"Classic 120 Minutes"
Around midnight this past Sunday night I was flipping through the channels and saw a mind-boggler: VH1 Classic: 120 Minutes. This is the refitted version of a show that was, when I was growing up, MTV's nod to what's now mis-labeled "alternative rock," which in those pre-Internet and pre-Nirvana days really was mostly confined to the margins of popular culture. 120 Minutes played videos by bands who otherwise had virtually no national exposure: few made top-40 or Album-Oriented Rock radio, and at best they might get to play one song for a late-night TV audience with Letterman or whoever was filling in for Johnny Carson.
The bands made it, such as they did, through airplay on college stations, touring, little blurbs in big magazines like Rolling Stone or SPIN or big writeups in tiny 'zines now lost to history, at least as far as I know. Between the stresses and difficulties of the music business at the time, and the generally contrarian nature of angry young men (and a few women) in all times, most of those groups soon broke up; interestingly, more than a few of them have reunited in this decade, seizing upon the new abundance of distribution channels for their work as well as, I guess, the middle-aged realization that nothing is really cooler or more satisfying than playing great music with people you love. Oh, and the money: the Pixies, for instance, probably didn't get rich while they were making albums, but they sure as hell did on the reunion tours.
But that's all wide-world stuff. For me at age 13 through 15 or so, 120 Minutes was almost a lifeline, the place I first heard many of the bands that still rank among my all-time favorites today--Camper van Beethoven, the Church, Robyn Hitchcock, Sonic Youth--as well as lesser favorites They Might Be Giants and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and mostly-forgotten acts like Cactus World News, the Dream Syndicate, Game Theory (I probably could still sing you "Erica's Word"), Screaming Blue Messiahs and Scruffy the Cat. Perhaps more to the point, it was a window into the world beyond the 'burbs, my family with its standard-order but still painful dysfunction, where maybe I wouldn't feel quite as out of place. When I was off school or couldn't sleep, I'd stay up to watch; other times I'd set the VCR and look forward to coming home from a miserable day at middle school and watching the tape. (This was also good because you could fast-forward through the crap, which was usually plentiful.)
That said, watching the current version is a little bit like visiting a theme park based on a place where you once lived. The sense of newness, obviously, is gone: all the videos are at least 15 years old. There's no chance of hearing a little gem like Scruffy the Cat or the Cavedogs (a Boston band I once saw play live during college; I've never comprised a larger share of an audience); it's all big-name groups like R.E.M. and The Cure, whom I imagine get at least one play just about every week. Still, there are worse ways to spend a couple late-night hours, and it's a trip to ponder that all these bands that represented the future are now sufficiently back in the rearview to merit the label of "classic."