Marty Beckerman Talks About Love in the Time of JNCO Pants

Marty Beckerman talks about his hilarious new novella, '90s Island, the "infantilizing" nature of nostalgia, and why the truly cool people never got frosted tips.

'90s Island

Publisher: Infected
Author: Marty Beckerman
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-05

Imagine a place where the ‘90s never ended: where the only snacks available are sticky rolls of Fruit-by-the-Foot and the poisonous green energy drink Surge; where Pulp Fiction and Space Jam grace cinema screens in perpetuity; where modern medicine, Kindles, and the four Harry Potter books published in the ‘00s are still but embryos of ideas; where nostalgia is a lifestyle and anachronisms are a punishable offense.

Such is the premise of ‘90s Island, Marty Beckerman’s novel about brothers with ‘90s nostalgia complexes so deeply ingrained in their personalities that they appear as neuroses. Jake and his twin Zack communicate using beepers and record their favorite shows on VHS. They worship Kurt Cobain (as kids, they sneaked backstage at a Nirvana concert and the grunge legend tossed them a spare guitar) and dream about a time when the economy wasn’t in the toilet. When Jake’s girlfriend gives him an iPhone for his birthday, hoping to pull him into the current millennium with a bit of modern technology, both twins rage against the machine, get wasted and post a Kickstarter project for ‘90s Island, an imagined land where ‘90s culture can thrive to the extreme. The tagline? “Come as you are, stay as you were.”

The twins’ caprice becomes real when thousands of fellow nostalgia-mongers fund the project within hours. ‘90s Island opens to the public, and within days, Jake encounters the beast that was his brainchild: the good (all-night raves, sexy computer hacker girls), the bad (a massive heroin dose, a South American dictator toting a gold pistol), and the ugly (JNCO jeans, frosted tips). The novella has the same over-the-top, manic zaniness as an Austin Powers movie or a Spice Girls song. It’s pure Dunkaroos frosting sugar, with an extra combat boot kick of bitterness.

I spoke with Beckerman about the origins of the '90s Island idea. “I think I read there was going to be this ‘90s cruise that was like Everclear and Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray or something,” Beckerman says. “So, take what’s happening in reality where ‘90s culture is very much being fetishized right now, and say, well, what is the most extreme way that could be expressed? And that would be to cut off the rest of the world and say, we’re so devoted to recreating the ‘90s that we’re going to make it illegal to own a Kindle, and any prescription medication that’s been invented in the last 13 years will be banned because that wouldn’t be authentic. Those ideas started percolating and it became what it became.”

Attention for ‘90s Island really started percolating when Beckerman unveiled its corresponding website, a Geocities-style eyesore that takes visitors back to that heady time when it took five full minutes to sign onto AOL via dial-up. At a time when the internet is all about minutely detailed nostalgia—“It’s so specific. The Best Video Games Released Between 1994 and 1995 Designed By This One Guy. The Best Snacks Of The ‘90s That Were ‘Mystery White” And You Didn’t Know What The Flavor Was”— hit the sweet spot. The novella’s never-ending callbacks to Sugar Ray and Rollerblades do the same, though not without recognizing the self-centered nature of that kind of masturbatory back-in-the-day referencing.

“I love the nostalgia thing, and it’s a love-hate relationship, because I know it’s infantilizing me. Watching the cartoons I liked when I was like ten isn’t something that’s very becoming of a 30-year-old man,” Beckerman says. “I think we’re more nostalgic than previous generations were. The Boomers were extremely nostalgic for themselves, and they’re extremely nostalgic for the Woodstock era, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same way. They’re nostalgic for the times when they changed the world, and we’re nostalgic for the times when we ate sugar cereal and watched Saturday morning cartoons.”

Jake and Zack, ostensibly the island’s governors, start off getting busy planning concerts and dance parties for their citizens, then quit when “it feels too much like working on vacation.” Both characters start the story as underemployed would-be do-gooders suffering under the awful late '00s economy, then begin reveling in their glorious inactivity once settled on ‘90s Island. “This idea of the slacker, it’s so of another era. And yet somehow [slackers] thrived then. I think we took for granted the idea that you could have stability if you wanted it, and that disappeared, and it’s a deeply terrifying thing.”

So, why fiction to tell the ‘90s Island story and not, say, a Buzzfeed-style listicle? “Um...I think with fiction you can—here’s no way I can come out of that sentence without sounding like a pretentious douche—you can tell bigger truths than you can with nonfiction. Oh my god, I sound like the biggest asshat.” The bigger truths Beckerman is gunning for are certainly there, even in what initially seems like a slip of a comedic novella. Fear of getting older, for one. Emotional scarring after “a few years of complete existential anxiety about jobs becoming unpaid internships,” for another. Whitewashing history in favor of pop cuteness—before Jake leaves, his girlfriend implores, "You're forgetting Columbine, Rwanda, Kosovo, Oklahoma City, Batman and Robin..."

Plus, there’s the fallout of hero worship gone wrong. “Kurt was 27 when he died. I always looked at him as this mature guy. When you’re a teenager, 27 seems like—that’s a grown-up. And now you begin to see a little bit that he was a confused guy who’s a little harder to put on a pedestal when you’re older. I started noticing it with Operation Ivy, the punk band that became Rancid. They did all their stuff when they were 17, 18, 19. You listen to the Beatles and it’s like holy shit, they were 21, 22. What was I doing at 22? Nothing close to that good. So I guess that’s something I try to get at in the book, is that when you’re older than your heroes lived to be, maybe they seem a little bit less heroic and a little bit more human.”

Lest we get too heavy, it must be said that the ultimate legacy of '90s Island may very well be the haunting presence of frosted tips. Did Beckerman ever sport the signature ‘90s ‘do? “Oh yeah, totally. I had frosted tips from the middle of high school to the beginning of college. I cut them off in 2002. So I had them longer than was really acceptable. I’m not a cool fucking guy, so I cannot comment on what is and is not timelessly cool. But I’ve picked up from actual cool people that cool is about not really giving a fuck. When you sit in a salon and have somebody put a bunch of chemicals in your hair, and you’re under a heating dome for half a hour and you’ve got the apron thing around yourself... that’s trying a little too hard to be cool. Don’t go to the salon to get your hair bleached, because you don’t want to look like the guy from Smash Mouth.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.