My forthcoming novel is a coming of age story somewhat inspired by my experience in this world. So, I thought I would recollect my authentic coming of age in the 1990s, being almost the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. As you will see I don't limit my research to a mere time travel, but I share with you some current attainment before it is too late, and it goes away.
“That was the Meat Puppets.” Kurt Cobain said, after singing Lake of Fire during the Unplugged in New York, to this day the sexiest man in a librarian sweater and dirty hair, surrounded by black candles and white lilies. If the detail of that quote may sound superfluous to you, it was for me a quite interesting, very rewarding musical and linguistic discovery. I saw the achievement as a milestone in my English-learning process, after listening to that record at least a thousand times. Nevertheless, I still ignored who the band Meat Puppets was back then. The concert took place on November 18th 1993, when I was eleven years old.
The ’90s are defined as the decade that goes from January 1st 1990 to December 31st 1999. It’s the very last and tenth decade of the 20th century and the last full of the 2nd millennium, bridge to the Postmodern age. The Nineties are important years and, now that we are three months into 2014, I think I am allowed to discuss them as a real era from the past, like when dealing with the ‘80s or, the unforgettable ‘70s of rock ‘n’ roll.
You may think I am just a hopeless nostalgic, stuck into something that will never come back, unable to appreciate what the 2000s keep incessantly bringing to my doorstep, but the truth is that this society scares me, the very current one made of Monsanto, Tinder, hipsters and Internet tutorials that range from how to achieve the perfect smoky eyes make up to how to binge and throw up, including recipes and ideal food; or, on how to cut and take care of your wounds if you are a first timer and - believe me – safely shoot heroin, in order to avoid an OD. Speaking of, while researching my coming of age decade, the ‘90s precisely, I stumbled upon a very absurd yet fundamental word that was coined in those years: Heroin chic. A bitter smile appeared on my face when thinking of how much I had idolized the fake fashion photos, Jaime King and Kate Moss. For a long time I genuinely believed in the chic part, the charming allure I believed drugs did have, and that would serve me as a revenge for years, for the extent to which I had always felt an ugly and wrong nobody. But it was only with the advent of the 2000s that I would nonetheless become conscious of the fact that there was nothing Vogue about it; or remotely fashion, for this matter, barely the clothes I wore. For I was not Kate Moss on a Calvin Klein advertising campaign. The only thing she and I had in common were a sweet tooth for wrong and those dark circles underneath the eyes that happened to start a new cool trend, in 1993.
In the ‘90s I wished I could have experienced the ‘70s, Janis Joplin and Exile on Main St. when it came out. I never belonged to the present, always dreaming of Wild Horses, Angie and Sister Morphine. However, in a recondite, wise area of my brain there was a shadow of awareness for the musical moment that I was being part of, which wasn't any less important than the Stones’ and that, just like theirs, would never be again. For I see artistic movements like happiness in life; they last for a second, they are never related to the material and then they’re gone, in the blink of an eye. They transform into another moment that has nothing to do with the one experienced before. This kind of creativity, just like the electric discharge caused by happiness, is a movement, a wave, if you will. We mustn’t get attached to it or, we are bound to an endless nausea, seasickness for the decades that will come.
With my best friend Paola we listened to a lot of Nirvana (Polly was her favorite). We wrote quite a few songs of ours, too. We played guitar, wrote poetry on the wall of her bedroom and smoked a lot of cigarettes; they were either Marlboro Lights, when we had money or Diana Blu, a popular brand in Italy in our early nicotine days. There was Michael Stipe and R.E.M with Shiny Happy People, before I discovered the darkness in both tone and lyrics of Let Me In, from Monster. I became one, eventually. Red Hot Chili Peppers with My Friends in 1995 played quite frequently, Stone Temple Pilots’ Creep, too and Sound Garden with Black Hole Sun. Jesus, I was almost forgetting about Extreme; do you remember More Than Words?
I am not proud of my first live concert. It was an Italian rap duo born in 1990, Articolo 31. But they represented the first hip hop/ funk experiment in Italy nonetheless. And, I did make up for the lost time by going to see Patti Smith shortly after.
The 1990s were the last years of what I define the realm of pain and shame as I knew it, before my PhD in anesthesiology. I vaguely recall PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, The Cranberries and profound lyrics that I struggled to learn and understand in a language, English, I had fallen in love with since the age of seven, when my first teacher had forced me to practice the digraph th in front of a mirror, tongue between my teeth to spit and achieve the perfect pronunciation. It was not an easy task, because although excellent at it I was too much preoccupied with what my schoolmates would think of me, as they mocked me and misunderstood passion for 'showing off,’ when reading in an almost-perfect American accent. (Perfect according to the Italian standards, of course). Call it high school or small mentality, I don’t know. Is this the effect of aging? Memories coming back, those of music, the first orgasm in the ‘90s with a woman and then a man, between a book of history and a dance class, with the constant effort to lose the shameful weight that would define who I was for the next decade and a half?
But enough with sex, music and body issues, for the 1990s are also years of war. I am applying now the use of the present tense on purpose; I hope you can follow me. During my interview with Robert Greenwald I remember telling you that at the age of nine, in 1991, I feared the outburst of a Third World War. I was exceptionally aware when I was a kid, and it hurt me. The news and what was being said did. But nobody was able to fathom what was truly going on in my head nonetheless, because I believed that the sharing of such a level of preoccupation was not allowed, sane. I hoped it was something that would eventually go away. It did not.
On May 23rd 1992 anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone is assassinated with his wife. Co-worker and friend, Paolo Borsellino follows, on July 19th of the same year; both are car bombs, in Palermo, by hand of the Corleonesi Mafia Family. In 1992 Bill Clinton becomes the 42nd President of the United States of America while in Italy the political class has just started to collapse with the Mani pulite judicial investigation (mani pulite stands for clean hands). I am 10 years old and the puzzle makes somewhat more sense today than it did when I was twenty and did not really care.
I would learn about Kurt Cobain later, not on April 5th of that 1994 we are approaching. But the images of the war in Sarajevo still burst in my mind like a Molotov, just like yesterday. I felt their pain, dust, curfew, air raid and their fear as much as I do today when I listen to any story of war, whether it is in Afghanistan, Ukraine or Nigeria. Human beings frighten me, their use of weapons do. Back then, I didn’t want to die in a concentration camp, because in middle school we focused a lot on the causes of the Second World War and, in addition to what the books said, my grandfather had been captured in one. He never talked about what he experienced there, besides the detail of starvation, and eating raw potatoes. I eventually stopped watching the news for a while.
1995 was the year when the PlayStation was launched in both Europe and the US, after the 1994 release on the Japanese market. However, I never had one and my memory is somewhat stronger on Belgian serial killer Marc Dutroux, the war in Chechnya and the figure of Boris Yeltsin. Maybe it was because in my household the news had to be watched in religious silence, or rage would explode. I never read the Bible as a kid, it wasn’t really required of me, but I was very well informed on the political inclination of a world around me I quite did not like.
During this pleasant yet summary research I learned that heroin chic was not the only new term coined in the Nineties, relevant to the theme of this column. In 1997 the words “weblog” and “blog” were invented, respectively by Jorn Barger and Peter Merholz, and they would go down in history, also affecting me a good deal, in the decade that would come, the infamous 2000s of wireless connection, Facebook, global financial crisis, tsunamis and more wars, which terrify me as much as they did in 1992. You know, I observe the Ukraine situation with such fearful and cynical viewpoint that during a break from this little essay I went back and refreshed my memory on the Crimean War of the years between 1853-1856. The name sounded so familiar that I wondered if there was anything in common with those days I recalled having studied in High School.
But we are talking 1990s, not the Ottoman Empire. In 1996 Dolly is cloned, first mammal in history. Tupac is killed and, The Notorious B.I.G. will be assassinated the following year on March 9th in Los Angeles. I was never into hip hop but I remember gathering all the information because of I’ll Be Missing You, Puff Daddy ft. Faith Evans & 112’s cover in his memory. The last two years before the big 2000 could as well be considered years of death, almost foreseeing what is about to come for me. Frank Sinatra is the first, on December 12th 1998, followed by two iconic Italian songwriters and poets: Lucio Battisti on September 9th of the same year and Fabrizio De André, on January 11th of 1999. It is, after all, the end of an era. I am seventeen and about to make those decisions that will change a decade for me, too.
1999 is the year of Britney Spears’ success and also when I first start to be aware of how much poison can be hidden in our food; the so-called Belgium Dioxin Affair has just been made public by the media, it’s the contamination of mainly chicken and eggs with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB. My grandmother has two more years to live and I will never tell her how much I love her and how sorry I am for the hurt that I have procured and added to her already challenging life. I have no idea that the worst has yet to come; I am still a decent young girl, in 1999.
On January 1st, 1999 the Euro is introduced to the financial markets, although coins and banknotes replacing the Lire and the other local European currencies that today we all miss and regret, would only take place later, in 2002. It is indeed a year of change, the very last one of the millennium. A movie that means a lot to me is released before the ‘90s come to an end; Angelina Jolie will win an Academy Award for it, as Best Supporting Actress. It is called Girl, Interrupted and adapted from the 1993 namesake memoir by Susanna Kaysen. That is how I find closure for this column, and with the decade that made me the Alice that I am, for I have watched the movie two nights ago, March 8th 2014, age 32 and fifteen years passed before my eyes like a calendar of uncelebrated birthdays.
How To Fight Loneliness by Wilco is the first song of the soundtrack, from an album I still play often to this day, for it reminds me where I come from. Susanna Kaysen was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 1967 and underwent psychiatric treatment for depression for eighteen months. During the hospitalization she discovered that she could heal and the revelation frightened her more than being sick. In the ‘90s and in the 2000s all I wanted to be was a sick person locked into a psychiatric ward and die. However, when I needed urgent treatment I lied and ran away for fear of getting better. Healing has always been scarier than illness, disease, institutions and death.
Michael Danna composed the Original Score and theme no. 29 titled “Going Home” represents this moment: healing, surrendering to life to finally let go of what we thought we were. And, I still struggle breathing when listening to this beautiful track. I inevitably go back to my own prison, inexplicably tempted to miss it, like longing for 1998, for example. I choke in my own clean saliva when I think about the self-imposed torture, what I did to myself. However, as soon as I open my eyes on the dazzling day that is, early spring in Los Angeles, I also see the moment of choice. In the movie, Susanna leaves the hospital although she does not want to, feeling more comfortable amid the other patients than in real life, with people who need her present, accountable and aware. See, it all comes down to one day when we are bound to choose what we want to be or, if we want to be at all. After fifteen years, I am still learning from my first steps into my choice of life and from those glorious Nineties made of cigarettes and guitar strings.
I came of age with grunge, eating disorders and the first snowboards on the market (I wasn’t good at it, I was never good at any sport, to be honest with you). I came of age with the collapse of Italy and the Albanian immigration in the south of the country. I came of age when Nelson Mandela won the election in South Africa and with the death of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, the Sarajevo war and the August Putsch.
It was the end of an era when I had the courage to stay alive, and it was the end of an era when I stopped looking at tutorials. 2014 is the end of an era, too, because I have been blessed with the striking and not necessarily pleasant understanding of a word I have always pretended I knew the meaning of, but that I have quite faked, inside job: Happiness is not made of a book deal, what I do or whom I am with. This awareness broke my heart but granted me new perspective, shedding also quite bright a light on what I am going to do today with myself. Every time we change a damaged pattern is the end of an era. And, I am sure I will find something interesting to say about the current decade, with new music, another movie, many heroes of mine that have died, but also goals and finish lines I did not know I had and could cross, back in the ‘90s, the beautiful years when I came of age.
Was I crazy? Maybe I still am. Or, maybe I was just a girl, interrupted.
|Sunday night on Sunset Blvd. I pulled over and looked at the sky, speechless for its beauty. |
Janis Joplin on the radio at 7:21 PM. I didn't need anything else to be okay in that exact moment.