“Peace, love, empathy”.
Those words hit me like a truck when Courtney Love spoke them. Hearing her read from her late husband Kurt Cobain’s suicide note that April of 1994 on MTV News of all places, with her catty interjections, calling the note “more like a letter to the fuckin’ editor,” and prompting the fans gathered at the park vigil all to repeat that he was an “asshole,” I couldn’t make sense of why she would be so nasty towards Kurt’s ultimate call for compassion.
Kurt uses the word “empathy” a total of four times in his final piece of writing, once even describing his wife. Ironic then that Courtney chose not to read that particular section of the note on-air as it was “personal” and “none of your fucking business.” While it’s true grief rears its grisly head in many forms, and it is a no-class thing to criticize how anyone processes it, Courtney’s combativeness in this tender moment rang as emotionally off-putting. If empathy is to share in other people’s feelings, to offer love and support ~ seemingly the point of her reading his note to fans ~ then how could she be so spiteful? Empathy should be universal. Peace, love, empathy. As a 13-year-old, this is how I learned the word.
Kurt Cobain’s suicide helped me understand the need to be kind to others. “Voice of A Generation” aside, the tragedy of his death affected my thoughts about life in general, and his suicide troubled me. For the first time, the totality of suicide and how it affected people was made clear. Courtney became cruel. I vowed I would never.
That didn’t stop me from being sad, though. For a large chunk of 1994, my middle school friends ostracized me for being too “obsessed” with Kurt Cobain. I’m not going to diminish anyone’s teenage musical taste since it is a time in which we’re all trying to figure ourselves out, but it was clear to me then that I had ascended to a level above them stealing their parents’ Steve Miller and Jimmy Buffett tapes or listening to “Knights In White Satin” for the umpteenth time in the dark. Nirvana was the band that made music matter, that helped so many of us form a young adult identity. Me reading Michael Azerrad’s book religiously and scribbling R.I.P. Kurdt on my notebooks probably made it look like I was just another grungy loser to them, but this was the dawn of something else for me. And another lesson in empathy.
Later that year, just when I needed something to break me out of that funk, I made a sensational discovery. Dialing up and down the radio in my bedroom looking for something other than country or classic rock (East Tennessee, 1994), I happened upon the faint sound of modern Alternative coming through the airwaves via a frequency normally reserved for humdrum talk radio or puny college stations. It was the third single from Green Day’s monumental Dookie, an album that admittedly jumpstarted a new juvenalia-ish appreciation for music that I considered mine but also eventually birthed a boring old lifelong debate on what constituted punk rock and didn’t (coincidentally, also a theme in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note). But at the time that record sure felt fresh. The radio station I had found (now defunct) was a small independent outfit operating out of the town of Abingdon, Virginia (current pop. 8,155 ~ only about a thousand more citizens than it boasted in 1994). During the day they played Top 40 hits (also novel for my area), but at night, that’s when the lights really came on. The show was “What’s the Alternative?,” taglined: “Six big, beautiful hours of Modern Rock and Roll.” It was Alternative Nation, 120 Minutes, and nationwide independent record label access all in one. This was an absolute revelation in my life, got me out of my post-Cobain confusion, and gave me my first sense of direction.
All that to say, I fangirl’ed the hell out and wrote them letters. I sent hand-decorated postcards with song requests and notes telling the DJs how cool they were. I wanted to make sure they knew the work they were doing was appreciated. Later, I wrote to them about how a radio career was just what I wanted, and they graciously invited me to join them. When I got my driver’s license, I would drive the 45 minutes up I-81 N to Virginia to go hang out. Soon after, I picked up a shift running Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on Sunday evenings. Then, the big time: they gave me the opportunity to host the Saturday night Alternative show. I missed my high school prom because I was busy being an on-air personality. It was great.
1994 was a rocky year for me but ended in the most amazing way possible. This Grumpire retro playlist reflects that I think, with collaboration from many of your favorite Grumps, and a couple of special guests. The first of which is Ben Wilkinson, aka Ben Slack, a principal face in the 2000s-era Middle Tennessee music scene and creator of the local ‘zine Culture Cringe. Second, is P.J. Finn, my actual Alternative Music Program Director from all those years ago, who is coincidentally celebrating his 30th anniversary of working in radio! P.J. has a current seat as Program Director and DJ at MVY Radio on Martha’s Vineyard.
So please enjoy these genre-spanning hits, favorite album tracks, and other obscure flexes from 1994 ~ and in the spirit of radio, a handful of tracks from 1993 album releases that impacted the Alternative charts in ’94, and some 1994 promo singles that preceded ’95 LP followups. Peace, love, empathy. ★ – Elbee