What Listening to Bush and '90s Rock Says About Us Now

Bush are back with a new record.
Bush are back with a new record. Neil Krug
It’s almost shocking how easily the scene returns to me.

It’s a summer afternoon, 21 years ago. My friend Nathan has a set of Magic: The Gathering cards strewn across a patio table at Autumn Creek Apartments in Chandler, where my brother and I are staying with my mom for summer vacation. Nathan is explaining how to play Magic. We’re listening to the radio, tuned to The Edge, and the sound of British alternative rock band Bush’s single “Machinehead” is blaring from the speakers. To my ears, it sounds like the toughest, brashest rock ’n’ roll music ever constructed. The guitars slice like razorblades (the kind you’d keep in a suitcase, presumably) over pummeling drums, and singer Gavin Rossdale’s voice seethes with a frazzled intensity.

“Breathe in / breathe out / breathe in / breathe out / breathe in, breathe in, breathe in,” we sing along.

Brushing away the cards and a few issues of The Mighty Thor, Nathan leans in to drop some knowledge on me. “If you follow along with the words,” he says, strands of dusty brown hair clingy with sweat against his freckled face, “you’ll pass out.” If you treat Rossdale’s lyrics like instructions, he explains, you’ll slump over. Unconscious, immediately.

I think about this every time I hear “Machinehead,” which is not often. If you’re scanning through the FM dial these days, you’re more likely to hear Bush’s ponderous “Glycerine,” another single from 1994’s Sixteen Stone. “Glycerine” is one of the bedrock post-grunge angst ballads, better than The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen” but not as good as Filter’s “Take A Picture.” But I heard “Machinehead” a few months back, and once more, I tested Nathan’s theory.

Of course I didn’t pass out. It’s ridiculous I ever considered I might. But I did feel sort of woozy. It’s part of this strange thing that’s been happening in my musical life over the last couple of years. Flipping through stations on the radio, I find myself lingering on 95.5 FM The Mountain or Alt-AZ, listening to familiar ’90s songs. It doesn’t matter what ’90s song. For some reason, I want to hear them all. The quality of these songs is a secondary concern. I’m not listening through critical ears. It doesn’t matter whether I like the songs (such as “Shine” by Collective Soul or Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta”) or despise them (like Live’s “Lightning Crashes” or “Cumbersome” by 7 Mary 3). I find that I feel something, on a cellular level, listening to each one.

The word “nostalgia” is a combination of two Greek words: nostros, which means “return home” and algos, which means “pain.” It translates to something like “an acute homesickness,” but that feels like too important a way to describe the feeling I have listening to Bush’s electronica-tinged 1999 single “The Chemicals Between Us.” Then again, it reminds me of my freshman year, riding shotgun in my friend Zane’s Grand Am, so maybe it’s the perfect way to describe how that song makes me feel: some blend of sadness, wistfulness, and sense memory. Before long, I don’t even mind that “The Chemicals Between Us” sounds like a subpar Nine Inch Nails outtake.

As a music listener, I try to guard against the wanton indulgence of nostalgia as best I can. My heroes are the John Peels of the world, the kind of people who die still voracious for new music. I always want my receptors open, to hear new bands and songs and classics I missed. Of course there’s nothing wrong with jamming to old favorites, but what mortifies me is the idea of being one of those dudes who earnestly believes popular music peaked, purely coincidentally, during the years I was in high school and college.

But my relationship to ’90s rock is discrete from my listening habits. I don’t seek these songs, or these feelings, out. They seem to find me. And they’re everywhere. I hear them coming from a fellow commuter’s car stopped at a red light, in the background of a teen comedy, or sitting at a restaurant.

I don’t think Bush is one of the best bands or the ’90s, or even particularly one of my favorites. General consensus is Rossdale and co. presented a glossy, more commercially viable version of their noted inspirations the Pixies or Nirvana — Rolling Stone even labeled the band Nirvanawannabes. Although this doesn’t entirely track — as Nirvana was a band with plenty of commercial viability — it’s true Bush possessed a pop appeal greater than many of their peers. I remember listening to 1996’s Razorblade Suitcase in the jukebox at Moonshooter’s Bar and Grill in Coolidge, Arizona, which was, unsurprisingly, not stocked with OK Computer, Illmatic, Being There, Time Out of Mind, ATLiens, or any of the other albums I now consider the best of the ’90s.

That’s the funny thing about the way nostalgia works in tandem with pop culture. Songs, TV shows, movies — they don’t have to be brilliant to take on emotional significance or positions as mile markers in our life. The writer George Saunders once said, “Nostalgia is, ‘Hey remember the other mall that used to be there?’” I think the best thing Gavin Rossdale ever did was inspire No Doubt’s pained ballad “Simple Kind of Life,” from the criminally underrated Return of Saturn. But I don’t think about that when I hear “Little Things.” Instead, the song serves as a type of time machine. It’s 1995 and I’m jamming a cassette into my boombox trying to record “Ants Marching” off the radio. There are different malls, and Taco Bell commercials are cool.

The temptation of nostalgia is that it gets easy to step inside and stay there. This isn’t Rossdale’s approach. Bush broke up in 2002. He embarked on a busy solo career, collaborating with the Blue Man Group and contributing “Adrenaline” to Vin Diesel’s xXx. In 2010, he reformed the group, and the band’s been on a tear since. This year, Bush released Black and White Rainbows. With its pomp and arena-ready balladry, the new record reflects Rossdale’s status as a modern pop figure — he’s a coach on The Voice UK — and reflects on the dissolution of his marriage to Gwen Stefani. While its smoothed-over sound has more in common with the lushness of Coldplay than the spiky barbs of the Pixies, whose influence overshadowed Bush during their heyday, songs like “Mad Love” and “Nurse” prove Black and White Rainbows is at least more Head Carrier than Indie Cindy.

But even as Bush have forged ahead, Rossdale knows that nostalgia — a certain I Love the ’90s appeal — plays a central role each time he takes the stage. “I want to be as adventurous as possible,” he told Billboard about touring in support of the new album, but, “There’s obviously a certain core of songs we always feel we should play…” Songs like “Comedown,” “Everything Zen,” and the band’s best, the positively hooky “Swallowed.” Songs that remind fans of MTV, “The Rachel,” Nintendo 64, Mountain Dew, and being younger than we are now.

In Blue Night, Joan Didion writes, “Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” When I listen to Bush, I’m listening to my own past, but an idealized, “The Best Of” version. I skip over the fears and the accidental traumas, instead focusing on summer days, failing to learn how to play Magic from a neighborhood friend and listening to the radio. Rossdale’s most famous song pleads “Don’t let these days go by.” But of course they do. We know we’re real because of how we feel while remembering them.

Bush are scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 4, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.