“Once upon a time…”

No time to read?  Let me read to you! 

Let me be dirty frank with you, Pearl Jam fans…I’m not a glorified Pearl Jam OG.  I distinctly remember seeing the video for “Jeremy” and thinking it was the greatest video I’d ever seen, but I also remember thinking: These dudes and their long hair and their stupid outfits remind me of the jackasses at my high school.  So out of youthful spite, I shunned great bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, and many, many others during the early to mid-90s.  None of the guys in those bands looked like me.  I didn’t identify with any of those guys.

So I listened to straight-up gangsta rap.

Now listen: I grew up in rural Minnesota with two parents whose record collection included both country and western.  It’s not like rock and roll was banished from our house—it just didn’t exist.  The closest thing we had to rock and roll in my parents’ record collection was “Yakkity Yak” by The Coasters.  There wasn’t a rock station that came in clearly where we lived, so the only music I ever heard on the radio was 80s pop.

My first cassette tape growing up was Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  I listened to that album on my sisters’ boombox for hours, and whenever the videos for “Beat It‘ or “Billie Jean” came on the TV, I would moonwalk and snap-kick my way through the living room.   But being the youngest and the only boy, I was also subjected to whatever tapes my sisters had blasting through their bedroom speakers, so yeah, I grew up listening to Bryan Adams and Madonna and Debbie Gibson.  Sue me.


My dance moves to “Billie Jean” are still a hit at weddings!

My introduction to rock music started out pretty cheesy.  I wore out my oldest sister Debbie’s Slippery When Wet tape (I had the whole album memorized lyrically at one time) and my sister Mickey, who was (and still is) a bit edgier, introduced me to Poison, and I sang their catchy little tunes at stadium-level and played air guitar while walking around the house listening to my Walkman.  But here’s the thing: I didn’t really care for the other glam metal bands of the late 80s because those dudes wore make-up and had long hair and that was just plain weird to me.  The people I admired were athletes like Kirby Puckett and Anthony Carter and Magic Johnson, and they didn’t wear make-up or have long hair.

The arrival of Guns ‘n’ Roses helped me turn a corner, and I waited patiently for Adam Curry to announce “Paradise City” as the most requested song on MTV’s Top 20 Countdown so I could hit record on the VCR.  But even still, rock music just didn’t get that much attention from me when I was younger.

Then my life got flipped-turned-upside-down: The summer before eighth grade, I was watching Damon Wayans’ HBO comedy special, “The Last Stand?” The opening music to that special was Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage”, and I distinctly remember Chuck D’s voice bursting through the TV speakers like it was kicking down doors.  The high-pitched samples mixed with Terminator X’s record slicin’ and dicin’ made me jump off the couch, and Flava Flav’s vocal spots were so perfectly placed that I couldn’t help but get hyped by the ultimate hype man.  I rewound the VCR tape I used to record that special over and over and over again just so I could listen to that song.

When school started up in the fall, I asked around to see if any of my classmates had Public Enemy tapes I could borrow.  One kid on my basketball team had Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Fear of a Black Planet.

“BRING THEM TO ME!”  I demanded.

He loaned the tapes to me, and I found some leftover blank Maxwell cassettes in one of my sister’s room and started building my rap music collection.  Throughout my time in high school, that rap collection expanded exponentially with albums from N.W.A., Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg (I owned one of the original Doggystyle copies with “Gz Up, Hoes Down” until it was stolen from me!), Compton’s Most Wanted, Cypress Hill, 2Pac, Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony, etc. etc.  So yeah, I was feeling manly when armed with my gangsta rap CDs bumping from my car speakers.


Yeaaaaaaah booooooooooooooy!

(Side note: there was a momentary lapse in reason towards the end of my junior year of high school when I started listening to country music because I liked a girl who liked country music.  Kids, don’t do something stupid just because you like someone.  If they don’t like you for who you are, don’t hang out with them.)

By the end of my senior year of high school, though, rap music hit a lull for me.  Public Enemy’s 1995 album, Muse Sick and Hour Mess Age, was a flop that I didn’t listen to at all.  Eazy-E died in March of 1995.  A year and a half later, 2Pac was shot the first week of my freshmen year of college.  With these massive losses to the hip hop community, the rap music coming out at that time was less captivating, so I started revisiting some of the music I had abandoned in the early to mid-90s.  My first college roommate had the self-titled Rage Against the Machine album as well as Evil Empire, and when my sophomore year rolled around and I started asserting my independence as a member of Generation X, I found myself identifying with the “Damn the Man!” mentality of Rage’s lyrics, which carried on the social commentary preached by Chuck D. and Ice Cube but was seemingly missing in the rap music of the mid to late 90s.  Zach de la Rocha’s cadences coupled with Tom Morello’s turntable-like guitars were a perfect marriage for me, and the aggression in Rage’s music matched my own developing intensity as a budding twentysomething ready to take on the world (who was too oblivious to all of the privileges I’d been afforded my entire life to see the irony).

My tenacious fanaticism for Rage Against the Machine motivated me to incorporate their music, lyrics, and videos into any presentation I did for school, which led to Brandon nicknaming me “Rage Against UMD.”  I wore RATM t-shirts around campus so often that when I was at the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, some dude working at American Eagle came up to me and said, “Are you the guy who wears all those Rage Against the Machine shirts at school?”

“Yeah.  Uh, why?”

He told me he had something for me, so he slipped behind the register and brought me a demo tape of some band he was promoting.  “These guys are awesome!  If you like Rage Against the Machine, you’ll love these guys, too!  Here, take a listen.”  I looked at the tape.  Who the fuck is System of a Down, I thought to myself…

(That dude who came up to me at American Eagle is Brad, aka B-Gun.  His name is mentioned in the credits on System of a Down’s first album.  After graduating from UMD, Brad decided to continue promoting bands and started a clothing line.  He and I still keep in touch, and I’ve even invited him to speak to my students to talk about following your passions in life.  That chance encounter at the mall sparked a friendship that still exists to this day.)


Brad visited my classroom and showcased some of the t-shirts he designed.

This blossoming enthusiasm for music reinvigorated me.  I had a new lease on life.  I felt like I’d missed out on the first six years of the 90s, so every Thursday I would go to Disc-Go-Round and buy used CDs from the bands I neglected for so long.  I sat in my roommate’s Nintendo chair for hours with my headphones plugged in to the CD player listening to Alice in Chain’s Unplugged album or Tool’s Ænima album.  I was suddenly transformed into this 90s rock sponge, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Every week I picked up two or three new albums from bands that I refused to listen to out of my spite for others for years.

The Downward Spiral.
Life Is Peachy.
Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
In Utero.

Each week, my stack of CDs got just a little taller.  I was building quite the rock collection.

And then I heard “Black” for the first time…

Today’s title is taken from Pearl Jam’s “Once” from the album Ten, released in 1991.  

Got a Pearl Jam story of your own?  Comment below! 

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