I turned 14 in 1994, the year Kurt Cobain died. The same year I discovered smokes, hickeys and what getting punched in the face felt like.
I attended Bedford Road, the second oldest high school in Saskatoon, and played basketball on a team called the “Redmen”. This was the first year of my life where I truly began to feel like a human kickball. High school made me feel like I had been born jinxed and was doomed to live out my existence in constant hiding. Like some sort of terrible, stereotypical movie, jocks ‘n’ jerks were everywhere, administering beatings and taunts. I quickly discovered the only place to hide from their cruelty, aside from at home, was a good pair of headphones.
And then they stole my good pair of headphones.
Up until this point, the bands I listened to were collected from absorbing endless bouts of afternoon MuchMusic marathons. Blankly watching sugary VJs and the likes of Enya and Bobby Brown, I would wait impatiently for the rasped-out guitar rumblings of Pearl Jam, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins. I still listened to the tapes from my childhood, such as ABBA’s “Gold” and a Motown compilation my dad got for free at a local gas station. But for the most part, my favourite bands creeped the front of my Wal-Mart t-shirts, a literal treasure trove from the grunge heyday: Stone Temple Pilots, L7, Alice in Chains and Dinosaur Jr. I paired my musical fashion tastes with neatly pleated old man pants from the local Value Village or a ratty pair of my dad’s Dickies, which hung roughly two inches too short for legs that volcanoed through puberty.
Dressing up in the uniform of the day did nothing to elevate my frail social status – framing a face full of zits was a scraggle of a ‘stache wiggling up through the greasy mound of skin that was my face, while dangles of hair fell across a ubiquitous undercut favoured by everyone who grew up in the ‘90s. The only problem was that everyone else wore it better.
“As a dorked-up nerd-rocket, it was nice to know there were a few other lonely freaks out there…”
As it turns out, grade 9 was an eventful year beyond just the occasional beating: I discovered punk rock, how to play guitar, chug a beer and how to dig through crates at the downtown record stores. I developed coquette French class crushes, shaved for the first time ever and began wearing shorts over long underwear in the winter.
This was also the year that I discovered community radio. CFCR 90.5 FM became my everything, and 1994 was the year that everything changed.
As a dorked-up nerd-rocket, it was nice to know there were a few other lonely freaks out there. Pre-Facebook, that meant looking for friends in the seediest seats in the food court at the mall, in the pit of the local all ages metal gig and in the back alley behind the movie theatre. But the radio became a new constant in my life. I could always tune in and feel some semblance of belonging listening to the hosts of the day whenever I felt the too-much-teen-angst-blues.
I even made a few weirdo-allies who tuned me into the best CFCR shows, and taught me that I could always phone in a request if I ever felt brave enough to not be alone even for a few seconds.
My best friend’s older brother thankfully had amassed both taste and style. Even better, he was willing to share his secrets. The fuzzed-out bass of Eric’s Trip, the curiously-cute pop-punch of Thrush Hermit, the endless oscillation of noise from Sonic Youth, the brutish five-finger death blow of the Jesus Lizard. My best friend and I listened to as many of these bands as we could. We also dissected countless interviews with Cobain and came up with some new favourite bands, including The Vaselines and Black Flag, which we would in turn request on my favourite late night weekend shows such as TV Party Tonight.
This was also the year I became a DIY mixtape factory. I began staying home at night just to bask in the music from programs like Moral Minority, Astro Launch and Nightwaves. And if love was shared music than a mixtape was the labour of the most tender of affections. Love was the way we talked, a mess of emotion delivered through the mess of other people’s power chords and filtered through a violent sheen of tape hiss. I was hooked, forever. But my own love was clumsy, and my methods reeked of crudeness. Every weekend I would scab one of my dad’s old Neil Diamond tapes, turn on the dial, and diligently record every song that remotely resembled punk, or at least my version of it. Twenty seconds in I’d make a judgement if the song was a newfound classic ripper. If it wasn’t, I’d scramble to rewind the tape and get it back into place for the next salvo of spit, sleaze and Sex Pistols. Imperfect, but all I could ever hope for was a little bit of mysticism on those clunky crossfades. That and maybe my mixtape would get me a little play.
These were the stories that you would tell your punk rock grandchildren – crusty tales of crinkled cassettes, using a pencil to crawl-rewind to your favourite song. Except I couldn’t even get a date because poor dad, popping in his Neil tape, hoping for “Sweet Caroline” only to be plastered with the like of the Circle Jerks and SNFU, had no choice but to ground me for defiling his tape collection.
For this reason and more, my high school crushes were barely on the radar. But, rather than establishing any sort of physical connection, I mostly just wanted to talk to strangers about all the bands they knew that I didn’t. I wanted secrets and nighttime radio magic, record store envy and holding hands in moshpits.
I eventually got there, and in some ways it was because CFCR saw me the whole way through. After fading out of high school, several of my friends starting hosting their own shows. Some of us formed bands and played at the CFCR FM-Phasis fundraisers or at the annual Sled Island showcase. Even after I moved to Montreal I still tuned in. Several timezones over, I was finally able to make those early morning shows.
It meant a lot, to have a source of endless music, conversation and someone to make me feel a little less lonely while I was in hiding from the rest of the world. Still no grandkids, but if I had ‘em they’d be listening to their community radio station right now. Hopefully, they would be excitedly forming their own bands, roaming the halls of their school, wielding the power of endless possibility, music and a good pair of headphones.