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Tuesdays with Nirvana

By Heather Dundas

Art_NirvanaEvery Tuesday night at 7:00 I spend an hour listening to Nirvana at top volume. It’s not nostalgia and I’m not at a club; I’m at my 14-year-old son’s drum lesson in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. Teo sits on a platform behind an enormous drum kit and plays along to the songs in Nevermind. It’s loud. So loud that Kurt Cobain’s voice expands like a wet sponge, filling all the space around me and inside me, driving most thoughts out of my head. I love it. This is one of the few opportunities I have to uninhibitedly stare at my son, and every week I give in to the luxury.

I don’t want to embarrass Teo; I bring my laptop along and tap away studiously during the lesson. But he doesn’t need to know that I’m just playing computer solitaire. And watching him. It’s amazing that someone related to me is capable of mastering the ultimate symbols of adolescent machismo, especially since I was the one who hummed along to Tchaikovsky through my youth, who knew all the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, who embodied girl geekdom in high school. With his long blonde hair and ripped jeans, Teo is undeniably cool behind the kit.

I watch Teo, and I wonder about the enduring popularity of Nirvana. Why do I enjoy it? Certainly the lyrics with their proto-emo teen angst have very little to say to me – my angst is undeniably middle-aged. Maybe it’s that the wrist-slitting lyrics seem to be undercut by the lively beat? Is it the irony, the juxtaposition? I ponder this as long as I can, but it’s not long until the song reasserts itself in my brain, and I find myself nodding along to the bouncy beat: oh well. Whatever.

Every now and then Teo’s eyes glaze toward me – I can’t tell if he’s actually seeing me or not. As he plays, one foot is visible under the hi-hat; Teo’s sporting his father’s cast off shoes, the ones he’s been wearing exclusively for a year. I gave Teo two pairs of sneakers at Christmas, in an attempt to get him to wear something other than those black clodhoppers. He finally took one pair to school so he could play PE in suitable shoes. But otherwise, he’s wearing his dad’s shoes, now split at the seams because they are-suddenly–two sizes too small. If his father and I hadn’t divorced, would Teo still want to wear these shoes day after day after day? I allow the music to push the thought away.

Dopily, I try to imagine how loud it is behind the drum kit, where Teo sits. It must be deafening. “Hearing loss” floats through my head, but looking at him, skinny shoulders just showing above the snare, his mouth pursed and eyes vacant with concentration, his entire being absorbed into the music, I can’t work up a real sense of danger.

Already he’s had “gigs.” At the first, a middle school dance, girls screamed. At the second gig, another school event, Teo learned to flip his hair around and collapsed at the end of a song in mock exhaustion. Girls screamed louder. Parents came up to tell me how cool my son is. How did this happen? My own son, one of the band.

Teo is my second. His sister, now eighteen, leaves for college in a few weeks. He’s my youngest child, my last. He was my blonde baby, the little boy who loved red cowboy boots, the child who fell asleep next to me on the couch more nights than either of us care to admit. And now – there he is, master of the universe.

There are days when the drum lesson doesn’t go well: Teo’s beat is either a little ahead or behind, and no matter how hard he tries he can’t hit the time exactly. It’s immensely frustrating. I can see his face get redder and redder as he chews on his lips and tries to keep the beat.

“Lower your elbow! Use your wrist!” his teacher yells at him. Chris is closer in age to Teo than me, member of a bonafide band that plays real gigs. From where I sit in the loft I can only see the back of Chris’s head, but Teo is attuned to his every movement. Chris clicks his sticks together and they both nod. Chris beats out a rhythm on his knees and Teo plays along softly on the drums.

“No, man,” Chris says, “you flam it here.”

“Oh,” says Teo, “like that?” They parse out differences that I can’t hear. Some days the lesson devolves into a tedious repetition of a few beats over and over again, as Teo struggles to coordinate his feet with his hands. These are the hardest lessons, when Chris turns the music off and Teo pounds out tom (beat) tom-TOM (beat), tom (beat) tom-TOM (beat) for minutes on end.

Today Chris is sporting a fresh black eye.

“You have to be tough in rock and roll,” he says, as though this explains it. Teo nods, as though black eyes were common in his experience. I want to know more, but I won’t interject too much motherly attention into the conversation. I know I’m only being tolerated here.

I congratulate myself that Teo and I like the same music. I like Nirvana. Teo likes Nirvana. Therefore…what? I remind myself that in Teo’s world, Nirvana is an oldie, on a par with the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Next year it’s just the two of us in the house…how are we going to manage that? He moans at the thought, hurting my feelings. (Oh, how I am going to miss his sister.)

“Next up is Incubus,” says Chris. I’ve never even heard of them. What I’m trying to ignore is that Teo is learning a completely new language, one that leaves me behind.

Never mind, drones the song. Teo, red-faced and sweating, keeps up with the tricky rhythm. The stage is a boat, holding only Teo and Chris, and it’s pulling away from me. I wonder – is this ship just beginning to sail or did it leave months ago, when I wasn’t looking? When does he stop being mine? Was he ever?

You have to be tough in rock and roll, I think. And like a happy, besotted groupie I settle back to watch my growing son master the shifting beat.

Author’s Note: Teo’s drum lessons were pivotal in his evolution from struggling pre-teen to successful high school student. He played in his school’s jazz band for four years, and his love of one art form gave him the confidence to explore others. Upon graduation from high school, he received an award for his contribution to the artistic life of the school, and won scholarships to study painting and creative writing in college.

About the Author: After a career in theater, Heather Dundas is now studying at the University of Southern California for a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing. Her story, “Trivial But Numerous,” was published last year in PMS: PoemMemoirStory 11. An earlier essay, “Mull Mermaid,” was published in Brain, Child in 2006.

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