Before the yellow bus pulled out of the school parking lot, my thighs were already sticking to the plastic seats. Sitting next to me, my best friend, Tom, was rifling through his backpack for a cassette tape to help us pass the time during the 2-hour drive from Oshawa to Kingston. Neither of us was particularly excited about our end-of-year school trip to the lock station at the mouth of the Rideau Canal.
“You should check this out”, said a grinning eighth-grader, handing Tom a cassette case with a weird looking mannequin on the cover. Acquiescing to the older kid’s offer, Tom diligently inserted the cassette into his yellow Sony Sports Walkman, put on his headphones, and hit play.
Minutes later, as I was looking out the window, Tom grabs my arm and hands me the headphones.
“You have to hear this,” he says with the most serious expression a seventh-grader can muster.
As the first song starts to play, I am immediately aware that I have never heard anything like it before: raw, menacing, and yet beautiful. The distorted guitar and the pounding drums captivated my attention completely.
“Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old,” a strained and detached voice sings over the instruments. I can hardly understand the words, let alone their meaning. But one thing I understand with absolute clarity: this music is for me.
While most of my memories of that 1994 school trip are a blur, listening to Nirvana’s In Utero I remember vividly. Each song on that album exposed a musical element that was completely novel to me; the thunderous drumming that kicks off Scentless Apprentice, the quiet-to-loud dynamics of “Heart Shaped Box, the shocking lyrics of “Rape Me”, the intentional guitar feedback on “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, the unfinished and improvisational feel of “Milk It”, and the incomprehensible screaming of Tourette’s.
Within the next few weeks, everything about my adolescent identity changed. What I wore, how I acted, and how I spent my time were all revised according to my new soundtrack.
The rap albums I had desperately wanted to like were replaced with more Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Hole, Stone Temple Pilots, and Smashing Pumpkins. The baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts I had been buying at the mall gave way to ripped jeans and flannel shirts from the Salvation Army. Tom and I started hanging around music stores, staring at instruments we had no idea how to play. Eventually, we coerced our parents to buy us a drum set and an electric guitar, and we started a band.
Playing guitar and singing in high-school led to me to start writing songs. Writing songs made me realize just how much I enjoy writing in general. My drive to write, especially about science and medicine, drove my decision to go to graduate school. In graduate school I developed as a scientist and earned a PhD. More importantly, this is where I met the love of my life.
And it all started with one song over 20 years ago: Serve the Servants.
What about you? What was the song or album that changed your life?