That's the question Bob Boilen (NPR's All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts) put to almost three dozen musicians, including Dave Grohl, Jimmy Page, Michael Stipe, David Byrne, Smokey Robinson, Lucinda Williams, and Jeff Tweedy. The answers are often as unexpected as they are illuminating--all testament to the powers of serendipity and inspiration.
In this excerpt, Boilen and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl) recount her "batcaver" youth and the musicians behind her early forays into music.
"I didn't just want to watch. I saw it as a conduit for expressing myself. I always wanted to be a performer." Even at sixteen Carrie Brownstein knew she wanted to be in a band. It was the early nineties at Lake Washington High School and a lot of her friends were doing it. "I went to high school with Jeremy Enigk, who would then go on to be in Sunny Day Real Estate, and [he] was hanging out with this guy named William Goldsmith, who ended up as a drummer in Foo Fighters and Sunny Day. All these people ... play[ed] in punk bands in high school. And we would go to their shows."
These days, on any given night, you can see Carrie Brownstein in the IFC show Portlandia, a funny spoof on life in Portland, Oregon. She cowrites and stars with her best buddy, musician and comedian Fred Armisen. You can also see her as a recurring character in the Amazon TV series Transparent"” and a few nights ago I saw her twice with her band Sleater-Kinney. After nearly a decade apart, they're back together. Carrie Brownstein is a kick- ass guitar player, a jubilant performer, a former NPR Music blogger, and a brilliant, thoughtful writer of music and comedy. She has, undeniably, fulfilled her dream of not just wanting to watch.
Carrie was a batcaver in 1990, and so were her friends. "There was a group of kids at my school who collectively were deemed and called the batcavers. And the year is actually important because pre-Nirvana, the term 'alternative' did not exist as a music genre, as far as I knew, officially. Nor did that term exist in terms of describing how people looked. There were a lot of other words. Instead of this big umbrella of alternatives, there were rockers and heshers, punks and SHARPs, which was the nonracist skinheads"” Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. There were all these microcategories, but you had to find your own umbrella term for them. That was batcavers at my high school. That was the goth. It was everyone that wasn't normal. I was very drawn to them because, first of all, it seemed like an interesting group of people. They outwardly embodied the kind of outsider feeling that I had on the inside. I really started talking to them and asking them questions about music. I had a student teacher in my chemistry class that brought me the vinyl of The Jam's All Mod Cons.... He had noticed that I was sort of transitioning from this sort of preppy kid to, I guess, what you'd call a punk, although I did it very awkwardly.... I never was quite able to look as much a freak on the outside as I felt on the inside. But he definitely noticed my interest in music. And he brought me that album. So, yeah, I sort of started down the path of being schooled on music." Carrie can't remember the teacher's name, only that he had a mullet, "a strange, strange mullet, not a rocker mullet, just a mullet."
Back then, for an outsider like Carrie, seeing her friends in bands was a revelation. "It just seemed like it was going to be a nexus of everything I'd wanted.... All of a sudden there was a medium that could hold all of the anger and frustration that I felt. I think it was more friends that made me want to actually play, but certainly in terms of what I wanted to play, [that] came from the records. That came from The Ramones, The Jam, The B- 52's, The Replacements."
She shopped at record stores around Redmond, Washington. There were two at the time, Cellophane Square in the Bellevue Square Mall and Rubato Records, located in the bottom of a strip mall and run by a couple who were former band members from Seattle. "I think [their band] was called The Nurses. And they were great to me. I would be picking up Nirvana stuff and trying to get contemporary Seattle music. I remember they had Television's Marquee Moon and Adventure, the next album. They said, 'You should get these records. They're really good.' Or they had the Shocking Blue album, and they said, 'You like Nirvana? "Love Buzz" is the cover of the Shocking Blue song. You should get this album.' These people were invaluable to me . . . they had the generosity and the time to really kind of walk me down certain paths, and that was really exciting. I was very completist about it. I wanted to start at the beginning of punk. I wanted to know about The Ramones and the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks and Slits and Delta 5. In the pre-Internet era, you kinda figured out different paths to go down because you couldn't just type something in or look [it] up on Wikipedia."
Sometimes Carrie would research bands based on their geography and search out music from different cities. Other times she'd look for groups with similar names. "I remember there was a woman [at school] named Courtney Reimer. I remember literally asking what is the difference between Ministry and The Church. Or I would ask [Courtney] about Replacements lyrics. Everybody became a teacher to me and a mentor. Everyone had their different shades of what they listened to. There was [another schoolmate] who really just listened to metal. I kind of got a little bit more of an education in Iron Maiden or early Metallica. There were the guys who were listening to hardcore music. I could go down that path."
Carrie would sit in her bedroom and play music on a cheap combination hi- fi with a record player on top. Eventually she inherited her dad's older components, and they sounded a lot better. "I would just sit in my room and listen to records and 7- inchers and CDs, which were, of course, really popular in the early nineties." She tells me, "I was mostly raised by my dad. . . . He was very respectful of the ... interior landscape of a teenager. I think he gave me a lot of space and room to hide out and kind of inflate or just be with my friends. I probably had the door closed a lot, more for privacy and being a teenager [than] in terms of volume and whatnot." Carrie had her electric guitar, an Epiphone copy of a Fender Stratocaster. It was cheap and cherry red, and she played it through an off-brand Canadian amp. Most guitarists like to practice riffs and learn from the greats"” Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, or Pink Floyd"” but Carrie quickly dove into writing her own music. "I think part of that was starting to listen to bands from Olympia, where you'd hear Beat Happening, and you'd just think, 'I can do this. I can do this right away.' " Well, almost right away. Carrie could never play guitar or sing while anyone was in the house. "That's too vulnerable."
I totally get that. Every year during the month of February I make an album in my apartment, and I'm always far too self-conscious about my work if anyone's around. For Carrie, though, there was always a moment of confidence once she'd worked it out. "The part of me that was such a ham, the minute I had something that was worth sharing, I immediately dragged my sister into the room and played [the] song. I couldn't wait to have something that was presentable." While writing, she used to sing out loud to find the melody. "I still do this now, where I'll find the melody first and maybe some words that kind of anchor the song or anchor the theme. Then I'll go back and refine." She'd scribble the words on paper. I ask if she still has any of the songs she wrote as a teen. "Yeah, I have the song 'You Annoy Me,' which I feel like, in the course of my music career, I've basically [re]written . . . twenty times, with, hopefully, more gradual levels of sophistication. It's really funny how sometimes it boils down to that. I think before 'You Annoy Me,' I had a song about our dog that was just called 'Buffy Is Fluffy.' And that's the kinda thing that was easy to share with my sister because there was no vulnerability ... it was just a joke song. Maybe I technically was actually doing something more Portlandia-esque before I was doing Sleater-Kinney."
All these songs, all this listening, shifted her attitude and outlook. Music became both confessional and confrontational. Olympia bands like Bikini Kill, Kicking Giant, Slant 6, and Heavens to Betsy were some of the locals that mattered to Carrie. As far as guitar playing, her influences came mostly from an earlier generation. "I think Ricky Wilson from The B- 52's was someone I was drawn to immediately because of the economy of it. It was catchy. It didn't really sound like anyone else. It was inflected with a little bit of a surf sound but with a kind of yearning and angularity that isn't [found] in surf music. He was someone that I really liked. I also liked how his phrasing was part of the melody. You needed his sort of call-and-response with a guitar to make the songs unique. Tom Verlaine"” I love Television"” and I think Gang of Four was a huge influence on my guitar playing. In terms of actual songs that just really made me want to play and figure out how to express myself through song, it was probably The Replacements."
The Replacements were a band from Minneapolis led by guitarist and songwriter Paul Westerberg. Westerberg was born on the last day of the 1950s, and his music was steeped in the sounds of the early sixties. When I saw his band at the 9:30 Club in the early eighties, I could hear his love for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but they packed a punch to the belly those bands didn't always deliver. I didn't think of The Replacements as punk, but they'd been revolutionized by a new generation of Brits with band names like The Jam, The Damned, and Buzzcocks. Carrie felt a strong sense of belonging with The Replacements, though, that these other bands couldn't match. "I don't know how Paul Westerberg did it. But he somehow summoned the fear of obsolescence that an adult has with the angst and yearning of a young person. He was neither young nor old when I was listening to The Replacements. I loved all of the experience and [the] sense of possibility that he could kind of pour into a single song or a single lyric. Especially on something like 'Bastards of Young' that I heard in high school, I just would write those lyrics down all the time. They just felt so crucial and like something I knew, but something that was still very unknown. I liked that feeling a lot"” that after a certain point I would understand the song better. Like, when I get a little older, this will make more sense to me, but right now, it's something I can hold on to. I love that combination."
"Bastards of Young" was the first song on side two of Tim, The Replacements' fourth album and their first major- label release. It received much praise but didn't make a big splash beyond those whose love for discovering new music was more passionate than passive, more identity than background. Carrie and her batcavers fit that description, while those listening to Wham!, Huey Lewis and the News, and other mid-eighties hit makers did not.
Music can act as an invisible uniting force that claims the unclaimed and defines the outcasts of a culture, and this song, the one that most changed Carrie Brownstein's life, is all about defining an undefined generation"” one unlike the World War I or World War II generation or the Vietnam generation, fortunate enough to not be named for a war, but one that also lacked a clear identity. The words to "Bastards of Young" spoke to her and to others willing to toss off the past and grab on to the present.
Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom
Elvis in the ground, no waitin' on beer tonight
Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
"[It] was that sort of endless struggle to be understood and have the people that you wanna love you, love you. That made so much sense to me in high school. And just 'We are the sons of no one, bastards of young' ... It was so important to me at the time. It seemed an anthem of wanting to be claimed. I wrote a lot in my book [Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl] about just feeling unclaimed and all the kind of journeys you go on to try to feel claimed by something. I think that song really summed that up for me."
A few years earlier, before The Replacements formed in the late seventies, music-making punks defined and then established an overt cultural attitude"”they didn't care if anyone loved them. In many ways, punk music was a big middle finger to the world. "Bastards of Young" is the opposite, a song for those seeking acceptance and a like-minded group. It was released in the mid-eighties. By the end of that decade small music communities had formed everywhere, friends making music for friends: less a middle finger and more an outstretched hand. The Olympia riot grrrl scene is one example. "There was ... a collective kind of reaching out. It was almost like people that felt alienated ... were coming together to be collectively understood, and then were immediately misunderstood by a lot of the mainstream."
Sleater-Kinney formed in 1994 from two different Olympia bands. Carrie was in Excuse 17 and Corin Tucker was in the riot grrrl band Heavens to Betsy. Their music was inspired, in part, by all the listening Carrie had done, especially Television and Gang of Four, and like those bands, Sleater-Kinney's guitarists formed a musical conversation, with Carrie doing much of the talking as lead, and Corin Tucker responding on rhythm. Politics and feminism distinguished their lyrics and attitude, and earned them a fan base. And that's the connection, I think, between Carrie's passionate response to "Bastards of Young" and the music she'd later make. It's about belonging, belief, and community. There's a sense of standard-bearer about Sleater- Kinney that their fans can attest to, a sound that helps define and reaffirm a specific life attitude, even if that attitude is, as Carrie claims, just another version of "You Annoy Me."