I’ve attended the Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s annual gala a handful of times across the last seven years, and on one particular occasion, the then-president of my employer’s local facility took my (babysitter-related) exit to make one of his own. Although my short-lived presence at the function had an aura of gratitude about it, I couldn’t help but feel weird leaving, having interacted with a number of folks I know well, but with whom I had never done business. Investing two decades in an industry to then transition to work for an entity that services that very industry served as a beacon of false hope in that said transition had come with a murky sense of confidence that bordered on arrogance.
In the one-story elevator ride, I expressed this sentiment to the then president, who said, “Let’s schedule a day together to go after some of those white whales.” Months later, when we made that happen, we visited outside of an establishment prior to entering and he informed me of his awareness that my documentation practices did not match protocol, that their completion should be happening in an individual, time-relevant fashion as opposed to tackling them in bulk. My surprise probably sounded like a flustered excuse machine, to which he responded, “Good habits never form until you start them.”
That phrase -- rooted in benevolence, I believe -- zapped me in the moment and became something I carry with me today. To be clear, I haven’t actually changed anything about myself; it was just like an, Oh, yeah…good lookin’ out. And that’s a tough spot, maybe one of our biggest challenges as human beings: to adjust, to change, to absorb something about the world and fold it in to your own existence.
Developing new bad habits, though? Or recognizing the continuation of old ones and doing nothing about them? Or worse: a marriage of the two? Seems like we’re pretty good at those. Or at least I am. And my latest doozy is one of those that jars the noggin with beaming clarity like the clock tower did to Doc Brown: YouTube reaction videos. Or as my internal mutterings call the concept: watching people watch shit you’ve already seen.
Like a Costa Rican grove.
It’s every bit of a, What…am I doing…with my life? It’s a time-suck and a barrel full of bad decisions in terms of consequences, which I imagine most time-sucks to be, but it’s crazy: the providers find their content monetized and the viewers experience…well, joy, if you’re doing it right, I guess. I dunno.
I’ve seen all the top bits of my three favorite comics more times than I’ll ever admit and the Tube is -- as we know -- the rabbityest of holes; the hours I’ve murdered watching tons of other stuff are incalculable.
Like music videos.
We’re talking dozens of songs I’ve listened to many times over the years. And now I’m watching total strangers watch the music-video version of those songs for -- often -- the first time. And all of this is going down in the most crucial portion of the 24-hour cycle: when I should be resting. It’s crazy-making to ponder all of the shuteye I’ve sacrificed to watch this stuff.
I won’t say that I’ve spent a ton of time in any particular lane, but I do have my go-to channels and songs, and sometimes there’s crossover underneath those two umbrellas; sometimes you just go where the hole leads you. So, I haven’t spent a lot of time watching grunge-music reaction videos, and I haven’t necessarily watched a lot of content that was spawned from MTV Unplugged, but there are particular videos from that show that seem like lots of reaction folks react to, and the Alice in Chains performance gets a fat dose of run in this community. I have found myself mentally embedded in “Nutshell” from that evening for a good bit now. And it never gets old. Ever. It is motherfucking gospel at this point.
I don’t want to review the performance, per se, but it borders on breathtaking. All four minutes, six seconds of it. It is crisp. It is beautiful. It is hollowing.
I’d love to spend a few lines talking about how grounded and amazing Jerry Cantrell is in it, but I won’t. And I’d love to talk about Layne Staley, but I don’t think -- at this very moment -- that I can.
Alice in Chains, specifically, was pretty huge, but I never memorized their discography. I mean, Singles soundtrack? Sure. Facelift? Of course. Dirt? You know it. After that, I checked out, though. Not on purpose. It just sorta happened that way. Then came Jar of Flies and Sap. Or rather, those two E.P.s landed in my lap a little later, I think. Anyway, by the time I got to know those two records, I’d all but decided they’d been written and produced for me.
It was as if they’d said, Oh, we’re a little too heavy for you at times? How ‘bout this shit then…
Such great records. Staples, even. For every collection.
That Unplugged performance, though…
Like, who was going to top Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots?
Alice in Chains. That’s who.
So, “Nutshell.” And more specifically, the Unplugged “Nutshell.”
It’s the show opener and the stage-taking fashion is just bonkers.
Cantrell, of course, is already out there…the anchor…
The bassist joins him and brings this crisp, velvety, alien-acoustic tone on a gorgeous instrument with a burnt, hand-written message on it. Two more members join then Staley takes the stage and just walks right in to the song’s first lyric. In a world of tarnished and rote language, it is sincerely epic. The whole thing. A genuine masterpiece.
“We…chase misprinted lies,”
Pretty tough to open a track in a more intense fashion than they already did musically in this performance, but what an introductory line. Whew. I don’t even know where to start with those four words as a unit. If you split them down the middle and start with the first half, the subject and verb need no explanation. It’s that second half, though: misprinted lies. I can’t decide if it’s as basic as it was maybe meant to seem or if there’s a double-negative involved. I mean, basic would mean like, the newspapers, right? That the vein of conspiracy circulated enough to be relevant even as far back as 1993? Or was the vehicle meant to include magazines, too? Possibly even books? That all the written word we consume is bullshit?
One notch deeper and you wonder if the content producers -- the authors -- are giving truths to the printers and the printers are misrepresenting the writers. Even one click further than that, though, is that the artists produce fake shit. Lies. And then those lies get misprinted? So by the time it reaches the consumer they’re already two wrinkles of deception in? Never imagined a pair of words could present such confusion. If you’re dumb like me though, and keeping shit dumbed down makes the sea more navigable, then we’re all just a pack of dumb Americans. Right? I mean, here we are, chasing misprinted lies, i.e. that good ol’ American dream.
I can’t really envision a scenario in which you enter a story and find the subject so royally fucked that soon outta the gate. I mean, this song is basically a 14-line poem, and one line in we’re maybe being shown that we’re living in some version of The Matrix. Pretty tough to recover from that and with the mood set visually and sonically the way they are in this performance, things look and feel pretty bleak. And super, super sad if you have any back-story inkling.
My daughter climbed in to bed with me the other morning and -- as has been the case for weeks now -- this song was already in my head. She said something that had an element of emotional charge to it and I reached for my phone. She laid there with me and watched, not uttering a word until Staley wailed the all-vocal refrain a second time.
“Dad,” she said.
“Is his hair wet?”
“We…face the path of time.”
Fuck, man. Just…fuck. So goddamned heavy. So goddamned poignant. So goddamned direct. And wild. And unfortunate.
It’s really difficult to think about Layne Staley and not think about Chris Cornell, whose also-tragic ending brought the heavy, and it’s really wild to think that -- even with money and fame -- these guys struggled (and perished) before the Internet changed the freaking world. I don’t know if the way that the Internet changed the world has made things harder or weirder or if it just feels that way now in Pandemicland, but there are obviously folks who have flourished in both eras while maintaining decent-or-better mental health. It’s just…man.
“And yet I fight,
And yet I fight,
This battle all alone,”
Watching these “Nutshell” Unplugged reaction videos offers some mysterious kind of numbing in knowing that almost every single content producer relates -- in some fashion or other -- to that three-line run. The battle can, of course, take many shapes; it can present itself, once, often, or repeatedly. It can be synonymous with life. Like Louis C.K. says in his bit about kids eating French fries and asking, “Why?”: “’Cause fuck it, man! We’re alone in the world! Nobody gives a shit!”
And in that battle line, I imagine double-entendre. Yes, the literal interpretation jumps, but it doesn’t only jump; it also barks and bites. There’s also the broader perspective, though, that the song’s title is addressing human existence, how individual it is, how cold and how lonely.
“No one to cry to,
No place to call home.”
I don’t know if that’s nihilism or what one might call it. Desolate, I guess. And probably accurate for a good lot of people. I imagine that sadness -- being one of the most intense feelings -- often gets addressed with self-soothing and self-soothing alone, and that the frequency with which one might feel left out or without a special, specific, carved-out place for them in the world could lend to a feeling of figurative homelessness. And when the canvas of the world is often painted with the imagery of community, it just might feel impossible to imagine being a part of a community when self-soothing in the cold, dark world remains your only accessible remedy.
“My…gift of self is raped,”
It’s tough to think of a better example than the word rape when pondering the way an actual word makes you feel when you see it written or hear it spoken. This one’s possibly an anomaly. Hearing that word is icky and chilling; seeing it written might wield an even greater power. It’s tough to consider the word and its meaning and not think of only violation on a human-to-human level, but -- unfortunately -- its got greater reach than even that, and I think that collectively the message is that a person, place, or thing -- having experienced that -- is forever changed. The fields, your body, or even…your gift of self.
I mean, what. The. Fuck. That’s crazy.
Your gift of self? Wow.
Imagine living most of your life never even acknowledging that you in your uniqueness and existence are a gift, that you -- by virtue of existence -- have value. Your self. Not your personality or your talents or your love. The part of you that -- as dictionary.com puts it under the philosophy subheading of the word’s definition -- “knows, remembers, desires, suffers, etc….the uniting principle, as a soul, underlying all subjective experience.” Now imagine having had awareness of your you and its value, and a person or a thing altered your you and your value, leaving you alone to rebuild yourself, re-appraise yourself, and view the world anew as the modified you.
The implication is that life, of course, is a gift, and that as part of life, there’s a sense of self inside everyone and we’re all moving about on this planet attempting to attach meaning to our own person and all of the other things in the world, and in doing so seeking connections between the two entities. Your gift of self, though, wound up violated and forever changed. Your whole became fragmented, and only at times feels sealable or that the seal in place will hold.
“My…privacy is raked.”
I suspect it to be common knowledge that us ordinary folks will never understand the concept of privacy on a level similar to those with fame. It’s just not feasible. We do, however, have a rudimentary understanding of what private means, or at least what we think it’s supposed to mean, especially now, in the age of Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (Note: I can’t believe that’s what the acronym stands for. Why have I assumed all along that the ‘P’ was for privacy?).
Safe, secure, and private, though. That’s what companies and entities are supposed to be diligent at and responsible for, right? And let’s not skip over our rights as citizens, either. We’re supposed to be allowed the freedom of privacy in our lives while following some semblance of public responsibility, I think. And if that freedom is jostled or exposed or collected from it really limits our ability to assign that meaning and make those connections, does it not? Pardon the rhetorical shit in here. It’s just quite the picture. I’ve been wanting to write about this song for days and days but the song itself keeps getting in the way. Beyond capitalism and citizenship, though, is -- I think -- the natural, organic notion of the want and wish for varying levels of privacy that cognition has encouraged us to expect and to cherish.
“And yet I find,
And yet I find,
Repeating in my head,
If I can’t be my own,
I’d feel better dead.”
Jesus, man. And that vocal refrain again, delivered -- just like the first time -- with seemingly no effort, next to no mouth movement. It’s all -- the whole thing -- the most frightful combination of comforting and haunting I think I’ve ever experienced.
And nothing about this whole endeavor could bring it home in any other fashion than Cantrell taking back the reins and delivering the briefest, most-perfect of gorgeous solos just before closing the chapter.
Truly phenomenal musicianship all the way around.
The reaction videos -- be they comedy or music or my 47th go with “Nutshell” -- are nothing but a double-edged sword in the lonely battle, though. The producers seldom meet my ridiculously placed expectation in terms of the whole thing cutting deep, but I think I hold out for the hope that they will. And I burrow further and further looking to have that thing met and yet I find that in doing so I get further away from doing what’s right and good for me: recharging for a better tomorrow.
I hope it’s a phase. I think it’s a phase. May be a little seasonal affect with a touch of holiday/winter blues. I dunno. It’s a wild world out there, though, and until I can shake it, this thing keeps repeating in my head.
Hopefully these words will help put it to bed.