I remember finding my parents’ Beatles albums. Around the same time, my oldest cousin discovered his parents’ Led Zeppelin. That connection between generations has been something I’ve been aware of all my life. Yet this reflection back on my own high school music is absurd now that I have a child. Some of these songs were seen as trash, as dangerous, as inappropriate, or at best pop music and forgettable. Much like my parents thought of many of the songs I’ll discuss here, I’ll think the same of his music. I wish that weren’t true and I could be “cool”. I’m already years removed from knowing current pop music. What I discovered through this selection and through over 20 years of distance is that I never was cool. I’ll forever be happier putting up double horns instead of double mint bubble gum pop.
My high school years started in the fall of 1992 until the spring of 1996, and this jukebox of memories is mostly confined to that time. There may be one or two that were released earlier, but I didn’t discover until I was in high school. Furthermore, it was a Catholic high school. Uniforms, religion class, all of the good stuff. This faith-based teaching affected my thoughts and caused me great debate over whether certain types of music were sacrilegious to hear. I was not yet “in on the joke”.
Instead of full chronological these songs will be grouped into themes and stories. Starting with that moment that all of us in a certain generation remember. The moment we first heard/saw “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
I was in junior high and the school was a short walk from home. Sometime that year I started walking to school with a classmate. Get ready, leave my house, walk a block, hang out while he gets ready, go to school. One day he was getting his shoes on, MTV on in the background and that guitar started. We stayed. Watched the whole thing, eyes agape, knowing we saw something different. More though, we knew it mattered.
Fast forward to high school and Nirvana was still the great unifier. Everyone knew the songs no matter what social caste. Which means everyone had to watch Nirvana: MTV Unplugged.
I claimed the TV for that night weeks in advance. Back when many homes had only one. Back long before the internet was just thought much less a whisper. Still, 25 years later, I can listen to this entire performance start to finish and hear something new. This was Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Elvis’s return concert for Generation X. All of us in our homes, yet all of us experiencing it together.
“Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy”
Shortly after we all experienced the end together as well. I came home from school, turned on MTV and there was no music. Just people crying. It took a moment to register and then…
Overlooked in all of the mainstream news at the time or the looking back articles now is an exploration of how Gen X learned about death. Most of us first experienced death through Big Bird. The classic Sesame Street episode addressing Mr. Hooper’s death. We first knew of death from the TV so it makes sense that the first big death of something that was “ours” would also be experienced through the same medium.
Then at the perfect time, we learned how to heal. The Foo Fighters debut album came out the summer before my senior year. When we were all thinking of what to do next, of how we’ve changed and what we’ve learned along the way. When this is all about to end and we’re scared to death what if anything we do next.
“This is a call to all my/
In addition to teaching me about death and rebirth, music also taught me about love and lust. Two neighboring, confusing, and conflicting emotions for a teenage dirtbag boy.
At this stage of my life I wanted to rock, I wanted girls to like me, and I wanted pretty girls to look at. As if a gift from the heavens, the Aerosmith trilogy arrived. “Crazy”, “Cryin'” and “Amazing”. Aerosmith’s “Get a Grip” album featured all three songs and furthermore all three videos starred Alicia Silverstone. Later, Liv Tyler joined the party and they were the prettiest videos on MTV at a time when that meant something.
Aerosmith gave enough rock to start conversations with anyone. The cool guys, and the cool girls. I didn’t know the term or the lifestyle at the time, but there was a goth girl in my class. She took that as far as a Catholic high school and still living under her parent’s roof and rules would let her. A conversation about the Toxic Twins took us to classic rock like Black Sabbath and then brought that around to White Zombie. “But I don’t have the album.”
Oh but thanks to being home by myself while other high school kids were on dates or playing sports, I was up late watching Headbangers Ball and not only knew of the band I bought the cassette. But cool goth girls have CD players. Which I coincidentally asked my mom for one immediately.
“Well, sweet little sista’s high as hell, cheating on a halo
Grind in an odyssey, a holocaust, a heart kicking on tomorrow
And a breakdown agony, I said an extacy in overdrive
We’re riding on the world, Thunder kissin’ nineteen-sixty, five, yeah, wow!”
It never went anywhere beyond small talk between the two of us but the revelation landed. Talk to scene girls about music. Cute girl starts with Green Day and gets into punk? I’ll be right there with you even though it’s a “destination unknown!”
“Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby Soho!”
The mental growth from a teenager to an adult lands and the girls start discovering their own voices? I will be right there as a secure confident man (or at least pretending to be at the time) and I will rock out beside you next to the debuts of Alanis Morisette, No Doubt, and Poe. Fake goth girl doesn’t understand irony? I don’t feel threatened by Peter Steele, let’s sit down and discuss the entire catalog from Type O Negative.
“Yeah you wanna go out ’cause it’s raining and blowing
You can’t go out ’cause your roots are showing
Dye em black
Black no. 1″
None of this worked, but the lessons were there. Conversation and common ground can go a long way. Never was this a bigger lesson than when I was dating in my senior year. “Dating”. In reality, it was a group of us going to movies, or Denny’s, or similar points. I think she’s cute, she thinks I’m cute, let’s date. But, beyond that, what do we have in common? The truth was – nothing. Not TV, movies, books. She played country in the car. There was really nothing other than “cute”. At that age of delusion knowing everything but in reality, knowing nothing, I thought that was all there was for any relationship. It wasn’t until her friend walked by singing. “The world is a vampire.” A light went off. One, apparently I’m dating the wrong friend. Two, I’m more excited to talk to her after one lyric from Smashing Pumpkins than I am to continue the talk I’ve been having for the last hour with this girl who is “cute”. The truth had to come out. I couldn’t hide who I was anymore. A lesson that had been building all along.
In my freshman year, there was a junior who was the coolest guy in school. We had a friend in common so he tolerated me at times. I was already nervous telling girls what music I liked, I certainly wasn’t telling the Fonz. What if he laughed? What if he made fun of me? What if he yelled “nerd!” and there was no whimsical musical number ending the movie on a high note? And speaking of high notes, the dude could sing too. At the yearly talent show, his band performed Stone Temple Pilots “Plush” and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I tried to learn how to sing it in hopes of being just as cool. Not sensible things like learn how to sing properly, take voice lessons, pick up a guitar. Nope. Copy an A get an A.
He tolerated me and one day brought up Pantera. I start talking Cowboys from Hell and he was shocked. At this time it was a small percentage of people who knew how to Re-Spect Walk! It was even fewer who could rock out to Cemetery Gates. I made a copy of Rob Halford’s side project – Fight – for him to listen to. This may have gone too far. While he liked the metal he either didn’t love the metal or didn’t love the same metal.
Great. Now I’m going too far for the guys I want to be like and the girls I want to be liked by. I start to debate a full-on hide of who and what I am. Not only switching over to top 40 but throwing away the comics. Watching football instead of wrestling. Sportscenter instead of Animaniacs.
Fate and my father intervened. To experience a different place, to spend some time together, to have that one summer like Meatballs or the Sandlot or your pop culture baseball park benchmark of choice. I went from upstate New York to in the shadow of D.C. in Maryland for the summer right after I turned 16.
That summer I was in an entirely new area, a major metropolitan area. More important though, no one knew me. I worked, had spending money, access to the Metro, and availability to items my hometown never saw. Record stores, comic stores, scenes. All of it. Plus, a trusted Walk-Man. This was the summer of Anthrax and their album “Sound of White Noise”.
I wore out the cassette. Going through three copies that summer, and untold double A’s. I loved it so much every time I went to that cool store in the mall to get a fresher copy, I had to buy more cassettes. The best part was… No one judged me. No classmates, no too cool for you. None of that. If anything they directed me to other music. For the first time in my life, I was shown I may be alone in a small area, but I’m not alone in the world. It’s okay to be as weird as you want to be, someone else is into the same stuff.
When I returned home that summer it was with a new love not only of music but of myself. This is me and what I like, if you don’t like it, I don’t care. Now the crazy stuff started coming out of my speakers. KMFDM “Drug Against War” and Butthole Surfers. Even music that crossed boundaries and no one knew what to think of, like Biohazard.
Thankfully that record store in DC had one of those ‘zine looking things listing all the cool shops nationwide. To my shock, there was one in my hometown. Buried in a strip mall with a small sign. I must have ignored it hundreds of times, but now I would never forget. The store name almost became a calling card to know who was cool in the town. While I was uncool and forgotten up until this discovery I finally felt true.