Death By Mixtape

A decade-plus adventure in aggressively misunderstanding rock and roll.

1992. The year gang-rape metal found its inner baritone . . . er, that is, the year grunge broke. The first wide-scale heist of meaningful alternative culture was especially exciting to behold in the Rock and Roll and Pro Football Hall of Fame state, Ohio. I recall one pivotal morning in which Dad graciously hauled my 15-year-old jams-wearing ass (rode that wave a good two years past the expiration date) to school. He was never one for booty-poppin' prom jams at 7 a.m., but I was salivating for a "Too Legit to Quit" pick-me-up and flipped on Cleveland's ultimate Top 40 outlet, Power 108.

My greeting: The lisping bald guy who sang the Get a Life theme (Poison's Bret Michaels later bitterly, just as cluelessly referred to him as Michael Steep on a butt-rock retrospective) getting all "We Didn't Start the Fire" with non sequiturs about "six o'clock TV hour" and "Leonard Bernstein." Catchy, but it was no ex-batboy Christian rapper in baggy pants. I turned the dial for a few minutes, but ended up back at Power 108. Still Michael Steep. I gave it another minute. Steep. Another. Steep. Another. Steep. What? Was the fucking disc on repeat?

It was a harbinger, I would soon learn. Power 108 was switching formats and morphing into the End, an all "alternative rock" station; they were looping R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" as their grand introduction. "How clever," my feeble, Tone Loc–worshipping, adolescent brain mused. And futile. Alternative rock 24/7? How the hell was that going to work? Maybe a week before, a morning zoo jock on Power 108's main competitor played "Come As You Are" and actually bitched mid-"Memoriiiiiiahhhhhhh" that "I can't believe this is what people are listening to!"

The jock and I had at least one thing in common: We didn't know Frank Black from Bernie Kosar. In my placid, suburban utopia, Kurt Cobain and maybe Trent Reznor—this was northeast Ohio, after all—were alternative rock. But I sure as shit felt more passionate, empowered, and empathetic listening to NIN's "Something I Can Never Have" than watching Bernie engineer a Browns touchdown drive. I determined right there in the van alongside my beyond indifferent big poppa that the End was the greatest fucking idea mortal man had ever conceived, and the anti-Kurt DJ was a neo-Nazi baby killer. I started life anew by buying Stone Temple Pilots' Core after school, scoffing at the fortysomething cashier who suggested that they were "Buffalo Springfield for frat boys" (whatever that meant), and began a decade-plus adventure of aggressively misunderstanding rock and roll.

Enthusiasm without experience and exposition —it forges quite the double-edged sword for a fledgling, wanna-be rock geek. Upon proudly wearing Nirvana's "Sliver" tee to class one day, I was chased home by the Ministry-loving goth-punk bully who lived across the street (with Mummy and Daddy in a two-story, two-car garage Taj Mahal, I might add). The following Calvin and Hobbes–esque exchange ensued midsprint:

BULLY: You don't even know what "Sliver" is!

ME: Um, isn't it a song they haven't released yet?

BULLY: [firing snowball into back of my head] Pussy.

We should've been on the same team, but, suffice it to say, there would be no powwows about Kurt, Al Jourgensen, and H in our future. Thank god Nick Lowe fans aren't as aggro . . . kind of. The following exchange ensued, oh, a week ago, with local rocker and friend Jon Tschurwald over drinks:

ME: Oh, this is "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding." Cool. Who does this again?

JON T.: You're not serious.

ME: No, is it . . . it's not Burt Bacharach. Fuck. I remember a Perfect Circle covering this at Lollapalooza. Elvis Costello?

JON T.: I'm about to head butt you.

ME: It's Elvis Costello, right?

JON T.: [head butting me, spilling beer across bar] Pussy.

OK, the last part didn't exactly go down like that. And I'm really, truly not trying to paint myself as outsider/victim. I was moderately well liked in school; my attraction to the, um, emo elements of grunge probably had more to do with not getting laid than any familial- or peer- abuse issues. But I'm 27 and still taking beatings daily for curiosity! True, I may be responsible for creating a persona via this very column as the dude who owns the entire Linkin Park discography but no Sabbath. Well, dudes, my mother raised me to the Oak Ridge Boys' "Elvira," not Joni's Blue. I'm scarred! I'm trying! I learned it from you, Mom!!!

Ahem. I adore nothing more than quietly observing the Yanks and Rebs (Bellinghamites and Olympians) waxing pretentious about indie rock. I adore nothing less than getting shat on for trying to overcome my lameness. I'll buy Paranoid tonight. Don't make me head butt you.

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