The first cassette I ever own is Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace. I get it for Christmas in 1983, the same year my older brother gets Peter Schilling’s Error in the System.
I join a band as a freshman in high school. We call ourselves the More Than a Feeling Band because that is the first song we learn how to play. All covers. We are very bad. The drum set I am using had been the spare kit from my middle school jazz band, garishly ugly and made of fiberglass. It had been sitting, unused, in a closet. I asked our band teacher, a working jazz musician from Cincinnati named Bill Jackson, if I could buy it. He checked. He said district policies prevented him from selling any school property but that there were no similar policies in place against loaning it to me indefinitely. So my parents picked the drum set up after school, loaded it into the car, and we took it home.
Billboard Magazine’s top song of 1989 is “Look Away” by Chicago.
There is plenty of good music being made but I am resistant to almost all of it. Later in my life I wonder: Why didn’t I like R.E.M. at the time? Why didn’t I like the Cure? What was wrong with me? Then I re-watch the video for “Love Song” and remember that Robert Smith is absurd. Michael Stipe is embarrassing. The reality of 1989/1990/1991 is much more complicated than the memories. Pop music is absolute garbage and alternative music turns me off. So I throw up my hands and listen to whatever challenges me the least, which means classic rock radio and hair metal ballads. You think it makes me happy to type that?
I am too dorky for the mainstream and too dorky also for the skaters, the smellers, the moshers, the drama geeks. I am not nearly smart enough to fit in with the nerds. The good old boys ignore me, mercifully, because I’m barely there. But the girls ignore me too, because I’m barely there. I play bass drum in the marching band. I own more than one Julian Lennon album on cassette. I love Dream of the Blue Turtles.
I tell people that the first CD I ever bought was Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, but it’s a lie. The actual first CD I ever bought was Wilson Phillips’ eponymous debut. This was 1990.
Billboard Magazine’s top song of 1990 is “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. Number three is “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
I happen to catch “Valerie Loves Me” on MTV’s 120 Minutes and begin to reconsider a number of things. It’s poppy, for sure, but also a little bit messy. The desperation in Jim Ellison’s voice plucks a string somewhere deep inside me. To this day, I can’t get past it.
Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish comes out in 1991. Too scary for me. I pass.
Sting’s Soul Cages also comes out in 1991. I buy it on CD. I keep the empty long box for a long time. I still have the disc with its misprinted track listing.
This whole thing is a process.
Somehow, I get a girl. She has one crooked tooth. She wants our song to be “Silent Lucidity.” I make the case that you don’t pick the song; the song picks you. Really, though, I’m just not into Queensryche. Who the fuck is? And why do I have to be such a stickler about things?
Ten is released in August of 1991, though—like all good things—it takes a while to reach Ohio. It seems to arrive accidentally, like a cargo ship crash landing on a desert island. “Even Flow” burns through my roof and lands in a pile on my bedroom floor. I cautiously approach. I give it a sniff. I poke my finger into it and tap it onto the tip of my tongue. Those guitars like acid rain. Drums as big as timpani. That voice. It’s not bad.
Everything arrives at once. There is no such thing as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and then there is such a thing as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There’s “Outshined.” There’s Ritual de lo Habitual. There’s “State of Love and Trust” and “Black” unplugged and “Yellow Ledbetter.” I am an Ohio boy raised on the Eagles and Supertramp and ELO. I have heard Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” more times than anyone needs to. This is all very challenging. But it’s exactly what I need, and not because Pearl Jam is all that radically different from Manfred Mann but because they aren’t.
I join a new band and we’re still bad but it’s better than the last one. We slog through “The Spirit of Radio” for some reason, but we also do a pretty nice rendition of “Jane Says.”
My parents spend $400 on a five-piece Ludwig with actual wooden shells and a simple white finish. I love this drum set. I hammer on this thing for years. We give the old one back to Bill Jackson, who may already be gone at this point—back to Cincinnati to play real jazz with real musicians—and who may have already forgotten who I am. It doesn’t matter. It never mattered to him, but it’s 2017 and I still remember his name.
Billboard’s top song of 1992 is “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men. Number eight is “Under the Bridge.” Number 32 is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Number 71 is “Friday I’m in Love.” Color Me Badd appear three times in the top 100. No one knows what the fuck is going on.
I get a new girl. She’s every nerd’s dream. She has great taste in music and I try to stay receptive. She catches me up on Tori Amos and Toad the Wet Sprocket, and I drive us around to hear all of “Nights in White Satin.” We don’t declare a song until we dance to “In Your Eyes” at our wedding.
Siamese Dream comes out in 1993 and by now I think I get it. My revelation gets backdated; I stop worrying about Michael Stipe and Robert Smith. I try not to be such a stickler. “Orange Crush” is still nonsense but “So. Central Rain” is so good. I do my best to let these things in, and mostly it works. I don’t realize until much later that I was never really a social outcast—I was only shy, and quiet, and that I closed myself off from people I probably would have liked under the assumption that they were not worth liking. This I regret even more than the hair metal ballads.
Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales also comes out in 1993 and I definitely get it. I just listened to it again yesterday.
These things are all just steps in a long process.
The process is ongoing.
I look back with gratitude at the people and things that shoved me forward—that said open your goddamn eyes, kid. It’s always been easy to find reasons to reject things and much harder to find reasons not to. It’s easy to pretend that you were never wrong. It’s easy to listen with your ego. I try not to do that anymore. I think I’m getting better at it.
It all goes back, more or less, to a single album in 1991.
—Joe P. Squance