Duke's been in the news lately, for a new release that's a decade late and still not ready for prime time. But for me, the muscle bound foul mouthed nutball holds a special place in history. See, I've never been good at video games. And since I always lose, quickly and without honor, I've never developed an interest in them. In my UNIX days I always died in "Hunt the Wumpus" and later, when video games were fixtures in bars, built into tables under a sheet of dark glass, ready to swallow a mint's worth of quarters on top of the bar bill, I was Space Invaders fodder of the worst kind. I often thought it would be better to just light money on fire - that might at least last a few minutes.
But I was in a very small, niche business - building packages for software distributions. If you had a piece of software and wanted ten thousand duplicated, labeled, retail boxed packages with manuals and coupons, I was your man. And there wasn't a lot of us, and we all knew each other. So one of the side bennies was you didn't pay for software. Any software - somebody would always pull one off the production line, mark it a 'QA Fail' and fedex it off for your amusement. And so it came to pass that in the early summer of '96 I found in my hands a copy of 'Duke Nukem 3D'. I had a homebuilt overclocked 386 machine and full-on VGA graphics, so even against my better judgement I decided "why not? If not me, who? If not now..." ahh, fuck it - I never had a prayer.
But here's the thing - this post isn't about Duke Nukem, or video games. Oh no, we're going much farther down the rabbit hole than that. Because in those brave, pioneering days, you'll recall, we climbed on the Internet with an analog modem, many if not most of us connecting through AOL, and it would take a minute or more to download a decent hi-res porn jpeg. We were still two or three years from MP3s and Napster, and video? Hah, don't be silly - when some visionary talked about watching videos over the Internet, we smiled, nodded, and muttered something skeptical about their intellectual or perhaps psychological development.
So in a way, the incremental improvements in technology were more appreciated then, because we had a sense that doing these things was HARD, and on the rare occasion that they were done WELL, well that was cause for much rejoicing. I had a thing called DMX. It was a music service delivered by the cable company, and it had its own set-top box and remote, and cost its own $9.95 a month. And to this day, I look back on it as the best music service I've ever had, perhaps the best music service imaginable. Of course, there were reasons for that that did not include the music service itself, although it was reliable, the quality was excellent and there were dozens of different genre-based channels to choose from. The coolest technological feature was that there was a little two-line LCD screen on the remote, and you could query the box and it would tell you the artist and song playing, and give you a brief synopsis of their history. Which was important, because incredibly interesting new things were happening in music every week at that time, and if you only had mainstream FM radio, you were going to miss most of them.
And that, at long last, is the point. Those very few years, post Nirvana and Pre Eminem were something special. It's as if they put something in the water - not only did the bands drink it and find new things to say and new ways to say them, but the labels drank it too and kept signing new bands with new sounds and there wasn't anything to hold it together as a genre, it was just an explosion of auditory exploration and musical poetry so they called it 'Alternative', although nobody quite knew what it was an alternative TO and nobody quite knew how all these different themes and sounds fit together as a cohesive whole, but it was so magical and so exciting that you literally got out of bed in the morning thinking "I wonder what I'll hear today that I've never heard before in my life"?
There were the big boys - Alice and Soundgarden and Punkins and Bush, Gavin doing something interesting with basic metal for the first time in a long time, there was a whole new look at what punk was supposed to sound like, Offspring and Rancid and even Greenday, when every new track off 'Dookie' was a revelation. Everclear and No Doubt and even Dave Grohl, proving lightening CAN strike twice. There was spinoffs like Belly and DHC getting a chance to soar, there were little noticed flashes of brilliance, from Self and Geraldine Fibbers to Heather Nova to Dada (remember 'California Gold'?) to Catherine Wheel, Liz Phair and the Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms to Mazzie Starr, Social Distortion to Imperial Drag, Letters to Cleo to Godsmack.
It was that moment when they played the Primitive Radio Gods on DMX while I struggled and hacked and restarted my way through Duke Nukem 3D. And yes, I finished it, although I DID have to use some cheats to get through a couple parts, and it took me a ridiculous amount of time, hours piled on hours, but never wasted, for there was always music playing, and, at least for a time, the music was magical.
"Until The Oil Tanker Got It"
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