As a lanky teenager with long hair, permanent headphones, ripped pants, and a Columbine-style wardrobe (before that was a more nefarious look), I didn’t exactly blend into the walls in middle school. Not that I wanted to; if I was as “unique” as I thought I was, then maybe I’d somehow be more important than the witless jocks who wouldn’t know a thing unless it was stitched onto a football.
I’m not sure why I held myself in any higher regard than anyone else, though. Apart from being able to beat Nintendo’s Metroid, it’s not like I knew much of anything, either. My hormones and emotions were about as stable as rubber bands, and this persistent state of unease manifested externally in the form of acne and a unibrow. The only thing I really did know—truly—was that I was consumed with music.
So when my English teacher asked us to bring in songs to share containing lyrics we related to, I was drawn to the assignment, though not without some hesitancy. Because I was such a music maniac—and because it meant so much to me, especially at that point in my life—I felt great pressure to make the perfect choice.
I had a suitcase of cassette tapes under my bed, and this provided easy access to my collection upon waking. I could pull the suitcase out and ponder which soundtrack would complement my day, all without having to leave the comfort of my sheets. I had a bit of everything—lots of speed metal pioneers: Metallica, Slayer, Pantera. But also Tori Amos, Erykah Badu, Chris Isaak, Billy Joel, Rancid, Operation Ivy, Pearl Jam—the list was virtually endless. I knew if I was going to share a song with my classmates, it would need to be something powerful. Something that would force them to really see me—not just see through me.
I chose a song that offered zero subtlety: “This Time,” the opening track to the debut album from Life of Agony (a band that would later take the honor of being my first live concert, opening for Korn and Ozzy).
I arrived to class feeling confident. I handed the cassette over, knowing this would blow the class away. “This Time” begins with a blistering heavy metal groove, then pumps the brakes suddenly, transforming into a sludgy, grunge-inspired verse.
As the song began, I threw myself into the music. I had heard the song a hundred times before, but I defaulted to my usual posture—head down, eyes down, my fingers bouncing along the edge of the desk to the beat—this felt almost like a performance of my own.
And when the vocals began—a low, Eddie Vedder-like baritone—I mouthed along with the lyrics:
When all is said and done
I’ll always be your son
But all is not forgiven.
These opening lines set the stage for the theme that resonates throughout the rest of the song—and the rest of the album, quite frankly. After those first three lines, the vocals jump to a higher register, more intense—an emotional supplication to the writer’s father:
Well I’m on my knees pleading
Just ’cause I’m grown you think I don’t need
Much more than what you’ve ever given me
Here, the music slows even further, menacing and oozing distortion; resonant, pounding drums serve as the foundation for an atmosphere of finely laced dread and angst I readily absorbed. While it played, I was in a familiar trance, focusing on the lyrics. Wishing I had written them. Wishing I had sung them. Wishing I could scream similar sentiments from the roof of the school, from my bedroom window, from the basement that housed my instruments.
As much as I tried to drift out like usual, I couldn’t help but feel the 25 pairs of eyes progressively boring holes into me. Erin Glossyl put her hands over her ears. Jamie Bederka grimaced, gritting her teeth. My teacher, mouth agape, looked like she had just witnessed the murder of her cat. About 30 seconds in, she stood up, shook her head—vigorously—and implored me to turn the cassette player off. She raised her voice over the music, telling the entire class this was a “terrible” song. An “awful” song. During her raging rebuke, she missed one of the more profound and heart-wrenching parts:
So when we gonna get together
Seems there’s no time for me
You act like you got forever
You’ve got time, but you ain’t got time for me
Then, the music stopped. My teacher stood over the boombox, glaring at me. The silence was somehow louder than the guitars and drums that preceded it.
During this moment of tense quiet, I realized her refusal to hear out the song confirmed my suspicions: No one understood. No one cared. I was a freak. I was, in her words, terrible . . . awful.
I slunk in my chair. The teacher asked Eric Weiler to go next. He played “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas. I dug my pencil into the desktop. Fuck you, Eric. And fuck your father’s classic rock.
When the bell finally rang, I reaffixed my headphones, darted for the hallway, and drowned myself further in music and melancholy.
I don’t think I processed the experience much at the time, but I remember a visceral feeling of…abandonment. After all, I thought her assignment was an invitation to open up the gates, and I did: only to find that no one was out there. Or worse—I wasn’t alone, but was surrounded by monsters.
Granted, Life of Agony is a particularly dark band, and that level of anguish may have made my peers and my teacher uncomfortable (perhaps they would have preferred I brought Sarah McLachlan’s “Sweet Surrender” like Suzie Husami did). But I gravitated to this music because I found solace knowing I wasn’t alone in my heavy emotions, wasn’t the only one struggling with fallout from a fractured family, and hell, maybe by sharing it, someone else might identify with me, with the music, with something.
The second verse mentions the lyricist’s mother:
Now that you’ve gone and tossed
The bottle away now will ya
Start a new life with the new wife?
Well she’ll never be my mother
I suppose that you know you oughta
Remember the ones you left behind
Whenever I sang along, my throat would tighten slightly at the line, “She’ll never be my mother.” It may sound a bit immature at first blush (“you’re not my mommy!”), but I interpreted it differently. To me it meant, “No other woman can compare to my mother, because she’s strong and responsible and she’s here with me. We’re going to be fine without you.”
And we were. With my mom and my brother around, I never felt completely lost. My mother was busy, sure, but she was there for dinner every night. She stood up for me to teachers who thought I was trouble because I wore T-shirts with skeletons on them. She let me wear army pants that had holes you could fit a loaf of bread through. And when I told her I didn’t want her to come see my heavy metal band play (at an arcade, mind you), I caught her peeking at us through the window that night with my aunt.
Some of my other friends—kids you might see in a line-up somewhere— weren’t as lucky to have a source of stability, but because I did, I was eventually able to grow out of my self-absorption and self-pity. In time, in part due to my mom’s encouragement, I was able to turn things around with my dad as well. He apologized. He began to show up to things, like my graduation. He called. He cared. And so, I began to soften.
Life of Agony’s music—and the contributions from hundreds of other bands—helped keep me afloat in those moments when my mother couldn’t, kept me feeling strong in the face of weak teachers who only ever wanted to walk the line. And if I hadn’t been able to find that confidence from my mom, from my brother, from all those tapes underneath my bed, who knows if I could have found forgiveness for my father?
More than two decades later, I still don’t know much. But I do know this—next week my Dad is making a trip across the country to see me, my wife, and my two kids.
And I don’t even remember that English teacher’s name.