Nostalgia is a funny thing. The idea of sentimentality attaching meaning to objects, places, and people is as natural as anything human can be, but ultimately the form it takes depends largely on context. Michael Chabon once poignantly suggested that, for teenagers, imagination is about all you have to work with, and that during his own adolescence “my imagination, the kingdom inside my skull, was my sole source of refuge, my fortress of solitude, at times my prison.” True indeed. After all the lunch table ressentiment, the zits, the homework, harried teachers, haranguing parents, and the general gauntlet of puberty as it is and was and always shall be, one can usually find escape and release in the secret world of your bedroom. The limits to this world are physically confined to the walls, bed, and window but, as Emily Dickinson insisted, the brain is wider than the sky.
When I was too young to take refuge anywhere else, my room was indeed my castle, which consisted of what alt-rock albums I knew best and could get my hands on — Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., and Nirvana were definitely in the retinue. I wore R.E.M shirts and parted my hair like Billy Corgan. One of the really unfortunate facts of adolescence is that at the precise time when one’s passion and cultural curiosity are at their highest, when everything is so new and fascinating, the range of available options are limited to the reach of allowance money, the radio, and word of mouth. Don’t get me wrong — those were, and are, great records. It just took me some time to appreciate that there was a world apart from alternative radio programming and to discover the work of people like Lou Reed, Son House, and Thelonious Monk. I didn’t look back for years. I still don’t. But when grunge and alt-rock were what I knew, oh how I listened! I remember sitting hunched over my black Sony boom box, listening to Alice In Chains, staring out the window at a bright spring day, and feeling like the birds in the trees just didn‘t get it. I wrote my favorite lyrics in notebooks, across the white borders of my walls, and in the snow on the backs of cars on my way home from school. Hearing that Nirvana’s Nevermind was 20 years old was kind of like seeing an old drinking buddy turn to Jesus in his autumn years. I was happy for him and everything, but I missed the old days when we shared the fortress of solitude.
It’s past the point of cliché now to call Nirvana’s Nevermind a Watershed Moment In Rock History, the Voice of the Disaffected Youth, A Generational Moment, ad nauseam, oh well, whatever, nevermind. Whoever initially decided that Kurt Cobain was the voice of a generation has probably disappeared by now into tastemaker obscurity, paying the bills with commentary on a VH1 special or in the arts section at Newsweek. Nevermind, as a cultural artifact, enjoys the same status that, say, Bringing It All Back Home, Kind Of Blue, and Sgt. Pepper’s have maintained for years. You might not ever listen to it, but you probably worshipped it at some point, and now you pretty much have to have a copy hanging around somewhere if you want to call yourself a respectable human being. The baby on the cover, a lad by the name of Spencer Elden, was quoted a propos the anniversary that “Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis, so that’s kinda cool. I‘m just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I‘m here.” Somewhere, the afro’d tyke on the cover of Ready To Die is laughing.
What’s strange, for me, is that I’m not entirely convinced that Nevermind wasn’t the voice of my generation, and yet when it was released in autumn of 1991 I was all of 10 years old. This makes my personal attachment to Generation X pretty tenuous, and I’m decidedly too old to be a millennial. I’m a member of what Doree Shafrir, writing in Slate, half-jokingly named “Generation Catalano.” I never watched My So-Called Life in its one-season heyday, but pretty much everyone else around me did. (I take umbrage at the name, too — I still get compared to Brian Krakow, but that’s neither here nor there). Nevertheless, I knew exactly what she meant when she referred to being “too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn’t stop me from buying the soundtracks).” I also remember life without the Internet, as much as I remember innocently downloading songs from Napster, harvesting a handful of Nick Drake songs by the time the sun came up. My youngest sibling, 10 years my junior, says he remembers a time before the Internet but I still think he’s referring to dial-up.
Being a sentimentalist at heart, I decided to investigate the contours of my Nirvana nostalgia. Where was that teen spirit, which once seemed to signify so much? Was it still around? Where did it go? Did it even matter? It became clear that the only proper way to do this was to go old school and resist the temptation to sit and download away and let my computer do all the work. I’m more sedentary now than I was back in the day, anyway, and after all I’ve always believed a good test of any music is whether or not you can take a walk with it. I went down to my local alternative record store (it’s still open, somehow) and picked up the newly released 20th Anniversary Edition, two discs packed with demos, live cuts, and rare tracks. I went next door for a shiny, metallic gray Discman — $30 at a CVS, the only one on the shelf — and some batteries. I clicked the lid shut, fired it up, adjusted the headphones, felt again the old excitement of the disc whirring to life in the palm of my hand, and began to cut a swath through my major urban metropolis.
Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be … About two-thirds of the way through the first disc I was wobbly, electric, ecstatic. I’d forgotten the sheer monolithic power that Nirvana’s verse-chorus-verse, loud-quiet-loud format really had. There’s fire, propulsion, and enough atavistic punk under the clarity of the mix (which Cobain always hated) to keep the nervous energy bubbling without drowning the hooks, the solos, and the unbearably tight rhythm section. Dave Grohl really was Nirvana’s secret weapon, and his drumming is Bonhamesque in its power and dexterity. I was churning, head down, at a steady clip, turning corners, on a plain, feeling stupid and contagious. I dodged a telephone pole or two. One lady I passed suddenly looked at me and began gesturing angrily at her coffee. I looked back at her, genuinely puzzled, shrugged it off, and turned around. I don’t wanna destroy passersby, but no one ever said rock was about sidewalk etiquette.
The opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still buttonhole you, look wildly into your eyes, and burst into flames. The song is equal parts indignation and charisma (“It’s fun to lose/And to pretend … Here we are now/ENTERTAIN US!”), and yet melodically elegant, as more than one cover version has demonstrated. It’s just as immediate, anthemic, and vibrant as it ever was. The burbling, aquatic “Come As You Are” still mesmerizes. Cobain’s raggedly perfect pitch beckons the listener in, even as the chorus’ emphatic “When I swear that/I don’t have a gun” seems eerily less random in hindsight. The white noise of “Territorial Pissings” still pummels and wails Krist Novoselic’s sarcastic quotation of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” is as funny as it was the first time. As for outtakes, both early demos and boom box rehearsal recordings are included, which give the set a multifaceted, complex, remix-friendly feel. You can enjoy their nifty cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now,” as well as the harrowing “D-7” from a pre-Nevermind John Peel session.
“In Bloom” is, lyrically, one of Cobain’s finest efforts. The near-haiku of “Bruises on the fruit/tender age in bloom” registers even more compellingly when intoned between the rolling, raucous choruses. Assuming pop lyrics have an intuitive logic can be a path to madness, but there’s a sarcastic familiarity with which Cobain sings “he’s the one/who likes/all our pretty songs” that always made me wonder if he might be sizing up a certain kind of face in the crowd, the bubba who’s just there to slug brew and get his rocks off, waiting to yell for “Free Bird” during intermission. Cobain did, after all, grow up as the artsy kid in a logging town, which might have contributed a bit to his well-known aversion to fame. It must have been frustrating, to say the least, to have to write in your own liner notes that if any of their fans were in any way racist, sexist, or homophobic “please…leave us the fuck alone! Don’t buy our records and don’t come to our shows!” The grimly sympathetic “Polly” — a first-person rendering of a brutal crime and a gutsy imaginative leap for an avowedly feminist and pacifistic songwriter — became a grotesque illustration of the authorial fallacy. This fact is mentioned at the outraged end of the very same liner notes, which makes it a bit easier to see why Cobain’s professed alienation from his audience was more than just a pose.
In many ways, this was a part of what the “grunge” or “alternative” culture was all about. Alternative culture rejected the celebrity industry and preferred keeping the personalities of popular musicians away from theatricality. The lyrics were predominantly personal, symbolic, and seemed to come from a private world of dreams, in-jokes, and memories. There was a politics, certainly, but not much in the way of overt social critique. Quadrophenia and The Wall offered sociology (“Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!“) along with their angst. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, not so much. Of course, there was that perennial adolescent theme of adenoidal meathead vs. sensitive bohemian going on at the same time. Mötley Crüe put out two volumes of Music To Crash Your Car To, while Soundgarden brooded about black hole suns and Chris Cornell implored the spoonman to save him.
I never quite bought into the ‘I-hate-being-famous’ credo, being far from the only music-addicted youngster to put on marathon air guitar concerts for the benefit of his wallpaper. It seemed too dour, too tragically hip, too affected when I heard it from people I would have given anything to see live and never did. When I eventually read Tennessee Williams’ essay “The Catastrophe of Success“ it began to make more sense. After the personal and professional triumph of The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes years of penury and creative frustration suddenly giving way to nightly room service, sycophantic fans, and alienated disaffection: “I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last … I found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me … I got so sick of hearing people say, ‘I loved your play!’ that I could not say thank you any more.”
This is precisely what Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan had been saying, and fighting against, for a long time. It might be a reason why virtually every American performer who gets to the top either begins to lose their grip (Elvis, Marilyn) or become a monster (Michael Jackson, O.J.). The 1990’s media generation was always hyper-aware of the duplicity of pop stardom. One couldn’t open a magazine without seeing mannequin-blank anorexic models in pre-ripped jeans and vintage Clash shirts topped off with scarves that cost a month’s rent. The irony of commodification and the solipsistic pressures of mass consumption were enough to drive anyone to the brink. Don’t forget that “Fake Plastic Trees” came out in 1995. For Tennessee Williams, the means of survival lay in getting back to the art itself, cutting out from the glitz and glamour and finding a solitude in which to create: “It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial.” Using art as a survival technique is as old as the act of creation itself. It can inspire artists to transform themselves and make some of the greatest, most redemptive work of their professional lives. The downside is, of course, that some just don’t survive the transition.
For me, then as now, some of the most effective moments on Nevermind are the ones with few pyrotechnics; the songs that don’t kick and thrash around but instead slowly unfurl a spookily effective, surreal, totally unique sonic landscape. Apparently Kurt Cobain was a bit of an amateur installation artist. Friends of his would recall arriving at his apartment to find skeins of dark cloth, furniture akimbo, and various found objects (stuffed animals, plastic figurines, characters from a nativity scene) arranged like miniature sculpture. He‘d destroy them the next day. Some of his best work was like that. “Something in the Way,” recorded live in one studio take, with the phones unplugged and air conditioners silenced, was a devastating choice to close the record. It’s all in the vocal murmurs, the muddy acoustics, the narrator describing living beneath a dripping bridge, surviving on grass, and trapping animals for pets. The chorus has that devastatingly understated cello line, tolling like a church bell as the mournful backing vocals weave in and out of the melody like a winding sheet.
I think the mood Nirvana creates has to do with an almost Beckettian concern for the empty, the absurd, the gleaming light above a void, which still resonates many years later. For all the hand-wringing hullabaloo in the 90’s about negativity in popular music totally bumming out our youth, I think the issue is more that Nirvana’s music reflected something dire about the human condition which other music didn’t quite grasp. I’ve never forgotten the glimmering unreality of the Unplugged concert, the stage set (at Cobain’s suggestion) with stargazer lilies and funereal chandeliers, the way the odd covers and band repertoire are in total synch, and the look in Cobain’s eyes as he sings the last line of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — he’s already gone. At that moment, whether he knew it or not, he had less than six months to live.
Recently, a beloved friend from my high school years and I got back in touch. One day, he called and suggested we go see The Smashing Pumpkins. I didn’t really listen to them any more, not since roughly 1999, when Billy Corgan shaved his head like Pink from The Wall and started looking and acting like an evil robot. I’d read little else of his poetry book but the title alone — Blinking With Fists — made me feel like responding in kind. I’d still never actually seen them live and it sounded like a fine idea. There I stood amid hundreds of bodies, stage lights flashing over us, a teenage dream fulfilled. There was that extra buzz of approval a crowd acquires when it likes what it’s hearing and wants more. Billy played everything electric that night, nothing acoustic, and I found myself doing something the teenage me would have never done. I sang along, word for word, to songs whose titles I hadn’t heard in years and couldn’t for the life of me remember.
It was in the middle of “Silverfuck” where the music stops, the bass throbs like a heartbeat, and Billy’s modulated voice sings “bang, bang you’re dead/hole in your head” repeatedly, with variations. At first the voice is quiet, tentative, then matter of fact, spelling out the syllables one by one and eventually rising on the third word to rest, at last, on the percussive thud of the last syllable. The entire audience (an older bunch, unsurprisingly) followed his melody to the letter, soaring and sinking along with him, until the bomb drop of the guitars came in and the whole crowd was on its feet, shouting and flailing along in unison with the frenzy of the coda and the thunderclap of each chord, up to and including Billy’s concluding upward swipe at the strings. As the sound faded I noticed the smirk on his face hadn’t left since the show began. Leaning back, he made guns with his hands and darted them back and forth. I wasn’t too keen on the gesture, but that was ok — I wasn’t thinking about the words by then, anyway.
Image Credit: Wikipedia