This article originally appeared in the September 1992 issue of SPIN. In honor of Singles hitting theaters on this date in 1992, we’re republishing it here.
Phoebe Cates fellating a carrot. Judge Reinhold beating off in the can. John Cusack lovelorn outside lone Skye’s window holding aloft a boom box blaring Peter Gabriel. Details such as these give director Cameron Crowe‘s characters lifespans that linger on long past the closing credits. But Crowe’s most-celebrated contribution to the culture remains Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s stumbling, mumbling über-stoner, Jeff Spicoli, whose frazzled spirit was almost supernaturally caught by Sean Penn. The director has worked with a high caliber of acting talent ever since.
Constructed as Love, American Style—type vignettes chronicling the lifestyles of Seattle’s unattached, Singles, Crowe’s new, highly anticipated romantic comedy, consists of two recurring story lines featuring two recurring couples. Steve (Campbell Scott) and Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) are a cautious new item, each anticipating the union’s collapse. Janet (Bridget Fonda) is hopelessly devoted, incurably addicted to Cliff (Matt Dillon), who constantly tells her he’s seeing other women. In his presence, she shrugs off any lingering vestiges of self-respect and finds herself an eager, desperate fool for love. Calling after his departing form, she cries, “So, I’ll see you Saturday, then. And I’ll help you with your speakers.”
“The first night, when they all showed up,” says Crowe, recalling the cast and crew’s introduction to the Seattle grunge scene, “Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam (then called Mookie Blaylock) were playing at this little dub. I was trying out the camp counselor thing: ‘Let’s all go to this club and check out these bands.’ It really was the hell version of John Hughes. Here I come into the club with an these actors, and we sit in the corner. It was so packed and people were throwing beer bottles, and after a little bit, Kyra Sedgwick says, ‘I really get the wonderful scene going on here. I’m going to go home now.’ Then the costume girl goes, ‘Great. This is great. Bye!’ It ended up being Mart Dillon and Campbell Scott hanging until the very end, slam dancing.”
Singles has been consistently and erroneously represented as Seattle’s Saturday Night Fever, an impression exacerbated by the thump and flannel of the soundtrack and the fearsome density of the tendrils sported by Dillon in his role as the leader of fictional local band Citizen Dick. “The music tied the whole thing together,” concedes Crowe, “but it is not a movie about the Seattle rock scene. The music’s a backdrop. Matt never really performs in the movie. He’s just a guy trying to work out his relationship with Bridget Fonda. His obsession is his band. What makes it into the movie from that whole scene is stuff like the band getting their first record review and reading it together at a band meeting—and it’s the worst review ever. I had so much fun writing it.”
Crowe’s ’70s tenure as Rolling Stone‘s fan-in-residence was distinctly different, a time during which he handed out starry-eyed benedictions to Stevie Nicks, the Eagles, and, most notoriously, Peter Frampton, for whom he penned moist and breathless sleeve notes. “I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t bring that up,” Crowe says. “But you were right there, weren’t you? Didn’t hold back. Go ahead, why don’t you remind me I wrote liner notes for the next album, too. That whole period, 1976 to 1977, was really the death of rock. I would say I loved a lot of the music at the time, but it ceased to be personal very quickly. At least these guys like Pearl Jam arc in there battling. It’s funny to hear Eddie Vedder talk about Fugazi. We’d talk about them for ten minutes, then Eddie’ll go: ‘Sssh, it’ll exploit them to talk about them anymore.’ Soundgarden and Pearl Jam perform in the movie as themselves and that’s cool, but to have had Citizen Dick actually play would have taken us into the realm of Satisfaction.” (Probably a tall order to match up to that semi-legendary Justine Bateman girl-group picture.)
Yet Seattle’s shock ascension to the music capital of the planet didn’t even coincide with the movie. “It was just starting to happen when we finished shooting a year ago,” explains Crowe. “The big thing was Soundgarden. They were still working on their stuff. Nirvana really wasn’t a part of that whole scene. There’s still a lovefest going on up there. All these guys really get along. If you were from Kansas and you came to Seattle, you’d almost get the cliché version of what you’d expect.” He begins to embellish on this theme. “The guys from Nirvana have raided Sub Pop, and they’re in the parking lot loading records into the back of a blue VW bus. The guys from Pearl Jam are hanging out having coffee across the street. All the same people are still hanging out except that some of them arc talking about the houses they just looked at, rather than moving out of Mom and Dad’s.”
Of Dillon’s role in the movie, Crowe says, “It gets into the obsessed-musician issue more than ‘Are they going to make it?’ ‘Oh man, their first single got airplay.’ There’s none of that. Basically, this is a guy whose band is popular in Belgium and Italy, as he keeps telling you when he’s taking out the garbage. The funny thing is, I wrote his raps to be like parodies of the kind of interviews that happen in local Seattle papers. Then the whole thing explodes while we’re in postproduction and I start reading these interviews verbatim. The stuff that I wrote as jokes, people are now taking to be, ‘Yeah, righteous, man, I really understand what the guy’s trying to say.'”
Having mingled unnoticed among weasely high schoolers while researching his stoned-like-me masterwork Fast Tunes at Ridgemont High, the director decided to adopt a similar strategy with this film’s subjects. “I tortured everyone I knew, and a lot of people I didn’t know, by sitting in coffee shops and clubs taking notes,” he says. “People are definitely scared [of relationships]. It’s a mine field, you get blown up everywhere you step, and still people get together. You see two people get together and—unless they’re Annie Hall types, vacuous and superficial—you’d never guess they’d be together or be in love. I love telling the story about how two people end up together, because it’s usually not well-represented in movies, or it’s always portrayed by really attractive people that have wonderful jobs.”
At one time, it was reported, the likelihood existed of the star-bloated cast sharing the screen with Paula Abdul. “She came in and read for the part of Debbie Hunt,” confirms Crowe. “Basically, she was doing herself as a Laker Girl with four roommates, and it was funny as shit. No one believes me. I was very tempted to hire her, but then her tour was scheduled. But she was really fucking funny, and if I’d hired her, it would have been your favorite part of the movie. And, like Bridget, she was a fan of Chris Cornell and looked forward to working with him.”
One ultimately has to wonder what feelings Crowe retains—as the progenitor of Bill, Ted, Wayne, Garth, and a potentially monstrous regiment of stoned surfer dudes—for his bastard offspring. “My favorite thing was reading an interview with Alex Winter in the New York Times,” Crowe says, “where he said, ‘Oh, Spicoli’s humor is different than Bill and Ted’s. Spicoli is unable to laugh at himself, whereas Bill and Ted—’ I’m reading this going, ‘Huh?’ I lay it at Sean’s feet, because he’s the guy who created it. I always thought we’d get a guy from a bus corner who could never get the joke to do the character. Sean was just perfect. If he went back to do it, it would really ruin everything. But because he didn’t go back to it, you get all these guys who are trying to get dose to the magic that he created. Pauly Shore is a wounded caricature. He’s more like Richard Simmons than Sean Penn.”