How Sublime Got Me Through A Nightmarish High School Experience

I was bullied and harassed in my small town until their music helped win me a small measure of social acceptance. posted on

The second time in my life that I got drunk, it was on a Wednesday morning, just before 8 a.m., and I was 16 years old. My reasons for pounding two beers before homeroom were grimly practical, insofar as you could ever consider morning drinking a “practical” decision: A lanky, doleful-looking kid named Matt Keith had made clear, the day before, that he was going to beat the shit out of me. I was interested in beer’s “liquid courage” properties, hoping they would help me prepare to get punched in the face, and to maybe do the same to someone else, in a few short hours.

My fight with Matt Keith turned out to be a non-event. It took place in the hallway outside the library and lasted all of one minute. It was 1998, my fourth and final year in the small, blue-collar Western New York town in which my parents still live. That year, it turned out, was a breaking point. At its end, I would plead with my parents to relocate me somewhere else where I might be finish high school in relative peace. (“Relative peace” turned out to be another, slightly-less-hostile Western New York town a few hours away, where I went to stay with family friends.) I retain some identifying marks from those miserable, highly instructive years, and one them is my stubborn, lingering fondness for the music of Sublime.

This picture is from my eighth-grade graduation, and I have just been pulled aside for a photo-op highlighting academic achievements that I desperately did not want highlighted. That’s me on the left. It was only my second year in this town, but I had already internalized several helpful, hard lessons. Here were a few of them:

• Winning the Local Spelling Bee and Advancing To the State Championships Does Not Improve Your Social Status

• No One Here Thinks It’s Cool How Well I Play My Violin, Even/Especially following my rendition of “Polish Dances” for my Seventh-Grade Class

• I Should Maybe Cool it With the Eighty-Page Fantasy Novels I Was Writing And Sharing In Installments with my English Class

Yes, I waltzed into my new middle school like Martin from The Simpsons, a completely aberrant human being who didn’t even have the good sense to keep his head down. That first year, I was maybe the most eminently beat-uppable kid in the galaxy. The photo you see above was after a year’s worth of vigorous assimilation. At this point, I had already learned how to be ashamed of nearly everything I cared about or was naturally good at. And yet there I was, being lauded for achievements that would soon lead me to be chased home by a mob of kids, coated in shaving cream and smacked around and left to walk home through town in broad daylight, my shirt ripped nearly off of me.

Yes, that is me, posing in a Misfits T-shirt, in front of a Christmas tree in 1998.

My town was oddly lacking in the normal subculture ecosystem you find in most of suburbia. The few kids who were openly into punk music and skateboarding were chased all over town, called “narcs” (short for “anarchist”) and beaten up. I wasn’t a skater, but the music was mine. Most of what I loved – Bad Brains, Misfits, Circle Jerks – was normalized in the rest of suburban America, but in my town it was “queer music.” Sometimes, I wonder if it was just its association with me that made it seem “queer” to people. I seemed to have a certain King Midas queerifying effect on most everything I touched. (The irony of being called a faggot and a queer every day for several years when you are burgeoning straight male is another story for another time.)

So I hid all that really excited me, the punk and early indie and Archers of Loaf and Neutral Milk Hotel and Elliott Smith and stuff I got from my much-older brother who was living in NYC. For some, music taste was an alternate route to “cool,” but for me, it was just another example of my freakish otherness.

I was also already, unmistakably, a budding music critic, reading and re-reading copies of Spin and Rolling Stone over post-school cereal bowls until they disintegrated. The words and pictures from those early issues have entered my bloodstream the way comics and children’s books do. They became deeply important, a secret handbook to memorize, a complicated set of directions that I might follow to a better life someday.

It wasn’t a disintegrating copy of Rolling Stone that brought Sublime into my life, though. It was, of all things, my parents’ Time Magazine. In 1996, the summer before I entered ninth grade, Sublime were briefly considered a critically viable band. Bradley Nowell was freshly dead, always a good critical-approval gambit, and Sublime’s self-titled record was about to be a big commercial prospect in the post-grunge free-for-all. I pored over the generous, several-page spread with fascination, absorbing references to music that I hadn’t met much firsthand yet. “Ska” was a blurry concept to me that mostly involved chain wallets, trips to the mall, maybe a trombone. “Gangsta rap,” meanwhile, was an entirely different minefield. The racial politics were rough in my town, but also weirdly honest and mostly affectionate. That being said, nothing, and no one, was scorned so much as the white kid who dared openly listen to rap music. The music beckoned to me from outside my reach, but I fixed my face into studious indifference every time I encountered it. It was a cowardly move, but I had invited enough social censure.

I experienced the music of Sublime under ideal conditions: total ignorance. To a kid who’s heard no reggae and no ska in their entire lifetime, and has only furtively absorbed hip-hop, Sublime can sound pretty damn good. (By the same token, a person crawling through a desert will drink stagnant pond water like a gift from the gods.) The songs had warm, immediate melodies, and Nowell’s voice had a beery soulfulness in it that felt new to me. I was excited. I was an idiot. I didn’t tell anyone at all.

Then, something unexpected happened. My friends, out of the clear blue, began liking Sublime. Before Sublime, the entire concept of “liking music” had seemed completely alien to many of them. I distinctly remember a friend, noting my CDs with exasperation, asking me to explain it to him. “What are you even doing? You’re just sitting there, hearing something.” The change, when it came, was as sudden, decisive, and opaque as any in the senseless violence of adolescence. Where there had once been silence, there was now Sublime. When I went to my friend Alex’s house to play ping-pong and video games, Sublime was playing on repeat. I had found a tiny air hole through which I could actually talk about music. My friends, sensing my eagerness for their approval, mostly derided me, and I found myself in the retrospectively hilarious position of being called a poser who only claimed to like Sublime because they were popular. Nevertheless, it was a moment of private validation, and it was so that in the spring of my ninth-grade year, I found myself on a fragile crest of tentative approval.

By the time I was driven to drinking morning beers in my own basement just to make it through school, a year or so later, I was done with Sublime. But they had served the noblest purpose that a pleasantly derivative party band could ever serve: They helped lead me to better things. I had already impatiently tossed aside Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash when I began to suspect that I was still swimming in the kiddie pool, and that there was rougher stuff still out there. Wading out to deeper waters brought me to Bad Brains’ self-titled and Black Flag’s Damaged. I was starting to do the same with Sublime. Now that I had a vague firsthand idea of what West Coast gangsta-rap menace was supposed to feel like, I wanted to the actual article. Now that I’d heard Bradley sing warmly about absorbing lessons from KRS-One, I was ready for “My Philosophy.”

When I left and finished high school in an adjacent town, I carried with me the uneasy sense that somehow, I hadn’t really escaped: Part of me was still there, being attacked in the halls, dragged to the principal’s office. Part of me still is there, even today. When I fall into the deepest part of my sleep, I walk those same halls, over and over again. Like all small-town-to-big-city people I have carried around my time as a social outcast as a badge, a talisman, treating it as far more significant than it warrants.When I listen to the Sublime records now, I feel as embarrassed for Nowell as I do for myself in that bowl-cut picture. When he sings “droppin, droppin, droppin science, dropping history/ with a whole lip’a style and intelligency,” on “KRS-One,” I am seized by a powerful need to vacate the room. But I can’t disavow this goofy dude. In his own way, he helped me get to where I am now. I have a silly little hero story I tell myself about my life. And whether I like it or not, one of its pivotal moments will forever be soundtracked by “Waiting For My Ruca.”

Jayson Greene is the managing editor at eMusic and a contributing editor at Pitchfork. His writing has also appeared in GQ.com and The Village Voice.

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