Fuck ’90s Nostalgia

Vanessa Veselka

I moved to Seattle in 1992. At the time, music meant everything to me and I approached songwriting with an agony of earnestness. Freshly sober, I owed everyone I knew apologies or money or both. After years of being an unwanted houseguest, a bad renter, and homeless, I was trying to become a functioning American. I’d forced myself to learn how to drive and got a social security number. I took my GED and found a legal job. Having already squandered several musical opportunities, I decided to apply my newfound diligence there too. This time, I would put my head down and work. I would finish the things I started. I wouldn’t complain. I wouldn’t disappear when I was supposed to go on tour. And for nearly seven years, I did just that.

If you just look at the pictures today, the ’90s seem like an orgy of freedom. But when I hear people speak of that time nostalgically, as carefree or pure, I want to eat glass. I know everyone has their truth now, but if you were trying to make music in Seattle then, you were objectively miserable. The demands of the market fractured the music community. While money was the reality, the rules were still punk rock: Every band should be a democracy. Don’t ever look like you care. Don’t ever look like you’re trying. All the while people were climbing over each other to put their signatures on a contract. Word was, if you’d been a band for over six months and weren’t signed, you should break up and start over because it wasn’t going to happen.

We all existed in this hierarchy we didn’t make. Some bands were above your band, others below. You could smell the fear when you opened the paper to the music column. You were rated every time you walked into a room. As a woman, this experience wasn’t new, but it was particularly painful. There are all kinds of beauty, but there’s only one kind of cool. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be famous, more that I wanted to be part of something and celebrity was the price. Of course the truth of hierarchies is that nobody is looking down on you; you’re all looking up. But I didn’t know that then. By 1999 all I knew was that I was done.

On New Year’s Eve of that year, I stood on an overpass in Capitol Hill with a crowd of people and watched the fireworks and waited for Y2K to wipe everything out. I knew one thing with my whole body: my artistic life was over. I was exhausted from keeping my chin up, badly in debt from touring all the time, and ashamed of everything I’d ever made. I decided to leave the band on a Friday. We played a show that night and I told everybody the next day. They took it pretty well, said we should play a final show. I said we already had.

There are many things bigger than a band. Probably everything. There had to be a place for someone who had failed so profoundly at art. In the center of the WTO demonstrations, watching Niketown get demolished, I saw a path out. I would organize unions. I would work and never sleep. I would put the whole music thing out of my mind.

A few years back I got a call from an old friend in the Seattle music scene. She was collecting oral histories from the women in bands then and turning them into a play. She asked if she could interview me and use some of my music and I said yes. On opening night I sank in my chair as they played a track off my first record while people were seated. The lights went down and it got worse. I’d expected the material from my interview to be buried among forty others’ but it was featured heavily, my rants and my discomfort spilled verbatim from the mouths of four different characters. One woman wrote one of my songs on stage. A band broke up over another song of mine. It was a Jungian nightmare. I fled as soon as it was done.

Unfortunately I’d agreed to play a show the following week in support of the play. Bands were flying in from everywhere. A local radio blitz drew young people wanting to live for a night in the fun times of the ’90s. I went up at midnight to a packed house in the best spot you could have with energy high from the band before and everyone just drunk enough to be totally on your side. With all eyes on me in this festival of joy, I played a ballad of despair about waiting for your life to start. It wasn’t what they’d paid for. Which was only fitting, because it never was.

Grief is like a channel. Once you know where it is on the dial, no matter what else you’re listening to you always know it’s playing just a few clicks down. Or maybe it’s like a frequency. Once your ears adjust, you can always hear it bleeding through. Tune it out. Train yourself. Change the station. The grief channel, broadcasting alongside everything else.

My sixteen-year-old daughter is in a band now. Sometimes I am privileged to hang out while they rehearse. I adjust a mic or tilt an amp so the guitarist can hear himself. Other than that, I stay out of it. Lately they’ve discovered ’90s rock and it comes up through the floorboards. They hear ecstatic distortion. I hear choppers. She’s done internet searches but there’s no proof of the band I spent seven years in. I know she’s told her friends that I opened for the Ramones and the White Stripes, which is true, but we weren’t all that glorious. Afraid she’d find the CDs someday and be disappointed, I decided to give them to her as inoculation.

I hadn’t heard them in twenty years. Playing them in order, I tried to stomach the shame. I was testimonial. There were lyrical high crimes. We had pop band production but were never a convincing pop band. Deeply influenced by classic rock, I tended toward the anthemic. Later I gave up exposing myself and the songs turned tough and guarded. I played them as fast as I could, as if racing through them would get me out of where I was in life. Listening to the records years later, I just hear my twenties.

We were sitting in the car when I gave her the CDs. I wanted to warn her that my band hadn’t been all that great, to tell her we were better live, say it didn’t matter—but this was my daughter, a young drummer with her own band, and there’s a special hell for mothers who lie to their daughters. So I took her hand and looked her in the eye and said the only honest thing I could: I want you to know that I meant every word.

Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, with short stories and nonfiction in GQ, The Atlantic, The Atavist, Tin House, and elsewhere.