grew up in a small town in northern Italy, I started playing drums when I was 14 in a band with some friends, we believed in it, we did some good stuff, we ended up opening gigs for other Italian bands. I remember how it scared me, once – I could have been around 18, 19 years old – when we were on this huge stage in front of about, I don’t know, maybe 2.000 people, opening for Modena City Ramblers, that was, uh, breathless: I almost panicked.
As a (wannabe) rocker and an avid listener, Blind Melon have always been one of my favorite bands since I first got to know their music. It was cassettes, back then, passing on from friend to friend. That’s how I discovered Blind Melon. Of course, I guess it all started with the No rain video in heavy rotation, but what I discovered when I listened to the album was much, much more than a single hit. It was a universe, a sensitivity in which I felt like home. Shannon Hoon’s voice and the drumming, oh, man!, the drumming. As a young drummer trying hard to get better, Glen Graham’s drumming was way more than school, it was like “I’m never going to be that good”, I just loved his style (and I still do).
I like to say I was kinda famous in my area before turning 20 (you know, those situations when you enter a pub and the waitress looks at you and says something like “Oh, but you are the drummer from this band, I know you, I like your music!”, well: that kinda of famous), before getting back to the local “underground” scene (or playing in bands that gave me experience and money, but that was already more business than poetry). After many years without playing in bands, apart for a couple of exceptions by the end of the first decade of the 2000, I quit playing drums.
In the last days I’ve been reading A devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other by Greg Prato, about the story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon. I don’t even know why I waited so long before getting the book and opening it: it’s been on my reading list for years. Page after page it was all there, not just his and their story, which is unique, but that feeling that was shared during the Nineties, even in a small town in northern Italy, far away from what was happening in Los Angeles and Seattle and all the bands that were starting their career around that time. (And, by the way: internet was not there yet, I had my first 56k modem in 1996). That feeling. That the future was there, just in front of us, to get to, full of chances for those who were looking always for more, for something bigger: for us, because we were never satisfied about anything, always pushing further.
It’s a bit strange when some of your friends have already made it, because you can see it – it seems so real, it’s not like winning the lottery any longer. It seems like a really accessible thing. And really, at that time, it was an accessible thing – a lot of people were being signed.Colleen Combes (quoted in Greg Prato, A devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other)
“It was an accessible thing”, being signed by a major. Lots of things were happening. A rich and alternative culture was being created. It was not just the US. In Italy many new bands with new and original sounds were taking the scene. It was huge. As a small band with a little local following we felt we were part of it. And indeed we were. What happened after that decade? My take: a big (neoliberal) wave crushed everything, at a collective and an individual level, starting from the future we had (the sense of) back then.
Valerio Mattioli, in the preface to the Italian edition of Capitalist realism by Mark Fisher, writes (my translation):
It’s on [his blog] K-Punk that Fisher starts to notice, as long as the 2000 unravel between war on terror and the predominance of New Labour, the symptoms of a slow but relentless disappearance of the future, in parallel with a “phantasmal” revival of a past that had invested and hoped in the future.Valerio Mattioli, La funzione Fisher, in Mark Fisher, Realismo capitalista
Mark Fisher talks about electronic music, especially the transition from the drum & bass and jungle scene and what came after (Burial, quoted by Fisher and Mattioli, is a good example of the course of this trajectory in the 2000) – but it’s not just about a musical genre – even if electronic music in the Nineties had this powerful tension towards the future (with a cyber kind of attitude) – it’s about the fact that back then society was different.
It’s no accident that the efflorescence of punk and post-punk culture happened at a time when cheap and squatted property was available in London and New York. Now, simply, to afford to pay rent in either city entails giving up most of your time and energy to work. The delirious rise in property prices over the last twenty years is probably the single most important cause of cultural conservatism in the UK and the US.Mark Fisher, Time-wars: towards an alternative for the neo-capitalist era, in K-Punk
That’s what I’m talking about. When I think about the Nineties I lived as a teenager first and as a college student after, I think about all the creative energy that I could feel pulsing – even in my small and narrow-minded town -, I think about all the many and varied cultural inputs that I could get around, from everywhere. Blind Melon came in all this. It was just in the air and we were thirsty for this oxygen. What about our present?
Popular culture’s incapacity to produce innovation is a persistent ambient signal that nothing can ever change. Sometimes, it can seem fiendishly difficult to account for what has happened to popular culture, but the explanation for its sterility and stasis is ultimately quite simple. Innovation in popular culture has overwhelmingly come from the working class. Neoliberalism has been a systematic and sustained attack on working-class life – the results are now all around us.Mark Fisher, Abandon hope (summer is coming), in K-Punk
Greg Prato’s book took me back to the Nineties I lived: learning how to play drums and in a band, the live shows we did and the ones we attended to, the feeling that we were part of something and that (almost) everything was possible. I looked at what was going around us then and what’s going on around us now. The book helped me put some pieces together in my mind (apart from it being a not-to-be-missed choral first hand account of the great story of a unique band I love): those were the Nineties, that’s how it was. So… where the hell all that we lived back then did go?
The most common complaint among those trapped in offices doing nothing all day is just how difficult it is to re-purpose the time for anything worthwhile. One might imagine that leaving millions of well-educated young men and women without any real work responsibilities but with access to the internet – which is, potentially, at least, a repository of almost all human knowledge and cultural achievement – might spark some sort of Renaissance. Nothing remotely along these lines has taken place. Instead, the situation has sparked an efflorescence of social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter): basically, of forms of electronic media that lend themselves to being produced and consumed while pretending to do something else. I am convinced this is the primary reason for the rise of social media, especially when one considers it in the light not just of the rise of bullshit jobs but also of the increasing bullishitization of real jobs. […] all this lends itself much more to a culture of computer games, YouTube rants, memes and Twitter controversies than to, say, the rock ‘n’ roll bands, drug poetry, and experimental theater created under the midcentury welfare state. What we are witnessing is the rise of those forms of popular culture that office workers can produce and consume during the scattered, furtive shards of time they have at their disposal in workplaces where even when there’s nothing for them to do, they still can’t admit it openly. (…) traditional forms of artistic expression simply cannot be pursued under bullshit conditions.David Graeber, Bullshit jobs. The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it
“The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost and pitiful”, speaks Kae Tempest in Tunnel vision. That’s how we feel when we have to look back to our past to try and see the future we’ve lost. In the mi(d)st of this past, for me, Blind Melon stands with the uniqueness of their music, so powerful, so full of life, so intimate and touching. I really don’t know what we have to do to be able to look forward and see a (new) future, but at least I learnt that we should put as much beauty as we can in our present: if you never have or if you did but you don’t remember, do listen to Blind Melon, they are part of the beauty we (desperately) need.
Mark Fisher, K-Punk. The collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), Repeater, 2018
Mark Fisher, Realismo capitalista, Nero Editions, 2018
David Graeber, Bullshit jobs. The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it, Penguin Books, 2018
Greg Prato, A devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon, Greg Prato, 2008
* Semi-quote from Capitalism stole my virginity by The international noise conspiracy
The image on top of the post comes from… the web! I cannot even find its original source so if you have any claim about it let me know. I wanted to take a picture of the dubbed cassette I had back then, but it’s impossible for me to get it now (I’m pretty sure it’s in some drawer or box in my parent’s house).