The ’90s was a strange and wonderful time when lighters-up power ballads could contain lyrics like “Her placenta falls to the floor.” That kind of thing was almost mandatory, actually. Even the blandest bands were expected to be unrepentantly weird. Into that era strode Live, an ambitious bunch of art-bros from the alleged “Shit Towne” of York, Pennsylvania (per our own Tom Breihan, essentially a smaller version of legendarily bleak Youngstown, Ohio) who knew how to strike exactly the right combination of mystical oddity and milquetoast approachability. Live were unaffiliated with any significant scene or movement, but their REM-meets-Pearl Jam-meets-Counting Crows jangle-wail fit snugly into the landscape of mid-’90s alt-rock radio. Their sophomore release, Throwing Copper, was one of the most dominant rock records of the ’90s, a slow-building success story that spawned four hit singles, sold 8 million copies, and made it to #1 almost a year after its release. It is almost impossible to overstate how popular this album was in its day, which seems crazy now because Live didn’t make it into the canon of “important” ’90s music and has become somewhat of a punchline, but that’s the value in puzzling over history from time to time. Throwing Copper turns 20 years old tomorrow; its time has come.
This is Ed Kowalczyk. In 1994, he was rocking the shaved-head-with-braided-rat-tail look, which never caught on for whatever reason. Kowalczyk represents, for all intents and purposes, the totality of Live in the popular understanding. You think of Live, you think of Kowalczyk spewing mystic nonsense in highly affected post-Vedder gulps, yelps, and shifts, possibly shirtless. That’s not to say the other members didn’t matter or never contributed anything, but nobody besides those who frequent unfortunately named Live fan sites could name any of them or pick them out of a lineup. That’s why it’s strange that, in the wake of money disputes and a lawsuit, the other three members are now touring with a different lead singer while Kowalczyk is out on his own keeping the spirit of Live alive by covering Imagine Dragons and such. But forget the present for a second and let’s bask in the bizarrely beautiful past.
Live were one of the first big post-grunge bands, the guys who ran with Pearl Jam’s baton toward poppier pastures after Eddie Vedder and company opted out of superstardom. (Nirvana ripoffs proliferated too, as wrongheaded Gavin Rossdale haters will tell you, but Pearl Jam had the deeper lasting influence on rock radio thanks to Vedder inventing the butt-rock bellow.) Live are remembered these days for being a de-evolutionary step on the path from PJ to Creed, but they actually started out as artsy college-rockers who regularly gigged at CBGB. Ostensibly that’s where they met Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison, who produced their 1991 EP Four Songs and full-length debut Mental Jewelry. The latter was weirdly released on New Year’s Eve 1991 and spawned several college radio hits, which put Live in position to be all over you/all over me/all over MTV with their Harrison-produced sophomore release.
And so they were. As with many relics of the mid-’90s, the videos are Live’s most lasting contribution. There was “Selling The Drama,” a less bloody “Jeremy” remake filmed before Kowalcyzk shaved his head. There was “I Alone,” the debut of Kowalczyk’s signature frathouse-shaman persona, which basically amounted to Kowalczyk waving his hands around wildly and making bug-eyes at the camera. And there was “Lightning Crashes,” the serious ballad, in which a woman gives birth, THE ANGEL OPENS HER EYES, PALE BLUE COLORED EYES, and everybody seems very somber. (According to an uncited Wiki quote from Kowalczyk, neither the song nor the video is about stillbirth, but rather a woman having a baby at the same time another woman dies.) The “All Over You” video seems to have been wiped from the internet for those outside of Africa, but that was a major hit too.
Those songs deserved to be hits. Chart smashes don’t have to make sense lyrically, and while Kowalczyk did deliver some memorably inscrutable turns of phrase, his real gift was knowing when to raise his voice from a plaintive hush to a clenched roar to crank up the tension. His bandmates (because they do deserve their due, that’s Chad Taylor on guitar, Patrick Dahlheimer on bass, and Chad Gracey on drums) were able to synthesize the dominant sounds of alt-rock radio and then spit them back out as ultra-catchy backyard barbecue jams anthemic enough to make Kowalczyk’s mystic gibberish seem powerful. In typical post-grunge blockbuster fashion, the rest of Throwing Copper is significantly less compelling, but it’s good enough not to derail your nostalgia trip. Opener “The Dam At Otter Creek” admirably sets the stage. Filler such as “Iris,” “Top,” and “Waitress” holds its own against most other grunge deep cuts from the time. (The “Waitress” lyrics could only have been written in the Lollapalooza era: “Come on baby leave some change behind/ She was a bitch, but I don’t care/ She brought our food out on time/ And wore a funky barrette in her hair.”) The aforementioned “Shit Towne” begins with some questionable poetry about crackheads and tall grass but eventually blooms into a legit fist-pumper, and country-tinged closer “Horse” would actually be the least ridiculous song on the album if not for the line “She rode a horse into my head.” Any of those songs would have made a better fifth single than the six-minute “White, Discussion,” but again, such maneuvers were par for the course back then. And anyhow, when your album is as wildly successful as Throwing Copper, you can afford to take some risks.
Live did take a chance with their next album, naming it Secret Samahdi and delving deeper into vaguely defined Eastern spirituality. And though that album sold only a quarter as many copies as Throwing Copper, it still went double-platinum and contained some respectable singles in the genuinely thrilling dark-tinged lead single “Lakini’s Juice” and the tender ballad “Turn My Head.” Live didn’t completely lose their grip on the zeitgeist until they started singing about dolphins on 1999′s The Distance To Here. In an effort to hang out with girls, I tagged along with some friends to see them open for Counting Crows at our local shed in 2000, and they already seemed washed up just five years after the height of Throwing Copper mania — and that was before they even released an album called Birds Of Pray. Kowalczyk was in full-on leather pants everybody-clap-along mode, and the crowd couldn’t wait for the band to dispense with new material and get on to the hits already. They had become a legacy act remarkably fast.
Still, Throwing Copper is a legacy they can be proud of. As a preteen with no concept of cred, I found these songs every bit as mesmerizing as the concurrent Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day material that was later canonized as important music. It is easy to poke fun at Live, same as any Clinton-era curiosity, and they certainly contributed to a regrettable trajectory for alt-rock radio. But they didn’t sell 8 million copies on the strength of Kowalczyk’s rat tail. The singles churned, charged, and soared as well as anything on MTV at the time, and they’ll settle in just fine as classic rock staples for Generation X.
So, let’s discuss: Does Live deserve to be remembered as a laughingstock or treated with the same respect as their peers? What’s your favorite Throwing Copper jam? Did Kowalczyk freak you out as a kid? Can you hear the dolphin’s cry? Scream it from the wall below.