This Used To Be My Playground, Part 5: Smells Like Teen…age Fanclub?

There are many pieces of advice floating around out there when it comes to dating, most of them grade-A horseshit. It’s in matters of the heart where human behavior least conforms to set patterns. (Matters of the crotch are where human behavior most conforms to set patterns, but that was still a couple of months in my future.) “The prettiest girl never gets asked out because the boys are too intimidated” was one old saw that came a-cropper with the Marla Berry Christmas dance invitation. “Girls are attracted to confidence” was another bald-faced lie. I was far more confident than my track record entitled me to be, and was getting skunked left and right. “It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it.” I never stopped looking for it, and it happened.

On Wednesdays and Fridays in Creative Writing, we put our desks in the “sharing circle” and read aloud our works in progress. When circle time came, I usually ended up next to a senior named James Williams on my right, and on his right was another senior named Stephanie. James and I had grown into a comfortable acquaintanceship, and he was clearly a close friend of Stephanie’s. I don’t recall ever saying a word to Stephanie before, mostly because she was a senior girl, and I didn’t quite pack the gear to talk to senior girls. One Wednesday in mid-December, James was reading some of Stephanie’s poetry aloud for her. For reasons described earlier, I was in a fairly irritable and snarky mood that month, and certainly ready to call any feminine prima-donnaism on the carpet, even if it was a senior.

This Used To Be My Creative Writing Class -- now an auxiliary computer lab at YCHS

“Is she not capable of reading her material, James?” I asked in a slightly-too-loud voice. Stephanie looked at me with an expression that would become all too familiar in the coming years: withering contempt, but it was intermingled with a bemused shock that caused her mouth to drop open momentarily.

“She has laryngitis, Matt,” James said. Stephanie snapped her mouth closed, and offered me an up-close look at the shiny metal cast on her middle finger that had been broken in an earlier mishap.

It was damn near love at first sight–although I had seen her plenty of times in class before that, so I guess it was love at first vaguely hostile confrontation. (There would be more of those.)

I mumbled an apology, which she waved off with a half-smile. She admired my mouthy audacity, and after a few moments of strained, raspy conversation, I was hooked by her dark humor and cynical outlook, which was so different from most of the girls I knew, and, at the time, actually appealing.

She had a boyfriend, but was not only not getting along with him at that time, but vocally and insistently wished heavy things to fall on him from great heights, so I was pretty sure the relationship was on its last legs. By the last Friday before Christmas vacation (the day of the dance I wasn’t going to), I gave her my phone number. “Call me when you finally break up with that jagoff,” I told her. Cripes, was I an impertinent little ass.

She called on Saturday, the deed evidently done.

During that Christmas vacation, I would visit her on her break from her job as wool-product salesgirl at the Big Horn Sheep kiosk at the mall. If you needed an oversize pair of slippers or nauseatingly ugly car seat cover made from sallow, itchy, free-range wool, Stephanie was your hook-up. One afternoon as I approached her work station, James stepped out from seemingly nowhere and stopped me with a hand on my chest.

“You don’t want to go over there right now,” he said. I looked past his shoulder, and saw Stephanie facing off with her now ex-boyfriend, who was apparently trying to convince her to come back. She looked miserable, and he looked…comically short. I estimated he came up to about my collar bone, but there was a coiled thickness about him that suggested if he went into one of his jealous rages, he could probably settle my hash quite nicely. I found myself something else to do for awhile that day, and James faded from the picture almost immediately. Isn’t it weird when that happens? We were pretty good friends there for about eight weeks, then he basically introduced me to Stephanie, then prevented me from getting my ass kicked by her psychotic ex, and then kind of…disappeared, as if his little supporting role in my life story was wrapped and he moved on to other projects. With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect he had designs on Stephanie himself, and I out-flanked him with my superior charisma (re-read the above if you need a refresher course on my style of charisma at age seventeen). His presence at the mall that day was never satisfactorily explained, and soon after that he was gone like Keyser Soze. I think he even dropped the Creative Writing class when school started up in January.

When you’re an adult, it’s much easier to begin a relationship. You just start spending time and going places with another person, and sooner or later you’re officially a couple. Not so in the high school days of yore. Back then, you had to say the words. You had to put your ass on the line with a single question. You had to ASK THEM OUT.

“Out” where was never clarified. It was a conceptual “out.” It simply established your bona fides as an exclusive relationship. It was just an updated form of the old Happy Days “going steady” thing of a previous generation. (Both the terms “going steady” and “going out” now make me squirm a little with embarrassment. Did we really talk that way?)

As we talked on the phone over the next week, I could sense her waiting for me to ASK HER OUT. I hadn’t ASKED anyone OUT in over a year, and obviously it hadn’t ended well for me. I was terrified. Then I made up my mind one day to do it.

I was a good kid. I never drank in high school…except this one time. I poured a powerful shot of my dad’s Black Velvet whiskey down my throat, sputtered and coughed, squinted at the keypad of the telephone through reddened and watery eyes, dialed her number, and proceeded to ASK HER OUT in the most chickenshit way possible.

I posed it to her as a hypothetical question. What would potentially be her response if I were to, say, err, I don’t know…ASK HER OUT? She gave an audible disgusted sigh, and confirmed that her answer would be affirmative.

For all my ups and downs with her later, I did remember that she showed remarkable patience with my inexperience and gawky immaturity in the early months of our relationship.

Yes, relationship. Shitfire and save matches, folks, I had myself a gen-u-ine girlfriend. The drama level of my life was about to diminish exponentially. (So, for awhile, future entries in this blog series will be a little more settled, perhaps not quite so epic. I was content.)

We went out on our first date later that night, December 30. We went to see the Steve Martin flick Father Of The Bride. (Which was the same movie I’d asked Tummyache Tina to a few weeks earlier. What can I say, I was a man who liked his Steve Martin.)

I kissed her for the first time after the movie as we stood for a moment in the cold drizzle in front of Movies 8.

This Used To Be Movies 8 -- site of the 1st date with Steph, now demolished for overflow parking for the new Movies 12, just out of sight to the left

Music was about to explode. (All that autumn, you could hear an ominous rumble from the direction of Seattle.) Life was good.

#41. “Girlfriend” – Matthew Sweet
The Matthew Sweet album Girlfriend had been out for a couple of months at this point, along with its title single. (Which was as joyous a celebration of the concept of “going out” as you would ever want to hear. Sweet later described it as the “dumbest song on the album.”). But I didn’t discover Girlfriend until just after Stephanie and I split, two and a half years later. It became a break-up album. I really wish I’d heard it around this time, when the giddiness of the title song perfectly matched how I felt.

Me & Ol' What's-Her-Face, early '92. Note my super-grunge flannel.

#42. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — Nirvana
I encountered both Spin magazine and Nirvana’s Nevermind album at the same time. I bought my first copy of Spin in November of 1991. It was the Year-In-Music issue (featuring Perry Farrell’s highly punchable mug on the cover), which had quite a few mentions of the burgeoning music scene in the Pacific Northwest, and gave Nevermind a pretty high rank on their best-of-’91 list. Not the highest, though. No one seemed to know quite what to make of Nirvana at first.

Nobody really foresaw this album’s impact. If you were to go back through the online archives and read the original reviews (yes, I did), Nevermind was at first treated like more noise from the underground, an album that a few thousand hipsters would buy to put next to their copies of Goo and No Pocky For Kitty as the rest of the mainstream world continued to revolve around Bon Jovi and Boyz II Men. But it was not to be. Nevermind changed the game, at a speed that left observers slack-jawed. It was wholesale cultural change wrought in a matter of goddam weeks at the tail end of ’91 and the beginning of ’92. We can’t pinpoint it to an exact moment, like the Beatles playing Ed Sullivan on a Sunday night in February of ’64, but it was as near as our generation would get, and holy crap was it exciting. How did it happen?

It must be remembered that the early wave of the new “alternative” bands took themselves e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y seriously. They fretted constantly about “selling out,” claimed to despise their newfound popularity with the masses, placed artistic “integrity” above all else, and existed in a perpetual cranky no-fun zone. (Occasionally, one of these cut-ups might offer the hint of a smirk at a photo session, or a leering ironic parody of a grin. That was about it.) Nirvana, being the first of these acts through the mainstream door, certainly fell into this category. (I get the impression that I wouldn’t be able to spend too much time around Kurt Cobain without getting irritated. But that is probably 2009 Holy Bee talking, not 1992 Holy Bee.) But Nirvana knew how to play the game just well enough. They hated the “corporate” music press, but gave plenty of interviews to them. They trumpeted their influences as being edgy noise-punk outfits like Scratch Acid and The Jesus Lizard, but made sure their own album was pristinely produced by Butch Vig and mastered to a radio-friendly gloss by Andy Wallace (then complained about the “too-clean” production after the fact). They did everything exactly right, in other words. A vast untapped audience, eager for change, was there for the taking for the first band skillful and/or lucky enough to put the pieces together in the right order. Nirvana did it. Like millions of others, I must have been questing for something around that time, or I wouldn’t have been reading Spin, which was still trying to present itself as the edgiest music mag, like, ever.

You all own the album (it’s truly the Frampton Comes Alive! of the 90s), so I won’t bother with a capsule review. What’s important here is the effect. Not to belabor the point, but hair metal and cheesy dance pop went from the top of the charts to a cultural punchline practically overnight (a sadly temporary state of affairs in the case of cheesy dance pop.) Nevermind unleashed a tsunami of dark, riff-based post-punk guitar rock. “Grunge,” as it was quickly labeled. (Or not so quickly labeled. I remember a lot of people simply calling it “garage rock” for at least a few months. Even when it was fianlly labeled “grunge,” nobody but magazine writers really used the label.) Whatever you wanted to call it, it was a godsend to classic-rock fetishists like myself who hated the synth-heavy shallowness that characterized 1986-91 popular music, and were slightly embarrassed by what represented “guitar rock” during those same years. You can refer back to my remarks on Extreme for more clarification, or simply try to listen to any of the non-singles from Aerosmith’s 1987 Permanent Vacation without fighting the urge to read the instruction booklet that came with your Braun hand blender to stave off the powerful boredom (“Hangman Jury”) and nausea (their Beatles cover “I’m Down”) such a listening will surely inspire. Guns N’Roses were all we had, and they were good…but Nirvana was better. Nirvana didn’t wear sunglasses indoors and date vapid, rock-stupid fashion models. Nirvana didn’t have thirty-person entourages (at least they didn’t have constantly visible thirty-person entourages.)

Nevermind appeared on Spin’s best-of-the-year list at…#2. What beat it out? Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, a better-than-average Big Star knockoff that’s perfectly listenable…but not an epoch-shattering Statement For The Ages. Hindsight’s 20/20.

Despite it being on a major label, copies of Nirvana’s album were pretty hard to come by in Yuba City in those weeks. The Wherehouse and Camelot ordered about a half-dozen copies each, and those were snatched up almost immediately. (Remember, they probably placed those orders in November or early December. In the “before” side of the picture.) New orders would come in a couple of weeks or so, but did I mention how fast all of this was happening? No one wanted to wait for new orders to come in. (“Twenty-four hours is like three weeks” in the words of the whiny woman at the Amity town council meeting.) But one day in early January, my friends Jeff Wong and Jeff Olsen showed up at my place and made their way upstairs to my room. Jeff W. was grinning mischievously and hiding something behind his back. I caught a glimpse of the infamous naked-floating-baby-with-his-rig-hanging-out album cover, but feigned surprise when he put it in my CD player, and the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – which had been setting the KWOD 106.5* airwaves on fire for the last couple of weeks – blasted out of my speakers. Wong scored the disc on an out-of-town trip. I had a trusty blank Maxell 90 (I kept a fresh brick of them at all times by this point) rolling on that bastard before another word could be said.

Folks, I don’t know if that’s an experience that can be repeated in this day and age. I’m going to go all Andy Rooney nostalgic for a moment on you guys, but in 2009 can you imagine making a crosstown trip to visit someone specifically to share a hard-to-find bit of music, unable to keep a shit-eating grin off your face as you sprung it on them? Both Jeffs simply knew I would be blown away by what they brought. The sheer joy that manifested itself on both sides of that exchange was staggering. I think in the years since, we’ve lost something…

Actually, it is a helluva lot easier just to g-chat some audio files to someone. So fuck what I just said. And fuck that racist fossil Andy Rooney**, for that matter. He may think he’s better than me for not falling back on the phrase “shit-eating grin,” but being a living corpse with unruly snow-white eyebrows and claw-like yellowing fingernails, who lives only to swap Kaiser Wilhelm stories with Larry King and cash 60 Minutes residual checks can’t be easy…

I, as usual, digress.

Did I mention I had a girlfriend at this point? I first saw the famous pep-rally “Teen Spirit” video at one of Stephanie’s friends’ houses. I was in the “early relationship” phase of meeting all of her acquaintances, including a number of people named Kim and someone I think was called Georgia who wiped her nose on her sweatshirt cuffs. Another friend was about eight months into a teen pregnancy in January of ’92, and as we sat on the shag carpeting of her parents’ living room floor discussing kicking embryos and playing the board game of Life (the poignancy of that strikes me only just now), the video came on. (Remember, MTV was always on, nonstop, for all of us back then.) When the video came on, I naturally shushed everyone and stared raptly. We had just been tossing around baby names, and Steph’s friend seemed set on “Keith” as a middle name. I remember saying to Stephanie later that nothing good ever came of anyone named Keith (Rolling Stones guitarists notwithstanding.) The baby was born, if I recall, with that name not long after, and must these days be in his senior year heading toward his high school graduation. Which makes him quite a bit older now than I was when I first saw the Nirvana video and passed judgment on his name.

One of the rituals that we established early in our relationship was watching Saturday Night Live. SNL was experiencing one of its periodic resurgences. This was the heyday of Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Phil Hartman, who gave us Hans and Franz, Church Lady, and the sublime Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. The new young up-and-comers barely beginning to make their reputations on the show were Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, and, uh, Rob Schneider. Despite it’s comedic ups and downs, SNL has always attracted interesting guest hosts and stellar musical acts. In the pre-Internet days, it was not unusual for people like myself to wait in fevered anticipation all week to see the an interesting band kick out two songs on SNL. Nirvana got their turn on January 11 (the exact same day Nevermind hit #1 on the Billboard charts.) They played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (natch), and in a middle-finger gesture to mainstream audiences, “Territorial Pissings,” the noisiest, most off-putting track on Nevermind. This, coupled with their hour-long set on an MTV special taped in New York that same week and aired again and again and again and again that winter and spring, was the closest we would come to a Beatles-on-Sullivan “moment.”

I really liked the weeks we watched SNL at my house, because when it was over at 1:00 a.m., I could just go up to bed. When I watched it at her house, I had to drive home across town, fighting a severe case of the sleepies. I usually had to crank the music and sing along to keep myself focused for the ten-minute drive. We watched the Nirvana SNL at her place, and on the way home I played my cassette copy of Nevermind, and sang along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – no mean feat considering the combination of obscure nonsense lyrics and slurred/screamed vocals. No problem, just make ‘em up. “And I forget just what it takes/Oh yeah, the gassy mess had style…” Or something like that.

What a world was early 1992! We will not see it’s like again. It was a world where Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, U2, and R.E.M. all seemed part of the same big (dysfunctional) family.

*NOTE: KWOD 106.5 was Sacramento’s “cutting-edge” radio station of the early 90s, playing Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lemonheads, Soundgarden, etc. It went through some changes, disappeared up its own ass for awhile trying to out-cool its listeners, then settled for easy pickings as a “modern rock” station featuring Creed, Linkin Park, Staind, Puddle Of Mudd, etc. for an audience of sleeveless undershirt and flat-brimmed slightly-sideways cap-wearing, pit-bull owning, UFC-watching shitbirds. The kind of people who say “’sup” and “bro” and really mean it, and can’t seem to reconcile their latent desire to perform fellatio on another man with the homophobia that’s been beaten into them by their alcoholic mechanic stepfathers, so they compensate for it by being serial date-rapists.

KWOD’s most recent incarnation is as a “90s nostalgia station,” featuring…Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lemonheads, Soundgarden, etc. Funny old world, innit?

**NOTE: I actually kind of enjoy Andy Rooney.

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