This is a piece about the music of my teenage years, from an unpublished chapter of a memoir I’m writing called Nerd in a Time Machine.
The evolution of rock and roll in the late eighties in the Pacific Northwest coincided so perfectly with my own adolescence that I might as well have had a bull’s-eye and the word “grunge” tattooed on my forehead. By ’88 or so, metal had exhausted its innuendoes and FM radio was offering up such eye-rollers as Simply Red, Fine Young Cannibals, and Great White. We were ready to hear something new.
Before the Internet, we depended on friendships to discover new music, and music was one of the primary reasons to make friends. My friend Jason continued to insist that rock and roll had reached its creative apex with King Crimson and other bands of hairy Englishmen who understood time signatures. In Jason’s rec room we watched Penelope Spheris’s documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and I immediately ran out and bought Live from the Sunset Strip by X. My friend Mark collected every rare Sex Pistols bootleg he could find. I bought Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking solely because of the cover art and proceeded to play that tape more than any other.
Jane Addiction’s satiated my hunger for the epic guitar wail, but instead of the brain dead vamping of, say, Whitesnake, their rock was steeped in mysticism and psychedelic intrigue. Staring at the postage stamp sized picture of the band on the J-card, I found it easy to imagine that these four exotic figures were just visiting LA from another planet. The sexuality that oozed out of their songs wasn’t predatory like Aerosmith or Skid Row, but weirdly spiritual in a way that jived with Beat poetry and the films of David Lynch. I suppose this is all to say that Jane’s Addiction was real art. Decades later I’d get the chance to interview Perry Farrell over the phone, and counter to my impression of him as an alien life form, he was nothing but down to earth, genuine, and warm. I was gratified to tell him how much his music had helped me embrace being a teenage weirdo.
At a debate tournament at Pacific Lutheran University I came across a copy of the Village Voice, which had just named Public Enemy its Pazz and Jop award winner. Reading the article didn’t get me any closer to understanding what they sounded like, so I bought a tape of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back from Musicland at the Skagit Valley Mall, tore off the cellophane, and popped it into the cassette deck of my dad’s station wagon.
I should mention that there were three, maybe four black students at Mount Vernon High School among 1,200. Skagit County was, and is today, overwhelmingly white. My parents’ attitudes on race had been informed by having experienced life as a racial minority in the Caribbean, Gramps had participated in civil rights marches in the forties, and Poppy had led an all-black unit in Korea. Racism was a cancer my parents could connect to friends like Mike and Mary Kier, an interracial couple whose marriage in California in the late sixties had literally been illegal. But to me, Black America was a series of pop culture abstractions, caricatures, and comic foibles accompanied by a laugh track on Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes. Public Enemy hit me right between my white ears and opened my eyes.
Consider the typical white rock or metal band of the eighties. Essentially four or five men staring down a crowd from a stage, bulging phalluses barely contained in Spandex, legs spread, a drummer in a headband twirling his sticks, a front man singing euphemistically of intercourse and/or getting wasted. White rock was about projecting a hedonistic persona into an audience. Rap, in particular Public Enemy, was like a cat’s cradle of relationships, the music indistinguishable from a conversation the band conducted with itself and the audience through songs that were more than songs. This kind of internal communication was how all rap seemed to operate, particularly between authoritative Chuck D and clowning Flavor Flav. Occasionally Chuck gave a shout out to his DJ Terminator X, or to Professor Griff, the leader of the paramilitary backup dancers the S1Ws. Music didn’t have to be a thesis statement on male sexual entitlement, it could be an intellectual, multi-directional dialogue about history and struggle. In PE’s literary raps I glimpsed a secret community embroiled in scandals, combating false media, suckers, liars, and garbage television. Chuck D rapped a syllabus of black thinkers, while Flav disrupted the heaviness with references to candy bars and his abiding interest in chronometers. The music behind these voices writhed with squeals and horn bleats and elegantly integrated samples. There were no guitars, except for Kerry King’s paint thinner of a riff on “She Watch Channel Zero.” PE name-checked Anthrax, one of my favorite thrash bands, and rapped about breaking out of jail. Their music encouraged critical thinking, reading history books, exposing media biases, and finding one’s own narrative within in a history of injustice. And it was catchy as hell.
I began converting my friends to Public Enemy, and some took to it better than others. Listening to It Takes a Nation of Millions on the way to a movie one night with three or four other kids, a girl in the back of my car remarked, “This music makes me feel like we’re a bunch of Mexicans or something.” Another friend couldn’t believe that I listened to music that advocated a race war. Before long they were all Public Enemy fans.
Among my friends, the one who dug Public Enemy most was Matt, the older brother of my friend Lori. Matt played drums. He and his father bonded over a shared appreciation for jazz, and frequently went to shows together at Seattle’s Jazz Alley. Matt dug Miles, Coltrane, the Marsallises, and his own drumming style was nimble, his sticks fluttering around the kit in precise, surprising patterns. It wasn’t long before I suggested we jam. Matt hauled his drum kit to my house and set up in my bedroom. I showed him a couple riffs of a song I’d written with the metal-sounding title “Headless and Spineless.” He immediately locked into a beat and we were off. We sounded like a real band!
I wrote some more guitar parts and Matt knew what to do with them. Needing a singer, we drafted Mark, who we had never heard sing. What he did have was the presence we needed. He danced by throwing himself into the air in great leaps and twirls and kept a toothpick planted in a corner of a sneer. I wrote the lyrics for him to sing, or at least yell. We convened in the basement of Matt’s house and started making noise after school. Matt recruited our bass player, Tod, a tall, sweet, Viking of a guy with long red hair—our band’s own Dave Mustaine. We needed a name. Mark lobbied hard for Green Eggs and Ham. In the end, we named the band after a magazine that had rejected some of my horror poetry, 2AM. I admit that 2AM deserves inclusion the annals of dumb band names, somewhere between Toad the Wet Sprocket and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. While I’d intended the name to connote darkness and mystery, our friend Molly pretty much nailed it when she remarked, “Ooooh, you guys must stay up really late.”
The music of Skagit Valley teenagers in those days was shambling and head-bangy, with choruses sped up to double time and lyrics about farts, foreign policy, and nuclear war. There was a thrash band from Sedro Woolley called Mytslplck that had the chops to cover a Slayer song, which made all the other musicians in the valley secretly jealous. System Victim, with my friend Matt Nelson’s brother Pete on drums, delivered some killer shows at the Rexville Grange. Stagnant Water, of course, ruled our scene, milking the notoriety of “What’s Up Your Butt?” But the local band I was most drawn to was a confederacy of heshers who lived in a mansion across the street from the high school’s planetarium called Cranial Decomposition.
Cranial, as we called them, were led by a shuffling, long haired front man named Alex DeBlasio. Alex had some real singing talent, and possessed a sort of Ozzy-at-his-most-addled stage presence. Bearded and Jesus-like Bob Newman played lead guitar, and his brother Dan whacked away at the drums. For awhile their bass player was a guy named Ray Belisle before a guy named Jeremy Davis took over, to be replaced by Mark’s best friend Thom McCafferty. Cranial was rude, smelly, punk as fuck. Oh and for a period there was a second guitarist, a quite handsome young man in a mohawk named Aaron Lamont who would go on to front a cleverly or poorly named band (depending on how you looked at it) called Aaron Nation.
The Cranial house was a glorious shit hole full of cigarette smoke and dirty magazines, but a policy of no drugs or alcohol was strictly enforced. As a sophomore reporter for the school paper, I ventured to one of Cranial’s practices for a story. In a mildewy basement on a frigid night, the band ran through a dozen or so of their songs, which included odes to Mr. Potato Head and the pleasures of nose-picking. As far as I was concerned, this was epic, high art. What thrilled me most was the revelation that anyone could self-organize a band with a few friends and engage in the give and take of creating something out of nothing. The teamwork of the sports field that I observed as a reporter didn’t appeal to me at all, but the teamwork of music called to me and organized my friendships around common goals—writing a new song, playing a show, keeping a commitment to practicing together.
Skagit Valley’s grange halls had served farmers and their families for a hundred years by offering secular gathering places to organize and socialize. By 1988 these same modest meeting spaces were hosting shows where rural punks slam danced to bands both local and from out of town. The first time I saw a mosh pit, at a Cranial show, I found the sight so funny that I burst out laughing. Soon I was throwing myself into these human vortexes, seduced by the social contract of moshing. Whenever anyone fell, whoever was nearest would quickly get him back on his feet and out of danger. If you dove from a stage, you could be confident you’d be caught. Nobody spelled out the etiquette of moshing, you just instantly fell into the logic of this contrived form of chaos. Of the numerous times I stumbled and landed on my ass, I was astonished at how quickly and easily I was lifted back up and set upright by multiple sets of hands. There was something humane and communal and yet entirely individual about the ways we danced to this loud and manic music. You trusted the pit not to hurt you and part of the joy was in lifting some other weird kid like yourself out of harm’s way.
2AM was so excited for our first show that we arrived at Rexville Grange five hours early. The hall sat nuzzled against a hill, the peak of which offered an east-facing view of the most scenic of the valley’s flower fields, with the Cascades rising jagged and cloaked in mist beyond. But fuck nature, man, we were here to rock. The show was organized by Café Europa habitué Marc Zappa, who tended to the bands like a countercultural den mother. This being our debut performance, we were the first to play, and I occupied a corner of the stage, trembling and sweating, my left hand rigidly fretting chords as Mark barked songs about getting toast stuck in the toaster and drinking too much coffee. I think it’s fair to say we owned breakfast-themed songs among the bands that played that day.
One of the many appealing things about being in a band was that most adults considered it a barely tolerable, borderline miscreant waste of time. My parents found it amusing or harmless, though my dad occasionally grumbled about how much I spent on tapes and CDs. I became increasingly aware that there were bands worth listening to playing some fifty miles south. All across the Northwest, from Chimicum to Humptulips, metal heads were casting aside their studded gauntlets and slipping into the ratty flannel shirts their moms had gotten them for Christmas. What was happening didn’t really have a name, or fell under the broad taxonomy of “alternative music.” Bellingham, just a half hour north and home to Western Washington University and the Posies, boasted a single downtown intersection with a music store on each corner. There was a funky record store in the port town of Anacortes called The Business that allegedly carried new releases by Northwest bands, and they accepted tapes and CDs for trade. (It’s still around, in fact.) One day I walked in with a milk crate full of cassettes and presented them to the clerk, who happened to be Brent Lunsford of seminal twee rockers Beat Happening. As Brent excavated the spoils of my head banging years, the following words literally came out of my mouth: “I’d like to trade my Kiss tapes for grunge, please.”
That first trade I made out with Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff on CD, and vinyl singles by Dickless, Gas Huffer, Skin Yard, and Chemistry Set as well as Mudhoney’s self-titled album on vinyl. I’d read about and seen pictures of these bands in zines like Backlash but had no idea what they actually sounded like. When I got home I dropped the needle on the Mudhoney LP and was shocked that such excellent music had been conceived just an hour south of where I lived. Mark Arm and Steve Turner’s guitars sounded exactly like guitars were supposed to sound. It was bratty, squealy, jubilant punk that was precisely what I wanted to hear. What I needed to hear. What I lived to hear. I got the message loud and clear that if some guys in Seattle, of all places, could create something this fun and cool, so could I.
That’s how the alternative music surge of the early nineties spread like crazy—we loved this music so much that the only way to adequately express this love was to form bands of our own. Grunge rejected the gloss and the reverb of much of the music of the previous decade, and rejected the corporate distribution structures that went along with it. This was the crackly sound of a thrift store guitar being plugged into a sketchy amp. Accidental guitar feedback didn’t have to be an accident. It was music that was far more present and far less presentable. And the ignorance of Top 40 radio and the playlists of MTV made it all the more appealing. This was our secret.
The music underground wended its way through Skagit Valley as bands in vans from places as far away as Washington, D.C. stopped by to play shows that cost four bucks, or three bucks and a can of food for the food bank. We’d rarely, if ever, actually heard of these bands, but the phrase “all ages punk show” was all the marketing we needed.
The first thing I noticed about this band Scream when they played the Hillcrest Park Lodge was that the singer looked like Michael Onkean, the actor who played Sheriff Harry Truman on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This was the charismatic front man Peter Stahl. When the band started their set it was immediately apparent they were several orders of magnitude more talented than us local punks. With Pete banging a hand-held cowbell, they ripped into Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” and got an excellent mosh going. I stood just outside the pit and found I couldn’t take my eyes off the drummer. He was playing shirtless, his hair a grown-out dye job. His roots down to his ears were brown, his hair from his ears to his shoulders blonde. The high toms on his kit were huge, as big as most drummers’ low toms. And he beat the shit out of them.
I knew a thing or two about drumming thanks to my crusty, Scandinavian accordionist music teacher who’d berated me for not counting. My drummer friends Matt and Pete Nelson were at that show too. I’d spent some good times in junior high in Pete’s bedroom, playing his Ludwig kit, drinking his Budweiser, and listening to 2 Live Crew, Slayer, and Kiss. I’d played along with Matt’s graceful, mathematic style and been blown away watching the Ray Brown trio with him and his dad at Jazz Alley. I knew that being a virtuosic drummer meant more than cramming more notes into a fill, or playing in unconventional time signatures. It was obvious to us that the drummer was the best musician in Scream, hands down. He played hard, totally in the pocket, a perfect balance of power and precision, without being overly showy about it. After the set, Pete Nelson looked at me with tears welling in his eyes and said, “That’s the best fucking drummer I’ve ever seen.” I caught up with Matt soon thereafter, and he shared the same stunned opinion, word for word. I wanted to get my hands on any recording that this drummer with the bi-colored hair played on. At the end of the set I approached Pete Stahl and asked if they had any tapes for sale. He shook his head and said, “But we’re on Discord Records. Just find a store that sells stuff from Discord.”
On my next trip to Bellingham, I found a Scream tape at Cellophane Square. I looked at the photo of the band on the cover and noticed, to my disappointment, that the guy with the grown-out bleach job wasn’t in the band for this recording, so I didn’t buy it. I wouldn’t think about Scream again until I read that their drummer had joined Nirvana, which was when I learned the name of the greatest drummer in the world: Dave Grohl.