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The Song That Changed Your Life

Incorrect thoughts by Taras Grescoe

As part of The Song That Changed Your Life series, we asked writers from across the country to tell us which song or piece of music is important to them. 

When Taras Grescoe was 14 he bought a Subhumans record, put toothpaste and egg white in his hair, and attended an all-ages punk rock show at the Odd Fellows Hall.  

Please note that this story contains language that some readers may find disturbing.

This is a little embarrassing. The song that changed my life, by the punk band The Subhumans, is called “Slave to My Dick.” It’s a lumbering, Sex Pistols-influenced anthem, two minutes and forty seconds of primitive social satire about a superficial nightclub cruiser. (Singer Wimpy Roy growling: “I dress high class / because it makes me look high pay!”) A yuppie, in other words, even though in 1980 the term wasn’t being used. At least not in Vancouver.
The point wasn’t the quality of the lyrics, nor the tightness of the playing. The point was that I’d used the money I’d earned from my first real job, slinging popcorn at the Ridge Movie Theatre, and taken a Brill trolley bus down to Quintessence Records on Fourth Avenue, where I’d bought a vinyl record by a band that not only lived in my hometown, but whose members I would occasionally see—with their dark overcoats, spiky hair, and sneers—lining up for the rock-doc triple bills where I worked, or even waiting at a bus stop. Up until then I’d been listening to the AM radio (“Afternoon Delight,” “Roxy Roller”) or sifting through my parents record collection, whose forays into rock started with Yellow Submarine and ended with the soundtrack to Hair. I’d tried to like folk music, but my first big concert experience was Arlo Guthrie at the War Memorial Gymnasium. I’d looked around at the bien pensants baby boomers, in their corduroys and sandals, and asked myself: “What am I doing here?” Even Arlo, laid low with a stomach bug he probably picked up from some ill-marinated tempeh, couldn’t be bothered to take the stage.

That first album, Incorrect Thoughts, connected me with the Vancouver punk rock scene, which turned out to be a pretty good one. I put toothpaste and egg white in my hair to get that spiky look, ripped holes in the knees of my jeans, and left my comfort zone to attend my first all-ages show at the Oddfellows’ Hall, deep—or at least it seemed that way to me at the time—in the East End. It was scary as hell—full of every safety-pinned freak you could then find in Vancouver, all 300 or so of them. They spat, pogoed, and were really very nice to a baby-faced 14-year-old. And the Subhumans rocked that night. For the rest of my teenage years, the Vancouver punk rock scene became my world.

Some of the guys in my high school ended up founding a band that would later be credited with inspiring the whole grunge thing. Then came ubiquitous tattoos, CDS, and Green Day. Full circle: in order to purchase “alt-culture,” you had to make a trip to the mall, or buy a ticket to the stadium.

I’m happy to see that vinyl’s made a comeback, and local live-music scenes keep on popping up. (I hope my son’s adolescence will coincide with a rockin’ one.) As for me, I’ve still got that Subhumans album—and I ain’t sellin’ it on no eBay.

Taras Grescoe is the award-winning author of four books, including the bestselling STRAPHANGER, which won the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. His work has appeared in major publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, National Geographic Traveler, and Gourmet. He lives in Montreal.

Author photo credit: Erin Churchill

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