Nirvana has been back in the news lately as it was rumored that Seattle police would reopen the case of Kurt Cobain’s death. This, of course, didn’t happen, but it did get me thinking again on my all-time favorite band.
It’s been 20 years since Kurt Cobain died, and that’s just weird as shit. Really, for those of us who are a certain age, it’s absolutely insane to think that Nirvana’s breakthrough album (1991’s Nevermind) is now nearing 23 years old itself.
Perhaps for a slightly older demographic, the album was a tame example of the mainstream-ification of punk rock wrapped up in a tidy package with a flashy new title—grunge—but for people who had yet to be exposed to heavy, angry gritty music of its ilk, there’s no denying its place within our musical lexicon and the importance of its impact on our musical lives.
Yes, Nirvana had already released a debut to some popularity (1989’s Bleach), but with the intense push fostered by MTV alongside countless radio stations and magazines, Nevermind catapulted the Aberdeen, Wash., trio into the consciousness of anyone who owned a TV or a radio. If The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s was the quintessential, earth-shattering, game-changing mainstream rock record of my parents’ generation, then Nevermind was the same to mine.
Oh, it wasn’t that Nirvana brought anything particularly crazy to the table, nor were they all that skilled at their instruments. It was more what Nevermind signified—that some small-town band of 20-year-olds with a penchant for sharing just how pissed off they were would reach a mainstream level of popularity with simple yet hard-hitting chord progressions that seemed to act as a mouthpiece for any disenfranchised youth looking for an outlet for their anger.
I can vividly recall standing in my living room at the age of 8 watching MTV one morning when the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed my entire existence. This was absolutely forbidden, as my parents were concerned about much of the content found on the channel. So I don’t know if was the thrill of defying my parents or what, but from the opening drum blast and hooky chord progression to the unrestrained passion and screaming of the chorus, a single thought occurred to me that I have carried near and dear to my heart ever since—I. Love. Rock n’ roll.
Never before had I heard anything so heavy, never before had it occurred to me that human beings, actual human beings were pouring themselves and their emotions so emphatically into music. Hell, I was 8 years old and probably pretty limited in my knowledge of the art form.
And the kids in the video looked cool, too. They were older and had long hair and wore Converse….some were tattooed and others boasted crazy hairstyles. They danced angrily and moved to the music, and when the camera focused on Cobain, hair in his face, iconic Fender Jaguar, I experienced what can only be described as hero worship.
Here there older, cooler, smarter kids were fixated on one man, and it was glorious.
There was a lot of Nirvana on television and the radio after that. Singles like “In Bloom” and “Lithium” popped up and only confirmed what I already knew, and that was that Nirvana was amazing. They would appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, and everyone you knew was aware of this different kind of music which before had been relegated to the underground scenes and the smaller clubs.
Of course I wasn’t attending rock or punk shows at the time, but what it afforded me was that, for the first time in my life, I felt a part of something. Here I was on the ground floor of something completely special, and I legitimately loved it…none of that fake, “I love that song!” bullshit—I mean, I really fucking loved this music.
In Utero would come out two years later in 1993, the video for “Heart Shaped Box” providing a similar experience as I had had before.
This time, however, Kurt seemed angrier, or perhaps just sadder. Certainly Nevermind has no shortage of discordant melody, but songs like “Milk It” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” were cacophonies of explosive emotion related to the listener in either mind-boggling art rock weirdness or subdued and melancholy.
There were pop segments here and there (“Serve the Servants” comes to mind), but learning later that Kurt had written the record to be specifically less accessible in an attempt to be dropped from Geffen and even tried to call the thing I Hate Myself and I Want to Die made sense.
These new songs showed maturity in his writing ability, but they were almost painfully reflective and miserable. He even goes so far as to apologize to legions of fans (and I suspect himself) for what he considered to be a sellout move with Nevermind.
I must have bought this record 20 times by now as I inevitably wear it out or force it onto anyone I meet who isn’t intimately familiar.
It’s actually kind of bittersweet that an album so steeped in abject depression would be such a fantastic conversation starter and, in my case, a great means of connecting with other music fans.
Unplugged in New York was released the following year, and it showed me an entirely new dimension of Nirvana. Longtime superfans were floored by just how beautiful some of these songs were once rearranged for acoustic instruments, and I’m certain new fans were made. I like to watch the performance from time to time, because even though it was in later years and even though Kurt killed himself not long after, he seems happy.
There are barely-noticeable exchanges between Cobain and his bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. The Germs’/Foo Fighter’s Pat Smear rounds out the performance nicely, and the addition of cello to classic Nirvana tunes really adds another dimension. It was beautiful and sad and magical…the kind of thing that makes me wish I’d been born just a few years earlier so I could have been there.
When I hit my teens and began getting heavily involved with writing music in shitty punk bands and promoting more shows than I can even begin to remember, a huge part of that confidence came from the original feeling gifted to me by Nirvana.
“If they could do it, so can I,” I’d say to myself. “I’m part of something larger.”
And it was in that feeling of connectivity with rock and punk fans the world over that I was able to meet more friends, see more music and get involved on such an intimate level. I would imagine how kids my age in other towns might have fallen in love with punk thanks to Nirvana and maybe they were also up at 3 am inside a Kinkos making awful flyers for no-name bands with Sharpies and glue sticks.
I listened to In Utero a lot, and I blatantly stole from Kurt and I listened to bands that he had cited as influence and, once again, I felt a sense of belonging that was essential to surviving my teen years.
I feel guilty saying that I sort of let them go in recent years. Not because I loved the music any less, but because I had moved on to other things and new areas of musical interest. I always kept them somewhere in the back of my mind, be it an angry lecture to some young upstart about why every band they loved could thank Nirvana, or in the way that I always, always, always strum out a few notes from “Lithium” whenever I pick up a guitar. And then trip to Seattle a few years back and a visit to the Experience Music Project for the outstanding show on Nirvana called Taking Punk to the Masses rekindled the love with a vengeance.
In addition to the totally awesome audio guide narrated by Grohl and Novoselic and countless props, instruments, photos, art works, and rare items from Kurt’s life, there was a wall of old flyers from Nirvana’s glory days. Here was absolute proof that an army of teenagers from across the country had been making flyers like me, booking shows like me, loving music like me—and it all centered around this amazing band.
When I reached the end of the exhibit, a fair number of people my age were milling about unsure of what to do. It was difficult for us to make eye contact or even speak to each other as it had been a rather emotional experience. Sometimes a band represents so much more than just their songs and I think, for a lot of us there, that truth came crushing down in an intense wave of nostalgia and memory. In the two-plus decades I’ve lived since the very first moment my heart ached for rock ’n’ roll, Nirvana has been one of the few constants and it must have been same for a lot of the people who were around at the time.
Most of all, I’d like to think Kurt would be more than OK with a roomful of superfans listlessly staring at their Converse and too choked up to do much beyond feel like a part of something that was so much bigger than any of us realized.