If you pay any attention to the music press, last year you’d have noticed that lots of people were talking about how Nirvana and Nevermind changed their lives. Everyone from absurdist rapper Lil Wayne to Billy Ray Cyrus (that other great flannel-wearer of the 1990s) was waxing hagiographical about Nirvana, while the Seattle Art Museum hosted an exhibition by an array of international visual artists, paying homage to the life and myth of Kurt Cobain.
It’s now a little over 20 years since Nevermind’s release. Apart from making me feel old, this anniversary also got me thinking about that album and what it means to me today, as a jaded 31-year-old rock geek and music writer. But the more I think about how Nevermind has influenced my life, the more complex these feelings become. Everywhere I look I find some link to Nirvana, which conjures a strange mixture of nostalgia and claustrophobia. I begin to feel like David Hedison in The Fly – stuck in a big old web with Nirvana as the scruffy spider at the centre of it all.
To make matters worse, the Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind, released as part of the obligatory reissue campaign, beckons from the shelves of every record store I enter. The size of a pizza box, the edition retails for over $200 with only 30,000 individually numbered copies available outside the US, its lenticular cover an uncanny enhancement of that iconic baby swimming after a dollar bill. Inside its dark interior lie four pristine CDs and one DVD, no doubt twinkling like the eyes of an arachnid.
To celebrate the anniversary I recently gave my old single-CD version of Nevermind another spin, and its 42 minutes and 38 seconds of rock-hard bubble-grunge with a bittersweet centre are still as powerful and enjoyable as ever. The Super Deluxe edition of Nevermind – which includes such mythical recordings as the Smart Studio sessions, the boombox demos and producer Butch Vig’s ‘Devonshire’ mixes, as well as studio and live B-sides, unreleased Peel sessions, a live recording of the band’s 1991 Paramount show on CD and DVD, and a 90-page book of rare photos and other curios of the time – only offers to extend that pleasurable experience, promising insight into the making of a legend.
In my teens, I’d have been frothing at the mouth to get my hands on one of these babies. Not content to just buy albums by any band that looked, sounded and smelled remotely grunge, I collected magazines, books, videos, T-shirts and even comic books on the subject. Like any teenager enthralled by a subculture, I showed my allegiance with as much conspicuous consumption as my meagre allowance could support. I also adopted the grunge uniform of ripped-up jeans and a flannel shirt over a black Nirvana or Pearl Jam T-shirt, and cultivated a long and thoroughly unhygienic mane of hair that complemented my lopsided teenage goatee and stuck out at the sides of my head like a malodorous pyramid. And let’s not forget how I terrorised our elderly neighbour with ham-fisted renditions of Nirvana riffs on my shitty second-hand Telecaster copy, played through a Boss Metal Zone distortion pedal and practice amp at brain-melting volumes.
Just like grunge fiction, such as Andrew McGahan’s Praise, grunge music revels in the gritty, seedy side of life in outer suburbia – that no-man’s land between the city and the country. And while I may never have had to sleep under a bridge like Cobain claims to have done on Nevermind’s gorgeously meditative and morose closer ‘Something in the Way’, I think the texture of grunge resonated because it felt a lot like the south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley where I grew up.
My experience of Oxley and nearby suburbs like Darra and Inala is tainted with memories of mosquitoes and pit bulls, of racial tensions and violence, of mental illness and domestic abuse. It was in this decidedly déclassé environment that I first became aware of popular music and, as it did for many, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ introduced me to Nirvana. My parents didn’t listen to contemporary music and my older brother only listened to synth-pop, so by the age of ten I had never been properly exposed to rock music.
My true introduction to this most vital of art forms came via my friends, or more specifically their parents, as they graciously taxied me to and from school. One song that seemed to capture the hearts and minds of my peers as much as it did their parents was ‘More Than a Feeling’ by Boston, and I remember not only hearing it while riding in Holden Commodores and other proletarian chariots, but on a tape owned by a kid called Chris. With his mullet and pack of Winfield Reds, Chris was about as rock ’n’ roll as an 11-year-old could get. He would convince the other boys and girls from our class to sneak back into our classroom during lunch breaks and listen to that schlocky 1970s anthem while teaching us about pashing, smoking and other adult concerns. The forbidden nature of those experiences pretty much sums up the illicit thrills promised by all good rock ’n’ roll.
In Nirvana’s Live at Reading DVD, Kurt Cobain pokes fun at the similarity between ‘More Than a Feeling’ and ‘Teen Spirit’. But while Boston’s tune provided the soundtrack to some pre-adolescent rites of passage, it was Weird Al Yankovic’s parody ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ that sealed my entry into the world of grunge. With his lampooning of Cobain’s often impenetrable lyrics and delivery (‘It’s hard to bargle nawdle zouss / with all these marbles in my mouth’) Yankovic made the mysterious and intense Nirvana accessible. It wasn’t long before I made the leap from parody to the real deal.
While it would be some time before I came to decipher Cobain’s ‘bargle nawdle zouss’, this did little to dissuade me from becoming a fan. I borrowed a friend’s cassette of Nevermind and played it constantly before finally shelling out for my own copy. Not knowing what the hell Cobain was on about allowed the music itself to capture my imagination. Rather than connecting with the lyrics of the songs, I fell for the sheer sound of them: their tight poppy constructions as well as the thunderous wallop of Dave Grohl’s drums, the infectious bounce of Krist Novoselic’s basslines, and the heavy yet airy distortion of Cobain’s guitar.
I remember thinking all the songs sounded the same, but this wasn’t a complaint. Like the Ramones, AC/DC and Motörhead, Nirvana squeeze the most out of their three-chord formula. They speed things up (‘Stay Away’, ‘Territorial Pissings’), quieten things down (‘Come As You Are’, ‘Polly’, ‘Something in the Way’), add a bit of swing (‘Lounge Act’) and turn their popcraft up to eleven (‘In Bloom’, ‘On a Plain’) without losing the album’s momentum or sense of purpose. As indelible as the vocal melodies are, this is less music for singing along to than for thrashing about in one’s bedroom: a visceral, transcendent and, most importantly, noisy experience beyond words. I had finally discovered what rock ’n’ roll was all about. And I wanted more.
Once I entered high school, rock’s power to elicit feelings of elation and release offered comfort and escape as I perfected my impersonation of an angsty teenager. The gloomy side of alternative music, and Seattle grunge in particular, provided solace as I traced the threads of Nirvana’s meshy net to other acts from the Seattle grunge scene. But while alt-metal bands in grunge clothing such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were suitably dour and sludgy, and Pearl Jam were really just stadium rock with a dash of Gen-X sensitivity, the bands scuttling around the seedier underside of the Seattle scene attracted me most.
Nirvana’s Sub Pop peers like Mudhoney and Tad – whose grimy, primitive and often ugly music sounded like the dregs of rock ’n’ roll’s history backwashed into an empty 7-11 Slushie cup – suited my mood perfectly. This was dumb music about drugs, sickness and serial killers played by smart guys with a self-deprecating sense of humour. While punk rock had tried to recapture the original spirit of rock ’n’ roll, true grunge music satirised the overinflated importance the Baby Boomers placed on it in the first place. Grunge artists rejected the notion that anything as inconsequential as music could actually change anything, while happily sending up, and sometimes revelling in, rock’s worst excesses.
Grunge’s satirical desecration of rock’s phoney sanctity was embraced by Nirvana. Nevermind, in particular, is full of bitingly ironic digs at the same rock establishment of which they were soon to become an indelible part. Whether it’s the video for ‘In Bloom’ – which sends up variety shows like Ed Sullivan’s by cutting between the band performing in dorky suits and glasses and the band dressed in drag and smashing everything – or Novoselic’s delirious, off-key rendition of the hippie chestnut ‘Get Together’ that opens side two, Nevermind can be read at once as a subversion and celebration of rock history. Even the cover art makes a sardonic gesture about ‘selling out’ that’s both naïve and knowing, their garage-band innocence happily being corrupted by the almighty dollar with no real understanding of what that might entail. That they would go on to become yet another in Rolling Stone’s pantheon of rock ’n’ roll saints is the ultimate irony.
While Nirvana’s debut album Bleach is one of grunge’s essential documents, and the band would revisit that sound with later songs like ‘Scentless Apprentice’, the sparkly production on Nevermind makes it more stadium-friendly than the sonic ooze of your garden-variety grunge act. With Nevermind, Nirvana had most successfully captured the sound Cobain claimed to have in his head, that of ‘the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Sabbath and Black Flag’. Nirvana also incorporated aspects of the alternative rock that had paved the way for their success. The guitar sound in ‘Territorial Pissings’ sounds an awful lot like the liquid-metal sheen of Hüsker Dü, a trio whose emotive and melodic brand of hardcore punk provided a template for everyone from Nirvana to Green Day. Cobain admitted that ‘Teen Spirit’ was a rip-off of ‘Gouge Away’ by the Pixies, whose quiet-loud dynamic Nirvana would take to the bank. At the same time the band wouldn’t concede, at least not officially, that the haunting guitar riff to ‘Come As You Are’ was fleeced directly from Killing Joke’s primal anthem ‘Eighties’, with the English post-punk act allegedly dropping their lawsuit once Cobain passed away. (Dave Grohl would go on to play drums on Killing Joke’s 2003 self-titled album, the hatchet apparently having been buried.)
Nevermind is the one place where all of Nirvana’s contradictory impulses are held in perfect suspension, their diverse influences synthesised into a coherent and satisfying whole. Never before had grunge been so noisy and obstreperous yet human and relatable, primal yet sophisticated, bitingly sarcastic yet heart-on-sleeve sincere. With Nevermind, Nirvana had transcended the grunge ghetto to create something that was also life-affirming, something that seemed to connect with people from all walks of life.
As satisfying as Nirvana’s music is, my hunger for loud guitars only grew during my high-school years, and most of my spare time was spent seeking out new sounds to sate my need for all things rock. In those pre-internet days, Nirvana provided a highly reliable recommendation service for guitar-based music.
As well as turning me on to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young, Cobain used his privileged position as a rock star to proselytise for the indie underground. Cobain covered songs by punk obscurities like the Wipers and the Meat Puppets, wore T-shirts – often home- made – promoting dark, arty acts like Scratch Acid and Flipper, and penned liner notes for the compilation Incesticide that talked more about how blessed he felt to meet performers like the Raincoats, Daniel Johnston and the Jesus Lizard.
I paid diligent attention to these clues, while keeping abreast of Nirvana’s alt-rock peers. By the age of 17 or so, when the floodgates to alternative music were well and truly open and the same people who’d picked on me for liking Nirvana a few years earlier started listening to Triple J and going to the Big Day Out, I felt somewhat vindicated. My cultural capital began to buy me some modest social capital, as other kids asked to borrow my CDs and help them compile music for their parties.
But my gradual shift into that shiny world of cultural literacy went beyond merely getting into cooler music than my friends. Regularly reading music magazines and books enhanced my actual literacy, my grades improved to the point where I started to consider writing as a possible future career. And while Kurt Cobain claimed to ‘take pride as the king of illiterature’ on In Utero’s ‘Very Ape’, the band referenced the likes of William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Patrick Süskind in interviews and song lyrics, getting me excited about literature in a way that none of my teachers ever could. Cobain even recorded an album with Burroughs – The Priest They Called Him.
When I finally figured out what Cobain was singing, I found his lyrical approach to be not unlike that of Burroughs’ own cryptic style. Plenty of journalists have employed lazy pop-psychology to try and relate the words Cobain sang to events in his troubled life. But I see in Cobain’s lyrics an attempt to disrupt the signifying system of language and get to some sort of deeper truth. Cobain’s lyrics are full of surreal imagery (‘I travel through a tube / and end up in your infection’), clever wordplay (‘the black sheep got blackmailed again’) and self-deflating turnarounds (‘I’m so excited / I can’t wait to meet you there / but I don’t care’).
By expressing himself in often-cryptic and ambivalent soundbites that invite multiple interpretations, Cobain somehow managed to sum up the ennui of a whole generation raised on trashy television slogans and advertising buzzwords, a feeling that dovetailed nicely with the eternal confusion of teenagers everywhere. Even with the subtle sting in its tail, any woe-is-me adolescent can relate to a line like ‘I’m so happy / ’cause today I found my friends / they’re in my head’. But what the hell are we to make of ‘a mulatto / an albino / a mosquito / my libido’? I still don’t know what that means, but I derive an enormous sense of pleasure out of the fact that I don’t. Kurt Cobain once said: ‘We don’t mean to be really cryptic or mysterious, but I just think that lyrics that are different and weird and spacey paint a nice picture. It’s just the way I like art.’
Nevermind will always be remembered as the album that simultaneously brought underground music to the mainstream, knocked Michael Jackson from his perch and killed osff hair-metal.
But I still won’t be buying the Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind. I could, of course, download a torrent of it for free and risk having Courtney Love personally turn up at my doorstep and tell me I’m taking food from her daughter’s table. But I’d rather spend my time following those cultural clues that Nirvana provided me with, tracing the threads that radiate out from the centre of their web into the past, present and future. I could be appreciating the mid-1930s work of surrealist Hans Bellmer, for instance, whose disturbing sculptures look uncannily like Cobain’s dejected marionette-like artworks that adorn some of Nirvana’s album covers. Or I could be reading the graphic novels of Seattle native Charles Burns, who, with his exquisitely stark black-and-white penwork, explores the pain of adolescence with body horror imagery worthy of Cobain’s fleshiest lyrics. Or I could be listening to 2011’s Past Life Martyred Saints, the emotionally raw debut album of Erika M. Anderson (aka E.M.A.) who surprisingly covered Nevermind’s elusive hidden track ‘Endless Nameless’ on Spin Magazine’s Nevermind tribute, blowing the other contributors away with the downtuned mayhem of her spirited rendition.
Just as Weird Al Yankovic made the impenetrable Nirvana accessible to me, Nirvana themselves demystified the world of culture, pointing me towards art, literature and music, and offering up the transcendent sound of loud and noisy guitars as my number-one vice, abiding obsession and religion. In his study of underground rock, Blissed Out, music critic Simon Reynolds puts it aptly like this:
‘Bliss’ and ‘noise’ are the same thing – a rupture/disruption in the signifying system that holds a culture together… The pleasure of noise lies in the fact that the obliteration of meaning and identity is ecstasy – literally, being out of oneself.