Unfortunately, Bush's Razorblade Suitcase is my all-time favorite record.
I'm not ashamed that I've listened to it dozens of times every spring since its release in 1996, but I've spent enough time DJing college radio and dating men that I know I'm supposed to be. I first heard Bush as a preteen, and I responded as I was meant to respond to that musical equivalent of a Monster energy drink—syrupy and chemical with rockin' badass packaging.
This spring, it occurred to me that Razorblade Suitcase was also likely my first and most profound literary influence. Lingering young love is one thing. Realizing the cataloging of grotesquerie that I thought sprang organically from some place deep in my emotional anatomy but instead was transferred from the mind of Gavin Rossdale—that's different. As my parents probably said when I was asked to leave Catholic school around the same time I first snapped that CD into my cherry-red Discman: I'm not mad. I'm just disappointed.
Twenty years have passed since that time the CD lived between my Discman and the stereo of the bedroom where I spent all my after-school hours reading magazines, writing poems, and perfecting my tiny worksheet drawings of cell reproduction. Five days a week, my mom drove my brother and me half an hour from our house near New Jersey's sod fields to the school that I'd leave months after getting the Razorblade Suitcase CD—I was not a good fit, socially, and just about every adult in my life agreed that I didn't belong.
This is what Bush tapped into. My world was small, lived on worn paths from home to school, home to mall, home to library. My Elaine Benes glasses, oversize uniform sweaters, and collection of plastic trophies for academics situated me at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I spent seventh grade nearly friendless, having lost my BFF to public school, which meant I had nobody to gossip with about Oasis's intra-band turmoil.
I knew everything about every member of Korn, Live, and the Prodigy, but for reasons I can't recall, I never cared to look into the lives of Gavin Rossdale or the other members of Bush. Maybe I lost interest when I read Rossdale's profile in the October 1997 issue of YM I repeatedly read from cover to cover:
Q: You are one of the ten sexiest men in rock 'n' roll today.
Q: Believe it or not, but I'm telling you it's for real. What's that feel like?
I wasn't studying the pages of "Rock Gods," in which "YM took six hot musicians out of the dark, smoky clubs—and brought 'em into the sunshine," for any reason other than to study for my future as a famous person.
NOUNS AND NONSENSE
I had three goals in life: to live in the city, to get famous, and to find my perfect love forever. I hadn't defined a location, a form of achievement, or a love object, but I had a feeling that music was my path to all three, because on MTV they seemed to be a package deal. My glockenspiel wasn't going to get me there, so I began writing "song lyrics." My pre-Bush efforts were D+ at best: "All the king's horses and all the king's men / Can never put me back together again," "Ashes to ashes / Dust to dust / It's not an option / It's a must," "Your hair is the color of mourning / Your smile the color of gold."
I loved music so much, I wanted to soak it into my body tissue. I wanted to be transformed. I know just enough about music that I can say that you're unlikely to find a rubric by which Bush's abrasive chords, pestering cymbal taps, and mostly-on-key vocalizing could be evaluated as, I don't know, great.
I know more than enough about writing that I can say that Rossdale's lyrics are, for the most part, meaningless. "It's not just one way / A negative factor," he sings on "Insect Kin." There's not a word on Razorblade Suitcase that could warrant a parental advisory sticker, because it's meant for children.
Later, that YM interview continues:
Q: What are the characteristics of a Bush song?
A: Honesty. I hope a sense of reality. Wouldn't it be much more interesting to hear Boyz II Men as to their lifestyle and who they are? And instead it's like, "Oh, girl."
Never mind that in writing the lyrics to Razorblade Suitcase, Rossdale was like, "Oh, girl," crafting songs in his apartment while his ex-girlfriend moved out. If, before I learned this, you'd asked me what the album was about, I would have guessed ambition. Or insects.
Beginning writers tend to be vague, saying it's because they want to leave interpretation up to the reader, but I think it's because precision is terrifying. To write our fears, desires, and experiences with precision can feel like an irrevocable act of exposure.
At times, Rossdale approximates precision by stuffing his lyrics with concrete nouns. The lyrics don't make sense, exactly, but they clumsily accomplish what I ask of my literature: evocation through detail and imagery rather than excessive explanatory rumination (though Razorblade Suitcase doesn't lack that).
The cataloging of grotesquerie is still the foundation of every essay I write. Razorblade Suitcase is a cabinet of curiosities: pollutants, daisies, flames, blades, flies, disease, sick dogs, iron lungs, the moon, linen, angels, the sun, skin, forceps, a guillotine, bones, scars, lace, veins. It's a lesson in rotted anatomy: copper tongue, silver grin, polluted heart, broken fingers, blackened lungs. And it's a medicine cabinet: paracetamol, Benzedrine, Red Stripe, Vicodin. It's "poison crazy lush."
I love nouns and nonsense (evidenced by all the Twitter bots I follow). Writer and receiver always collaborate to make meaning, and meaning was exactly what I needed at age 13, not seen so much as glimpsed in the moments when my head became a target for basketballs.
"I'm gonna find my way into the sun / If I destroy myself," Rossdale sang. And I thought, "Is that how it works? How can I self-destroy my way into the sun?"
After seventh grade, I switched schools. My new English teacher told me my "song lyrics" were poems. After I disavowed Bush in high school, my body became a tribute album as I cataloged sensations: a pin stuck into my gut as far as I could stand (which was basically not at all), the nausea of experimental hunger, the heart contractions of caffeine pills chased with NyQuil for an alertness-spiked stupor on Friday nights, one of which I spent heart-ticking hours writing: "I scratch until / my veins surface / and scales sprout, / muscles twist into strings // Pus clots in my eyelashes / and the yellows of my eyes / melt into gray skin // A white pill disappears / under my tongue / to mend the sores inside me."
Bush could have been my gateway drug to Nirvana, but I first heard that band thanks to a punk friend's musical intervention. I'd experienced Bush as ahistorical, geographically unbound, bodied only by words and chords—but Nirvana seemed to have come out of the ground in the mythical place where my mom's family had lived since the beginning of time.
I've never loved anything or anyone as much as I loved Nirvana then, but, as I listen to Razorblade Suitcase and In Utero back-to-back for purposes of comparison, I can't say that Nirvana's lyrics are better than Bush's. Meaning is more extractable from Kurt Cobain's imagery, but not much. Like Rossdale's bugs and pills, Cobain's tactile world seems more evocative than representative, punctuating unadorned testaments to pain with the paraphernalia of decay.
Bush, of course, is derivative. Their debut, Sixteen Stone, was released nine months and one day after Kurt Cobain's death (though it was recorded while he was alive), a case of a band that meant to jump onto a bandwagon but instead found themselves bringing a float to a funeral procession.
A CATALOG OF DISAPPOINTMENTS
After college, I moved to Seattle, still working on those life goals: city life, fame, and perfect love. I still wanted to "shine on," as I'd first heard Rossdale sing a decade earlier, and I still clung to that promise of a sun to find one's way into, rising from the sludge of alternative rocking. But I knew how the Nirvana story ended: Perfect love, fame, the city—they all amount to 10 swords in the back.
Everyone who's not 13 knows that famous people are miserable. Still, I cling to the notion that I can strive my way to permanent happiness. My goals stemmed from the desire to be seen—by my half-million neighbors, by every person on earth, by one other person. I'm not the rock god I hoped to be, but I've already hit the only benchmark of "fame" I concocted as a preteen: standing onstage in front of strangers for a nonacademic purpose.
Rossdale's affirmation on the record's last track, "Distant Voices," still tugs at me: "I'm gonna find my way / Into the sun / If I destroy myself." Sharing a dream makes a person vulnerable, because we aren't supposed to want too much for ourselves—we're foolish or egotistical if we aspire beyond our imposed bounds. In my striving, my shining desire has been tempered by a catalog of disappointments: cigarette phlegm, microphone plosives, empty Vicodin bottles, hotel bedbugs. Aspiration leaves a wake of spent possibilities, which Nirvana's lyrics expressed in a way that Bush's failed to.
Rossdale urged me to "take life as it comes / straight, no chaser," but I take life through a scrim of anticipatory dread, fear of loss, and fear of success, working to anticipate any possible outcome so I won't be caught off guard. I'm so busy with this work that I forget to notice that I am loved, I am seen, and I am alive in the city.
Therapists, life coaches, and witches seem to agree that it's important to be precise in asking the people around us, ourselves, or the universe for what we want. How could I ever know what I want? "Hell is where the heart is," Rossdale sang. I suspect I've met no end point because my heart doesn't want one: It wants the hell, the decay, the ruptures, the mitosis that heals the wounds.