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Nevermind the Past

(Author's note: In honor of my involvement in Buffalo's 103.3 The Edge 90s weekend, figured it was a good time to repost my 2011 reveal on Nirvana. Won't have the alotted airtime this weekend, so this seems to be a opportunity to do it. Enjoy my apology.)

 

Now that it's 20 years after the fact, I have a scathing confession: When Nirvana's Nevermind was unleashed on the world in 1991, I couldn't have cared less.

This is a statement that will draw disgusted looks from my eventual children, the kind of scowls I directed at my father when he told me he never listened to Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin in his late teens and early twenties. This is a statement that, when simply blurted out amongst grunge enthusiasts or anyone that rolled through their own puberty in the early 1990s, may seem sacrilegious. The record's release and accompanying buzz surrounding Nirvana was a major, culture-shifting event. The album's searing guitar riffs provided a soundtrack for teenagers to part their greasy hair down the middle, wear long-sleeved t-shirts under short-sleeved tees, and, in many cases, hate their parents. It was a big, freaking, sweaty deal—and I didn't care that much about it.


Do I have a defense for this past transgression? Excuses? Sure, just like my father probably has excuses for not finding Hendrix enlightening or Zeppelin hypnotic. When I go over explanations in my head, they all make a certain amount of sense. But, regardless of their validity, when I listen to the remastered Nevermind (released yesterday) scorch forth today, I'm still embarrassed.


I didn't take to Nirvana—or to their breakout release—as quickly as I should've for a multitude of reasons. This isn't to say I wasn't aware of them. As a 13-year-old boy at St. Mary of the Lake elementary school, the only things I cared about were basketball, the Buffalo Bills, girls, and MTV—probably in that order. In the fall of 1991, MTV started playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video about as regularly as they broadcast Teen Mom marathons today. It was seemingly on every hour and, since I spent endless hours watching the station's after-school programming, I saw Kurt Cobain's flopping blonde hair and green-striped t-shirt inside a televised gymnasium on a daily basis. I watched a young Dave Grohl violently attack his drum kit; Krist Novoselic drunkenly sway back and forth with his bass. Anarchist cheerleaders thumped and gyrated around them, while an audience of greasy teens waited in front of them as contents of a veritable powder keg of rebellious angst.


The scene was the most accessible representation of pure evil I'd ever seen and, as a brown-eyed Catholic school kid who was then-dazzled by Queen's re-released "Bohemian Rhapsody", I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't ready to abandon basketball camps for all-ages shows, and I wasn't ready embrace the anger that comes with being a frustrated, suburban teenager. Unfortunately, when those days arrived, I adopted an anti-Nirvana stance to accompany my rebellion.


By 1993, I had spent two years knee-deep in classic rock patronage, surrounding myself with Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Beatles cassette tapes. I stopped listening to Monday Night Football on the radio as I fell asleep and, instead, listened to Axis: Bold As Love and Led Zeppelin III as I laid in bed and stared at my bedroom ceiling. I borrowed every one of my father's Beatles records, and tried to educate uninformed friends of mine why the gibberish-laden and nonsensical "I Am The Walrus" was such a great song.


From this musical entry, I leap-frogged Nirvana and, instead, inhaled their grunge contemporaries and overlooked forefathers of the newly-coined alternative rock scene. After wearing out Pearl Jam's Ten and Vs., I found albums by Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Ned's Automic Dustbin, and Sonic Youth. After listening to this quartet of underappreciated bands, I started to rail against Nirvana for getting so much credit for popularizing a style of music already mastered by others. I was an argumentative teenager eager to take an unconventional stance, so I decided to degrade Nirvana to anyone who would listen. As I saw it, it was as if they were anointed as innovators because MTV and an entire generation needed their defining act; their Rolling Stones or Beatles or Led Zeppelin. But Nirvana wasn't the Stones or Zeppelin. And, they certainly weren't the Beatles.


But, on the days following April 5th, 1994, media outlets made sure Kurt Cobain became Generation X's answer to John Lennon. After the frontman was found dead inside his Seattle-area home from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head, hoards of fans and television hosts compared the impact of Cobain's death to that of Lennon's. This made me hate Nirvana even more, and augmented my already fervent belief that their historical relevance was media-driven. Compare a guy who selfishly blew his head off to a guy who, after transforming pop culture, rock music, and his own life over a 20-year period, was senselessly gunned down on his way home from work by a deranged lunatic? Such comparison should've been viewed as patently ridiculous, but it was genuinely adopted and regurgitated by magazines like Rolling Stone and People.


I was two years old when Lennon died in 1980. Even today, his death still makes me sad. I was inside my grandparents' apartment in Greensboro, North Carolina when Cobain was announced dead. I barely flinched when I heard the news.


So what changed my stance? Compassion, maturity and eventual connection. Months after Cobain's death, the band released their MTV Unplugged album, which provided an opportunity for people like myself to digest Nirvana's material much differently. Cobain's somber vocals and delicate strumming on the record serves as the band's unintentional requiem. It was an emotional performance released so soon after the band's leader perished, and I connected with material delivered by a guy I'd never connected with before. (If you're not moved by Cobain's rendition of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" you're most likely dead inside.)


As I grew older in the years that followed the Unplugged album, I went back to Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero. (I now own all of these albums.) Now past the pubescent pressures of conforming to cultural trends—and away from the omnipresent media reminder of what's supposedly relevant—I've been able to appreciate pieces of each work for their lyrics, instrumentation, or raw, unhinged tenacity. Gone is my ardent stance against the band's anointed relevance (although I still believe Ned's Automic Dustbin is unforgivably overlooked), and gone is my lack of acceptance of the band's material as epic.


With Nevermind in particular, the album should be understood as nothing less than a rock standard. Its contents set a decade in motion by infusing punk rock presentation with layered texture and raw emotion. The jarring "Teen Spirit" is followed by the gnarling, yet innocent head-bob beat of "In Bloom"; the dark "Come As You Are" slows things down before "Breed" steps on the gas again; "Lithium" and "Polly" stands you still before "Territorial Pissings" sends you flying head-first through a plate-glass window. "Lounge Act", "Stay Away" and "On A Plain" extend this destructive pace until "Something In The Way" brings you to a somber halt. It's an album, not a collection of iTunes tracks. It's a mood established by a band who helped establish the ethos of an entire decade.


I accept this now. Do I have the luxury of reminiscing about my own youth altered by this album? No. But, I understand why this album was so transformative for many who came of age amidst my youth. I now officially care about Nevermind, albeit 20 years after its release.


Better late than never.

 

(Authors note: This entry was completed while listening to Nirvana's Nevermind . . . over and over and over again.)

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