I was thirteen years old when I received my very first cassette tape. It was Christmas Eve, 1996; I was mid-divorce and sentenced to live in my grandparents’ huge, dreary basement in Portland, Oregon while my parents were off somewhere emotionally arm-wrestling each other and driving my older sister to an early pregnancy. There were three tapes, actually; my brother stuffed them neatly into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stocking that had been mine since I was nine, hanging the stocking from his apartment wall with a square of packing tape. I distinctly remember pulling the tapes out and thinking to myself, “This is a grown-up present.” Up until then, I had received gifts that were fitting for a kid my age–video games, action figures, nerf guns, comics, even an assortment of those hypnotizing Magic Eye books. But here was my big brother, giving me rock and roll tapes. I felt like I was quietly, in that instant, taking my first step toward being a real-life teenager. My brother was deep into his late twenties at the time–he is older than me by 15 years–and in my eyes he was endlessly, definitionally cool. His hair was long then, just about shoulder-length–as long as mine is now, in fact–and he drove a red pickup truck and he listened to bands from Seattle and he was incredibly handsome. I slept in his living room that Christmas Eve, opting to spend the holiday with him instead of sitting couchside in my grandparents’ house as my grandmother and grandfather celebrated Christmas their usual way–making ground beef hash, chain smoking, silently watching television from their assigned recliners, generally doing nothing. Not that I didn’t love my grandparents–my grandfather was like a giant in my mind, this huge and noble pillar of manhood–but, like any typical thirteen year-old boy, old people (1) were super boring, and (2) made me feel uncomfortable. Plus, I don’t think they liked me all that much.
But the tapes. They were Nirvana Unplugged, The Offspring’s Smash, and a third tape that I can’t for the life of me remember but it was either the Pearl Jam album with the painfully ’90s black and white cover photo of a sheep nosing its snout through a wire fence or else it was Stone Temple Pilots’ magnum opus, Core. Either way, it was what you might call a “period piece.” Those were the first rock albums I owned, ever. At that age, I had a only passing familiarity with Nirvana and Pearl Jam–no matter how musically illiterate I may have been, there was no escaping MTV in the mid-’90s, especially when you had teenage siblings–but I had never even heard of The Offspring. To be fair, though, I hadn’t really heard of much. Growing up, my parents were never very into music, nothing beyond the obligatory Elvis Best-of records and Harry Belafonte’s Calypso and the soundtracks for Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I and whatever else you might presently find deteriorating in a dollar bin somewhere. To give you an idea of the direness of my childhood music situation: right around the time I turned eight, the first pop song that I learned all the lyrics to was Bette Midler’s “From a Distance,” because my mother encouraged me to learn it. And, musically, that’s pretty much what what I had to work with as a child. Not that there weren’t some good bands tossed in the mix–my father always had a soft spot for Creedence Clearwater Revival, which, to this day, stands in my mind as one of the best bands of to come out of Vietnam-era San Francisco–but my parents were interested in music in the same way that I imagine most suburban parents are interested in music: only kind of.