Did you hear? Coach brought out the record player.
The news would circulate early, floating through the middle school halls between first and second periods, swelling throughout the morning and crescendoing around lunchtime, when half the students were witnesses and the rest of us shimmied or shuddered with anticipation.
Even then, at the onset of the 1990s, record players seemed obsolete, not yet burnished with the vintage patina they’d later acquire. And Coach’s Califone was a particularly clunky model: a simple turntable sitting atop a boxy olive-gray speaker. We—boombox-carrying, Walkman-wearing, mixtape-making adolescents—resisted the medium, but we also reacted to what it represented: when Coach rolled out the AV cart, we knew we were in for square dancing.
Perhaps it’s a trope common to all adolescents, but that year it seemed like we felt particularly restless. Although we didn’t yet know it, we were waiting for something to shake us, ready for Cobain and Vedder, for the disheveled appearances that would define grunge and disturb our parents, for anything that might be construed as an alternative to our predominantly white, middle-class life in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee. At school they combatted our malaise as best as possible—with structure and rules, leavened with new challenges—teaching us how to conduct ourselves at assemblies with prominent visitors (everyone from a local newscaster to Roots author Alex Haley), how to use a compass to draw perfect circles on math papers, how to finesse a band saw and other machinery to construct the desk sets our grandfathers would display for the rest of their lives. They gave us real responsibilities, subjected us to actual risks, and expected us to shoulder them. Gym class—the obvious place for release—offered no exception: in a departure from the unfettered play we’d enjoyed in elementary school, now we suffered through learning the official rules of volleyball, running laps, and conquering sweaty palms and clumsy footwork to follow the Califone’s calls.
Now you all join hands and you circle the ring.
Stop where you are, give your partner a swing.
Swing that girl behind you.
Now swing your own if you find she hasn’t flown,
and then allemande left with your sweet corner maid.
Do-si-do your own.
Now you all promenade
with your sweet corner maid, singing
Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh.
We said we hated it, rolled our eyes and complained, but it electrified us, too. Or at least I felt electrified by it—not so much because of the physical contact (well, okay, to some extent because of the physical contact) but mostly because even at thirteen, I was fascinated by the way you could take a mass of people, all moving independently, and orchestrate them into a coherent pattern. I’m sure our dancing wasn’t actually seamless, but it felt at moments as if it were, and even as a kid I found this comforting: if you just knew the rules—the calls, the steps, the place your partner was headed—you could navigate the unfamiliar.
So in a way, gym class square dancing excited me precisely because of its predictability. But while I was hoping to quell the things that felt chaotic, lots of my classmates were looking to disrupt the boredom of their own lives. Many of the boys in my peer group particularly prided themselves on being avant-garde and original. Sometimes they competed informally, seeking out new vices (tossing out unfamiliar curse words or smoking the muscadine leaves that grew in the woods near my neighborhood) and the latest music (priding themselves on having the deepest cut or the most obscure bootleg).
That’s how I first heard about The Black Album: one day as we were sashaying beneath an archway fashioned from our classmates’ raised arms, my square dancing partner muttered something about wanting real music, something like the new stuff he’d been listening to. You’ve gotta hear it. I’ll bring you a copy.
He slipped me the cassette tape a few days later in the poorly lit hallway that connected his locker room to mine. It was one of the fancy tapes—see-through, with brightly-colored inner mechanisms, which made my own stash of cassettes, with their grey opaque sides, seem provincial and outdated—and he’d written each song title on the paper insert. The album didn’t fill up both sides of the cassette, and he’d left the extra space blank, not adulterating his favorite songs with the addition of others. I remember finding such restraint odd, knowing I would have filled each available second.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, whenever I hear a song from the album. Most often, that song has been “Enter Sandman,” and I’ve been at an Alabama football game. (My family moved to Tuscaloosa before my junior year of high school.) At the last game I attended, on my feet with the rest of the crimson-clad crowd, I overheard a middle-aged woman (khaki pants, pearls) tell her friend that she’d seen Metallica on television once and that they all looked like a bunch of punk druggies. She turned back to the field, bobbing her head and singing along. I watched for the entire song, and she knew every word.
I thought about walking over to her and her friend and pulling up a photo of my younger brother, one of the many I keep on my phone. In the last picture of us before his death from an overdose, we’re standing with our sister at Arlington National Cemetery. It’s patriotic—the monuments of Washington, D.C. loom in the background—and Austin’s wearing his favorite Bama T-shirt. He’s clean-shaven, neatly presented, enjoying a brief remission from the addiction that ultimately killed him. I wondered how this woman would respond if I thrust my phone in her face and told her “Druggies” look like this, too. They grow up here in your state, buy their drugs here, die here.
I didn’t do it, of course. I turned back to the game, half watching it and half fighting my own nostalgia. Experiences overlap, and I can’t attend a football game without thinking of earlier ones—watching Alabama vs. Arkansas on a first date when I was in high school; sitting in the skybox with my brother for Rocky Stop, the improbable series in which Alabama blocked two Tennessee field goal attempts in the final seconds to win the game and preserve its chances at the national championship; or the first game I attended after my brother’s death, which was on my birthday and through which I cried. Or, earlier, how I first learned the sport’s rules from a boy whose football career was ended by his twice-broken leg, who stood with me in the high school’s stands on Friday nights, watching his former teammates and explaining each drive, breaking it down until I saw the patterns.
Things fold in on each other; memories collapse and combine. It’s the same way that every time I hear a Metallica song, a part of me is still dancing through middle school gym class, my brain creating some sort of terrible mash-up between “Oh Johnny” and “The Unforgiven.” Events inform each other, and that’s messy and chaotic, incongruous and delightful.
And at times it means that even when I believe that every word is accurate, a story succumbs to subjectivity. Sometimes it’s hard to know just where an event originates, where it actually ends. Over time, details get misplaced or streamlined, and narratives gather a shape—a momentum—all their own.
Here’s a confession: I said addiction killed my brother, but maybe it was really the drunk driver who caused the wreck that broke Austin’s neck, fractured his foot, and shattered his wrist. Maybe it was the months of surgeries, the specialists who never considered their overlapping prescriptions, the eventual dependence on painkillers. Or maybe the actual cause of death was the fact that my family took Austin off life support after he overdosed. (On purpose? By accident? Even the experts disagreed: the counselor said that in his last twelve hours, he exhibited all the signs of a suicide; the coroner avoided the word, writing cardiac arrest on the death certificate.) I don’t know how to reconcile it all, how to make it into a simple and straightforward story, because it wasn’t simple or straightforward. And no matter how much I study the facts, my brother is still dead.
Here’s another confession, another complication to a story I believe to be true: I finished middle school in May, and The Black Album wasn’t released until August. Maybe my memory’s solid—it’s possible that a bootleg version somehow slipped out (as happened with other Metallica tracks), though I’m not sure how it’d have found its way to the foothills of Tennessee. But it’s much more likely that somewhere I’ve misremembered, conflated things accidentally.
Here’s what I know for sure. When I was barely a teenager, a boy I knew was passionate about Metallica. He recorded The Black Album and slipped the cassette tape into my hand one day as we raced between classes. I took it home, listened, rewound, repeated.
And I know that in a middle school gymnasium, under the drawl of a scratchy record, my classmates and I first learned how to reach out to each other—to grab someone’s hand, their attention—and draw them closer to something we cared about. We learned how to circle a thing together, how to grapple with what we’d felt, what we’d known, how to articulate wonder: Oh, oh, oh.