In 1992 I was 14 years old and if any year was Peak Seattle, it was 1992.
My life was (self-)defined by the music coming out of the Emerald City. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Soundgarden. Alice in Chains. Even Queensryche, who weren’t even grunge, but still loomed large in my imagination thanks to Operation: Mindcrime. And let me come right out and say it- I wasn’t cool. I held on tight to that music and didn’t let go until I hit 16 and kind of began to figure things out. Plus, I loved the Pearl Jam/Seattle Supersonics/Shawn Kemp love triangle that is perfectly captured in this vintage video that I remember recording on a VHS blank tape.
Into this obsession waded Singles, from director Cameron Crowe, which as far as I knew was a movie about a Seattle rock band, although it was actually not really about a rock band and was instead about love-seeking twentysomethings and some other stuff. Recall that in 1992, the only way to know about movies was to see the preview in person, actually read about them in the newspaper or see a 4-minute review on Siskel and Ebert. I went to that movie at the (then) newly re-opened Fresh Pond Cinema and although I was surprised that it was basically a romantic comedy, it was still great because I thought it was funny, the characters in the movie had to be the coolest people in the world, and the music, was, well, the best.
And if anything it’s a gift that keeps on giving, both with the soundtrack and with a whole host of references that I make and/or think about on a regular basis. So let’s wade in, shall we? I’ll start with the movie, and do the music afterwards.
1992 was almost 25 years ago, and Singles basically got out in front of Friends with the plot centering around a group of twentysomethings who all live in the same apartment complex. First, we’ve got Janet, played by Bridget Fonda, who I definitely loved at 14 – I even suffered through Single White Female as a direct result of my mini-obsession. Janet, a cute, lost, barista-before-it-was-called-barista, has a huge crush on struggling rock band singer/part-time flower delivery man Cliff (Matt Dillon), who is most certainly not interested in settling down. Their tale of courtship and angst is paralleled by that of Steven (Campbell Scott, aka Boris from Royal Pains) and Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), who meet at a rock club and have a tough go at making things click. Filling out the six-pack of singles are Bailey (Jim True), a maître d’, and out-there Debbie (Sheila Kelly) who is the least likeable and spaciest of the bunch. The 6 of them hang out, drink coffee, go to concerts, and in a striking contrast to the usual fare, are not a group of sex-seekers and –havers, as they are more interested in relationships. How refreshing.
The love stories are kind of formulaic, but there’s depth to the characters and the ups and downs that is believable. There are laugh-out-loud moments, SMH moments, and WTF moments (Debbie’s dating video), not to mention a lush (albeit grayish) tapestry of Seattle that only reinforced to everyone how beautiful the city was and how effortless it was to live there are be cool. If the Guns N Roses and “Welcome to the Jungle” captures the reality of late-80s LA (although the song was written in Seattle), Singles was the Seattle reaction that made you think that it was all good in the Pacific Northwest and that love, coffee, and good times would rule the day. It was a true movie of the 1990s, a series of shifting stories and vignettes that jumps around like Pulp Fiction and Seinfeld, as well as the aforementioned Friends. Nothing feels too serious and the movie is rife with cameos, self-deprecating moments, and actors before they were big deals. We’ve got Bill Pullman as a plastic surgeon, Eric Stoltz as the mime who gives one of my favorite rants in movie history (“I’ll tell you about love… love DISAPPEARS baby! Every time I’ve been broke the girls has been off like a prom dress”), Jeremy Piven as super-annoying Doug Hughley, Paul Giamatti…Great stuff.
Wedged in between comps like Say Anything (also from Crowe) and Reality Bites, Singles to me is the most buoyant and optimistic of the three. While Say Anything is a classic and gets the lion’s share of the credit, it’s a little heavy and actually depressing. Not only that, when you watch it if makes no sense that it was made in 1989- it feels, and looks, like a much older movie. And while Reality Bites was fun (with another kickass soundtrack to boot), by the time it came out I was 16 and my perspective on life, things that were cool, and where I saw myself heading had changed a fair amount in just two years. At 14 I still kind of had dreams of being a singer in a rock band and/or living in Seattle and being cool, so Singles seemed so possible and eventual. But by the time Reality Bites came around, things had come into sharper focus. I was not an angst-ridden, drama-attracting, filmmaking Lelaina, nor was I a bitter, lazy-ish, blame-the-world Troy, and I didn’t really feel like identifying with their struggles.
In the end, life ended up looking like any of these three films. I was never a love-seeking twentysomething, I never claimed Gen X status or lived with sketchy roommates, and I never chased unsuccessfully after a girl way over my pay grade. Things ended up just fine, but the movies are all still pretty good.
But Singles was the best of the bunch. Don’t believe me? Watch it again. And definitely listen to the soundtrack.
Would, Alice in Chains
If 1992 was Seattle’s apex, it was also that of Alice in Chains. While “Man In The Box” hit in 1991, the following year saw not only “Would”, but also classics like “Rooster” and “Down in a Hole” arrive on the scene and that was some intense, broody, grungy, goodness. Alice In Chains was as gnarly and snarly as you would find, and definitely captured the harder side of the Seattle sound. “Would” takes a little of the edge off, and over time has not only stayed on the radio (I hear it every now and again), but holds up favorably as one of the songs that really defines grunge. It starts with some heavy bass guitar, and we get the basic four-note riff, and then it’s into some haunting melody before jumping into the chorus at 0:48 and eventually a memorable “If…I…would…could…you?” ending sequence which gives a quasi-hopeful spin on a song which is talking about getting off of a heroin addiction.
Breath, Pearl Jam
I loved and love Pearl Jam but this song is not one of my favorites. It’s probably not even in the Top 20. As the #2 song on this album I was not, and am still not, blown away by it, but it could have been worse. It runs long, at 5:19, but the guitar solos after 4:00 are pretty quality.
Seasons, Chris Cornell
You’ve heard this song before if you saw “Man of Steel,” and it’s a good one, but again, it’s a very intense 5:47. It could have been cut after 3:45 and nobody would have been upset. I can’t think of a better way to describe it than the way that John Smith described the Bellas’ world championship performance in Pitch Perfect 2- “simple, raw, vulnerable, exposed.”
Dyslexic Heart, Paul Westerberg
Throwing off the shackles of rain-soaked grunge, Paul Westerberg’s Dyslexic Heart is a happy, catchy, breezy take on love and confusion. It doesn’t reek of Seattle, and if anything seems more appropriate for the Reality Bites soundtrack, but it definitely lightens the mood.
The Battle of Evermore, The Lovemongers
The Lovemongers (or, just the Heart sisters from Heart during their 10-year break from the group) covered this 1971 Led Zeppelin song and it’s another long one- coming in at 5:45, it’s just like Seasons as it just goes on and on. I like the strong folky, Celtic sound, but at first listening it seems very detached from Seattle. Connecting the dots from The Lovemongers to Led Zeppelin to Lord of the Rings, though, there is a strong, misty, alternative, acoustic connection between Seattle and Tolkein that justifies the song being included.
Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns, Mother Love Bone
Mother Love Bone was the matriarch of Seattle music. The death of lead singer Andrew Wood on the eve of the group’s debut album release, Apple, in 1990 led to the forming of Temple of the Dog (briefly) and then Pearl Jam out of MLB’s ashes, and the rest is history. At 8:22 it’s another massively-too-long track, but it’s kind of Phish-y in the way that it meanders around for a few minutes and then back. This is a Seattle anthem if there ever was one… but Mother Love Bone has better songs if you’re interested.
Birth Ritual, Soundgarden
Trademark Soundgarden sound here. Guttural, churning guitar, Chris Cornell’s whine, aggressive tempo, weird lyrics. Don’t love it, but certainly channels the going-out-to-a-rock-club sound that Singles was trying to capture.
State of Love and Trust, Pearl Jam
One of my favorite songs of all time and probably my favorite Pearl Jam song of all time… and it was written expressly for the movie. And it was also great Unplugged. I absolutely love it and it’s still on my iPhone.
Definitely the most alternative and 1990s College Radio-y of the songs on the album. If the music of Citizen Dick in Singles sounded like anything you may have been listening to back then, it was Mudhoney.
Waiting for Somebody, Paul Westerberg
Just like Dyslexic Heart, and right after Overblown, this one brightens the mood of the album although the message isn’t super-optimistic. It isn’t about waiting for somebody who will eventually come… it’s about being OK with NOT finding somebody. “I’ll go it alone, doesn’t even hurt…I made a big decision/I’m going to sleep and I’m going there alone.” But I’ll be damn happy about it as I sing songs in my rock band.
May This Be Love, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix was from Seatlle, ICYFI (forgot it). This slow, soft, dreamy, gorgeous guitar ballad is a treasure. I can’t find an original to post of Jimi playing and singing, so make do with this one. Beautiful.
Nearly Lost You, Screaming Trees
Another outstanding song. It kind of explodes out the gate with some snappy guitar, grabs you, and never lets go. This came on in the car the other day and I was singing along immediately. You probably never heard from the Screaming Trees again, though.
Drown, The Smashing Pumpkins
The record ends with a classic Smashing Pumpkins (NOT FROM SEATTLE) track, full of slowly-building rock, slow rhythms, Billy Corgan in his usual form, and occasional guitar and feedback outbursts. There’s a lot going on here, and thankfully the full 8+ minute version was not chosen for the final cut. That one is far, far too long.