On this day, twenty years ago, I was a week away from becoming a high school senior. Seventeen years old, with all the naïve and undeveloped and insufferable swagger that comes with being that age. I knew everything there was to know about everything at that point, figured it all out myself, and anybody who disagreed with me was flat-out wrong and stupid, and I told them so every chance I got.
(Hey, I never said I changed much in the last 20 years; I was just younger then. No less loud, no less opinionated, only a little less likely to be uncompromising in my beliefs, no more patient, and significantly more likely to be wearing tattered cut-offs and ripped fishnets and red jelly shoes. The biggest differences now are (1) that I know that I don't actually know everything, I just act like I do, and (2) in the last two decades I have learned how to call people stupid in about eight different languages.)
I was in the choir and I was a band groupie and I occasionally hung out with other fledgling "artists" and "writers," and by association I ended up listening to a lot of different kinds of music. My favorite records tended to be punk and post-punk and new wave and American college radio: the Clash, the Ramones, the Cure, the Smiths, Elvis Costello, R.E.M. – lots and lots of R.E.M., especially Document – Concrete Blonde.
(Most people, to this day, probably do not know about my secret hidden obsession with New Kids on the Block, and once this is over we're all going to pretend that this never happened, but I still hold a very special place in my heart for Joey McIntrye, and I still get weak in the knees if I ever hear "Please Don’t Go Girl" or "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." I truly believe that in another life, he and I were meant to be together. SHUT UP.)
My parents, I'm sure, thought it was just so much noise, but I'm sure that's what their parents thought about their music, back in the day. The only difference between their generation and mine, I'm pretty sure, was that my grandparents were probably pretty certain that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not secretly transvestites, as I'm sure my parents wondered about Robert Smith. As did I, from time to time, let's be honest.
I can't remember what class I was in the first time I heard chatter at school about this new band that had just put out a record. It wasn't one of my musical friends, who were all going through a simultaneous fixation with Queen to the point where we listened to A Night at the Opera every day at lunch time for almost an entire school year. It was a VERY LONG TIME before I was able to listen to Queen again without immediately wanting to find Jon Conahan and punch him in the face.
No, this was somebody else, another student who was not my friend, just someone I knew, who would now mostly like be called an "early adopter." The CD got passed around among a cluster of boys who were all listening to the same stuff at the time – "arena rock," U2 and INXS and AC/DC. This was something new, a kind of music coming out of Seattle, and nobody was really sure whether they liked it or not. I remember catching a glimpse of the cover, kind of bright pink, which I thought was weird, and some muttering about lyrics: "I think this one song is about suicide."
My interest was piqued, that was for sure, but not necessarily in a good way at the time. Whatever the equivalent of "girl, please" was in 1991, I no doubt was thinking it: that one song is about suicide? You need to listen to some different music if you think one song about suicide is a big deal. Love is suicide. Life is suicide. Here, listen to this record and read some Sylvia Plath and then we'll talk. Pass the black eyeliner.
Six months later, maybe more, I finally heard songs from the record for myself. Yet again, I cannot remember where I was or who I was with. I seem to recall being in a car, and having just broken up with a boy, and probably I was sneaking a cigarette as I wept into my Mountain Dew. It was night, I know that much, and I think it was cold. What I do remember for certain is the sound of my entire worldview shifting without a clutch.
It sounded like righteous anger, and fear, and boredom, and loneliness. Like grunts, and groans, and testosterone, and overcast skies. Like torn jeans, and boots, and flannel. Like someone railing against the entire world, guttural growls against the messed up shit that was all around us, everywhere. Like loud guitars, and live drums, and masculine wailing. Like I had finally found someone who actually understood me, after an entire lifetime of listening to music about people who were themselves misunderstood.
It sounded like Pearl Jam's Ten, first released twenty years ago today, and still one of my top ten favorite albums of this lifetime.
11 hours ago