There was this time, nearly twenty-five years ago, when the musical landscape of popular culture looked a lot different than it does now. Rock radio was host to some bands that would still be familiar even today – Metallica was #1 on the charts around the time we’re talking about, after all – but there are many more who are little more than footnotes in rock history. We’re talking about Poison, BulletBoys, Warrant, White Lion, Whitesnake, and the like – bands that were once the stuff of delinquents smoking in the boys room and massive profits for AquaNet hairspray. They’re gone now, relegated to VH1 historical pieces and the playlists of Millenials nostalgic for a time they never lived through. They hung around for a bit as the Nineties grew up, but for all intents and purposes they were dead September 24th, 1991: the day DGC Records released Nevermind, the second LP from an up-and-coming Seattle punk rock band called Nirvana.
It’s easy to underestimate the effect that Nirvana had at the time from our comfortable seat 15 years into the 21st Century. After all, the entire rock radio world was remade in their image (OK, along with Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains). Grunge has given way long ago to “post-grunge”, where hacks like Nickelback and Seether continue to lumber along in pretense that they’re still relevant. That they are, and that they still sell scads of records, is the blessing and the curse of the sound that Kurt Cobain brought in the fall of 1991.
One story I remember reading in the Letters To The Editor section of Guitar World magazine was something along these lines: “The first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio I fell out of my chair and screamed ‘YES! I don’t have to listen to Ratt and Warrant anymore!’.” It might sound silly, but the effect was the same: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the first single off of the soon-to-be-legendary album, represented a radical change in what mainstream FM rock radio was willing to play. To be fair, there were songs that had been sneaking onto the radio for a few years – a “Man In The Box” here, a “Here Comes Your Man” there – but these were more novelties than anything else. R.E.M. had just barely emerged from their college rock beginnings to take a stab at the major leagues (Out Of Time was also a 1991 release) but for the rock fans who were into heavier stuff, jangly Southern rockers with a taste for the arcane weren’t going to replace Motley Crue in their regular rotation.
Enter a band with an impressive pedigree in heaviness. Kurt Cobain, fabled doomed junkie poet from Aberdeen, Washington, had spent some years living under a bridge and being a roadie for the now-legendary sludge-rockers, the Melvins. After that, he’d lived in Seattle and started his own band, which he’d originally called Fecal Matter. After being signed to the local Sub Pop label became a real possibility, the name got changed to Nirvana. Nirvana’s first stuff was the kind of music that Sub Pop was putting out at the time – sludgy stuff with an indebtedness to hard rock in the Seventies (namely Black Sabbath). That album, Bleach, was never going to conquer the world (although there were a number of future classics contained on it) and afterwards Cobain decided to ignore label dictates and write music that was more in line with the stuff that he liked. What he liked was a mix between firebrand hardcore punk and the Beatles, and the focus then became abrasive songs with earworm melodies that would stand the test of time – in other words, Nevermind.
The full sound of Nevermind, however, depended partially on another band member who wasn’t present for Bleach. Cobain and his childhood best friend Krist Novoselic covered the guitar and bass guitar, but the position of drummer was always up in the air. Chad Channing was the drummer on Bleach, but he took off in 1990 and Cobain and Novoselic were left to find someone else to hit the skins. As luck would have it, Seattle hardcore band Scream broke up without warning and their drummer, Dave Grohl, was quickly snapped up by Nirvana. Grohl, one of the greatest drummers of his generation, added a serious weight to the band’s sound that had been missing on Bleach. Try to imagine any of the songs on Nevermind without Grohl’s artillery-fire snares – you can’t do it. They wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.
So with the drum seat filled (and how) the band developed new music and started looking around for a new label. Sub Pop was floundering (hilarious, given they’ve gone on to give the world The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Pissed Jeans, METZ, and Father John Misty) and there was some honest major label buzz starting to build under the band on the strength of their 1990 Blew EP. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth recommended DGC Records, a cutting-edge imprint of Geffen Records, and so it was that David Geffen would be ultimately responsible for getting the Alternative Revolution underway.
No one was really prepared for how successful “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, Cobain least of all. He would later state that he wrote it specifically in the style of one of his favourite bands, alt-weirdos The Pixies. The song’s dynamic – quiet verses followed by crushingly loud choruses – would be the template for alt-rock songwriting forever onward. The iconic video would help propel some of that popularity (it’s final edits would be done by Cobain himself) and it would shoot up to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The title was, like a large amount of the lyrics on Nevermind, influenced by Cobain’s ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill); Kathleen Hanna (also Bikini Kill) was a little drunk at Cobain’s place one night and wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall. Cobain took it as a compliment, that he had the sort of restless spirit and voice of youth to fuel his melodic punk rock passions. Hanna meant that he smelled like Tobi Vail’s deodorant, Teen Spirit. Kurt, as it turns out, was right.
In the wake of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the massive album sales for Nevermind that accompanied it (#1 in the US, famously knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the charts) the other songs on Nevermind have become cultural touchstones. “In Bloom”, a song about bandwagoners showing up to Nirvana shows after the release of Bleach, would have an iconic video of it’s own (featuring the band at one point playing in drag); “Come As You Are” outright stole the main riff from “Eighties” by Killing Joke and would feature an eerily prescient line in “I swear that I don’t have a gun.” “Breed” was a thrasher that, from a high school band standpoint, was a blast to play live.
In fact, story time. Back in the day I was in a band called Echo Blue and our singer was a guy with the fun and interesting name of Geoff Rae. Geoff’s voice was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain’s so we ended up playing a lot of Nirvana covers (before he found Jesus and left us, anyway). At a dead-end gig in Hensall, Ontario, we decided to play “Breed”; the audience in the crowd was about six people, including my girlfriend at the time and her friend. They started mosh-dancing really close to each other – and some of the career drunks in the audience thought that they would obviously go for some close dancing with them, too. Before anything untoward happened, however, two of them decided to get into a fistfight with each other over the girls, and all hell broke loose. Good times.
Fun fact: that girlfriend of mine hated Nirvana, because one of her friends killed themselves in the apparent wave of copycat suicides that followed Cobain’s in 1994.
Anyway, “Breed”, like “Lithium”, “Lounge Act”, and “Drain You”, are about Tobi Vail, which is something people often forget when discussing Cobain’s lyrics on Nevermind. The beauty of Cobain’s obscure lyricism was that the disaffected millions of youth that listened to his songs, then and now, and read their own hopes, fears, and discomforting experiences into them. “Lithium”, for example, was a charm for me against the terror of starting high school in 1996. Some songs were less oblique, of course; “Polly” was a ripped-from-the-headlines account of torture and rape, and “Something In The Way” detailed his time living homeless and under a bridge. “Territorial Pissings”, the most straight-ahead punk rock of anything on Nevermind, features Krist Novoselic warbling a line from The Youngblood’s hopeful Sixties hit “Get Together”. It also contains one of the key factors that separated Kurt Cobain from the rock stars that came before him. The rock ‘n’ roll template from Led Zeppelin onward favoured hyper-masculine, oversexed men who strode the earth using drugs and women with equal abandon. One of the few exceptions to this archetype was of course David Bowie; it was no surprise when Cobain whipped out “The Man Who Sold The World” on the band’s Unplugged In New York album. The second verse of “Territorial Pissings” is “Never met a wise man / If so it’s a woman.” Kurt Cobain embraced feminism (how could he not, with his close ties to the Olympia riot grrrl scene) and he just as importantly embraced homosexuality as something natural and normal. In 2016, amidst a major push forward for LGBT rights, it’s perhaps hard to remember just how hyper-masculine and toxic rock ‘n’ roll was between the 1960s and 1991. Kurt was a pioneer for LGBT acceptance in rock music not because he was gay himself but because he was open and accepting; queer punk pioneers Pansy Division would thank him directly for being the most pro-gay major rock star ever to walk the earth. When he sang the line “Everyone is gay” on 1993’s “All Apologies”, it was a big deal for rock music. The Sunset Strip hard rock archetype was about banging women, period; gay slurs were still acceptable to use as insults in mainstream society. Gay acceptance was still a long way off. While the factors that lead to LGBT issues becoming the new Civil Rights movement are numerous enough to write several volumes on, I like to think that Cobain’s influence on the opinions of Gen’s X, Y, and the Millenials is one of those factors.
Then there’s the cover. Inspired by a television show about underwater births he watched with Dave Grohl, Kurt bugged the art department of DGC Records until they got him a shot of baby swimming underwater (the dollar bill was pasted in afterward to make the statement that Cobain wanted). The label wanted to digitally alter the photo to remove the baby penis, but Kurt stated that the only way he was going to let them do that was to put a sticker over the area that read “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” I still think that would be funnier, but the album cover is an icon and it’s difficult to imagine it being anything else. Of course, I’m positive that there are any number of middle school kids who bought the album because there was a penis on it, but whatever adds to the legend I suppose. There are also vaginas on the back cover, as part of Cobain’s collage that included raw meat, pictures from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and if you squint a little, the band Kiss.
How many times did we spin this album? How many times did we look up how to play the songs, and formed bands because of it? When it was altering the destiny of rock ‘n’ roll, “25 years ago” meant 1966: Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde. Those were “classic rock” that was a template for all the other songs we heard on classic rock radio. Now Nirvana is classic rock, and it fits. Everywhere I go, there’s always some kid who can’t be any more than 16 wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. Cobain had long since been consigned to the worms by the time they were even getting around to being born, but they still seek out the symbols and play the songs. The way music is structured, produced, packaged, and disseminated in 2016 prevents any one album from being able to achieve what amounts to a social revolution in popular culture. Is This It was likely the last album that could claim that; the internet’s relentless push for free dissemination of information would release the floodgates on popular music very shortly after and fracture everything along genre lines, in essence creating a pop culture Balkanization. Kurt Cobain’s feat – being the guy that changed seemingly everything – is all the more impressive for the fact that such a feat seems daunting in an era where everyone has a voice and a venue to be heard.
It’s also impressive how blase I’ve become about the album over the years. The entire alternative revolution that happened after eventually came to colour my opinions on it. Nirvana and the other first wave groups gave way to Bush, Live, Stone Temple Pilots and Dave Grohl’s own Foo Fighters, and then those gave way to Creed, Days Of The New, and Seven Mary Three. Still worse were Nickelback, Seether, Staind, and Theory Of A Deadman. At some point, probably around the time I was falling for Is This It and mocking Nickelback’s “Photograph” every time it came on TV, I got out of the habit of putting Nirvana on. I would go weeks, and then months, without listening to them. Finally years; I listened to Nevermind for the first time in four years not that long ago and then I was blown away by how visceral and immediate the songs still sound. Constant exposure has rendered the songs as the background hum of rock ‘n’ roll, but taken fresh they come through as vibrant as anything that Ty Segall or Car Seat Headrest are doing right now. It’s a great album, one that was in the right place at the right time, to be sure, but still great for that, regardless of the nonsense that has been perpetrated in it’s name.
In the end, what is Nevermind today? What does it all mean, twenty-five years later? What part of the collective human unconscious lurks beneath those power chords? What does any of this mean? There are French volcanoes? There was a point to this, but I lost it. Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.