SJ Rowland
Sandwich factory, Auckland, 1995

In the mid-1990s my favourites were Nirvana, P J Harvey and The Fall. Aside from Nirvana, who were, of course, big, nobody I knew had heard of the others. Not a bad thing in my opinion. I equated obscurity with a sense of my own coolness, I was smug in the certainty of my own good taste.

Like many of my generation at that point I had what was referred to as a McJob, a nowhere job, something we haughtily considered beneath our education and talents. Or as the voice of another generation put it: Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift

I worked in a sandwich factory. Profit First – Quality Doesn’t Come In To It seemed to be the company’s guiding principle. For eight or more hours a day around twelve of us hunched over long work benches spreading slop on thin slices of white bread. All conversation unrelated to work was banned. We washed table-tops, butter-knives and our hands in a chlorinated substance. The stink of the chlorine hung in the air and lingered in our clothes and hair for days. We had headaches from the overhead lighting, sore backs from leaning over the tables, and we were bored, bad tempered and depressed.  There was one compensation, though: we could listen to the radio.

It was a Saturday morning like every other, hours of boredom lay ahead. As usual, the radio played loudly to overcome the screech of the electric knives cutting sandwiches. Suddenly the volume increased.  Shirlee-Ann had turned the radio up on account of John ’Cougar’ Mellencamp’s Hurts So Good. I think she wanted to drown out the world. She looked totally absorbed in the song. Without taking her eyes off her work, she sang clearly and loudly, never faltering on a line and not caring when we all stared at her.

I had heard Hurts So Good countless other times on the radio. Catchy maybe, but not something I had bothered to pay attention to. So when I heard Shirlee-Ann singing
Sink your teeth right through my bones
Let’s see what we can do
Come on and make it hurt

I thought, all the times I’ve heard this song and never realised it was about that …

Half way through the song, Shirlee-Ann’s friend Erin joined in. Erin, always nervy and unsure of herself, didn’t put in quite the same performance.

I think a few others may have sung, hummed or tapped their bread knives. I can’t really remember. This wasn’t a period of my life I wanted to document in my diary. In fact, the only other thing I remember about my time in the sandwich factory was when the boss had an argument with the cook, who abruptly left and we later found out had become a rent boy.

But what I do remember about listening to Hurts So Good was feeling the tense mood of the place lift. For a few minutes as the song played out, we forgot our surroundings and collectively felt happy. Who can deny a song with such power?

Hurts So Good isn’t a song I’ve listened to a lot since. I guess it’s not a song that grabs me. But back then, at that moment the song sounded great, not just for me but for everybody else in the place.  And the song had an added bonus: it was a surprise, but I found myself liking a song a million miles away from the confines of my  coolness and ‘own good taste’.

© SJ Rowland

S J is from Auckland, where she currently lives. Her writing includes work for The New Zealand Fashion Museum and Auckland Libraries.