on grunge

The radio tuned was calling itself Progressive, which meant it played songs alternative to the mainstream pop culture; the radio was a link to sounds beyond the vast compilation of our cassettes and compact discs that always sat at the ready….”


by james beach




My best girl of the early 1990s was a heavy drinker with spiral curls wrung in her auburn, and an excellent sinewy body. She taught me how to drink like an alcoholic. We drank a lot much of the time, to excess. Most of the time we spent downtime together,  and also some times with various party friends, and friends of friends. (I never drank alone, then.) To speed up our collective consumption of beer and booze we would often play drinking games, wherein the object of the game was to drink as little as possible while your peers drink, during rounds of drinking games in which conversations spring up and participants informally have a group forfeiture, of the game; everyone lost, because we all kept up with our drinking, because society decrees sober compliance as most viable. Nell and I looked upon each other with intrepid teen eyes and played nongames; with her aesthetic, strong-featured face she spoke directly and cynically; with cutesy teeth she enunciated in-jokes or mocked ignorant innocence; innocence was beginning to disperse, for me, as a new adult and in-college, at the time… Nell was by that time a party expert on par with celebrity, in my world a misappropriated but photogenic passed out floozy on the frilly daybed at my family’s woodsy vacation estate – we all catalogued  her, placed zombie-cool, somehow sitting up, favor-receptive, sexually suggestive, in army fatigue shorts,  her thick feet fully planted, toes awry, and a flow of orange yak lava-crazy down her Lollapalooza concert tee-shirt: she’d barfed cheese puffs with spiced rum, in  sleep, like a pro.

She was typically fairly quiet but what she said stuck. She once implied that fucking was something I either did poorly, or did better with boys, and so the sex act between us was drunken, infrequent. We felt happy anyway, drinking, with friends. We were recently graduated and enjoying going post-secondary. We met when my chess buddy Micah introduced us and we had shared a few classes over the years. Our fathers knew each other in the business world. (More on that later.) It was fate. We were fated and familiar. Like me and my friends, she and her friends disliked and avoided most people except when at or crashing a large party, in which case we all reveled in the party mainstream. Everyone I knew well was partying, in the early 1990s. Grunge brought out the rebel in us: Time to get dirty. The 1980s were over and out, “Just Say No” had failed as solution; the 1970s or earlier was retro and the wild reactions to the prohibition of the decade were something to esteem.

Nell and most of us rode ahead of or at least on the crest of, the grunge wave. Her best friend then, Annis, was ultra-mod, with a sun-blond bob that dipped from her nipples up to her nape, irascibly long “Vogue”-ish scars on her wrists. Those girls tanned to bright burn, every season, and could only socialize when not peeling, as they advocated, within their world. Though they invented their own idiotic language, most of their talent evidenced either while drinking or while acting out at one of the local malls – wherein they might feign blindness or lameness, or cattily cut down every shopper within view, under the guise of disability. (A far cry from the socially conscious liberal arts crowd at college, this my home-based-group was for me on my breaks from school a vacation from academia and also my politically-correct family, which were very light users of alcohol (a few times a year during rival games my Dad would have a beer and rag on the home team, or my typically sober-minded Mom would drink a glass of white wine at a Holiday gathering but disparage her fat sister) and who habitually avoided mood-altering substances despite being boomers and busters baby). The one and only time I was suckered into going to the mall by Nell, I had a crick in my neck after passing out on my mom’s bargain-basement basement couch; the two of them sounded off that I was walking stiff, like a “blade,” their term for a gay man. (The origin of that bullying word, derived from: “Zorro the Gay Blade,” was enervating!) Linguistically, the politically-correct police were on scene despite AIDS-RAID tee-shirts at the malls…. All the while my two female friends, both ostracized-from-high school-panels hotties, due to whatever cruel weird stuff they said or did, remained a definitive stimulant as I eavesdropped, or questioned them, on their unique private lingo.

The first night I met barffy Nell, when chess pal Micah introduced us, a deathly blizzard threatened to white-out the north ‘burbs; her parents were in Hawaii for the holidays so we decided to stay in, regardless of inclement weather. It was at her parents’ house, that we were all four of us at. That scene went something like this:

Nell gnashed and chuckled, the nautilus decor in her dad’s basement reflecting those cute teeth brassily as she mixed drinks at the yachty bar. I watched as she topped off lowballs – tonight, rum with a cube of ice, a drip of cola,  and a pre-cut lime wedge: “Just enough Coke for color,” she said, handing me one, lifting her muscly lip. What I think of is, worse than straight rum pours are “suicides” — random short pours of our parents’ booze, so as not to get caught stealing it from them; say, a gin/vodka/brandy/crème de menthe, or, say, a portwine/sherry/whisky/vermouth. All lethal. We took fewer suicides as we neared age 21 and none after we became legal.) /Within minutes the rum colored me like a lampshade lit by tinted bulbs. I slid off the stool and sauntered over to the sound system. The radio tuned was calling itself Progressive, which meant it played songs alternative to the mainstream pop culture; the radio was a link to sounds beyond the vast compilation of our cassettes and compact discs that always sat at the ready. /(On Minneapolis radio we heard all the new obscure sounds:  The Replacements, The Suburbs, Hüsker Dü, Information Society, Greasy Meal, Loud Fast Rules, Babes in Toyland, Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic plus Prince/The Symbol (in the Mini Apple Minneapolis the playlist was skewed toward local bands of 1980s and early 1990s) Everywhere else, people Gen X tuned in, to hear new brand-sounds, the likes of Perry Farrell’s Jane’s Addiction, Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins,  the sea-legged Green Day, mystery-misunderstood Danzig, the bright forgettable In Living Color, the unforgettable anonymous Digable Planets, plus that  Arrested Development, the Ice Cube and the corporate Midnight Oil, The Buzzcocks, inevitable Social Distortion, stoned Stone Temple Pilots, unreliable The Orb, vanishable Soup Dragons, scary Primal Scream, clueless Violent Femmes, where is Levitation, where is Kitchens of Distinction, where is Girls Vs Boys, who is Tripping Daisy, sad case The Offspring, offensive Rancid, unfathomable old or new Pet Shop Boys, finicky Erasure, snobby Camper van Beethoven, trendy Spin Doctors, infinitesimal Screaming Trees, too-gay Candlebox, femmy Book of Love, retarded They Might Be Giants, iffy P.M. Dawn, local Information Society, too-late Nitzer Ebb, immortal The Origin, noncorporate The Dead Milkmen, weird Delirium, trendy Enigma, missing James, get-up Tool, glad-list Red Hot Chili Peppers, sober Henry Rollins’ Band, resurrected  Johnny Rotten’s P.I.L., also sell-out B.A.D. II, exquisite EMF, fillable Front 242, acidic Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, sad Rage Against the Machine, then there’s  unforgettable band’s like the Tragically Hip, Dinosaur Jr., Pantera, Prefab Sprout, The Waterboys, The The, Brian Eno, Bob Mould, David Gray, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Adrien Belew, Lenny Kravitz,Peter Byrne, Billy Bragg, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Peter Murphy, John Cale, Robyn Hitchcock, The Flaming Lips, Echo and the Bunnymen, My Bloody Valentine, Killing Joke, This Mortal Coil, Mother Love Bone, The Posies, FineYoung Cannibals, Pet Shop Boys, Bad Brains, MC 900 Foot Jesus, Jesus Jones, Liquid Jesus, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Farm, BoDeans, Lightning Seeds, Sloan, Ween, School of Fish, Pop Will Eat Itself, Inspiral Carpets, XTC, INXS, UB40, The Tragically Hip, Seal, A Tribe Called Quest, Sonic Youth, Happy Mondays, Suede, The Pogues,Infectious Grooves, Aphex Twin, Body Count, Gene Loves Jezebel, Black Crows, Superchunk, The Lemonheads, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Stereo MCs, Blur, Faith No More, Gear Daddies, Ministry, The Church, The Mission UK, House of Love, Enigma, that retro Wall of Voodoo, Brooke Shield’s endorsement of King Crimson, our scuzzy Squeeze, spastic B-52s, funny Oingo Boingo, ska bands Fishbone and Sublime, skuzzy English Beat, new David Bowie, new U2, new Depeche Mode, old Duran Duran, upfront Collective Soul, spooky Hoodoo Gurus, unfathomable the Seers, Widespread Panic, plus Saint Etienne, the inimitable The Pixies, Cowboy Junkies, L7, Concrete Blonde, Shonen Knife, Mazzy Star, 10,000 Maniacs, Soho, the one and only Siouxsie Sioux, Sinead O’Connor, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, PJ Harvey, Juliana Hatfield, an intelligent Madonna, the babydoll Curve, Throwing Muses, female-face The Cranes, The Sundays, Lush, The Primitives, Cocteau Twins, Elastica, Bjork’s rapping Sugarcubes, waltzy Deacon Blue, poppy Charlatans UK, satanic  808 State, beat-all Psychic TV, and much of the durable The Cure, old R.E.M., Joy Division and New Order, too much of Morrissey’s and Johnny Marr’s The Smiths, and who all else…? standouts Afghan Whigs, the beastly Beastie Boys, ugly Stone Roses, despicable Phish. Lastly: grungy headliners Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Blind Melon and Primus, with Beck and Dave Matthews Band about-to-break, on college radio.) /  During the spawn and span of radio ads I located the local retrorock station (deferring Peter Frampton) and the classical music station (for which I was booed by Micah and Annis) before  returning the dial in time for “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls. /  Presently Annis phoned ZEV Radio with a request for “Sex on Wheels” by the hideous My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult and the deejay told her it was on deck. She hissed and hungup then left the room. / “Phone in ‘In a Big Country’,” Micah said; he liked Annis, he’d only once told me, and she liked her In a Big Country. /I agreed to the task. Somebody else dialed the radio station for me, I think Nell did though maybe I convinced Micah to dial. I dunno where Nell went after she finished at the bar. / Ring, ring, ring… / “ZEV Radio,” rejoiced the deejay. /  “Would you play In a Big Country’s ‘In a Big Country’,” I said. /  Annis grabbed the phone, flipped on speakerphone, and snarled: “Quit playing strings of shit!”/  An extended pause, then: “Strings of shit?” said the speakerphone. / Annis stifled a snicker. “Yeah! This ‘Sex on Wheels’?; it’s garbage,” she said. “I hate this shit. Enough is enough. Where’s my Climaax. My Amy Grant. Where’s my Debbie Gibson, or or or Tiffany. Michael Bolton? My Milli Vanilli! Vanilla Ice! 2 Live Crew! Bobby Brown and Whitney! Wilson Phillips! You ever fucking play any ‘Pump Up the Jam’?” / Still on the stereo: “Sex on Wheels.” Annis hangs up. /  She mod-dances to her popular request. Her pink-red thatched wrists swirl and flutter like a bellydancer’s around full lips puckered, cheeks sucked between her molars, the black silk tank-top she wears glistening in the brass-caged lights overhead. / Micah watches with a grin, a gleam in his eye. Sorta dumb, but uncannily hip to new topics of intelligence, he’s tall, blond, thickset yet in shape; a sense of sarcasm or irony at times rounds his square demeanor. Played football his first year of high school but never really “got it” or cared much, or could care much. Held a tertiary job in a nursing home then, saving money for architectural drafting classes; he would make a fine graphic novel illustrator, I told him more than once but we could never seem to get it together to design and write a graphic novel. / (Like most of us, Micah grew up with two parents and one sibling in a sheltered suburb in a decent school district. (Pissed once in a duffel-bag she had left in the hall, claiming an hallucination that the bag was a toilet.) The exception being Annis, who had only her pill-head mother. She was the wildest of the four of us and the best looking. I was the worst looking and the most naïve, although the smartest and most worldly. Nell and her younger brother grew up fast and shapely, gorgeous and athletic, within the glow cast by the boating parties-type money of their dad. Her brother was in my sister’s class and we all would drink together on occasion after reaching adulthood. (My kid sister is ash blond; my hair went from that to dark brown when Reagan took office. As siblings we’re both blue-eyed very white, descendants of a man who emigrated on the Mayflower, and we each know the Black Sheep mentality, but there the similarities end. By 1990 my Black Sheep was already eclipsing hers, which includes my mother finding boyfriends hiding in her closet and becoming a life-long vegan at age 15. (She smoked then and so did I. Everyone smoked cigarettes then; smokes and keggers are as one, then.))) / Later, “In a Big Country”: on the “progressive” radio. /  As Nell danced a mock-spastic boogie, in her shortie bib overalls and hiking boots, I found myself attached to her and the Scene, beaming at our alternative bond. We could make it. Later on, after I got my bachelor’s degree we could get serious. I tried to see in her the role of the party-by-night court reporter she was assigning herself to be… The letter that she typed to me on her small stenographer machine was sweet, unusual and enduring in the mind. A long gibberish code to decipher (she spelled out the text for me too) on a white paper strip, it was tasty, trivial, exotic, like candy buttons…What a choice, I remember thinking, of her plan. She could be started on a new life in a few more months. My arts degree path seeming long, endless really, at 18; just a string of books and essays and exams and beer parties and girls and obligations to the fraternity I pledged… Nell wanted to move to Hawaii when she completed her program, to begin a career there as a court reporter. Not sure if that ever happened. We haven’t spoken since I think early the summer following that trip with friends to my family’s north woods cabin.

Late summer a year after Nell and I broke up her brother was struck by a drunk driver while working as a highway repair crewman to earn cash for college that fall. The family had high hopes for him, in my recollection. (More on her brother below.) Nell on the other hand was the less favored sibling. And she knew this and probably drank over this.

Once she drove me home (to my dad’s) so sloshed that the next morning when we stumbled out to her red sports car I laughed heartily over its being parked diagonally in the drive, right rear wheel having left a track on the lawn… She thought it funny that I thought it was funny. We connected in tertiary ways. We both wore Suburban Grunge style clothing and drank the same drinks as each other most nights. Nell, as a lover, was willing yet detached, passive, and mellow, with a prom-flower sprawl, her “Are you done yet” etched in my brain with reminiscences of an hour of condom-wrapped thrusts adhered… We’d only just met, though, at the time of this story, and she and Annis were still poking fun, at me, at Micah, from the boozy myopic distance of the new and curious interviewer..

Micah was an object of affection too, although more along the lines of Plato’s love; a true Platonic crush, I had on him, and for some reason we clicked, we loved and lusted and existed on a similar plane for awhile, me acutely aware of his mild homophobia and bigotry. Micah’s joke on me one night when somebody broke out the “bored” game titled LIFE — the one with the tiny plastic cars, with the blue man and pink lady pegs to drive round the board to earn a spouse and kids — His joke was, “This one’s your car,” and in my front seat sat two blue pegs. Like I said, Micah was sorta dumb, yet clever, next-to-fast-track, full of irony and sarcasm at times. We dressed alike, cotton quasi-preppy shirts and pants, old jeans of blue or black, good shoes, short hair then; he needed glasses but drove fine anyway, and I wore contacts until my eyes crossed. I think we wore our high school class rings then. We practiced chess sober many nights late into the dawn that summer, him with a tin of chew and me taking smoke breaks on the deck. He’d just graduated high school and would begin a technical program in architectural drafting that fall (only to drop it in favor of a menial paycheck for rental furniture in the home and vices to include video gaming, gambling and drink). What became of him? He married and divorced, I hear, through the grapevine. Hard to forget that back then, in our young adulthood, we were that tight. Back then the world seemed as if it would never become what we wanted. Now, who knows what’s what? We barely know each other anymore; I hear that Micah’s roommates suddenly with his divorced next-door neighbor — a man I never met yet maybe they’re gays. In this day, living for the moment, anything can happen! And sustain? Um, yeah, cruise ships and yachts passing in the night is a more accurate metaphor for the four of us and our vices.

My amends for drinking to excess, then, go to Nell, who deserved at least a sympathy card from me over the sudden tragic loss of her brother, if not a call. I sent her nothing (unless this counts as something). I knew from the grapevine; I heard before the funeral; news travels quickly, doesn’t it. My kid sister broke the news of her classmate’s death, shedding a few showy tears to me, but anyways it was for show. He and I were never close enough to do more than say “hi” at ubiquitous suburban keggers and my sister and him ran in different crowds as far as I knew. That hazy crazed decade, I was emotively numb and so when I heard, I was indifferent to the news. All I could do was ask her why cry.



Micah once fixed my sedan with a soup can. Warhol aside, the idea was simple and pragmatic, using a can with ends removed and slit up the side to cover a hole in a typical used-sedan muffler. We parked the sedan on rhino ramps then fastened the soup can tight with a metal hanger. Muffler quieted; sober fun. That the repair patch was performed sober (and very few of our clique’s activities involved sobriety) has less to do with partyer lifestyles than might at first be obvious. In addition to Nell’s kid brother’s death, our rock idols were dropping as quickly as had those icons of the 1960s before them: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison (the 27 Club) being foremost in our cultural history. We lost from our anarchistic generation Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, Jonathan Melvin of Smashing Pumpkins, Kristin Pfaff of Hole, Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers, Jeff Ward of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, and Bradley Nowell of Sublime, among others; locally, we lost Bob Stinson of the Replacements around the same time. This epidemic-of-loss was glossing partied about in the early 1990s… so much so that 20 years later it’s more of a shock than it was, back then. All I know for certain is… my my my generation, usurps the 1960s! And even that’s suspect, baby, what with revelry going on and my brain tuned to a life higher than the summit of a professional scaler… Oh, well, whatever, pay nevermind.



Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Seven
June 2018


James K Beach is in Antique Children Journal, Blue Monday Review, Danse Macabre Online, Mad Hatters’ Review, Paraphilia Magazine, Smokebox, Warhol Stars UK, Wood Coin Magazine, and others. Visit his Poets & Writers directory profile for more.

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