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The First Time I Heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Tales from a Middle Age Father
It was a chilly October night. Our varsity football team had just lost another game to a similarly small 2-A school from the north western foothills of the North Carolina Piedmont. For myself, a 15-year-old sophomore, the focus was on our field house where on this Friday night in fall, freshmen and sophomores not allowed to attend Homecoming would have their night and their dance. It was East Surry High School, 1991. It was the night Kurt Cobain entered my life with his full-throated scream of teenage angst. It was the moment the term “Teenspirit” would forever be locked into my personal lexicon.
In hindsight, the whole night resides as a blur in my memory with a few standout moments. I smoked my first cigarette that night at some point, and I got a few secret kisses along the way, but the clearest memory of that blurred spectacle came somewhere in the first hour of the dance when the DJ conveyed to us rural kids that the revolution had arrived from Seattle.
At the time, I had a freshman “girlfriend” who I had been “dating” for about a month. We had a “song” that we called ours, and to be honest, it was a very unconventional song for two tweenies who stood on the brink of a decade of unbelievable music. It was Johnny Gill’s “Rub you the Right Way,” and she requested that I go and persuade the DJ to play it. In dutiful fashion, I meandered up to the stand and shyly asked for the song. He looked at me with all the judgement of a silent “seriously, kid?” (ignorance at 15 can be excused due to hormonal imbalance) but assured me that he would play it. I returned to her to tell her that it was going to be in the rotation now, and we waited. After a few other songs, our ridiculous anthem to ourselves made its way out of the speakers and across the open space of the field house. She was happy. This made me happy. We danced in our happiness.
As the song faded to its conclusion, we began to slow down as well and bask in our achievement. What else could we do now that “our” song had been played? There was still a couple of hours left to this thing, and we had done what he had come to do, right? Dance to “our” song at the Freshman and Sophomore Dance was our objective. It had been met.
Then something happened.
As Gill’s ode to doing naughty things to his woman faded into obscurity, the opening bars of a clean Fender bounced off the walls followed by a kick and snare that paved the way for a distortion we’d never heard before. The anthem of a generation washed over us like water from a burst dam. I turned to a friend who’s face conveyed the exact question I blurted to him, “what is this?” and his answer was just as profound in that moment as he uttered a shocked, “I don’t know.”
I wish I could say that I immediately went home and purged the Bugle Boy jeans and Hammer pants from my closet (that would happen in due time), and I wish I could say that I ran straight to a thrift store to collect as many worn out flannels as I could find (I would strip my stepfather’s closet of those in the coming months) but I can say that I left that night with that song in my head. I was curious to hear it again, and spent the next few days listening to KISS FM and watching MTV to catch the song again as my indoctrination into the “90s music revolution” began to take shape.
Looking back now, I can see how the timeline fell into place and my birth into true adolescence was formed. Before that night, my identity was placated on bad late 80s pop infused with remnants of left-over New Wave and hair metal sprinkled in for effect. I had become a quiet fan of 120 Minutes but really didn’t appreciate what I was seeing. I really thought it was just weird music that they wouldn’t play on the radio. The politics of “the alternative” had not entered into my reality as I lived in Pilot Mountain, for Christ’s sake. There isn’t a lot of punk sensibility to be found up there in tobacca country…
But I can also pinpoint that moment as the moment it all changed for me. The video had been on MTV for only a few weeks when I first heard the song, and some of the kids there had seen it already. By the time I had heard it that night, MTV was starting to inject it more into their daily rotation, and the slow rollout of other videos from other bands of the same ilk was at its starting point. But for most of us, that night was the night that we found Him, the mighty KC.
And we fell in love with him almost immediately.
Sure, we had been gifted in 5th grade with License to Ill and in 7th grade with Appetite for Destruction, but nothing had ever sounded like this. A few months later in February 1992, REM would break into the Grammy’s with “Losing my Religion” a few years after U2 crashed the party with Joshua Tree, but this was different. Way different. Immensely different. The road REM and U2 paved was now a traffic jam of amazing music, and the head of the pack was this three-piece out of Seattle who looked like they hadn’t had a bath in months.
They were way cooler than the tight leather pants still cascading out of LA.
In the weeks and months that followed, the “alternative” crept into our small high school and new factions of “I’ve been listening to this band for years” began to take shape. I actually had to prove to a kid that I had been listening to The Clash by bringing in my overplayed copied version of London Calling that a neighbor had made for me back in the mid-80s. You seriously had to have a card to prove you were “alternative” – so fucking stupid.
The discovery of new bands became a required, non-stop research project. We were collecting tapes and CDs like they were baseball cards, and we were individually discovering our own personalities through this new pallet of sounds. We rediscovered Athens and Minneapolis. 1970s New York and London. The quirky New Wave bands of our youth became serious artists. And that weird looking guy Robert Smith became a god for his ability to see this coming.
We reinvented fashion to fit our budgets. Thrift and Army Surplus stores became all the rage. Buying old slacks and cutting them off in just the right way so they would fray perfectly became an art form. We bought cheap jeans and then strategically cut holes in them while we laughed at the rich kids who bought their pre-holed jeans from Abercrombie and GAP. Hoodies became a staple (so much so that I have dozens of them to this day), and there was way, way, way too much flannel.
We were rewarded with Lollapalooza tours and Reading broadcast annually on MTV. We were given concerts at $20 a pop, and posters changed from Tiffany and Vanilla Ice to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Tribal art and hoop earrings became common place, and jewelry went from gold and silver to leather and rubber bands. We wrote so much verse and drew so much in sharpie while buying insane amounts of stickers that we believed held immortal meanings we would never part with. We bought cheap guitars and played them through cheap amps chasing that damn distortion Kurt created with pawn shop instruments. We dyed our hair pink, purple, blue and green or bleached it to become a nasty blonde version of our Seattle gods. We found ourselves in that song as a generation, and we celebrated the willful destruction it enacted on the culture.
And it all happened because that shabby looking guy from Aberdeen pulled four chords out of his pocket and gave us all a rallying cry.
“Here we are now, entertain us.”