Friday, March 11, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Bullet LaVolta's Swandive (1991)

While the end might not be clearly visible, I can sense that it is coming.

When I was young, at least for a period of a few years, between the time my wife divorced me and I moved in with a new girlfriend, I was fascinated by the alchemical idea that you could think yourself back to the moment of conception. The alchemists believed human cognition was this powerful, which they captured in the motto VITRIOL, Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem  -- "Visit the interior of the Earth and rectifying (i.e., purifying) you will find the hidden/secret stone." What was accomplished by this, I assumed, was some sort of omniscience -- the Philosopher's Stone. By thinking oneself back to the womb one was able to perceive the moment nothing becomes something.

In my mid-20s I despised working, whether at an office job or as a laborer. I was a drinker. I liked to read, scribble notes and listen to music. My marriage was failing. So I decided to leave my wife and New York City and head back to the West Coast and work for a drywall contractor located in Seattle. I had worked for him a few summers while I was still enrolled at the university in the Bay Area. At the time he was working rat jobs in Oakland and San Francisco,

I arrived in Seattle, late spring 1990, the day after Randy Johnson had thrown a no hitter, right when Grunge was blasting off.  Soundgarden. Skin Yard. Nirvana, Screaming Trees. But other than reading SPIN I had no idea what was going on because I never went out. I worked and came home to a sublet studio apartment in a house on 23rd Avenue East and drank 40-ounce bottles of Midnight Dragon malt liquor and typed on a Brother manual typewriter. I had some sense something was percolating because when I got a day off I would head to the local coffee house and it was chock full of hipsters and rockers.

My personal motto at the time, not dissimilar from the alchemists' VITRIOL, was RECLAMATION EVERYTHING. (It probably had something to do with my collapsing marriage.) On my way to the Emerald City I had stopped off in The Haight and picked up a used copy of Quentin Lauer's book on Husserlian Phenomenology. The idea that there was a pre-linguistic or meta-linguistic way to approach the world that might free us from error, confusion and loss was very compelling to me. It seemed a road to redemption.

The hubris of a motto like RECLAMATION EVERYTHING was perfectly in sync with the Grunge Age. It takes a lot of chutzpah to attempt to re-energize, re-new, re-vivify the old, decades-dead form of the classic rock cock rocker. But that was the conceit of my generation. I think it came about organically from young men and women listening simultaneously to Punk bands as well as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Rolling Stones, Richard Thompson et al. without the filter of a dialectical understanding.

An excellent example of a Grunge band, now largely buried by the sands of time (even in our digital age), is Bullet LaVolta. While it might be a stretch to argue that Bullet LaVolta was ubiquitous during the Grunge Age, the band was certainly a fixture on my stereo. Listen to Bullet LaVolta's Taang! Records/RCA album, The Gift (1989), and I think you will agree that rock is reanimated. My buddies and I would regularly celebrate the zenith of our evening's intoxication by blasting at high volume and jumping along to "Trapdoor." (For a visual sample of Bullet LaVolta at the band's apex, look at the video from a 1990 show in Dusseldorf.)

The followup to The Gift was Swandive (1991) released on RCA the same day as Nirvana's Nevermind. (There is a good article about this temporal Ground Zero of Grunge -- late summer/early fall 1991 -- by Bullet LaVolta drummer Todd Philips, "The night before Nevermind: Bullet LaVolta's drummer on opening for Nirvana in Boston on September 23, 1991.")

That fall and winter I probably listened to Swandive more than any other record. Immersed in it this week 25 years later I didn't feel the same empathy. One track, "Before I Fall," my favorite from back in the day, still holds up. I used to think that the chorus was "What I want to do before I am born" rather than "What I want to do before I fall." I took this as proof that there was a generational intuition about the importance of alchemical VITRIOL and the idea that everything can be reclaimed.

I think Bullet LaVolta achieved a measure of perfection for a brief time. The band broke up in 1992 and never got to wallow in the corporate trough. Hopefully The Gift and Swandive will be reclaimed. Those two albums document the essence of Grunge.

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