When grunge broke in the early 90’s, I was a kid trying to keep up. I listened to whatever my brother blared in the next room. I read the t-shirts at school. I knew something was happening, but didn’t know what. I was eight. I thought Nirvana was cool, but didn’t know why their success was significant. I waded through the pop-cultural tidal wave, using these factors to determine if I liked a band:
1) Had I heard any of their songs and (if so) did they annoy me?
2) Did I like the kids who wore their t-shirts?
Nirvana and Pearl Jam Kids were generally okay. Soundgarden Kids were angrier, but also (subsequently) cooler. Red Hot Chili Peppers Kids were alright, but not my style. For example, I might get invited to a Chili Pepper Kid birthday party, but might not feel comfortable attending. Alice in Chains Kids were not going to invite me to their birthday parties, and if they did, I wouldn’t attend, because I’d assume it would be in a windowless cell. And obviously, Nine Inch Nails Kids were to be avoided at all costs.
Which is to say, I was aware of what was going on, and liked many of the contemporary bands, but not really for reasons related to music (that came a few years later). The lone exception to this rule?
The Gin Blossoms.
The 96X Anthology: Volume 2 (click for Volume 1 last week)
Song Of The Week: Gin Blossoms, “Til I Hear It From You“
The 90’s–and 96X–were full of bands who didn’t survive the decade. So, we tend to lump them together under one tent of one-hit-wonders, sentimental favorites, and (meaningless yet inevitable) “guilty pleasures.” In 2013, it’s hard to find someone who just likes the Gin Blossoms without doing so ironically or through a prism of nostalgia. And while this whole series is deeply rooted in nostalgia, let me be very clear about something:
I love the Gin Blossoms. Sans irony. I think they were a great band.
My love of the Gin Blossoms–and this song–is a story in two parts: how I experienced them at the time, and how I experience them now.
Then, I thought that I liked them because they talked about driving around town (“Hey Jealousy”), bus-stop drama (“Found Out About You”) and a girl named Allison (“Allison Road”). My girlfriend’s name was Allison, I often waited at bus stops, and I spent a lot of time riding around town. In a misguided way, 8 Year Old Chris thought the Gin Blossoms exclusively wrote songs about his 3rd grade experience.
Now, I realize that I was predisposed to liking them. They were the first contemporary (read: cool) band that sounded like my parents’ music. Their sound was jangly and rich with harmonies (the Byrds), relentlessly poppy (Rubber Soul Beatles) and specialized in sad songs that sound happy (Big Star). From birth, I had heard all their greatest influences. Now they had arrived and I loved them for different (but valid) reasons.
And while “Hey, Jealousy” was their greatest hit, “Til I Hear It From You” was my personal favorite. Then, I loved it because (in the way music speaks this language and forges these associations) that opening guitar melody sounded like fall in Memphis. Fall has always been my favorite time of year. So, I loved the way this song sounded and what it connoted. Also, the drums coming out of the guitar solo (that transitional section, around 2:00) sounded cool. And I loved singing the background vocals (e.g. “outside looking in” at 2:10). It was fun and memorable–my ear latched onto it.
Those are the reasons I loved the song.
But now? Now I love those same elements, but realize I was predestined to. Let’s break it down:
1) Sometimes, the sound of a record indescribably matches the sound of a specific place at a specific time. It’s often been said that The Strokes popped in the fall of 2001 not only because they were good, but because they sounded like New York at a time when the world was rooting for NYC. Well, the Gin Blossoms’ records (including “Til I Hear It From You”) were recorded in Memphis. As a kid, I knew instinctively that they sounded familiar and resonant; I just didn’t realize that it was recorded months earlier, ten miles from my house.
But let’s push it further. Why did a song by an Arizona band sound so much like home, regardless of where it was recorded?
2) The Gin Blossoms were Big Star super-fans. Their own songwriting was so heavily influenced by Big Star that, to get their version of the Big Star sound, they recorded right at the source. They essentially traveled 2,000 miles, knocked on Ardent’s door, and said “we’ll have the Big Star, with everything, please.”
But can you actually hear Big Star’s influence in “Til I Hear It From You”?
3) My God, yes. Check this out:
Not only did they take one piece of one bridge of one Big Star song and transform it into the lead guitar hook for a Top 10 hit, the Gin Blossoms didn’t even change the key.*
[Also: that drum part I loved so much as a kid (2:05)? It’s borrowed from Motown, Beach Boys, etc. Again, stuff I’d been hearing in my parents’ cars for five years before Gin Blossoms stole my heart on 96X.]
And what I’m trying to say is this: when people talk about “influence,” this is what they mean. This is exactly how one artist influences another, how one musical device can become something new decades down the road, how the same idea can be transformed from 1970 to 1992 to 2013. And how an eight year-old in his parents’ car heard a song for the first time but was predestined to love it.
I never had a chance.
(*Since moving back to Memphis in 2010, I’ve been lucky enough to chat with Jody Stephens–Big Star’s last surviving member–a handful of times. Once, he mentioned how much he likes the Gin Blossoms. I asked him about the “Til I Hear It From You”/”Way Out West” connection. He took a long pause, laughed, and said, “Oh wow. Wow. Yeah.” And then we talked about BBQ.)