Nirvana’s classic, world-changing album is 20.
Hey, thanks for meeting me here. I know this place is out of the way, but I can’t risk them hearing what I have to tell you …
Them. “They.” The Ones Who Know. The Kingmakers. They Who Think What We Think.
I’m serious. If They find out I …
Well I’ve been writing the occasional music review for this website, Rocksposure ... Nah, I’ve never heard of it either, but that’s not the point. Point is, rock writing ain’t exactly terra firma for me. I can’t out-nerd the real music nerds, and a lot of the stuff the indie kids are into these days … I mean, have you ever really LISTENED to Animal Collective? They’re fucking terrible! But you say things like that out loud and even if you’re right (Writer’s note: I am) you get tuned out. And when it comes to the classics … I mean, there are some things you just keep to yourself if you want anyone to take your musical taste seriously.
Come here. Lean in, I’ll whisper …
WAIT! NO! PLEASE! SIT DOWN! You promised you wouldn’t walk out! Come on! I’m buying the next round!
Do you get it now? You understand why I couldn’t …
Why don’t I?
Look, I don’t want to go into the whole “Musical Diatribe as Autobiography” thing, especially since Nirvana wouldn’t even get its own chapter in my personal book. Hell, they might not even get a paragraph. And when you get down to it, there’s nothing all that interesting about a white suburban pre-teen who didn’t hate his parents, didn’t get beat up at school, never had anything particularly awful happen to him or anyone he knew, happily shopped at Walmart, didn’t have MTV, and couldn’t hate a world capable of creating “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” “Nevermind” didn’t get me through any tough times, didn’t give my voiceless rage a voice, didn’t do any of those things it surely did do for millions of kids who felt those things and needed an avatar like Kurt Cobain, or just really hated Bon Jovi.
You might also hypothesize that I was a blink too young to properly receive “Nevermind.” Maybe if it had arrived in my teens, when we begin collecting and arranging our pop culture totems in earnest, the album -- excuse me, The Album -- could have been akin to what “Pulp Fiction” was for me at 13: the Ur-Event -- The Movie -- that plugged me into the darker, scarier, cooler, less corporate, less-parent friendly side of pop culture that made you feel more grown-up and important just discovering that it existed.
To which I counter: space and time were low hurdles between myself and “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Or, perhaps more to the point, “Surfer Rosa” and “Slanted and Enchanted.”
I’m not trying to dismiss “Nevermind’s” historical import. Someone had to kill all those hair bands, and we should be grateful that Kurt, Krist, and Dave were willing to get their hands dirty while far too many of their peers were fantasizing about girls with crimped hair unzipping their leather pants. I’m not arguing that “Nevermind” is not, in fact, important. I’m just trying to explain why I don’t care.
No, you’re right. It’s not “Nevermind’s” fault that I was 10 in 1991 and not 16. You’re right, enough about the history, there’s nothing that hasn’t been said.
I mean, I’m not fucking dead inside. That halting, kind of awkward, kind of awesome RAR-RA-RAAAAAAAAR that kicks off “Smells Like Teen Spirit” like a hot rod turning over -- in retrospect, the sound of the Gen X “losers” storming out of Seattle and making a play for the whole country -- yeah, that’s awesome. But all I can hear in the ensuing ROAR is the monolithic sludge of all the shitty Nirvana imitators that followed (also the sound I associate with every other song on the album except the canonical “In Bloom,” “Lithium,” “Come as You Are,” and “Drain You.” Note that those songs comprise less than half of the record. ) Of course the chorus is awesome, a classic gutter cry from pissed-off youths demanding some direction, some goddamn entertainment, any fucking reason to crawl out of their parents’ basements. The chorus is so awesome that I always find myself tapping my fingers through the navel-gazing nonsense verses so I can hear it again.
When? Right before you got here, actually. I spent the last 40 minutes listening to it, and “Nevermind” never fails to bring me down, way down. I can’t think of a single record I love -- even something purposefully sad and anguished like “Pink Moon” or “Sea Change” or “Blood on the Tracks” or “808s and Heartbrake” -- that just sort of wallows in itself like “Nevermind” does.
Which brings me to Kurt Cobain.
Cobain was hardly the only artist of his era to have the whole “voice of a generation,” “rock god” mantle thrust upon him, and of the usual candidates, he is by far my least favorite. I don’t want to get into a whole, “What is grunge? What is alternative? What is punk?” argument either, so let’s all agree that a lot of new, important bands emerged the early ‘90s who dealt, in one way or another, with slacker disaffection, bemoaned the Walmart-ization of American culture, thought the baby boomers had all sold out so they could buy McMansions, and loved the sound of loud guitars. Eddie Vedder, the classicist in the bunch, rallied the troops with arena rock righteousness. Stephen Malkmus rolled his eyes at the bullshit and found refrigerator magnet poetry in fleeting moments of blissful escape. Billy Corgan, who could be every bit as depressed and whiny as Cobain, at least saw glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel, and constructed increasingly elaborate symphonies that brought that light a little closer. Shit, turn back the clock a tick and throw Frank Black in there too if you want, since Cobain wanted to rip off the Pixies so bad. There’s a band that had the balls to be certifiably insane -- they recorded a song about a white girl craving a big black cock for fuck’s sake! -- and also melodic and funny as hell.
“Mellon Collie” (despite its filler), “Doolittle,” “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” -- these records cleanse you and send you back out into the world a little wide-eyed, still plenty freaked-out, but hopeful and happy. No matter how many times I listen to “Nevermind,” or really any Nirvana record, I don’t get anything approaching a similar surcease. The glimmers that sustain more emotionally mature and compelling bands, Cobain snuffs out -- literally, in the end.
Yeah he was tortured, yeah he was raised in broken home, ADD, I’m not unsympathetic to all that. But he also married Courtney Love and decided the best way to cure chronic stomach pains was to take a lot of heroin. I freely admit that these last two facts color a lot of how I feel about Cobain, his band, and his enduring mystique, but I also wonder why the music nerd establishment just props him up as their suffering Christ over and over again rather than acknowledging that maybe the teeny, tiny faction of Nirvana naysayers who can’t get past the unmistakable narcissistic nihilism in their music have a point. Whatever beauty, whatever release you find in Nirvana that I don’t, isn’t it all contradicted by the the fact that Cobain married a drug addict, got really high, shot himself in the head WITH A SHOTGUN, and left behind a two-year-old daughter to be raised by COURTNEY FUCKING LOVE? This is your rock and roll Jesus?
Another classic, transformative record with sky-high pretensions turns 20 this year too, and while a far bigger world than Nirvana’s is always shuddering at the brink in U2’s music, the title of their 1991 masterpiece is instructive: “Achtung Baby.” Watch out! Careful! And then a term of endearment. U2 really, truly believe in rock and roll as salvation. They love you. They want their music to save you. Sanctimony and all, I find that a far more appealing mission statement than, “Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.”
So it’s autobiography after all: I never needed “Nevermind” for life support, I’d rather laugh it all off than shoot up, I believe(d) in Bono, and I’d rather listen to the Pixies than a guy in a flannel trying to rip them off.
Huh? Sonic Youth?
Well … Here, lean in close again …
NO! COME ON! DON’T LEAVE ME IN HERE ALL ALONE!
Joey Tayler is the lead writer on Rocksposure.com. Based out of Milwaukee, WI, he is always looking for a new show to see. If there is something you think he should be listening to, send him an email at JoeyT@Rocksposure.com