the seventh grade dance smells like teen spirit

Reads: 2350  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 19

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
An awkward coming-of-age tale in the time of "grunge".

Submitted: January 23, 2008

A A A | A A A

Submitted: January 23, 2008

A A A

A A A


the seventh grade dance smells like teen spirit
I had heard Appetite for Destruction in fourth grade, and I liked it, but I was way too young to understand decadent Sunset Strip rock & roll. I had been in love with music as a child, mostly with playing the piano, but music wasn't really doing too much for me through middle school. There was a lot of soft R&B, lovey-dovey, boring stuff. The popular girls were all obsessed with New Kids on the Block. Come sixth grade, I didn't really know what my musical tastes even were. I still listened to my Beatles records, but I felt like I was in a cultural void.
Christmas, 1990, my mom bought me a boom box with dual cassette decks, so you could dub tapes. She also asked the salesman what the current popular albums were for kids my age.So, in addition to my new stereo, I was also the proud and somewhat confused recipient of Vanilla Ice's To The Extreme and MC Hammer's Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em.
All right, I figured. This is what music is now. I sat down to give it a shot. Perhaps listening and relating to some of this stuff could offset the fact that I was the first seat clarinet (and the only boy who played one) in the school band.
They were good albums in a way. They were catchy, and it was fun trying to memorize all the lyrics and rap along. Vanilla Ice (aside from having those lines shaved into the side of his head) was pretty cool, rapping about slightly naughty things that were exciting for a twelve year old. If I remember correctly there were songs about drug deals gone bad, sado-masochism, and taking a young girl’s virginity, amongst other pleasantries.
So sadly, I became a Vanilla Ice fan. I even thought it was rad that he had a cameo and a song on the soundtrack to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. (The secret, by the way, is that the ooze mutates you into a ninja, regardless of your species, even if you’re a turtle.)
I eventually headed off to junior high. I was still floating around a bit, no true clique of friends to speak of in school. I used to play hockey with the hockey kids some days. Other days I would play video games with my video game friends. Sometimes, I would get in to trouble with my Getting’ Into Trouble Friends. I had fun, but wasn’t really close to anybody. Not that a seventh-grade boy would think of doing this in a million years, but I didn’t have anybody to just call up on the phone and talk to. I was surrounded by acquaintances.
When the advertisements starting appearing around the school halls about the upcoming First Dance, I felt a little ache in my stomach. I didn’t know the protocol and didn’t feel like there was anyone around to help me. Was this the sort of function that I was to ask a girl to? Because if so, that was certainly out of the question.
I approached my friend Rob whom I hung out with after school. He was a mixture of a Hockey, Video Game, and Getting’ Into Trouble friend.
“What do you think about this dance?” I asked him.
“Fucking lame,” he replied.
Rob’s aggression was most likely seeded in the fact that he was tall and lanky, had acne, played violin in the school orchestra, and was quite unpopular.
“Well, do you think we should go? I was thinking of going. Maybe your mom could drive us there and my mom could pick us up or something?”
“Fuck that,” he replied. “Anyways, that’s pretty lame if you’re just going to have your mom drop you off there. I heard everyone’s going to a party at Colin’s house before. His parents are away or something.”
“Oh, they invited you to the party,” I said, dejected. No one had invited me.
“No,” Rob said. “I heard. I heard about the party.” He paused. “Anyways, I’m not going to the fucking lame dance. Catch you later.”
He walked off. He knew his place. I didn’t and decided to go to the dance alone.
I was way overdressed, jacket and tie, which caught unapproving stares as I slowly made my way through the door, paid my admission of five dollars and a can of baked beans for the needy.
I had been raised on 80's teen movies, and I thought a dance was supposed to be a life-changing experience where social position could face radical upheaval: hearts were to be broken, enemies vanquished, and the music would kick ass. (Hopefully I would get to hear some Spandau Ballet, if I were lucky.) This was an event that you dressed for, wasn't it? At the end of night, don't I get the girl? Credits roll, please?
It was not what I had thought at all. People were sweaty, wearing tank tops and jeans. There were no decorations. The music sucked. No one even really knew how to dance. It seemed cheapened by the fact that we weren’t even in a gymnasium, but at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall down the street from my school.
No one that I ever really talked to was even there. The popular girls and guys were crying and throwing up, respectively, the victims of inexperienced drinking. Everyone was smoking in the bathroom, leaving a lingering bowling alley-bingo hall smell. I wandered around, bought a root beer from the PTA lady, looked at the clock.
This blew.
One of the "tough guys" in school was approaching me from behind, I could sense it. One of those kids who came from an abusive single-parent household, hit puberty at age six, and goes on to become either a drunk driving fatality or a gym teacher. Maybe I’m generalizing, but I’m pretty sure this kid’s a gym teacher now. As I was taking a sip of my soda, he kicked me as hard as he could in the square of my back. I fell down, I spilt soda on my tie. The kids that smoked and cut class laughed.
I stood up and faced him and his two cronies. What could I do? It’s always easy to say you want to fight back, but I would have gotten my ass handed to me one-on-one. I felt my bottom lip quiver and tears beginning to well up. If I turned around, crying, and left the dance, I might as well move. Fuck, I might as well have joined a monastery because my social life, what little of it there was, would have ended right there.
“What’s up, faggot?” he spewed, seething with hate for me that I couldn’t understand and could never possess.
All I could manage was a trembling “What’s up?” back. Maybe that was his way of saying hello to a fellow member of his class, like a firm handshake, yet different.
They all laughed and filed past me, each one butting me with their shoulders as they walked by. I wanted to go home so bad. I wished I was watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” on the couch with my mom. She would be making brownies or something right now or two extra-rich glasses of chocolate milk, one for me and one for her. I was going to cry, cry like the little bitch faggot they thought I was-
The music stopped for a bit, and the DJ said, “Check this new one out." Guitar with tone I had never heard before. Simple chords, but strumming with ferocity, like I had never heard. Intense drumming, great bass. It seesawed between chill and heavy, but it was consistently melodic. The guy singing sounded so cool. He was raging. I imagined it was something that John Lennon would have done if he were from my generation. I stood absolutely still for the whole four minutes, absorbing it. I forgot about everything that had just happened. It was wonderful.
I made my way over to the DJ to try and ask him What the Hell That Song Was, but he was busy with a dance re-mix of “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, much to the chagrin of the crowd. I went to wait outside in the parking lot for my ride home a half-hour early. I was done in there.
My father eventually came and picked me up. I told him the dance was fun. I told him I heard a cool new song that I couldn’t get out of my head.
"What, that Vanilla Ice-man shit?" he asked me.
"No," I said, proud that it wasn't. I didn't really like that stuff.
I felt no need to tell him I spent the night alone, or that a bully kicked me in the spine.
"No, it was a new rock song."
"Cool," he said, slowly turning into our driveway.
During the bus ride to school on Monday, I saw some kids that were at the dance that night, kids I didn't usually talk to. But they were talking about the dance, and I figured I could butt in.
"Does anyone know that one song...?" I asked. “That rock song from near the end of the night?”
Blank stares.
“Before ‘Cotton Eyed-Joe’?” I asked.
The Other Guy From School Whose Name Was Also Jeff knew what I meant. "Oh, it's called `Smells Like Teen Spirit'."
"What?" I asked. That couldn't have been it. "What did you say it was called?"
"Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he insisted.
This kid listened to Boys II Men; he had no idea what he was talking about. They didn’t say that even once in the chorus. There was no way that was the name of the song.
In a week, I was going away on a skiing trip to upstate New York. The embarrassment I subjected myself to during skiing could fill volumes, but I will spare both you and I that story.
My aunt and uncle were taking my sister and me away for the weekend with my cousins. At the hotel we were going to be staying at, there was a big arcade, so we were told to bring up lots of quarters.
There was a pretty cool arcade, but as my Cousin Dave (yes, it’s a proper noun) and I discovered, they also had a jukebox. I browsed for a minute and found it, just like the kid on the bus said, spelled out in black on that pink little card: "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Below that: "Nirvana." Maybe he was right. What a cool band name.
The video games did not get our money that week, and they were begging for it, don’t get me wrong. We listened to the song over and over and over, trying the decipher the cryptic lyrics (a mulatto? a mosquito?) We memorized every nuance, and it never got old.
We didn't really know it at the time, but this was obviously the beginning of the Seattle-grunge-alternative-whatever-you-want-to-call-it era, and the end of the lame power ballad, over-produced shit from the late 80’s. I fell in love with the songs of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and all the other bands that were making, for me, real music. It was aggressive and raw, but poetic and emotional at the same time. It felt like how I imagined it was for my parents in the late 60's and 70's.
My father would tell me stories about running to the record store after school and leafing through the import box to proudly clunk down a dollar on Led Zeppelin II. Cute, except this was mine. The Beatles had been broken up for years; The Stones were almost a parody of themselves. Bonham, Hendrix, and Freddie Mercury were all dead. Mley Cr and Poison sucked. This wasn't a relic, a memory, this was unfolding before our eyes. And, most of all, I could be a part of it.
So, one beautiful Sunday in October, I told my dad I wanted a guitar, not one of his acoustics, but my an electric I could call my own.
"How will I know you're serious about it?" he questioned, closing up yet another bag of fallen leaves. It always seemed like there was no shortage of leaves for him to collect, and he was just fine with that.
"I will be."
"What about that clarinet we bought you for school?"
"That was a clarinet. That was lame. I don't want to play the clarinet; I want to play the guitar. I do."
He put down his rake and motioned for me to follow him into the basement. It was dark down there, with some soft afternoon lighting spilling out of the small windows. I didn’t want to play outside, anyway.
I sat on the couch, he left, and re-entered with his two guitar cases. The brown one housed the six-string Gibson acoustic. The black one held the Yamaha, a twelve-string guitar, that wasn't the best, but with a new set of strings on, it sounded fucking beautiful. He got it on sale somewhere for like $150.
He opened up the black case. It smelled like a church, old wood and velvet and stain, but without the guilt.
"No, Dad, I want to play an electric guitar."
He ignored me, handed me the twelve-string and a chord book.
"On this guitar, two strings occupy the same space as one on the other. The fingerings will be the same, except you need a lot more pressure to push them down."
He put the guitar into place on me. It felt huge. I had messed around, picking them up in the past and strumming some nonsense. This was different- an official first lesson.
"The most important part of learning to play is the shape of your hand," he explained. "It has to be a perfect arch, with each finger only fretting the right string. If your form is messed up, you'll deaden the other strings by lightly touching them."
He began positioning my fingers into an E-chord shape.
"Just relax your fingers and let me put them in place."
It was hard as hell. It felt like my hand was going to break.
"This is E. Push down. Hard. Now strum."
Nothing really. Deadened clunks.
"Push down harder!"
It felt like my skin was ripping off of my fingers, the tips being peeled away from my nails. I strummed again. It was almost there, a shimmering beautiful E-chord. On a twelve-string, nonetheless.
"Good," he smiled. "That's E. This is A."
He moved my fingers into somewhat of a straight line. "Second fret on the D, G, and B strings. Now, when you get more comfortable, take your index finger on the D string and just bend it down to cover the other two."
He pushed the finger into place. It hurt.
"Strum again."
An A-chord rang out. Pure, angelic.
"This is D major," he said, manipulating my fingers into a triangle-like shape on the higher strings. "Now, when you strum this, don't play all the strings, because if you strum the low-E string, that doesn't really work with the D-chord. So start from the A, or the D, or use your thumb to fret an F# in the bass."
"Whoa, chill out."
"Sorry. Look," he said, moving my fingers quickly. "E, A, D. E, A, D. This is the basis for almost everything."
"Yeah, but I want to play electric guitar."
"The thing is the transitions have to be fast. E to A. A to D. Back to E. Your fingers have to just know where to go, very quickly."
"I don't want to play a twelve-string," I protested.
I didn't understand what he was trying to do: taking a cue from Mr. Miyagi putting Daniel-san to work, painting the fence and sanding the floor.
"Once you can do those transitions quickly-" he pulled the guitar out from me and demonstrated, beautiful and clear, "-and your fingers can push these strings down easily, then you'll be able to play an electric very easily."
I wanted to jump right in though. I wanted distortion, a huge amp, maybe even a whammy bar if the situation called for it.
"This is the hardest part. You're going to develop calluses, and at first it's going to hurt a lot. Get through that, and we'll get you an electric guitar." He paused. "We'll have to sell your clarinet though. Trade it in."
"No problem whatsoever." The only person I could name that played the clarinet was Woody Allen, and though he was smart and funny, he did not rock one bit.
Dad opened the chord book to the basic page with the fingerings he showed me in case I forgot.
"Good luck," he said and left me alone in the basement with this massive guitar and task ahead of me.
I practiced every day after school. Sometimes I still played hockey, but it was different. I didn’t have to pretend like I was obsessed with sports like the other guys. I was obsessed with this, thank you very much. Let them pore over meaningless baseball statistics. I thought that when Eddie Vedder sang “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life / I know you’ll be a star / In somebody else’s sky / But why?” it was far more amazing than any feat that could be accomplished on the ice or on the field. And finally, finally for once, that was okay.
My self-conscious friend Rob took a cue from me and bought himself a guitar, too, and we no longer pretended that we enjoyed Boys II Men, or being kicked in the back at places where we didn’t belong. We didn’t go to dances, because we didn’t like them. We made friends, real true friends, bound by our love of this instrument and this music. Friends that had their own parties, friends that would stand up next to you, and friends that you could even, say, call up on the phone and just talk to.
Rob for once in his life, didn’t think that any of this was lame.
I didn’t either.


© Copyright 2017 JTascarella. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

Comments

avatar

Unknown

avatar

Unknown

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply

avatar

Author
Reply