A PACKAGE ARRIVED last week while I was laid up on the couch after a small surgery. I had been eagerly waiting nine months for my vinyl copy of Red Red Meat’s 1995 album, Bunny Gets Paid, and it came at the worst possible time. My wife offered to put it on the turntable before she left for work, but I realized that nobody would be around to flip it over for me.
I pouted and told her no thanks.
Frankly, it wasn’t urgent that I listen Bunny Gets Paid a thousandth time just then. But being beyond the record player gave me a moment to think about that album and to realize how lucky I am for sellouts.
Specifically, Sub Pop Records in 1995.
The mailman did not simply drop copies of strange, wonderful albums like Bunny Gets Paid onto your porch in 1995. He did if you had a Sub Pop mail order catalog, I suppose. But he didn’t if you were a young man like me in Deshler, OH (Population 1,700-ish, depending if anyone was on vacation that day).
Thankfully, that changed when one infamous record company threw its good reputation out the window.
Famously, that was silkscreened across Sub Pop’s t-shirts back then. The record label that brought Nirvana and Soundgarden into the world thrived off its underdog appearance. Sub Pop was a proud loser until it won big by selling 49% of the operation to Warner Music in 1995 a few months before releasing Bunny Gets Paid.
It may have seemed like the Pacific Northwest super indie was cashing in on its grungy success, maybe pulling a Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, considering that the Seattle sound was about as unfashionable as Layne Staley’s beard by then. But in reality, the label had already accomplished everything an indie could at the time. Despite accusations of selling out for big bucks, Sub Pop teamed with one of the largest record labels in the country for un-sexy reasons like improved distribution and marketing. (Though, yeah, $20 million didn’t hurt.)
But by sacrificing their underground cool, Sub Pop gave its weird post-grunge era records a chance at life beyond college campuses and hip clubs.
And it worked…at least once.
Aside from the Pumpkins, who did the magazine consider part of Generation Axe (Their words, not mine) in its grandfatherly attempt at promoting alternative music? How about those bad boys of Pennsylvania Dutch country: Live. Plus, alterna-yawners Lenny Kravitz and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were honored with intricate tablature spreads.
Somehow, buried inside this white-knuckle selection of future T.G.I. Friday’s background music was a weathered, broken treasure. Hidden inside a publication that prided itself on interviewing fretboard jocks like Eddie Van Halen was a band that sounded like it might not even own a guitar tuner. Amongst tips on beefing up low end tone to better imitate AC/DC’s Angus Young was a tiny 200 word review of Bunny Gets Paid.
Take a moment and think about it. This was briefly considered a contemporary of the dreadlocked “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” dude.
The review stuck out so badly it couldn’t help but capture my attention. I reread the article roughly fifty times that December. It called Red Red Meat weird and bluesy and accused them of possibly abusing cough syrup.
I was sold, except for the tricky fact that Buckeye State farm boys didn’t exactly live near underground record stores. This was pre-EBay, pre-Amazon, pre-Google. People couldn’t stop staring at flying toasters on their computer monitors, for God’s sake.
Thankfully, Sub Pop had sold out and with it, their offbeat albums frequently got reviewed in slick glossies sold at mom and pop pharmacies like Scarborough’s Drugs in Deshler, OH.
The only problem with this dream machine, other than its ability to repel teenage girls like a windowless van, was a lame factory AM/FM radio. Thankfully, by purchasing the world’s most geometrically angular sedan, my parents had saved enough cash to install a stereo, too. Not a CD player, of course. At that time in-car disc setups were only for millionaires like Jennifer Aniston and Urkel.
Thankfully, I had a solution:
But, the first step was to drive an hour north to civilization.
Civilization, in 1995, meant Best Buy, which was pretty unique and thrilling back then. While the Aires was getting tricked-out with the best sound system $65 could buy, I happened to browse the R section of the CDs.
There it was. A decapitated doll’s head inside a wine glass, crowned with dried flowers and what, up close now, looked like the same green shag carpet we had at home. I am certain there is no way a big box store in 1995 would have carried Bunny without Sub Pop’s sellout to Warner. How fortunate for young hicks such as myself.
I spent some birthday money on that album and Bunny Gets Paid was the first thing I listened to when I was finally able to drive alone.
I may be the only person on Earth who can make such a claim. I certainly was in Deshler, where my friends’ musical taste stretched across the spectrum from Metallica to Pantera. I don’t think I ever played Bunny for anyone in high school. I kind of liked it that way. Besides, how would I have even tried to explain such a haunting, wart-covered blues record with my Bevis and Butthead vocabulary?
I had to laugh when I was finally able-bodied enough to man the record player and my three-year-old son sang the chorus to “Chain, Chain, Chain.” Maybe I shared Bunny with more people than I realized?
Thankfully, Sub Pop shared Bunny with as many people as it could in 1995, namely the coveted 14-to-18-year-old-Ohio-Farmboy demographic.
To this day some people still hang on to that outdated, Albini-esque stance that major labels ruin indie music. It’s a belief I also gripped tightly for years. But if you hold the facts up to the light a certain way, you can see how selling out also changes lives for the better. I need look no further than my turntable these days. Bunny Gets Paid has spoken to me for different reasons through up times and down, through high school, college, cross-country moves, marriage, a dozen dead-end jobs, and parenthood.
I’d like to think that up in Seattle, while I was studying the defensive driving textbook, Sub Pop was signing its Warner contract in hopes that the music they loved might do that rare thing that only great art can: to make a deep, personal impact on someone.
And, yes, stacking a few million bucks in the bank wasn’t a bad side effect.