In the Fall of 1996 I became the assistant music director at my college radio station, WFAL at Bowling Green State University.
The main benefit was that I got to work with our Music Director, John Riccardi, on picking music for the station to play. It meant sifting through boxes sent by record labels each week with new releases, filled with CDs from the biggest names to the most obscure artists.
A side benefit was that the M.D. and assistant got to travel to New York City each fall for the College Music Journal Marathon in October. This was a big deal for me as I had never been to New York City in my life. John, having interned at a record label and been M.D. for years, knew everyone, and secured us a place to stay at a swanky hotel with a woman who he knew that worked for Rykodisc. Not that we would spend much time there.
First thing we did was head to the hotel for festival registration to pick up our badges, which doubled as a sort of merchandise row as every big and little label, cd manufacturer and merch producer had booths set up with tons of free swag to grab. John made it a priority to grab as many CD openers as possible. In addition to free stuff overflowing our bags, bands like Jennyanykind aset up to play acoustic gigs for passersby.
It was around this time John and I ran into the drummer from Everclear, Greg Eklund, my first encounter with an at-the-time rock star, though he could have not been less rock star-ish. He mainly wanted to talk about how awesome Soul Coughing was, and we chatted about college radio and how the band was doing.
A bunch of other stuff happened, but I’m not sure of the chronology, so I’m just going to do my best. Here goes:
Wilco and Johnny Cash @ Irving Plaza
This was the show I circled first. By 1996 I had already earned the nickname Uncletimecovolt for my love of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt, and getting to see Wilco was a high priority. The fact that the legendary Johnny Cash opened (!) for Wilco still blows my mind. At one point June Carter came out and sang some songs with Johnny, and I don’t really think I understood how special this moment was until many years later. Irving Plaza isn’t huge, and I believe the Beastie Boys were putting on a show not to far away, so I managed to get up to the second row of standing room for Johnny, and weasel my way up to the front row for Wilco, close enough to grab the setlist that’s pictured.
Vernon Reid and Low @ Knitting Factory
I don’t remember much about this show other than when Low was playing it was the first time I have ever been shushed at a rock show, which probably means it wasn’t a rock show. I believe Vernon Reid was playing with someone I should know but can’t remember, but mainly it was boring guitar wankery and we left rather quickly.
Sebadoh @ Trammps
I’ve never been the biggest Lou Barlow fan. It’s not that I don’t like him, it’s just that, like Bob Pollard, sometimes the vomit approach to releasing material tends to dilute the quality and make me tired from trying to sift through it all. I don’t remember much about Sebadoh’s set because as John and I were standing by ourselves towards the back, a big gray-haired guy in a flannel walked up and said something along the lines of “good show, huh?” and moved on. I had no idea who the hell it was, at which point John said, “That was Mike Watt. Of the Minutemen.” At the time, I had no idea who he was talking about. Now I do.
Emmit Swimming and Pusherman @ The Wetlands
Of all the unknown bands we saw that made an impression, Pusherman made the biggest. They only put out one album, but I still listen to it. Emmit Swimming was rather forgettable alt-rock typical of the mid-’90s, but Pusherman were something different. Imagine the snarl of early Oasis combined with the tripped-out jams of The Verve. They had (at least) ten guys on stage. One guy just played harmonica. It was hot and sweaty and crowded, and the whole thing just worked for one short set. I think John introduced me to some female record exec from a big label, but I was totally sucked in by Pusherman.
Wesley Willis @ CBGB’s
Going to a Wesley Willis performance is like no other. It’s part performance art, part exploitation, and all your really after is a post-gig head butt, which Willis was famous for. The gig was at the legendary CBGB’s, which is no more. Even though I wasn’t as learned about punk history as I am now, I knew the significance of CBGB’s even at that time. It was both as awesomely historic and disgustingly rundown as you’d expect a club with as much history as CBGB’s had collected. I consider myself lucky to have visited.
Orbital @ The Roxy
Let’s be honest, me at The Roxy is sort of ridiculous. I didn’t and don’t dance or take ecstasy, so it was a lot of me wandering around while the Orbital spun techno. Rumor around the club was there was a V.I.P. section that was occupied by the likes of Bjork and Chris Farley. I saw neither and could not confirm.
Helmet @ ???
I don’t know where this show was, but I know we only stayed for one song. John really wanted to leave to get to another show (I don’t know which one), and I guess Helmet didn’t start on time, because after one show we were outta there.
Some other random moments from CMJ ’96:
- we went to a deli somewhere in Manhattan and I got roast beef on an onion bagel with russian dressing. It was gigantic, with a massive amount of beef, and I have tried to replicate that sandwich multiple times without success.
- John explained to me that if, when I took a taxi somewhere, gave the driver an extra large tip, I could as him for any previous receipts that had not been taken. That way, I could turn them in to the school, because our transportation costs were reimbursable. In the end, all the money we spent on food and other stuff would be wiped out with the extra taxi receipts. Brilliant scam.
- we went to some sort of art space, I don’t know if a band was playing or not, but John pointed out that Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers was there. When I spotted him, his was taking a long drag off a pipe. I thought it might be weed, but John thought it was crack. We never got a firm answer on that.
- at our hotel room, John informed me he was going out to see “some chick play piano that’s got a lot of buzz.” That chick, unsigned without at record at the time, was Fiona Apple.
- I drank Pellegrino water for the first time at a fancy restaurant that some record label exec took us too. I thought it was just bottled water, I didn’t know it was carbonated, and for some reason I reacted with coughing, sneezing, a flush face and tearing eyes. Embarrassing is an appropriate word to describe the experience.
- we went to a listening party for the not-yet-released new Tool album Aenima, and left with a vinyl single for Stinkfist. I have no idea what happened to it, probably traded in at Finders or Madhatters (R.I.P.) in BG.
- I’m not sure what bar it was, but somewhere there was a bar with free White Castle burgers at which Iggy Pop was supposed to show up. We ate the burgers and left with no Iggy sighting.
- We only went to one panel, which was probably about the future of music because ever music conference and festival always has a “future of music” panel. Chuck D of Public Enemy was on the panel, that’s all I remember.
- Lastly, a number of movies were screened at Webster Hall, including one called Hype! that remains a favorite of mine today. Considering the documentary was commenting on the “grunge” phenomenon that had just a occurred a few years earlier, it was an odd experience seeing the recent history we had just lived through already being analyzed.