Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 21, which explores the history of “Stinkfist” and Tool.
Tool formed in 1990: Maynard James Keenan on vocals, Adam Jones on guitar, Danny Carey on drums, and Paul D’Amour on bass, though in 1995 Paul left and was replaced by current bassist Justin Chancellor. In the early ’90s, the definitions of rock ’n’ roll, and hard rock, and alternative rock, and heavy metal were changing dramatically. The shameless extravagance of hair metal is colliding in midair with the self-loathing ferocity of grunge. 1991, of course, would bring both Nirvana’s Nevermind and the major-label gold rush to find the next Nirvana, lotsa loud and crunchy and scary rock bands getting signed all of a sudden, Tool among them. Tool’s first release, an EP called Opiate, came out in 1992—that’s Opiate as in religion is the opiate of the masses, Karl Marx, you get it. My favorite song on Opiate is called “Jerk-Off.” With a hyphen. Jerk-hyphen-Off. So it’s a noun.
Maynard’s good at screaming. Is “Jerk-Off” a song about shooting somebody, or a song about interrogating the complex moral calculus behind justifying your decision to shoot somebody? Choose your own adventure. Either it’s not that deep or it’s bottomless. Either these guys are stupid as hell or they’re the most intellectually stimulating rock band born in the 20th century. You can think Tool are stupid as hell and still love them, by the way, but as an 18-year-old I myself found them to be quite intellectually stimulating. Tool’s full-length debut album, Undertow, came out in 1993; their breakout hit, on MTV and alt-rock radio and so forth, was called “Sober.”
Here, then, is the wider world’s introduction to the Tool aesthetic. The hardness. The harshness. The desolation. That bass tone especially: DJJJJ-DJJJJ DJJJJ-DJJJJJ. If you were not, in the mid-’90s, a metal person, a heavy music person per se, Tool may have been, for you, the heaviest and most extreme music you still felt comfortable liking. But the Tool aesthetic was as much visual as audible, and the visuals were designed to make you super uncomfortable. The MTV-approved video, for “Sober”—it’s Claymation, but, like, gross Claymation. There’s this old guy trudging through a creepy old house, his head melts at one point, there’s a meat tunnel—the video’s arguably more influential than the song itself, and it’s definitely scarier. This applied to Tool’s cover art and their CD booklets as well. The liner notes to Undertow alone would’ve gotten me grounded. I’d rather not elaborate. Adam Jones, the guitar player, handled Tool’s videos. He’d worked on movies, done special effects for Ghostbusters II, and Terminator 2, and Predator 2, and just to mix things up A Nightmare on Elm Street 5. The final verdict, on the “Sober” video, comes to us courtesy of Beavis and Butt-Head.
When I found this clip again today I physically fell out of my chair laughing. I have never done that before in my life. Incredible. I just about died. Tool were so grim, and so badass, and so intense, and so disturbing that you could also find them—perhaps as a defense mechanism—hilarious. This band made you electrifyingly uncomfortable. As a teenager at least I had no idea how seriously to take these people. Tool’s next gross Claymation video—a lot of amputated limbs and cracked-up skulls, et cetera—was for a song called “Prison Sex.” Beavis and Butt-head watched that video, too, but it’s not nearly as funny.
Maynard’s frequent references in his lyrics to molestation, to abuse, to trauma; coupled with the gross Claymation videos and Beavis and Butt-head’s jokes about those videos; coupled with the stupid Tool bumper sticker that was a wrench that looked like a penis—all of this was terribly destabilizing, tonally and emotionally. Is this a joke? Is this dick joke a joke? You didn’t know what to think; you didn’t know how to feel. This was of course by design. Tool very much did not want to give anyone answers. To any of your questions. For a band of their prominence—Tool joined the Lollapalooza tour in 1992, 1993, and 1997—they did very little press, very few interviews, very few photo shoots. Picture them however you want. Project, onto them, whatever personality or philosophy or trauma you want. Take them deadly seriously or just assume they’re joking about literally everything. Did Adam Jones really work on Ghostbusters II? Don’t bet your life on that. Choose your own adventure. Take, from all this, whatever it is you need.
Who do you suppose Maynard is talking to, here? Forget Maynard, actually: Who do you suppose 15-year-old me pretended I was talking to here? Neither of these questions are addressed in the official Tool “Frequently Asked Questions” file. Tool’s press near-blackout, this vacuum of low information and active disinformation, was filled, naturally, by obsessive Tool fans in the early days of the widespread internet. The Tool FAQ was last updated in February 2001 and runs 16,594 words. It’s this very weird and pleasing mixture of direct press quotes and fan conjecture. Per fan speculation, the band name, Tool, is probably not a reference to the band being a helpful tool in the study of lachrymology, which is the 50-year-old philosophical study of “crying as therapy,” or “spiritual advancement through physical or emotional pain.” Lachrymology probably does not exist; the band name Tool is probably a dick joke. Sixteen and a half thousand words. I highly recommend it. Read all of it and maybe then you’ll know for sure what the song “Stinkfist” is about.
By 1996, Tool are rock stars. Their second full-length album, Aenima, debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard Album Chart behind a posthumous Nirvana live album. Oh, well. Plenty of options, now, if transgressive rock stars are your thing: You got Downward Spiral–era Nine Inch Nails, you got Marilyn Manson, you got Skinny Puppy and Ministry and KMFDM and so forth if you’re of a more industrial mindset. But nobody else thought of calling their new album’s lead single “Stinkfist.” Every chorus ups the ante, transgression-wise; cue the Beavis and Butt-head snickering, or don’t.
The Tool FAQ discusses “Stinkfist” at some length; a Tool fan with an aol.com email address suggests that “It is using a fist-up-the-ass metaphor for the desensitizing of the public.” In other words, perhaps Tool are just going door-to-door trying to shock people. I dare say it worked at the time.
They played this song on the radio. They played this song on MTV: Yet another grody Adam Jones video, it’s stop-motion, they’re sand people, I think, they eat nails, they rip their skin off, they convulse. MTV, though, would not actually call this song “Stinkfist.” It was listed as “Track #1,” because it’s the first track on Aenima. MTV VJ Matt Pinfield apologized on the air, at one point, because MTV would not let him say “Stinkfist” on the air. What a delightful state of affairs for a transgressive teenager, or a conformist teenager who fancied himself a transgressive. But I’d argue now that the most provocative aspect of “Stinkfist,” as a song, is that it was also beautiful in places. Melodically beautiful, and if you took it seriously enough maybe even philosophically beautiful.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.