Bang the Drum!: an alternative history

Bang the DrumI think when people say, as I’m about to, that music was better when they were young, what they really mean is that there used to be less music.
It would have been October, maybe early November when I first heard it. Definitely not September. Ninth Grade Wood Shop, man, I don’t even remember what I made. But I do remember that the teacher wasn’t really around that much and that there was a ghetto blaster in the shop and we could play whatever we wanted. That whole school year, 1991-92 was already a really exciting time for music. R.E.M. had just released Out of Time, inadvertently inventing rap-rock. Red Hot Chili Peppers would release Blood Sugar Sex Magik, furthering the rap-rock blueprint. And 1988’s most promising alt-country band would reveal a bold new sound on Achtung Baby that made bands like Jesus Jones and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (who both played Saskatoon in the fall of 1991) irrelevant nearly overnight. You could also hear some 13 Engines or Skydiggers if you were listening to the right radio stations that fall. The coolest kids at my school, whom I made a point of standing around whenever I could get away with it, were talking about Steady Diet of Nothing. I don’t know if it was 1991 or if it was age 14, but that fall you didn’t have to be cool to seem cool.
Jon McKiel – Strands by killbeat music
(more about Jon McKiel)

Mixtapes were a thing in 1991. Everyone had them, everyone traded them. You would get weird mixes, like Leslie Spit Treeo followed by Metallica. If you asked for something, you’d probably get it, but then you’d also get a whole other side of something you didn’t want, but it was there, so you might as well listen to it. You could ask for Mercury Rev on one side and end up X-Clan on the other. You just never knew. Some of your friends were goth-ish, some were punk-ish, whatever. All that matter was that you weren’t jocks. Of course, you could still play basketball without being a jock. But you couldn’t wear your hat backwards.
So we were there in Ninth Grade Wood Shop, making who knows what, listening to a cassette of Magna Cum Louder that I had dubbed off a friend of a friend after I saw a 12th Grade girl wearing a Hoodoo Gurus t-shirt.

And this jock walks over to the ghetto blaster, he’s got his ballcap on backwards Like I said, there was a definite lack of adult supervision in Wood Shop. It was like Lord of the Flies with power tools. The jocks wore their ballcaps, and us punk/alternatives played our music. I don’t even know how we heard any music over the power tools. Anyway, this jock–Brad or Chad or Ryan or something like that–he’s got his ballcap on backwards and his Club Monaco sweatshirt inside out and he’s making a move for the ghetto blaster like he’s going to put on a tape. And me, I’m like, oh no, because the only music I’d ever seen jocks listen to at that point was Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, which was, like, the soundtrack for drinking Pepsi and beating up guys like me. And Brad or Chad or Ryan wasn’t drinking a Pepsi, so… you know, I was getting nervous. Everybody knew that jocks travelled in packs, or “teams” as they’re known in zoological circles.
But Brad or Chad or Ryan just looks at me while he puts his tape in the deck and hits the play button. The song starts off kinda quiet and then explodes and then goes quiet again. This weird, echoey voice sings some nonsense lyrics about loading up on guns and then BOOM! The song explodes again, and the voice sounds like he’s got sandpaper in his throat, which, I remember, was the tool I used the most in Wood Shop. It sounds like the singer’s in real pain, like he’s in the same kind of pain that I’m in, this pain of becoming. I notice Brad or Chad or Ryan is still looking at me, and I wonder if he in that same pain of becoming too. But I’m at least suave enough not to ask. The song wears itself out with a refrain of what sounds to me like “la-de-dye-o” over and over again and I’m amazed. I’d never heard anything like it before. It sounded like it was made just for me, like it was speaking directly to me.
Brad or Chad or Ryan does this thing where he lifts up his backwards baseball cap, smoothes down his hair, and puts his cap back on in one two-handed motion, looking right in my eyes the whole time, as if to say, “Your move, pencil-neck.” But all I can say is, “play that again…please.”


Emmet Matheson is a freelance writer who blogs at A Bulldozer With a Wrecking Ball Attached. You can e-mail him at: bulldozerDOTwreckingballATgmailDOTcom

Author: Emmet Matheson

Saskatchewan Diaspora