Dead But Not Buried or, When the '90s Took a '60s Turn
The post-Dead and post-Zappa bands of the '90s sought to subvert the prevailing trends towards crass commercialism, individual greed, and phony superficiality.
The heart attack death of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia in 1995, two years after Frank Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer, signified for the some the closing of the 1960s rock chapter. However, it soon became apparent that despite their deaths, the legacies of these two trailblazers would continue in the hands of legions of '90s bands marked by their influence. Indeed, through a subcultural army of young people disaffected by modern trends in culture and music, the '90s would contort into a fantasy '60s, such that an alternative (and separate) reality was envisioned through a haze of neo-hippy idealism, positive humor, and (relatedly) copious amounts of mind-and-life-altering drugs. Authors Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman sarcastically suggested in their (middle) finger-on-the-pulse, epoch-defining book Generation Ecch (1994) that the '90s "fetish" for all things '60s signified nostalgia for those "giddy" times of "campus unrest, drug abuse, [and] armed conflict in the streets and in the rice paddies".
Just as the 1990s neo-hippy subculture was retro-escapist, so were the myriad "jam" bands that rose up from the underground during the decade. After years of reigning as America's most popular touring band, the Grateful Dead -- in its demise -- left a vast army of Deadheads with no place to go. The most immediate heir-apparent was Phish, who co-opted then converted the Deadheads into "Phishheads". Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, the Dave Matthews Band, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters were among the many other contenders to the Dead's throne. The common denominator of the new wave of post-Dead combos was that they were all guitar-based jam acts that drew inspiration from the folk, country, and psychedelic roots of the original San Francisco hippy bands. Furthermore, they all projected a sense of humor rooted in the positive vibes and eccentric whimsy that the Grateful Dead and the Charlatans had once illustratively embodied. Hippy humor was the in-crowd relief humor of the subculture itself; it made little sense to the outside world, which was just as well because it never sought to. Hippy humor was carnival humor, a coded, celebratory expression filtered through the subculture's drug of choice, marijuana, and through their social psychology: the desire to renounce the pessimism and cynicism of their times, and to retreat into the blissful womb of nature. These regressive instincts found their correlative humor in a childlike whimsy and the anarchic state of the id.
Formed in 1983, the Vermont-born Phish came to flourish as the primary figurehead of '90s hippy-dom. As theatrical minstrels like the Grateful Dead had been doing for years, Phish ignored the modern communication outlets of radio and MTV, instead taking its music directly to the people. Indeed, reflecting upon the sole occasion when the band had dipped its feet into the world of video marketing -- producing a clip for "Down With Disease" (1994) -- frontman Trey Anastasio described the venture as "a momentary lapse of reason". Ironically, though, the more Phish avoided the television cameras, the more those cameras came seeking the band; and the more it eschewed the commercial practices that would bring it success, the more successful it became. And like a modern pied piper, the more it played, the larger the Phish "phamily" grew.
Phish's expressions of subversive humor -- like its jam band peers -- were rooted/routed through subcultural symbiosis. Both the band and its fans sought not to assault the mainstream, but to utterly ignore it, venturing not to correct mainstream practices but to circumvent them by offering an alternative consciousness. In the "Phishheads" lived a loyal subculture attuned with a cult-like regimen to the alternative signals of the band's whimsical antics. Anastasio saw this intimate interconnectedness between the band and its fans as an on-going "conversation".
Not surprisingly, Phish's subcultural humor mostly revolved around its stage shows, where audience participation was standard practice. The band deflated rock pretensions by closing the gap between itself and the audience, rejecting "star power" and narcissistic costumes in favor of an everyman image and modest demeanor. That said, drummer Jon Fishman was not averse to attiring for the purposes of positive and/or self-deprecating humor. On the occasions he chose not to go naked or don a diaper and bonnet, Fishman wowed the crowd with a striking purple muumuu or fetching housedress. To complete the image, the eccentric sticks-man would then blow a pseudo-trombone solo through an Electrolux vacuum cleaner as the band performed its version of The Jungle Book's "I Wanna Be Like You".
Phish on The Simpsons
Phish's practical humor was subversive not by virtue of the acts themselves but because of what they signified the band and its followers were and were not. By unifying band and audience, a subcultural identity was solidified. And within its cult of childhood, mutual trust was established, as were common value systems. Phishheads respected how the band operated as an outsider. While contemporary rock trended towards videos, studio trickery, and image-manipulation, Phish represented the authenticity once sought by '60s rockers in stellar musicianship, value-for-money shows, and live performances. And as the mainstream dismissed or ignored such retro-philosophies, the jam band troubadours and their carnie drop-outs merely retreated to gatherings like H.O.R.D.E. (in the '90s) and, more recently, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts and Wakarusa Festivals.
Some projected that the jam band explosion that followed the death of Jerry Garcia would gradually fade. Yet, quite the opposite has been the case. We are currently living through what some call the fourth generation of jam bands, and the subculture remains strong. The festival circuit is now larger than ever, and the eclecticism of talent is broader than ever. Contemporary bands like the Disco Biscuits grew up under the influence of Phish rather than the Grateful Dead, and innovators like Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket suggest that while the jam aesthetic continues, the form is far from static. As the carnival continues, one can conclude that as long as there are young people disgruntled with modern culture, alienated by modern music, and depressed by modern cynicism, the Grateful Dead will be alive in the communitarian values and uplifting humor of those gratefully perpetuating their legacy.
If the Grateful Dead symbolized the neo-hippy whimsy of the 1990s counter-culture, Frank Zappa marked a more warped and frenetic manifestation of a contemporary '60s sensibility. The Zappa school of humor was more directly inherited by the independent or alternative rock culture of the '90s. Less light, positive, and childlike than the neo-hippies, post-Zappa humorists exhibited their mentor's more irreverent, anarchic, and incongruous instincts. And if marijuana was the symbolic drug of neo-hippy whimsy, nitrous oxide represented the frenetic madness of the post-Zappa set.
Primus and Mr. Bungle were indie humorists in the Zappa tradition. They shared traits with the post-Dead bands -- hybrid styles, impressive musicianship, the jam-workout impulse -- but their musical sources and lyrical sensibilities were not necessarily retro-active. They often opted for the grotesque over the whimsical, the irreverent over the referential, and abstract sarcasm over uplifting good humor. Like Zappa, his successors had unlimited imaginative scope, often creating incongruous musical comedy from forcing multiple genres into ironic juxtaposition with one another. Rather than the comforts of innocent relief, such sonic mayhem envisioned the sounds of madness, neurosis, and warped wit. Theirs were the dark forces of the carnival.
Primus drew from the spirit rather than the sound of Zappa. Its bass-propelled funk-metal twitched and tweaked like rhythmic disorders, as Les Claypool used his goofy voice and abstract lyrical one-liners to undercut everything with an insane humor. Like Zappa, Claypool broached political topics with abstract commentary, creating fictional characters as his vehicle. "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweakers" (1991) spoke to working-class meth-dependence, while the Grammy-nominated "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" (1995) still has fans speculating as to the song's meaning. The bizarre accompanying video, which features the band members in plastic, cartoon cowboy outfits, certainly provides few clues. Claypool is kitted out in pig suit and tuxedo for the "Mr. Krinkle" (1993) video, encouraging interpretative speculation and defying common sense.
Zappa's polemical zaniness is evident in Primus' more coherent songs, too. "Too Many Puppies" (1990) bemoans the needless sacrifice of soldiers, "Year of the Parrot" (1995) mocks the pervasive plagiarism of contemporary bands, and "Pudding Time" (1990) offers a critique of "consumer" materialism. Each uses quirky images that speak to Claypool's imaginative eccentricity. Primus also promoted an endearing strain of self-deprecating humor that contrasted with the egocentrism of many of its peers. From its catchphrase "Primus Sucks!" (which it encouraged its fans to chant), to their They Can't All Be Zingers: The Best of Primus (2006) album title and "The Beat a Dead Horse Tour" of the same year, the band displayed an unaffected modesty that gave it a greater air of authenticity.
Irreverent humor and an ironic fascination with doo-wop were but two of the features that Mr. Bungle shared with its spiritual mentor, Frank Zappa. Both acts drew from imaginations that could not be contained, and both applied virtuoso musicianship to a song-craft that made stylistic juxtaposition ironic and evocative. Adopting its moniker from an old children's cartoon character, Mr. Bungle had the anarchic spirit of children and the sharp vision of avant-gardist adults. Like the neo-hippy jam bands, Mr. Bungle created alternative fantasy worlds through improvisational adventures. Unlike those bands, the cinematic sound-scapes that emanated from its instruments cast visions of Fellini freaks and David Lynch psychotics. Its metal-rooted carnie evocations were beautifully grotesque, suggesting a modern-day musical rendition of Antonin Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty".
Ultimately, the '90s retro-acts sought to subvert the prevailing trends towards crass commercialism, individual greed, and phony superficiality. In nostalgic retreat, they used humor as a coping mechanism, as relief from the "accelerated culture", and as inspiration to create an alternative subcultural unity and new musical adventures. Some, like the post-Dead jam bands, withdrew into the id of childlike innocence, expressing a positive, unifying humor. Others, like the post-Zappa indie bands, welcomed the neuroses of their age as they affixed it to the more outlandish eccentricities of '60s humor. Whether innocent children or irreverent eccentrics, these "separatist" bands turned the '90s on its head, creating a neo-'60s imagination -- if not reality -- in the process.
The above essay is an excerpt from Rebels Wit Attitude, a forthcoming book about subversive rock humorists to be published in November 2008 by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press.