BEFORE THE MP3, BEFORE the iPod, there was Personics. The jukebox-sized device landed one summer in the mid-90s at my local Wherehouse, a once-robust chain of music stores now reduced to a vaguely sleazy online hustler of games and DVDs. But back then all was shiny and new, and I was fascinated by the machine, which heralded a new frontier in digital music personalization. Via a scientific process that still seems somewhat marvelous to me, you could select any songs you wanted from thousands, and have them delivered to you — while you waited — on a cassette tape. Your own made-to-order compilation tape in minutes.
I still have my Personics tapes somewhere down in the garage — I only made two, the cost per song being more than Steve Jobs's shrewd 99 cent price point — but even without them in front of me, I can visualize them clearly. The sky blue label with my song selections printed on them. The personalized case (yes, they came in a personalized case). In retrospect, though, what's most interesting about these tapes is the music they contained — or rather, the music they didn't contain. This was the mid 90s, after all — the high point of the grunge era — and yet my mixes displayed a marked preference from one-hit wonders of the 70s and 80s (I remember Dexy's Midnight Runners "Come on Eileen" and Sanford Townsend Band's "Smoke from a Distant Fire"). There was also some Fleetwood Mac on there. And I think I might have included The Isley Brothers's "This Old Heart of Mine" on both tapes.
I include this anecdote not to parade my musical taste (or lack of it) before you, but to illustrate how possible it was, in that pre-Internet era, to willfully opt out of the zeitgeist. (It's still possible, but the shame is harder to escape, and generally requires secluded cabins in remote woods.) As grunge was roaring out of Seattle to hypnotize and unsettle a nation, my 30-year-old self was including Blue Swede on mixtapes. The only meaningful impact the movement had on my life was the sudden robust availability of high quality messenger bags. I missed all of it. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Kurt and Courtney.
Of course, the era didn't pass me by entirely: the headlines were inescapable, especially Cobain's Hemingwayesque coda, and Love's ongoing, embarrassing theatrics. But I must admit that, prior to picking up Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson's Letters to Kurt, I had never listened to a Hole, or even a Nirvana, album all the way through. Yet I was intrigued by the book's format: a sincere preface followed by 52 almost impressionistic sketches that displayed, at first glance, a certain lightness of touch, a (perhaps unsurprising) musicality in the prose. Erlandson, present at the creation as co-founder of Hole, seemed a promising guide to all I'd missed, even if he was guilty of occasionally overstating his place in the grand scheme. (He can sometimes read a bit like the actor in Shakespeare in Love who summarizes Romeo & Juliet as being "about a nurse.") Something about Erlandson's disarmingly earnest tone initially engaged me more than I expected: "All those fallen female archetypes. Little girls wearing mother's heels and apron." I began to consider the possibility that this book might have value as something other than a post-grunge artifact, yet another piece of the true cross for Cobain obsessives to fetishize. Perhaps, coming to the work unburdened by the albatross of Cobain's martyrdom, I was uniquely ...read more