Nirvana – Nevermind
Released September 24th, 1991 on DGC Records
Produced by Butch Vig and Nirvana
Peaked at #1 U.S., #7 U.K.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (#6 U.S., #7 U.K.)
“Come As You Are” (#32 U.S., #9 U.K.)
“Lithium” (#64 U.S., #11 U.K.)
“In Bloom” (#5 U.S. Mainstream Rock, #28 U.K.)
What is there to say about Nirvana that hasn’t been done to death? On this, the 30th anniversary of the moment punk broke, let’s delve into the personal.
Before 1996 I was a very casual consumer of music. I basically only knew songs if they were in movies or television shows, and even then I didn’t know or care who performed them. I got briefly into country in 1995 because that was the radio station that played over the local announcements channel (yes, Huron County Ontario, mid-90s, announcement channel – advertisements, obituaries, happy birthdays, all in a scrolling loop with the local country station going in the background). Then, the radio. I’m not sure when exactly I started picking up on rock music on the radio. One of my earliest memories is being in my grandparents living room and having the local rock station play that Dire Straits problematic classic “Money For Nothing.” My father was a blues head but he also had albums by Cream, the Doors, CSNY; it’s not like I wasn’t exposed to this stuff. Was it before or after we were hanging out at our one friend’s house and he put on “Bad Habit” from Smash because of the titillating swearing on it? That would have been around the time: 1996, when I turned 14. Was it when I started listening to Deep Purple on a loop? Before or after I got a tape cassette Walkman that would be my constant companion. Either way, on the first day of school in Grade 9, September of 1996, I had “Lithium” in my head.
Why Nirvana? Why did this semi-obscure band out of rural Washington with a penchant for mixing the usual Black Flag + Black Sabbath grunge combo with the Bay City Rollers make such a gigantic goddamn impression on all of us for the past 30 years? There are a lot of answers out there. Gen X was growing up and the early Millennials were hot on their heels, and all of us were cynical and disillusioned about what was out there. The mainstream rock scene was mostly trash, L.A. bands in eyeliner who played bone-headed pop metal songs about banging models and driving fast cars. None of us could relate to it; despite the fact that the Western star seemed to be in its ascendency then we all seemed to collectively have the feeling that the rug would get pulled out from under us at any second. Maybe it was growing up with nuclear war drills. Maybe it was the Gulf War. Maybe it was the ozone hole and the grim specter of climate change that was even then, thanks to David Suzuki, becoming part of the public consciousness. Whatever it was, Ratt and Warrant didn’t really catch our attention much. Nirvana, though: Nirvana had the same kind of power and attitude as those Sunset Strip bands, but seemed far edgier, more cerebral, and infinitely more fun to slam into each other to.
They were easy to pick up instruments and play, too. Our band could do the entirety of Nevermind without breaking much of a sweat. It was three chords and an attitude, and the people who derided them for this missed the point entirely. We didn’t. We played the absolute shit out of those songs, and even if our drummer was no Dave Grohl and none of us were any sort of stand-in for Kurt Cobain just playing those songs seemed to impart some of their power unto us. “Something In The Way” was two chords, and while its ease of play was skewered quite well in Jerry Maguire it held a lot of power when you played it for people at exactly the right moment. The singer’s girlfriend (who I would later end up dating through the end of high school, and isn’t that just the most film-level rock ‘n’ roll narrative strand) hated Nirvana, though. She allegedly had a friend kill himself in a copycat suicide following Kurt’s own demise and blamed him and the band for it; she refused to even listen to them. One evening we holed up in my basement with a four track recorder and made our own cover of Nevermind to see if she would listen to them. We also did a mash-up of Discharge’s “Free Speech For The Dumb” with a happy anniversary song that we nicked from a contemporary commercial. I don’t remember her thoughts on this.
Later, much later, we picked up an actual singer who could do a pretty good Cobain impression when called upon. He also wrote some pretty decent songs. One, “Generation Dot Com,” probably could have been at least a minor hit. At a show in bare-bones Hensall, ON we played “Breed.” My girlfriend (same girl from above) was in the ‘crowd’ with her friend and these two dissolute drunks were arguing over who would get to fuck them, because that was a thing that was definitely going to happen in their minds. They worked themselves up into a frenzy over it and once we launched into “Breed” they started throwing fists. That was as good a way to work into the end of a set as any, I feel. That singer later found God and quit the band by leaving a note in a guitar case. He never spoke to us again and still refuses even a friending on Facebook. Funny how life works.
Anyway, Nevermind. Three decades in it sounds overtly familiar only because the entire rock ‘n’ roll world was remade in its image. Someone in I think Guitar World once wrote that the first time he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” he jumped for joy because he wouldn’t have to listen to shitty hair metal bands anymore. That sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not. The old joke: How many hair bands did Nirvana kill off with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? All of them. Honestly not bad for a former Melvins roadie and only occasionally homed junkie who wrote an album about his disintegrating relationship with a riot grrl icon. You can drop out of high school, do heroin, sleep under bridges, and then one day become the biggest generational star on the planet. There’s something to be said about the American Dream in there, but I’m too much of a product of that era to really expand on it.