With the 20 year anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind upon us, everyone seems to be writing a nostalgia piece about how Nirvana’s album changed everything. This one is no different, really. It’s just my version.
I first encountered Nirvana when one of my friends asked if I’d like to come along to a show at Green River Community College in Auburn, WA. We went to see Skin Yard, and they were great! I remember Ben (RIP) filling the room with smoke from a portable fogger and jumping into the air and landing flat on his back while flailing wildly. I was used to massive arena shows, and frankly it felt a little dangerous being that close their manic energy. It was an incredible performance, but on the way home all I could think about was Nirvana. They had brooded, screamed and bludgeoned their way into my heart for all time.
I grew up in a sub-suburb of Tacoma in a totally normal neighborhood. I had been a metal kid. In rough chronological order my taste in music went something like this: Journey > Styx > Van Halen > Def Leppard > Ratt > Iron Maiden > Metallica > Slayer. Around 1988, I was aware that an underground music scene existed, but not much more. I was into a few lesser known bands like Bad Brains and the Accused. (When a friend slipped me a copy of Soundgarden’s Ultramega OK, my limited frame of reference told me that it sounded like a cross between G’n’R and Jane’s Addiction.)
When I heard Nirvana I completely lost my shit. They were playing a slightly heavier style then, but it was everything that Metallica wasn’t. Songs were short and visceral. In and out in 2 minutes, no exotic tempo changes, no extended solos, no “music theory”. This was everything that my friends and I had been banging out in our garages but didn’t have a name for yet. The other guys in my circle of friends were really excited about Soundgarden and Mudhoney, but for me it was all about Nirvana. I remember reading about their upcoming Bleach release in Seattle’s Backlash magazine and trying to think of any way to get up there and buy it. Unfortunately, when I got to Seattle no one seemed to have a copy. Every store knew about it, but no one had it in stock. I guess they had just sold out the initial pressing. I bought everything else that I could find with the iconic Sub>Pop logo and went home.
Eventually I got my copy and lived in my headphones for the next several weeks. This was *my* band in a very personal way. They were one of those bands that’s so special that you’re torn between wanting everyone to know about them, and wanting to keep them all to yourself. I scrawled their name on desks, walls, and my Vans.
Around this time, the “grunge” thing happened. Everyone grimaces at the word now, but at the time I was appreciative of the label. It was easier than saying “well…punk but not punk, and heavy but not metal, but with distortion…” I remember watching the infamous Soundgarden interview on Headbanger’s Ball and giggling as they sat there and took the piss out of a somewhat bewildered Riki Rachtman who didn’t seem capable of processing a band that didn’t answer the standard questions with stock answers. During this interview, the guys in Soundgarden name-dropped Nirvana as a band to watch.
The story of the release of Nevermind has been told a thousand times, but it was a FEELING I’ve never experience since…and I’ve watched a lot of my favorite bands break through to the big time. I remember friends calling and telling me that they heard Nirvana being played on mainstream stations, or that they heard an interview where some far off prince or unlikely celebrity mentioned that they were currently his/her favorite band. It was a very unique time, and I’m glad that I was in the right time and place to experience it.
And that’s really what the story of Nirvana comes down to, and this is the part that the rock critics generally get right. The stage was set by countless other bands. The music scene was literally a bunch of oily rags in a garage, just waiting to explode. If it wasn’t Nirvana it would have been another band. But they were just heavy enough to pick up the metal kids, and just punk enough for the punks. They were a little bit Aerosmith and a little bit Beatles. Kurt was like our Lennon and Petty and Jimi and Dylan. Didn’t much matter that his poetry was mostly incomprehensible, in a way I think this left it up to the listener to project their own subconscious onto the blood curdling screams. I’m sure we all have misheard lyrics that we liked better than the ones we eventually read.
Then came superstardom. Then a really weird sounding album that seemed slighlty schizophrenic, as if it was trying to please everyone and hated itself for it. Then he was gone, and that was that. There were countless copies. Some watered-down copycats calling themselves Radiohead eventually managed to redeem themselves. There was Bush, STP and then some teenager from Australia who was a virtual identical copy of Cobain. Then a shitload of absolutely worthless bands who took five percent of Nirvana’s look and sound and grafted it onto the same old boring formula hard rock and called it grunge. Those bands are still out there, and new ones are still coming. It’s a sad, sad legacy.
Hair metal bands came back with a different haircut and denim instead of spandex and claimed the name “grunge” for themselves. Slayer, Sepultura and a handful of lunatics in the cold, dark parts of Europe managed to keep the heavy stuff alive, though the near extinction experience that grunge provided seemed to infuse them with a new vitality.
The good news is that the true spirit does live on in a ton of great bands who are making amazing records completely under the radar. When the time is right maybe one of them will explode up the charts, or maybe the lesson learned by all this is that it’s better to stay small. Whatever you take away from it, Nevermind was a watershed moment, and I’ll always remember where I was when it happened.