Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Fundamentalist's Love Letter to Grunge

The summer of ’94 was my first summer with a Cameron Crowesque feel. It was the summer when I learned what grunge music meant. It was also, not coincidentally, the first time that I put on a pair of Doc Martens[1].  

I entered the summer, having just graduated from a very-strict Christian school, believing that I was a badass because Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” would blare on the radio as I drove around town in my mom’s van. Ace of Base would also rattle the factory speakers from time to time[2]. Occasionally, Nirvana would, too; but I had a sneaking suspicion that Nirvana didn’t really belong to me. And then I met Jason[3].

Jason worked with me in my first non-fundamentalist related job. It was an office and restaurant supply warehouse where my dad’s church got its cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and communion cups. I mainly worked in the warehouse, loading the delivery vans in the morning and unloading the trucks that would deliver the stock to the warehouse. Most of the day I was by myself in the warehouse with nothing to do once the delivery vans left. When my boss would come into the warehouse from the office, he would scuff his feet; I always knew when to grab a broom. Other than that, and the occasional large deliveries to the warehouse that I’d have to unload under the amused eyes of grizzled truckers watching a skinny, Christian school kid attempt to operate a pallet jack[4], I had a lot of free time to listen to the radio and sneak beers out of the break room fridge[5].

At the beginning of the summer, my favorite station was WABB 97.5[6]. It was a top-forty station and I happily sang along to Lisa Loeb, Jon Secada, and Tim McGraw[7]. Listening to WABB was only an option after the delivery drivers had left, though. While they were in the warehouse, they controlled the radio; as soon as they realized that I would choose WABB if given a choice, they stopped asking for my preference. They good-naturedly teased me about my music preferences; and it was quite a shock for someone raised on Frank Garlock to find out that Boys II Men was not considered cool. Most of the drivers listened to classic rock, which also had a hand in my rock music education[8]. Jason, on the other hand, listened to TK-101, The Rock Station, a station that I rarely listened to since they didn’t have a request and dedication hour. Due to scheduling, all the drivers except Jason left in the early afternoon. He was scheduled to remain in the warehouse until the end of the day; this meant that for the last hour of my shift, Jason controlled the radio.

Rock music during the summer of ’94 meant bands like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Meatpuppets[9]. Those bands were intriguing to me, especially after being in Breckinridge, CO just a few months earlier. I’m sure that Main Street Breckinridge was not nearly as diverse and colorful as it appeared to me that April, but for the first time in my life I was allowed to mingle and see first-hand a culture[10] that was attractive and indecipherable for me. Breckinridge brought MTV's Alternative Nation to life, reminding me of how utterly different my existence was from the way I wished. It also intimidated me, of which I was ashamed. I so desperately wanted to be cool, and I was so desperately now aware that I wasn’t even close.

Beck’s “Loser” had been on the air for a couple of months, but it wasn’t until I heard the song while standing in a “grunge” clothing store in Breckinridge, surrounded by people with greasy hair, flannel shirts, combat boots, and the simultaneous attitudes of defiance and defeat, that the song and the grunge culture began to become unlocked for me. There was much about the culture that I didn’t “get,” but I understood alienation. Whenever my family would go to the mall, I was acutely aware of my separation from other teenagers. I understood alienation because at church, school, and in my home, I was surrounded by people[11] that I believed I couldn’t tell about how I had serious doubts that God actually existed. Like many teenagers, alienation had a central place in my life; and grunge music/culture offered a tangible identity that seemed tailor-made for me. As I stood in that store, gazing on the racks that contained the uniform for the disaffected youth of the early 90’s, I wanted to shed my fundy approved wear and put on the identity around me. Unfortunately, being the son of an IFB pastor and a Christian school teacher, I couldn’t afford the clothes in the store[12].

Leaving Colorado, grunge music was no longer that weirdly different and vaguely cool music that would occasionally play on the radio after Bon Jovi. It now had some context for me, and I thought that I understood it. I didn’t, yet, but the seeds were there; after all, I returned to the Panhandle of Florida wearing my snow boots to school in lieu of the Doc Martens that I couldn't afford.

So, two months later, having folded Nirvana into the same identity package as Aerosmith, I found myself working with a twenty three year old dude who looked like Anthony Kiedis, smelled of cigarettes and stale beer, and lived in his van; and my misplaced fascination with pop culture as the antidote to my fundamentalist upbringing was finally challenged directly. Jason never mocked me, laughed at me, nor made me feel like a loser because I liked Michael Bolton[13]. Instead, while we listened to “Black Hole Sun”[14] he would patiently talk to me about how alienated he felt in a society focused on material pleasures at the expense of others. He told me that while he was growing up, his parents were more concerned about themselves than they were his well-being. He had no close friends, no support, and an internal battle between believing that he didn’t matter and the desire to believe that he did. This had a profound impact on him, and he found an expression of his feelings in Seattle grunge.  

Up until that summer, I had viewed Rock and Roll as a monolithic entity with blurred distinctions. My dad and his friends never saw nor preached any distinctions between Air Supply, Run DMC, and Alice in Chains. I was unaware of the fact that music genres matter and that rock, and specifically grunge, matters in ways that pop doesn’t.  Jason taught me that there was and is a profound difference between Def Leppard and Nirvana. One speaks to our selfish desires to be accommodated and the other to the pain that image bearers feel as the scourge of the fall comes down on their backs.

That summer, as I stared down the throat of an awaiting Bob Jones University, I was consumed with Jason thinking I was cool. He didn’t, nor did it matter to him. During the summer of ’94, I needed him to, though. I was a pagan surrounded by fundamentalist Christians, and I needed someone to identify with me. But as he would regal me with stories of his previous nights adventures, I was made even more aware of how much I didn’t belong in his world anymore than I thought that I belonged in mine. Even though he didn’t understand my context, Jason introduced me to a genre that tapped into my angst and alienation, and that gave a voice to my confusion. Grunge music matters because it is often honest, as opposed to pop music that is often dishonest in its portrayal of the world. Pop music told me that I was ok, and that everything I wanted was attainable and within reach. And, worse, it attempted to fill my empty soul with teenage hedonism. Grunge carved out my soul, allowing me to reach the end of myself.  

I still love grunge music, and probably always will. Not only do I love the music, but it is a reminder of how the Holy Spirit brought me to the end of myself. Grunge music was the soundtrack for my brokenness – my broken relationships, my broken dreams, and my broken identity.

To be honest, reflecting back on Jason, he now seems to me like a melodramatic character on Degrassi High. I wonder where he is and if he’s been given the gift of faith, too. God has gifted me with not only a wonderful wife and kids and a caring and diverse church family, but also, and most importantly, with an identity in Christ that places me in the greatest and most loving family of all – His family. I pray that one day, Jason and I will sit down together with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast of King Jesus. Maybe then I can tell him that I finally bought the Mudhoney record that he recommended.     

[1] I’m still wearing Doc Martens.  
[2] Don’t mock me. You know that as soon as you read “Ace of Base” the lyrics to “I Saw the Sign” went through your mind. In fact, as those lyrics went through your mind, you SANG them …. All together now, “I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign. Life is demanding without understanding. I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign.”
[3] I can’t remember his name. I can see him clearly in my mind, but I can’t remember his name.
[4] I once, simultaneously misjudging my strength and the weight of the pallet, ran a loaded jack into the side of the trailer. Trailers are designed to be as light as possible. I put a hole in the side. The truck driver screamed at me and cussed me out, telling me that he had once murdered a man. It took a couple of weeks before I was able to get a good night’s sleep after that.
[5] I didn’t have to “sneak.” I had been told that they were there for the workers, but I was still scared that I would get caught.
[6] My friends who went to Pensacola Christian referred to the station as “W A Beka Book.”
[7] Tim McGraw wasn’t my fault. My girlfriend at the time loved “Don’t Take the Girl” and the song made me daydream about her. To be fair, I could’ve included Richard Marx and Bryan Adams. Ok, that doesn’t help. Tom Petty and Heartbreakers and the Cranberries. There, my rep is legit again. 
[8] But not nearly as much as the Classic Rock loving Roadies that I worked with four years later.
[9] Nirvana, too, obviously.
[10] At least the commoditized version of it, Breckinridge is for rich, white people. I was 18 and very naïve; there was no way I could’ve known the difference at the time.
[11] There was absolutely no way that I could’ve told my girlfriend. Pretending to be a Christian was, at the time, the best way to have someone to make out with.
[12] One of the great ironies is that I didn’t realize that the very same thrift stores that my mom humiliated me by shopping at contained all that I needed to dress authentically “grunge.”
[13] In the church bus on the way to youth group outings, I would secretly listen to “How Can We Be Lovers?” and bask in my rebelliousness. 
[14] My favorite song on one of my all-time favorite albums.


  1. I can relate on so many levels! Nice...

  2. I'd think you were cool if you still wore the snow boots.

  3. The snow boots were cool. I was definitely the only kid in my school wearing black, snow boots to class (I was probably the only kid in Florida wearing snow boots, for that matter.)