However, it soon became apparent that it is not necessary for a car stereo to be in good working order for the vehicle to pass inspection. The signal started cutting in and out on me almost immediately, probably due to something simple and stupid like a dying fuse, but I didn’t really have time to stop and check and address the issue as I was already late for work. Normally I just listen to the news on NPR in the morning (for the few minutes it takes me to drive from home to the train station, at least) but denied that option, I had to get slightly creative. What I hit upon was opening up one of the apps on my phone that I almost never make use of: Slacker Radio. Sure, the sound quality on my phone’s one external speaker is cheap and tinny, but it beat the deafening silence of being alone with my thoughts.
I set the feed to the 90’s Alternative station, partly because that is a music category reasonably near and dear to my heart and partly because it was one of the first options to pop up on the homescreen which I was trying to manipulate as quickly as possible between traffic light cycles. Of course that nomenclature becomes more and more of a misnomer as time continues to go by, because what gets curated under that heading is everything that broke out of the “alternative” fringes and became broadly popular (or at least recognizable) in the mainstream. I’m not complaining, mind you; a steady stream of the best-known tracks from Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden and Green Day and Weezer was pretty much just what I was looking for, and the occasional deeper cut (quick: name a song by the Presidents of the United States of America that’s not “Lump” and not “Peaches”. Yup, they actually played “Mach 5”!) was a bonus.
Anyway, one of the songs that came up was “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers, which somehow managed to trigger a nostalgia wave that the other songs didn’t. It’s funny, because I’m not sure it’s possible for me to be more neutral on that band. And maybe that’s the point: I don’t actively like them, I don’t actively dislike them, and unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam they seem to have ebbed from our collective consciousness. The fact that they peaked and then faded makes them so very much a 90’s thing. I don’t have any amazing memories of going to a friend’s wedding in 2005 and singing along to “6th Avenue Heartache” at the bar. Any memories that do happen to have the Wallflowers as part of the soundtrack are set in 1990-something.
Specifically, I associate the band and the singles off their biggest album with a pivotal phase of my own life. Not to sound like a broken record (ha ha), but I refer of course to the massive inflection point of my (first) post-college relocation from Jersey to Virginia in late ‘96. Those early days of living on my own (meaning separate from my parents and not on a campus) involved a lot of driving around, to and from work, back and forth to visit friends from school who had also settled in the area, and my car radio was permanently tuned to my beloved, much-missed WHFS, which at the time (because it would have been redundant to stick “90’s” on it) was simply the alt-rock station. And in those same early days, the Wallflowers were just blowing up, and would forever-after be inextricably linked.
I also, if I can make some wild attempts at deep explication here, think there’s more to it than just airplay oversaturation. And I don’t think it’s the music itself, not lyrically, not sound-of-the-zeitgeist-wise; as I said, the Wallflowers don’t evoke particularly strong aesthetic reactions from me either way. I think it’s Jakob Dylan. Not as a singer or songwriter, but as a persona. The timing is just exquisite: there I was, done with school, working full-time, undeniably entering the officially adult stage of my life, proclaiming my independence from the family I had grown up in. Bob Dylan belonged to my parents’ generation, but now he had a son who was old enough to have his own successful career, just like I was now old enough to have my own life. I think I was aware of those parallels on some level and I think they resonated, to the extent that it’s impossible for me to associate the Wallflowers with anything but those crazy days of us Gen X’ers spreading their fledgling wings and making their way in the real world, ready for our turn, ready to take over.
Of course, since then it’s been fifteen-plus years of the Boomers hanging around and hanging around some more, kind of awkwardly sharing everything from the job market to the political stage to the pop culture spheres with the Gen X’ers and now the MIllennials, too. I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan has put out more material than his son since Y2K. And on the dinosaur rock station I listen to in the car (when I’m not listening to the news, and when the stereo feels like working), the DJ is just as likely to play R.E.M. as The Who. The differences between today and yesterday tend to collapse by the time tomorrow comes, and sooner or later all of now gets labeled as a bygone decade, for whatever it’s worth.