“Why is there indecency in this picture?”
That was my mother’s only question about the iconic cover of Nirvana’s album “Nevermind,” which was released 30 years ago today and which famously features a naked baby boy swimming after a dollar bill on a fish hook.
Two years later, in 1993, our family finally paid extra for cable TV in our Miracle Mile apartment, and my traditional Iranian mother was treated to MTV music videos from the same album. Dave Grohl was swinging from a chandelier. Kurt Cobain looked like he was half dead. There were microscopic images of sperm. And that was only the video for “Come As You Are.”
I didn’t care. I’d finally found my voice.
I wasn’t Nirvana’s typical disaffected, white male fan. In 1991, I was a nine-year-old little girl who had escaped post-revolutionary Iran and resettled in the United States as a refugee. But I was an early brooder and related more to “Polly” than Polly Pocket.
That year saw the release of three seminal albums that forever altered the course of rock music: “Nevermind” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” were both released on September 24. Pearl Jam’s “Ten” was released in late August. And while each of them left an indelible mark on me, there was one that softened my assimilation in America like a balm on an open wound.
At the time, I was struggling to trust Los Angeles. I knew there would be no returning home to Tehran due to the violent oppression enforced by the theocratic regime, but what was I meant to do with this new metropolis that seemed like an endless loop of freeways and strip malls? I wasn’t supposed to be here, against a backdrop of palm fronds gently swaying in the smog; I was supposed to live and one day die on Iranian soil, however unstable, as every one of my ancestors had done for 2,700 years.
But there I was, an impoverished refugee who, ironically, had resettled in Beverly Hills because my parents wanted to benefit from the excellent (and more importantly, free) public school system, after forfeiting their life savings to leave Iran. Free school. Free lunches. And as I later learned, free music at the sampling booths at the old Sam Goody music store at the Beverly Center. Maybe Los Angeles was named after angels who gave away things for free. Even McDonald’s offered a miraculously free toy with every Happy Meal.
But ever the young cynic due to my early childhood in a volatile place, I figured there had to be a catch to all those free offerings. I was just beginning to trust Los Angeles when, in April 1992, the Rodney King riots broke out.
We lived in what was then the armpit of South Beverly Hills, just a few blocks from the city limit. Over the course of a few hours, our school shut down, doors were locked and blocked, and seemingly everything from the Korean-owned pharmacy nearby to the old Circuit City on 18th Street and La Cienega was looted. I loved that Circuit City. Without a VHS player at home, it was one of the few places I could watch snippets of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (also released in 1991) on multiple TV screens and eventually piece together the full movie in my mind.
And there was Los Angeles, under curfew and seemingly hours away from martial law. After surviving the Iran-Iraq War as a child, I never wanted to experience a mandatory curfew again. Truly, I thought, I had escaped Iran for this? I understood little about racism in the United States, and I was a narcissistic kid who’d made up her mind: Los Angeles would never be home.
Still suffering from untreated trauma as a result of the Iran-Iraq War, during which our Tehran neighborhood was bombed daily, I wasn’t prepared for the chaos in L.A. But I wasn’t afraid of protestors; I was worried about looters nearby. I didn’t quite understand that they mostly targeted businesses. For months after the riots, I made sure our apartment doors were locked and the windows were closed. I felt I couldn’t count on the city for anything, least of all, safety.
That summer, I heard songs from “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” at Sam Goody, managing to listen to half the album before my mother yanked me away to the food court to see whether anyone served kabob. I was especially drawn to “Breaking the Girl” and “I Could Have Lied.” There was a sense of quiet accountability in those songs that reassured me that the Chili Peppers would never bullshit me.
And then one night, a few months after the riots, our family arrived at McDonald’s in our brown car, which truly put the “old” in Oldsmobile. My father went inside to order; my mother followed him to correct his undoubtedly incorrect order. And my 13-year-old sister, freshly in the throes of preteen angst, jumped out to make sure no one would get her anything with a toy in it. “We can see Tabby from the window,” my father reassured my mother. I was alone in the Oldsmobile.
I locked the doors, rolled up all of the windows (manually, of course), and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. I could feel the merciless eyes of the city watching me.
My father had left the keys inside the ignition and the radio, stubbornly set by my sister to 106.7 KROQ, was still playing. After a commercial about some deodorant for teens (what that what Nirvana was referring to in the first track on “Nevermind”?) the station began to play the Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.” I’d never heard the song before because, as I later discovered, it was the eleventh song on the album, and back at Sam Goody I’d only made it to the hook of “The Righteous & the Wicked” (track nine) before my mother yanked me away.
Anthony Kiedis was singing about the cesspool of instability that I viewed as Los Angeles. But alone in his pain, his only companion was…the city. He walked her streets. She cried alongside him, but she knew better than to offer hugs (all Angelenos need their space). Without the rich history of a London or a Paris or even a New York City, her ambiguity gifted Kiedis a blank canvas on which to create his own painful but redeeming painting. In his pain, he understood that the city wasn’t his enemy but his partner.
And when Kiedis sang about never wanting to feel the way he did one particular day, my mind went back to that warm April afternoon—the first day of the riots—when school suddenly shut down and the administrators tried, in an age without cellular phones, to locate parents or guardians who could immediately pick up the children. My father was working in Gardena; my mother was typing letters for a chain-smoker downtown. Neither had a reliable phone.
But here was a grown man singing softly about Los Angeles as if she were his friend and redeemer. (The references to heroin addiction were lost on me at the time.) That night marked the first time my heart softened toward my city of refuge.
I began venturing into the city intent on soaking up every face, every street sign, and every crooked line in the cement beneath my feet. I studied the hands of immigrants on buses as my mother, my sister, and I rode downtown to buy $2 socks from Santee Alley. We were all Angelenos.
And one day, I finally felt her love. The city’s love.
There was a tiny kiddie playground outside the McDonald’s we frequented on Wilshire Boulevard in Miracle Mile (in hindsight, we spent most of our time at McDonald’s during those early years). Third grade had been especially brutal; I occupied a low rung on the social ladder. One afternoon, a boy cornered me at my desk and asked, in bewilderment, why my legs were so “hairy and dark.” Everyone, including all of the beautiful, American-born blondes whose friendship I had desperately sought that year, heard him. I wanted to crawl into a hole and melt away.
And that’s exactly what I did a few hours later, at the little playground outside McDonald’s. My parents sat a few feet away, sharing a Filet-O-Fish sandwich and knowing nothing about my pain because my sister and I never told them about anything but our hard-earned good grades. Like many children of refugees and immigrants, we didn’t want to burden our already-traumatized parents with any difficult news.
I sat on a rubber mat and watched as other kids climbed monkey bars and dropped french fries by my feet. I had never felt so unseen.
I couldn’t figure out who I had around me to envelope me with acceptance without the promise of achievement in return. Few friends, that was for certain. My father and mother loved me, but their language and cultural barriers meant that they understood even less about my world than average American parents. And as for my sister, she was just trying to exist beneath the radar in the eat-or-be eaten jungle of middle school.
The other kids were squinting their eyes in the afternoon sun, their sweet-and-sour sauce thinning in the heat. I looked up only to realize I was sitting under what seemed like a little bridge. Beneath its shade, it felt cool and comfortable. A few feet away, more immigrants were waiting at the bus stop. Latino and Korean kids boarded the bus with their mothers. I wondered whether they ever withheld their pain from anyone.
I found myself talking aloud. Cursing my classmates. Forgiving my own legs. Cutting myself off from the futile need to befriend the pretty American girls, the ones with the Lisa Frank folders who loved Color Me Badd and Amy Grant. I was getting something off my chest. And that’s when I realized I was talking to the city.
Kiedis had been right all along to trust the city as a friend and partner. And now I too was experiencing the poetry of pain beneath a bridge, even if mine was made of rubber and painted red and yellow. I thought of “Under the Bridge,” closed my eyes, and felt what Kiedis described as the windy kiss of his only friend.
After that day, I had to find out everything I could about “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” I browsed encyclopedias at our school library, but they were all from the 1980s and, anyway, none of them referenced rock albums. Without cable—specifically, MTV—I was at a loss for information. So anytime my parents went to the Circuit City, which was renovated post-riots, I stood coyly next to a small television set and turned the channel to MTV. It was always playing the same thing: Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain.”
While my mother stood in grocery lines at supermarkets, I looked for any sign of the Chili Peppers—on the cover of TV Guide. Or People. Or even The National Enquirer (who was Princess Diana?). And then, one June morning in 1992, a few days after the school year had ended, I found them on the cover of Rolling Stone. Naked. Tattooed. And holding their crotches.
My mother saw them, too. She screamed my name and yanked my collar toward the cashier. That cover picture was the embodiment of everything she feared would poison her virtuous Iranian daughters on the immoral soil of America. In hindsight, I don’t blame her.
One day, MTV began playing the music video for “Under the Bridge” and thereafter, it never seemed to stop. My mother refused to let me watch another Chili Peppers video after she caught a glimpse of Kiedis’s groin from a very creative camera angle in the video for “Give It Away,” but the melancholy notes and gentle images of “Under the Bridge” softened her boycott, if only for a few minutes. Eventually, she watched in stupefied horror as Kiedis, naked from the waist up, ran down the street in slow motion, his tattooed pecs jiggling with dangerous appeal.
From then on, I was only allowed to watch Nirvana. But I was happy to oblige.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and civic action activist.
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