The Time I Lit The School On Fire

There was a time in my life when I listened to music. Then it ended. After that, any music I encountered was more or less garbage.

As decades pass, I’ve become a grumpy old man about it. New music actually angers me—it literally puts me in a sour mood. Perhaps it’s because at age forty-five, you enter that phase in life when pop culture no longer pertains to you. The zeitgeist of film and music isn’t producing works considering you as its target audience. The arts have moved on—and whatever you think of it no longer matters. It’s sort of like alcohol. You see a bottle of Crown Royal in your pantry and consider having a glass, remembering fondly the way it used to make you awesome. Instead, it just puts you to sleep.

Music once mattered a lot. As a kid, it probably ranked number three or four in my list of importance, somewhere behind girls or sports and maybe clothes when I got less fat. Music mattered for young people the same way grownups get riled about politics. It’s an expression of identity. It makes you shout from the hilltops and scream down the hallways. Nothing feels better than driving your vehicle, elbows out the window, Kenwood speakers rocking out to precisely the right tune. Like Bernie Casey’s character John Slade from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) so aptly declared, “That’s my theme music. Every good hero should have some.”

Music (for me) began in eighth grade, peaking at the end of high school before its gradual denouement. My audio journey spanned from record-scratching urban beats to the chaotic noise of distorted guitars and speaker hiss in a time that preceded the music video’s demise. It was an era when concert flyers could be found stapled to telephone poles and record stores ran with the intellectual depth of a modern library. Good music was scarce and, consequently, valuable. Its curation was pivotal to one’s individuality, especially at the impressionable age of fourteen.

Or maybe it seemed that way, because I was fourteen in Seattle at the advent of grunge music in the early 1990s.

Historians might suggest that grunge music took off with Nirvana in 1991. Other bands preceded it, but Nirvana brought grunge to the main stage. The three-man scream-heavy troupe released its first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” bursting onto the mainstream with its video of a grimy gymnasium with unruly cheerleaders and riotous students in bleachers. The song’s anarchic chords, frantic drumming and incomprehensible lyrics flipped conventions of the American high school. It was unlike anything we had seen since the punk rock antics of The Clash or The Sex Pistols with hints of 70’s-era dark metal. The album Nevermind, released by Geffen Records, sold like Pinkberry, reaching number one within four months of its release.

I also remember when Epic Records released Pearl Jam’s Ten. The band, formed by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, had a sound equally wild and dark, but its guitars were a bit more melodic and its players looked a bit more wholesome. Epic Records—the same label that championed acts like The Culture Club and Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s— optimistically pushed Pearl Jam’s wine-red cassettes and long-box compact discs onto merchandise kiosks despite its slow initial sales. In the spring of ’92, the album finally took off with the release of its second single, “Even Flow” with its buzz-bin video depicting Eddie Vedder diving off the walls of The Moore Theater in Downtown's 2nd Avenue. After that, Ten became a sensation, a pinnacle of the movement to be lauded for another two decades.

What I remember most were the cassettes themselves.

Ten’s was transparent plastic, clear with a hazy gray background. The typescript (in sans-serif font) appeared in negative space. Now, this was 90’s fashion; cassettes from the 80’s were almost all opaque white or cream with its typescript in small black font. I recall how revolutionary these clear gray ones had seemed, and how I’d prize my transparent tapes and disdain the white-and-cream ones as if the new design held a greater aesthetic. And when the transparent cassettes jammed, you could visibly inspect the mechanics of how it happened, and the skilled few could use a pencil to untangle the spools.

I remember the chemical scent of cellophane, and the click of the case when it first opened. The firm plastic casing would stick sometimes along the edges in the front, and if you weren’t careful, it would splinter down the sides. The spools would rattle and the shell’s weight varied on the length of the recording. The analog tape, visible at the bottom between the guide roller and pressure pad, was clear at the lead before the black magnetic material began. Often my sh*thead friends would neglect to spool forward before dubbing something and wonder why the beginning of a song got cut off.

I remember storing my cassette collection in the headboard of my water bed. I took pride in their condition, wiping off sticker residue with Goo-Gone and restoring any cracked plastic by thieving unbroken cases from my sister’s Broadway show tunes collection. I’d play them on my G.E. 11-2000 series stereo (dual deck, vertical-slot CD, graphic-equalizer sliders). I’d play my music loudly, drumming with toy drumsticks on my pillows using my night lamp’s shade as a cymbal—until my mom inevitably yelled at me to shut it off. I recall the way I felt important popping a new cassette into my AA-battery-sucking Walkman and listening with evaluative ears. Ten was no exception. I bought the album without listening to a single song. This wasn’t uncommon for me. Somehow, in my thirteen-year-old mind, I had deemed it suitable for me to go forth and scout new music.

Then again, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were by no means grunge pioneers. Bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had long preceded them. Mark Arm, lead singer of Mudhoney, had coined the term to a local magazine around 1981 when he described his music as “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure sh*t!” By the time I turned thirteen, most of the recognizable Seattle acts had already recorded, long before the word “grunge” had reached the likes of Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren on MTV News. Meanwhile, heavy-metal enthusiasts like vee-jay Riki Rachtman paid little heed, despite Mike Judge’s opting to align Nirvana with his TV icons-at-the-time, Beavis and Butthead. “[These guys] are cool…” says Butthead, watching one of their music videos. “If you go to Seattle, anybody you see, is cool. We should go dude.”

Grunge purists would’ve scoffed at the remark. Why? Because Beavis and Butthead loved metal. And Nirvana wasn’t metal. Metal stood for something very different—the sensationalism of rock stardom and the wild disdain for societal norms… embodied in sex and drugs, needing nothing but a good-time and fighting for the right to party. They may as well have been the Beastie Boys.

Grunge wasn’t about any of that that. Grunge was about angst.

When I was thirteen, I didn’t know much about angst. I was just angry a lot of the time. As a middle-school boy, I did the things my suburban white friends did… you know, like sneak out at night with colored markers to vandalize garage doors, steal hubcaps and stop signs, or rip emblems off luxury cars to wear as neck chains. I remember Ben Buckley once stole a pack of condoms from Pay N’Save for no reason. No one dared him to do it; he just did it. And they weren’t latex, but slimy lambskin condoms that looked and smelled and felt so weird I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of us got scared off from contraception well into our twenties.

I remember eighth grade, sitting in a classroom, doodling logos of popular bands and radio stations on my textbook covers made from paper grocery bags. I remember feeling my self-worth measured by who had written what and at what length in my middle school yearbook. Whether so-and-so would go with me or whether what’s-her-name would talk to me if I called her, and when I did, what I might say, and why boys like Tyler Weigel never seemed to worry about stuff like that… all the while popular girls with poofy bangs and jean jackets were drawn to him because he was athletic and played rec league football. They even liked the preacher’s kid (we'll call him Matt F.), who enjoyed speed metal and burning things in his basement while playing with his brother’s twelve-gauge.

As an Asian minority, I learned how to exercise my own charms. My skin color made me different from my all-white classmates. My house was on the south (and poorer) side of Seattle. Plus I listened to lots of music—music other kids didn’t own— that their parents wouldn’t allow them to own, but I could obtain, because my mom couldn’t read English that well and didn’t understand those black Parental Advisory stickers.

Being a latchkey kid with cable television, I watched MTV like it was church. In 1991, I consumed a lot of rap and harmonizing R&B (called New Jack Swing), along with whatever else was popular on the Top Twenty Video Countdown—you remember—Monie Love’s “Work it Out,” EMF’s “Unbelievable,” Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now.” The music was upbeat, rhythmic and more or less innocuous—adolescent black boys in backwards trousers yelling Jump! Jump! or, at worst, catchy choruses laden with sexual innuendoes. At school, I enlisted my expansive music collection to dee-jay our middle school dances, even being snooty about which blank tapes to use while creating a mix. (I used Maxell XLII90 ‘Chrome’ or, if warranted, the TDK MAXG90 ‘Metal,’ which was solid black, heavier, and cost about 10% more. I’d turn my nose down at cheap brands like Memorex or Scotch, or even the originator, BASF. They all produced an inferior sound that even a handy head-cleaner could not fix). I spent countless hours after school at the Westlake Center Musicland near the bus tunnels that ran north-south below 4th and 5th Avenue. (My parents ran a restaurant on 3rd and Stewart, so I’d often go there instead of home until my mom could get off work). When I gathered the nerve, I’d purchase the profane political rap of Public Enemy or Ice Cube, because at least they were about something. The media would make a stink about Chuck D’s controversial lyrics: Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant sh*t to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain / Mother f*ck him and John Wayne / ‘Cause I’m black and I’m proud, I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps. I felt rebellious just to acquire it. Anything not played on popular radio stations like KPLZ 101.5 or KUBE 93.3 was more dangerous—and somehow cooler—because you had to be fluent in music just to know it.

But when middle school came to an end, when the culture of button-flies and hypercolors faded with memories of lunch-milk, slap bracelets and recess, the looming presence of music became indispensable to my social survival. That’s because in high school in Seattle circa 1992—who you listened to, what you knew of them, what live acts you had seen and what records stores you shopped, all suddenly mattered.

Beginning high school in the fall of 1992, I was still listening to MTV’s Top Twenty, like Bobby Brown’s (widely-panned) third studio album, Bobby. Walking the school grounds, I would switch on my Walkman, attend classes and interact with teachers, and then switch cassettes, maybe to that Me Phi Me single “Sad New Day” (some might recall its video with its black rapper in white paint with bugs creeping out his scalp). Every morning at school, I wore my headphones down the halls instead of talking to or meet other kids, perhaps because I remembered from middle school that my music and urban stoicism were the means by which I set myself apart.

That is, until someone discovered what I was listening to.

It was probably a late September afternoon, after the football players left for practice and other kids got driven home, when I would wait on the front steps of school while my sister finished theater practice. That was the first time I met them – and I’ll name them by name, because who knows what happened to these lads (they ain’t coming to the reunions): Tim Reid, Ryan White, Chris Connell and Todd Purcell—a crew of north-Seattle boys with long hair, flannel and dirty T-shirts with esoteric words scrawled in clashing colors. These boys loitered often on those front steps, and I quickly gathered they knew many of the other freshmen at our private Catholic high school because they, too, had attended Catholic grade schools. They didn’t notice me until they had to, but when they eventually spotted me wearing headphones, they didn’t ask what track was playing. One day, Tim Reid simply snatched one of the earphones from my ear, leaned in and took a listen.

“Me Phi Me? Dude, this sucks!” he said. “What else you got?”

He proceeded to rummage through my backpack pocket (where I always kept at least a few of my tapes), and sifted through them accordingly. Poison? Crap. Cypress Hill? Crap. Tara Kemp? Dude, you listen to Tara Kemp? It was only when he encountered Nirvana’s album—not Nevermind (with the pool baby on the cover), but their first release, Bleach—that I garnered a tone of respect.

“You have Bleach? Awesome!” Then Tim Reid removed both of my headphones, put them over his ears, popped in my tape and began screaming along to the garbled lyrics of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep.” I observed the confused faces of passersby as he began to yell.

This is out of our range
This is out of our range
This is out of our range and it’s grown!
This is getting to be
This is getting to be
This is getting to be a joke!
I’m a negative creep
I’m a negative creep
I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned!

And that was pretty much the song, accompanied by Nirvana’s signature guitar distortion, thrumming bass and rapid snare-heavy percussions reminiscent of machine gun fire. Its vocals were atonal, it had little semblance of a melody, and squeals of speaker feedback preceded and concluded each track on the recording.

Various teachers and preppy kids in polo shirts passed by, undoubtedly finding us weird. But I guess that was sort of the appeal. It matched Tim Reid and his scruffy cohorts to a tee.

I didn’t find any of this a big deal, not minding whether or not this dusty-blond flannel-shirt-wearing kid approved of my music. That is, until I discovered that Tim Reid had gone to middle school with a lot of the other boys in my freshman class. Boys like Dan Reid (his cousin), George Stamos, Tighe Rogers and Mark Mattson—popular boys who lifted weights and rode skateboards, who talked about ski vacations, wore cologne and arrived at school in Toyota 4-Runners. Boys who already had dates to the homecoming dance. Popular boys who knew popular girls. And then it mattered, because I was still a nobody floating in a sea of Catholic kids who already knew one another. I was a nobody who knew no one, who understood very little about getting in with my high school classmates.

Except that they liked grunge.

They liked it a lot. More than I liked rap. So much so they delighted when you asked what they were listening to, because they could smirk and say “It’s an underground band. You’ve never heard of it.” It didn’t matter how good the music actually was. An album carried more weight the more obscure, more off-label, or more bootleg it was. In time, I perused their collections of Canadian import CDs and live recording CDs and homemade demo tapes from local bands complete with hand-drawn liner notes—bands with names like Collins Mix or Seditionaries or SadHappy with innovatively-designed and home-photocopied cassette sleeve covers. One day Tim Reid dubbed me a copy of Nirvana’s Live Tits album, an import from Japan, which first featured the live version of the song “Rape Me,” and how—though it sounded as if the audio was done by someone holding a tape recorder up in the audience—I was ecstatic to own Nirvana music that nobody else possessed.

This infatuation intensified. Come Monday morning, I would hear kids talk at the lockers about how someone’s older brother had snuck them in to (local live music bar) RKCNDY—maybe to see Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees play an acoustic gig. “Lanegan used to be good, but then his voice changed,” Chris Connell instructed. On another week, somebody arrived with their arm in a sling. I’d ask why, and that someone explained they’d broken a bone in the mosh pit watching Hammerbox perform at the Fenix in Pioneer Square. I hadn’t yet heard of Hammerbox, but I had begun to devotedly follow KNDD 107.7 and the newest buzz bin videos on MTV. Bands like Helmet, Temple of the Dog and Stone Temple Pilots. My mom and sister could barely keep up with the band names of the cassettes I inserted in the car stereo. “It all sounds the same,” they’d complain. And while I had my favorites, I admit, it all sort of did.

By mid-semester, grunge had its hooks in me. I matured in my knowledge of the culture, going as far as purchasing new clothes and growing out my hair. I’d load my backpack each morning with a different album in case someone asked what I was listening to. Everyone in school already carried a Walkman or Discman, so I’d acquire material I suspected other people didn’t have, like that split single of The Jesus Lizard’s “Puss”/Nirvana’s “Oh, the Guilt,” at Camelot Music in Southcenter Mall. Never again would I be caught with the common Pearl Jam, Nirvana or other corporate rock album, and never would I admit to shopping at Musicland or The Wherehouse. Instead, I would shop at Cellophane Square in Seattle’s University district or The Orpheum on Broadway and Roy, amassing underground albums, many of them from the Seattle-based Sub-Pop label like Seaweed’s Weak or Fluid’s Glue/Roadmouth—so that when somebody did tap my shoulder I’d show them an album they hadn’t heard or at least deemed “cool.” Then maybe they’d want to borrow it from me. In exchange, I’d borrow something from them, maybe Gashuffer’s Janitors of Tomorrow, and thereby engage in a relationship. (I wouldn’t go as far as saying “friendship.” But in ninth grade, in some ways having someone know your name is as good as it gets.)

And, now and then I’d get trapped in the ruse… you know, of being a “poser.” After all, I didn’t have any real money. I had never attended a concert. I didn’t really know this music, I mean, not the way true grunge aficionados did. I didn’t get my flannel shirt handed down from my lumberjack father; I’d purchased it at Hot Topic.

One day, it happened at the lunch table. You all remember. School lunch seating was the ultimate measure of popularity, right? Our cafeteria’s circular tables fit only six to eight students at a time, and the grunge kids sat at one table, leaving the posers (or the losers) at the fringes – or worse, an adjacent table. That day, I was lucky enough to snag a chair at the main table when someone began talking about the band Sonic Youth. Foolishly, I admitted I didn’t know their song “100%,” and Dan Reid promptly called me out. “You call yourself a rocker and you don’t even know ‘100%?’”

Everyone laughed. Chris Connell snickered about how I listened to Nine Inch Nails. While I ate silently, I considered how, even though Nine Inch Nails appeared in the Alternative Rock section at mall record stores, it wasn’t grunge. Even if Trent Reznor demonstrated more musical innovation than grunge bands like The Sweaty Nipples—whose song “Touch My Cum” is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—it didn’t matter. It wasn’t grunge. And somehow that made a difference. 

And it hurt. Maybe because I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’d established an identity in middle school, but now in high school I suddenly had none. Maybe young adolescence once made sense, but teenage life didn’t. Maybe my parents didn’t understand I no longer felt like a child, and wouldn’t respond to their efforts to connect by taking me to movies, going for drives or making my favorite pizza. That I yearned to become my own person, but didn’t know how to get there. How I prided myself in the little social rank I could attain, still desperately in envy of those above me, but openly mocking those beneath me… especially when they didn’t have the right music. And most of all, how social acceptance surpassed the emotional needs my family once supplied, and how it sucked being different from everyone almost as much as it sucked being exactly the same, living an ordinary, comfortable, boring middle class life. It made me want to scream—and possibly destroy something.

Hey, maybe it was evolutionary, this desire for acceptance by idolizing an ideological movement. Maybe it was instinctual behavior. We want to be part of a tribe, right? Tribes are how individuals secure protection. And we yearn to be recognized in tribes, because that’s how we get sustenance and opportunities to mate. And we yearn to be part of a movement, because we need a battle to fight. War and glory—at least for men—are the manner by which humans find significance. Let’s remember this was 1992. Communism had fallen and America had beaten Saddam’s army in a hundred hours. We suddenly found ourselves with no battle to fight.

In its place, we had angst.

Angst was about the turmoil of existing. Being misunderstood in a meaningless world. Grunge Rock was the music of the suburban teenage boy—fueled by high testosterone, with no physical need to hunt for food or fend off aggressors. Like a dog cooped up in a cage all day, we needed something to destroy. Grunge Music was loud, warped, grainy and distorted. Its lyrics had scant meaning and its composition bore little resemblance to conventional measures. And fittingly, after shows, many performers took their instruments and bashed them to pieces.

So, about starting fires…

One day, near the end of lunch period, I was with a group of kids hanging out near the front steps of school. It was a good mix of us; the 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. block was a typical freshman lunch, with clusters of preppy kids, Nike-wearing jocks and computer dorks congregating around the foyer waiting for the bell to ring.

One of the jocks, Dylan Somerville, found a purple bottle of Aussie Hair Gel and a pack of matches in the bushes. Another kid convinced him to dump the gel into the concave top of the concrete garbage receptacle (you know, the part that used to hold sand for cigarette butts, remember?). Dylan, who moments ago had so eagerly dumped the hair gel, shied away from the matches. Someone goaded him on, “Dude, light it!” But Dylan refused.

“Give it to me,” I said, swiping the matches.

I distinctly recall hearing another kid’s voice behind me. “Russ Naka, you’d better do it. You’d better not chicken out.”

Little did he know, I didn’t require peer pressure. I already possessed enough anger inside to want to burn the world down.

I lit the match, tossed it onto the gel, setting it ablaze.

Everybody ran.

Weirdly enough, I ran too, even though I knew I had a decent chance of getting caught. Our Catholic school was small enough that witnesses could collectively identify a malefactor through a process of elimination. Especially when it came to a fat Asian kid like me.

Vice Principal Bryan Gummersall made a stern mid-day announcement via the loudspeaker, requesting tips on apprehending the vandal responsible for the garbage can fire. Between classes in the locker hallways, kids were talking about it. I overheard (the popular) Mark Mattson describe how his history teacher Mrs. Tullis said that whoever lit the fire was just “starving for attention.”

(To be honest, that was probably one of three times in high school I recall getting so much attention.)

Yet, I remember thinking how I’d lit the fire only after calculating the receptacle, made of stone concrete, possessed little capacity to spread its flames. That it wouldn’t cause any real damage, and that it was worth doing what f***ing Dylan Somerville didn’t have the nerve to do. Being a high school nobody, I had little to lose.

So here’s how it all unfolded. Mr. Gummersall made a second plea via the loudspeaker, insisting the vandal turn himself in by the end of the day (lest more severe repercussions would ensue). So I decide – I’m not gonna live my life on the lam – I’m just gonna go in and surrender.

As I walked up to the principal’s office – I see there, seated in the office chairs, none other than Tim Reid, Ryan White, Chris Connell and Todd Purcell. Predictably clad in their flannel shirts, stained pants and army boots. We glanced at each other. Nobody said a word.

Following a brief interrogation, the submissive Asian part of me kicked in. I determined I needed to take the high road. So I exhonerated those grunge boys. I mean, they weren’t even on the foyer when it happened. Like a nice young man playing to the judge that he just doesn’t know any better, I took responsibility, and said those boys should go free. And Mr. Gummersall let them go.

After all, they weren’t even there.

Only later did it dawn on me that they hadn’t come up to the office to turn themselves in. No. Those boys had been rounded up. The school administration had suspected something and brought in the grunge kids for questioning. Maybe because they fit the mold of the anti-social, misanthropic, attention-craving teenager the Catholic school faculty presumed would do such a thing.

Had I realized this, I wouldn’t have let them off the hook so easily. I would’ve let them sweat. After all, they were just kids, like me. But Tim Reid and his scruffy north-Seattle cronies never displayed anything but egotism and cruelty to me. Music and grunge were the weapons they used to gain popularity and belittle their lessers. And like most suburban teens, they were all noise and full of sh*t. I doubt any of them would’ve had the stones to light that fire.

So now it’s three decades later. I find myself a middle-aged man and a father of two young boys. Now, as an old(ish) man, whenever I hear grunge music, I think of us lost teenagers in Seattle during the 1990s. And I’m reminded of Noel Gallagher, of the post-alternative 90s band Oasis. In an interview, he describes himself as being a fan of Nirvana. That is, until hearing their song “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.”

“'Well, I'm not… having that,” Gallagher said. “As much as I… like [Cobain] and all that… I can't have people like that coming over here, on smack… saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That's… rubbish.”

I thought: Easy for Noel Gallagher to say. He looks like a rock star. And sure, maybe Gallagher didn’t always appear like he did on the Rolling Stone cover. But I wondered if he shared that same sense of dreary meaningless we did in our youth in rainy Seattle during the 1990s. Or maybe he did. Maybe we all did. He grew up in Manchester, England, after all. That place sucks.

I will say two more things about the time I lit the school on fire.

First, the grunge kids, Tim Reid, Ryan White, Todd Purcell and Chris Connell—who remained grunge kids all throughout high school—they never associated with me again. As we got higher up in our years at school, I’d see them around the halls. They always held vacant stares like they were on something.

Second, for reasons I still don’t know, I never had to do any hard detention time, nor did I hear another word from the vice principal for lighting that fire. And I hate to admit, that little incident wasn’t even the last high school garbage can fire I got myself involved in before graduating in 1996.


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