birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Stupid and Contagious

Wait... what? Yes, you have. Stop it. "Here we are now, entertain us"? BUM ba dum, da dadada DA da da?

I... I think I envy you. Man, I can remember the first time I heard it, like crystal.

Fall 1991. Some of us from the school paper had gone out for Chinese food, in Chinatown, at some karaoke/buffet place. We piled back into Mike Carlson's car -- he went into the Marines, oddly enough, years later -- and someone got out this tape -- might have been Mike, but I still can't remember -- and said, "Okay, listen to this."

I can still remember it. The first time I heard the guitars, jangling in a way that was less "Let's see how much noise we can make" and more "We don't care how much noise we make". I imagine it's how people felt when they first heard punk. And the drums. I thought for years that the guitar part lasted a lot longer, but it's just a few seconds until RATA ta RATA ta RATA ta RATA ta-- and then, the start of EVERYTHING.

I can't emphasize that enough. I knew, right at that second, that nothing would ever be the same again, in music or anything else. This was new-as-in-nuclear. This was the bikini, named after an atomic bomb test site because THAT was how sure the creator was that it would be huge. This was bigger.

And then, just as you realize that everything has changed, that son of a bitch SLOWS DOWN. The rest of the intro is at half-speed, like that RATA ta RATA ta RATA ta RATA ta was a needle spiking into your veins and now, oh now that feeling, that warmth, when everything suddenly makes sense because this is how the world is supposed to be, even though you have to do some pretty hardcore shit to get into balance.

And the lyrics. The pointless, incendiary, random, inaudible, incomprehensible lyrics. Weird Al's version of this song is about how you can't understand what Kurt's even singing, but -- and I say this exactly once, because it is the only time it ever happened -- Al missed the point, because he was making fun of the exact same thing Kurt was. This wasn't poetry, and that's what made it poetry. That's what made him a poet. Well, that and everything else. But this song is what did it first.

It collapses at the end, because it has to. Just the same thing, over and over, and over, and over. And over. No coda, barely any fade out. Just more anger and despair, louder than we ever imagined it could be without actually being LOUD. We'd had a decade of metal and glam and Guns 'n' Roses -- and everyone thought Axl would be the one to do everything that Kurt ended up doing, right up to the end -- but none of it really prepared us. It was the form without the function, the scream without the primal, the grunge without the dirt, and when you take the dirt out of the grunge, all you have is... old.

Everything felt old in that moment. I'll never forget it. I'm sure it won't have the same effect on you, when you finally get to hear it, because you've heard it, over and over again, in all the songs that came out since. It won't be new anymore. It won't be the atomic bomb at Trinity, it'll be a pointless explosion in a pointless action sequence in the first act of a Michael Bay movie, and you're just inured to it by now.

So I guess I don't envy you. It hit me when it had to, and it did its damage, and it still echoes but I can only hear it when I think of it. Mostly.

But anyway. Here, look it up on YouTube. And no, the title never actually appears in the song. Like "Baba O'Riley".

Oh, right. "Teenage Wasteland."



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