Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Long Time Ago I Never Knew Myself

Steven Hyden:

Grunge set me off on a journey I’m still on. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and their peers used rock stardom as a vehicle for exposing gullible teenagers like me to parts of life that were previously obscured or hidden from mainstream view. Records, movies, books, ideas—all it took was a casual reference to something you’d never heard of an in interview or an album’s liner notes to point you toward another avenue to explore, which then led to more avenues. These bands don’t matter? My God, if you were like me, they gave you the world.

This music changed me. It was important to me. I guess it always will be.

I have a very vivid memory of sitting at my high school graduation, staring at all the caps and tassels in front of me, thinking about all my peers and their talk over the previous weeks about their futures. They seemed so sure of themselves, sure of why they were going to college and sure of what they would do with the education they got there. What was wrong with me? Why didn't I have that sort of self-assurance, or at the very least, why couldn't I fake it?

There was one small kernel of an idea in my head that alleviated the worst of the anxiety, though. I was already starting to tell people that I wanted to be a musician.

Just a couple years earlier, though, I didn't even have that. I was an average student, one of those blessed/cursed with so much "potential", if only I would "apply myself". Those Bs and Cs could so easily turn into As and Bs if only I would put in that little extra effort. But I wasn't terribly interested in most of what was being taught, and as I got into the high school years, those Bs and Cs started occasionally turning into Ds and Fs, mostly when it came to post-algebra math.

It became a ritual almost every nine weeks, the "family meeting", which essentially meant a lecture from my dad about the latest report card while my mom tried to stake out some meaningless middle ground, pleasing no one. He was well-educated and successful in two different lines of work, and impressed repeatedly upon me the need to start thinking seriously about my future and the need to start preparing for it immediately. Get those grades up. Get involved in some extracurricular activities; colleges like to see someone who looks "well-rounded". You're isolated from your peers. You're isolated from your teammates. You don't want to end up with no money and no options when you're older, do you? Do you have any ideas of what you want to do with your life? Once, when I was maybe about fifteen or sixteen, I remember staring at a spot on the table in front of me and saying in a small voice that all I really knew that I loved doing was listening to music. His response was to start talking about the sort of work you can do within the record industry. Office-related work, which had nothing to do with what I was saying at all. At one point, he talked about sending me to military school with the idea that the stricter regimen might keep my mind from wandering. For a kid who found ordinary school brutal enough, this was the closest thing to hell I could imagine. I remember going up to my room, digging out the saddest song I knew at that point to listen to repeatedly, and crying myself to sleep.

I thought about suicide a lot those days.

So sick of not fitting in, so sick of wondering why I couldn't fit in, so sick of just living in constant fear of everything. I had shoplifted a bottle of sleeping pills at one point, which I kept hidden in my room. Just knowing it was there was a strange comfort, knowing I had a clear way out if things ever got too bad, and luckily, I never reached the limits of my endurance.

It almost seems quaint now, thinking back to how easy it was to feel so isolated in those pre-Internet days. Adolescents have always felt that way and still do, of course, but I think there was a slightly heavier burden to bear when, for many of us, there was really no way to find out about other people, other ways of thinking and acting. We didn't even have cable TV at the time. If you didn't fit in with the people around you, that was your problem. You knew the kids you went to school with, and that was pretty much it. And I didn't care to know many of them. On graduation night, I got my diploma, walked back into the school to return my cap and gown, stood around for a minute in the cafeteria watching them all cheer and slap each other on the back, and thought to myself, Why am I still standing here? I don't give a fuck about any of these people. I walked on out and went home. I've never seen most of them since.

I listened to a lot of heavy metal at the time, and Metallica was a particularly valuable lifeline for me. I had started letting my hair grow and getting tattoos. I was playing drums at the time, and corralling a couple friends to play other instruments. But the year after I left school, there was a video on TV from a band called Nirvana.

I'm not going to try to outline everything significant about that fact; Hyden has spent ten installments going over the same topic and still had to leave a ton of stuff out. For me, the important thing was I finally had a template for a new way to live in what the media would begin referring to as grunge. Here, in magazines and on MTV, were people who looked like me while embodying a passion that I never allowed myself to acknowledge, let alone express. Here were people who talked about literature and poetry in interviews and made it sound fascinating. Here were people who made an example of how to live in a way that didn't embrace the mindless hedonism of typical L.A. rock music, or the empty, acquisitive values of society in general. How to live -- the question I had been trying to answer for myself without even knowing how to ask it. I read William Burroughs because Kurt Cobain talked about him. I read Charles Bukowski because the Red Hot Chili Peppers mentioned him in a song. I heard Henry Rollins talk about reinventing himself from a scared, weak little kid into a hardcore punk legend with the help of some philosopher named Nietzsche. I had a brief handwritten-letter correspondence with Otis from Animal Bag. I could go on for hours. Like Hyden said, it only took the mildest of references to send me off on another ravenous search for more knowledge and experience to add to my expanding worldview, and the search itself was intoxicating.

One day, I came down the stairs softly and overheard my parents talking in the kitchen, unaware of my presence. My dad was telling my mom about this regrettable path I had taken, saying that as far as he could see, I had doomed myself to a subpar life of subsistence wages. No decent woman would ever be interested in me, given the way I looked. He felt that he had done all he could, and was resigned to having to wash his hands of whatever I became. My mom was agreeable as always. I stood there for a moment thinking, and then continued on my way out the door. As far as I was concerned, I was on my own from then on.

I spent the next ten years or so focused on writing and recording music, until developing RA. By then, I had given up on the idea of making a living at music anyway, but I didn't need that fantasy anymore. I had made a life out of it. I gave it my heart, it gave me the world. I'll always be grateful.