Happy Anniversary, Achtung Baby: 20 Years of Rebellion for My Writer’s Toolkit

Posted on November 14, 2011


The contents of my Nineties Box: Achtung cassette singles, 1980s U2 bootlegs, Popmart condoms

In the nine months I’ve been on blogging hiatus, a nostalgia for the 1990s has gathered steam. Madison Avenue engineered much of this wistfulness with its campaigns for the 20th anniversaries of Nevermind and Achtung Baby. Throughout September and October, the Bedford Avenue L train stop—aka New York City’s hipster ground zero—was plastered with circus ads for the U2 documentary From the Sky Down. As far back as April, I noticed book publishers pushing tie-in biographies of the Pacific Northwest scenes (read: the grunge generation is going gray; time to read about its golden age). I’m strangely grateful for the shilling, however, because it moved me to investigate my early writing self-education in a deeper way.

1991 was the year punk broke, supposedly, and just a couple dozen exhales after the Berlin Wall’s crumbling. Political conservatism was on the wane—not that I detected any cultural excitement or had yet heard of CBGBs. I was 16 years old in Bismarck, ND; the second oldest of five children; an ardent listener of Top 40 radio; and combating crippling boredom by reading at marathon lengths and warp speeds in my bedroom cocooned in a comforter. I was very good at being social but even better at being alone, even with others. On bad days, I was unsettled to be preparing for a mysterious future. Mood up, I admired my DIY buffer from undesirable situations and people.

The phrase “coming of age” is used a lot in relation to teenagers, as if they spend most of their time growing up. The reality, as I observed it, was that most kids were riding the moment hard, with little regard for the consequences. Any perspective came in little moments after brushes with parents, law enforcement, or (worst-case scenario) death. If this was rebellion, I wanted none of it. The risks were too high, the returns too little. Surely, there was a dynamic type between goodie two-shoes and juvenile delinquent.

Binge drinking and blowjob practice—the two most common diversions for a girl my age—would not rid me of my very typical self-consciousness or help me become the person inside rattling for release. Growth, not recreational oblivion, was the goal because it seemed to promise happiness, though I still had fun testing the depths of my absurdity. Imagine being the only sober person at a party in the basement of a dilapidated vinyl-sided track house—but everyone thinks you’re fucked out of your mind. “You laugh a lot for someone who isn’t drinking” was a common assessment, to which I probably laughed more.

Most of the time, I liked being an amateur documentarian and winning over the early-starter stoners, who appreciated my duality. I had a way of becoming the furniture in the room, then snapping into the forefront of A Scene like Archie Bunker with a ridiculous one-liner or a belch to capture the attention of a music nerd guy.

My friends came from a cross section of cliques and were incredibly creative, entertaining people, yet I craved more input because our knowledge was extremely limited by our geography. I turned to the print-dominated media, following the example of my father, who read while he watched TV. High school and college (1991 to 1998) were dedicated to studying popular culture in sofas and armchairs, with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon nearby. Between homework and my duties on student newspapers, I devoured several pounds’ worth of magazines and stored their wrinkled corpses under my trundle bed. Details, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue introduced me to the concept of criticism, which I never took to mean “getting paid to be an asshole.”

Phrases from Anthony DeCurtis’s snark-eloquent movie reviews had a way of resurfacing in the language of my English homework (not the same as plagiarism!). Fashion spreads—by Grace Coddington, I later discovered—inspired me to introduce more white space in my PageMaker layouts and view the most hideous suburban spaces (Taco Bell) as backdrops for art. The slinky portraiture of Herb Ritts conveyed the power of image in the absence of true intellectual content. Anyone could be a star, at any moment, and I resented the evolving celebrity machine (though I didn’t know how to put it into words).

While I can’t remember most of their bylines, I will say that the writers who inspired me the most during this period did so for walking a fine line between hagiography and hate. My instinct was that the people worth listening to were rarely satisfied with the art they chronicled, and this was about pushing forms forward; to egg creators on when they were unable or unwilling to do it for themselves. To be sure, pettiness was more prevalent than a real investment in the creative instinct, and I read to sharpen my sense of it.

Brian Eno’s November 28, 1991, Rolling Stone article about the painful gestation and birth of U2’s Achtung Baby convinced me without hearing the record that I could be several versions of Heather and yet myself, constantly evolving but sane. Eno’s opening line—“Cool, the definitive Eighties compliment, sums up just about everything that U2 isn’t”—made clear the odds stacked against them, but the quartet appeared to have made something fused of many jagged influences yet beautiful and coherent. The video for “The Fly” fried my brain.

The worst writing on their change-up went something like, “The long-haired desert pilgrims of The Joshua Tree have gone goth-glam”—whatever the fuck that meant (I had not yet heard any vintage Bowie, Iggy, or Reed). What was impressive to me was that they’d consciously re-created their image in a way that enriched the music. The almost pornographic shots of Bono’s patent-leather Fly suit reminded me of the shine in oil stains on the concrete at the gas station—and the silences in loaded conversations between grown men and women. I didn’t understand why people were obsessed with sex, but I was beginning to learn to feel attraction—and see it on everyday clothing.

Listening to Achtung Baby on repeat not long after hammered it home even harder: here was an enormously successful band who had chosen to reinvent themselves out of fear of boring themselves, never mind their fans. They’d found an organic formula that made them millions, but they were driven to change it out of principle, survival, commitment. The music had to be bigger than them but link each member inextricably.

I could hear this solidarity on “One” and, in turn, its absence in the chaos of my family and school life. The intro sounded like all four men physically leaning against one another before turning into beats and chords. “Until the End of the World” struck me as the first real love song I’d ever heard: spirals of obsession, narcissism, and regret conjured exquisitely by Edge’s guitar distortion. Not that I’d lived any of that, but again, music as intelligent as this was an education (see writer Caryn Rose’s hyper-perceptive post on Achtung’s emotional appeal). I was feeling feelings in advance of the experiences. It was more information than most adults were giving me.

(Interestingly enough, the cover stories I’ve reproduced here came many months after the release of Achtung: the slower pace of media and old school pattern of buzz following live performance.)

To say this album empowered me is an understatement. I didn’t know how to write a review of a book, a concert, or an album and connect myself with meaningful culture, but I tried over and over again, moved by Achtung’s audacity. Via the growing body of commentary on the album and its beautiful baby sister, Zooropa, I began to track down its influences emotionally. No purchases of Lou Reed, solo Iggy, Nine Inch Nails, Roxy Music, or T. Rex from the mall chain store as I remember it; just a growing sense of the ethos that fosters art that cuts into the mainstream and a need to devour its best practitioners. There it was, I see now—my gateway to punk rock, Joe Strummer, The Clash, and my novel, The Nowhere in the Middle.