There’s something about 90’s alternative rock. So much of the music, from the most popular to the most obscure, touches on some quiet heartbreak, a deep anomie and aimlessness despair that haunted a whole decade. The cold war was ending, technology was making great strides, yet so many young people were finding that naked consumerism was becoming the new American paradigm. There was also a bitter gulf between generations. The Reagan years had taught parents to fear the strange ways of their children, and the war on drugs promoted not understanding or dialogue, but suspicion, punishment, and a return to the mores of those mythical “good old days”. Many served as unofficial mascots of this lost generation (X) – Wynona Rider and Kurt Cobain come to mind – but one can hear that essential misunderstanding, longing and drift in so many musical releases of the time.
One song that is indicative, not of the confrontational, down-and-out side of the 90’s, but of its ruminative, hazy, lost-at-sea aspect is “Honeychain” from Throwing Muses’ The Real Ramona. Formed in Providence, RI, Throwing Muses was led by Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donelly. “Honeychain”, written by Donelly, is a promenade through sun-dappled, sleepy days that seems to vacillate between warm nostalgia and ugly trauma. The song begins with a story that seems harmless and quaint enough:
My best friend knows this old guy who
Who keeps a picture in his shoe
He takes it out after a spell
(But here discordant, distorted guitars chug menacingly)
SHOULDN’T STARE THAT WAY SO LONG
STARE HOLES INTO THE WALL
The most lovely, idyllic surf-rock riff follows, taking us on a promenade through days all fascinating in their own way, filled with treasure, but also danger and darkness. Throwing Muses turn us on to a running subtext behind the façade of mundane daily life, one that takes only a measure of imagination and curiosity to unlock.
Ambiguous lyrics follow, never quite revealing a definitive tone for the song. “My dress hangs here for you to wear out, I walked in beauty too, till I met you” sings Donelly resignedly, almost bitterly. What is this Honeychain? Why does our narrator suggest we “lay our lives down, down and pretty in the honey chain”.
The elusiveness and ambiguity of “Honeychain” is what makes it a gem. Like the 90’s itself, it’s slippery and hard to pin down. “Honeychain” and other songs like it opened a window into a particular moment in American youth. A moment that seemed particularly vulnerable and hopeless, yet also aware of something beautiful and achingly sad, a ghostly thing that could be held for a moment but would always slip away again, tantalizingly just out of reach. Expressions like “Honeychain” grabbed a songful of that ether, but could not hold on for much longer than that. That 90’s spirit is gone now – the analogous music of the 21st century is chasing a different, more optimistic ghost. Still, there’s something so heartbreakingly wistful about that 90’s sound, something that makes the memory of it worth hunting down and remembering, even if it’s gone and not coming back.