Monday, January 14, 2013

Grunge Part III: Pearl Jam, Ten

I can't help it: when I'm happy I look insane
Fall, 1994. The scene opens on a painfully naïve preteen boy at a party where he is clearly out of place. Mike has been friends with Chris since kindergarten. In 5th and 6th grade they had weekly sleepovers; Mike’s house, then Chris', repeat. Chris has always been popular – his sense of humor has earned him the class clown moniker, but in a “cool” way rather than “klutzy.” His sense of fun is the link that sustains his friendship with Mike, and is the reason Mike is at a party surrounded by cool kids.

After a Saturday night sleepover, Mike and Chris had spent the previous Sunday morning in Chris’ basement planning the party. Chris knew exactly who to invite. At Mike’s forceful suggestion, the pretty new girl was invited, too. Mike even made the phone call to invite her to Chris’s party – immediately lending credibility to  his own “coolness.” Genius level middle school pickup move.

But now here they were. Chris, the social butterfly, was mingling with the small town’s most popular 7th graders. His parents were sequestered in the upstairs bedroom, while the party continued in the basement. Several of the kids had had a few drinks before arriving. One was offered to Mike – he passed. His  adolescent awkwardness was highlighted in the midst of this group of confident and self-assured peers. He was thrilled to have a friend like Chris who was helping to raise his social status, while  at the same time feeling absolutely uncomfortable in his own skin. Jammin ’92 blared on a stereo system and he nodded in time to hits like Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do it” and the Rednex “Cotton Eye Joe.” Some of the other kids were dancing and nodding along as well.

Suddenly, the opening riff to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” tore through the room. Its soaring solo guitar pierced the air, and to Mike it was as if the rest of the world was turned down. He had spent countless house at the library with headphones on, listening to the library’s copy of Ten on cassette. Each solo on the album was indelibly written on his soul. Seemingly unable to control himself and without any awareness of his actions, he began to "air guitar" and sing along.

Artist: Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
Recording #9ish

Evidently, this outburst did not go unnoticed. One jock in particular, who had never spoken a word to him or even acknowledged his existence before now, threw an empty two liter bottle at him. “Here’s a guitar for you,” he sneered. In hindsight, it was a pretty lame attempt at a burn. But Mike snapped out of his trance and noticed the many entertained eyes on him, and in his 7th grade mind his life had been destroyed. If this was a movie he would have run from the room in embarrassed tears as the crowd pointed and jeered.

Instead, he turned beet red, shuffled into a corner and attempted invisibility for the rest of the night. So much for trying to talk to the new girl. He was sleeping at Chris’ house that night, so adding insult to injury, he really had nowhere else to go. The music of '90s teenage outcasts had become a self-fulfilling prophecy as it solidified his standing as a spazz.

Later that year, as they walked to Mike’s house after school, Chris announced to Mike that he no longer “believed” in the concept of “best friends.” Mike understood – Chris needed to escape the friendship without crushing him. It was the best friend equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me.” Chris had tried to give Mike a hand up, and instead he risked being pulled down into nerddom.

The soundtrack of my teenage years, grunge, is intrinsically linked with my nerd status, which reached its peak in 7th and 8th grade. I have lots of fond memories of middle and high school – learning I was not (and would never be) part of the cool crowd was amazingly liberating. My core of lifelong friends was found in those years as we forged loyalty by embracing our outcast status and following our various nerdly passions. My lifelong love of music, especially of the obscure variety, was allowed to flourish because I didn’t have to worry about what anyone else thought.

My wife recently said to me that although I had relayed to her before what a dork I was when I was a kid, it didn’t hit home until she started paying attention to our son. His zest for life, completely unabashed earnestness and lack of self-awareness are endearingly adorable on a 2 year old. Imagining them in a 5 or 7 or 10 year old, though, she can see that our child will probably not be a “cool” kid. I’m okay with that. I can still remember the embarrassment of that night. Being a nerd is the price you pay for obsessive passion sometimes, but you have to follow what you love and what inspires you. I am who I am because I followed my passion and I hope I can pass that on to my kids.

Read Tom Moon's entry here.

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