30 Years of Nirvana's Nevermind
As Nevermind turns 30, we celebrate one of the most influential albums in the history of music.
“This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it.”
- Kurt Cobain before playing “About a Girl” off of the band’s first album Bleach on MTV Unplugged November 18, 1993
Starting at the End…
I was just an awkward 15-year-old high school freshman when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Like so many of you, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the awful news. I had just returned from a life-altering school trip to Spain over spring break. I was jet-lagged but on an all-time high. I had just spent a week away from my family, pretty much in charge of myself in Madrid, Toledo, and on the Costa Del Sol. I was the youngest kid on the trip and there were older girls with us. Just imagine the excitement and freedom of walking Madrid at night with no adult supervision and older high school girls when you were a freshman. All the while, I was speaking a foreign language in a foreign country. I can still remember the feeling of constant negotiation and problem-solving. One can sleep-walk through life in the comfort of their own community, but in a foreign country, I felt like I was on high alert all of the time. Like I said, life-altering experience for a somewhat sheltered kid from the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio.
After a mind-numbing day of travel where I also forgot my 24 CD Case Logic booklet on the plane, I was all over the map physically, and psychologically. I was having trouble even explaining to my family all that I felt I had just experienced. I eventually got the book of CDs back, and it would be just a footnote, but losing 24 of my favorite CDs — the ones I chose for my soundtrack to Spain — was catastrophic in my teenage mind! In those days it would have been about $350 to replace that music! I was sitting by myself in my parents’ family room when I saw the MTV News hit announcing that they had found the body of Kurt Cobain, dead of an apparent suicide.
Like so many of my generation, I was devastated. I couldn’t move or talk. I hadn’t ever lost a personal icon up until that point. I was quite a bit younger than Kurt Cobain, but to lose this guy at 27 with seemingly so much music left to be written and life left to be lived seemed impossible. On top of it all, I thought I had lost all of my Nirvana CDs, which had gone with me to Spain. As I gathered my thoughts and got ahold of my emotions, the reality of it all set in that he was gone. But to me personally, the death of Kurt Cobain felt even more complicated.
I loved Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, but I didn’t feel authentic enough to be a fan. It sounds weird, but I didn’t feel like Kurt Cobain would have liked me. I felt that I was one of the fans he could do without. Kurt Cobain made me feel like a poseur. In those days, there was nothing worse than being a poseur. While I loved the music, I had grown to resent them because of this perceived elitism.
Like nearly everyone who heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I was blown away, especially as a 12-year-old adding it to my tape collection with the likes of Bon Jovi, Poison, and Motley Crue. In those days, I figured buying the tape was commitment enough. I thought that gave me license to call myself a fan, but I was just learning about the fake hierarchies around bands and fans as I was entering my teenage years. When Pearl Jam eventually released “Not for You,” I felt like I was on the right side of the wall with Eddie Vedder and the boys. Nirvana made me feel like I was on the outside looking in, and I’m not completely sure why.
Maybe it was coming off of glam rock bands that made me feel like a fraudulent Nirvana fan, but it was more than that. Cobain himself made sure it was the first thing out of his mouth as his band Unplugged on MTV. “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it,” Cobain said before beginning “About a Girl.” He essentially said I wasn’t worthy because I didn’t own Bleach. I’m not sure why I never did purchase a copy, by the way. I had everything else, including Incesticide. I just never went back and bought it. I listened to it with my friends. I’d heard it. But in Kurt’s mind, that was a dividing line. Or maybe he was just dealing with his own shit and it didn’t have anything to do with me. That certainly didn’t occur to me at the time.
Before Nirvana, I had loved Axl Rose, for example, and Axl was mercurial as hell. He seemed above it all, which meant that he didn’t seem to be thinking about me at all. Kurt Cobain seemed all too aware of the audience. The way he talked made me feel seen, but not in a good way. I felt seen with a weird nervousness, paranoia, and self-consciousness. I guess I was dealing with my own shit too.
Kurt Cobain wasn’t cool in the way that I had ever thought of cool before. He was anti-cool in an unattainable, weird kind of way. He seemed arrogant in his cutting mockery of himself and the world around him during interviews. Was he being funny, or was he just being a gigantic asshole? Either way, he was building walls; setting up a standard that felt unreachable for me as a fan. He seemed like such a genuine original that I remember feeling like only a couple of my friends were even close to carving a path that lived up to his aesthetic. I was just another common kid obsessed with common kid stuff like playing soccer. Something about the way Nirvana and Kurt Cobain came across made me feel like I was never going to be worthy.
I hadn’t listened to enough of the stuff that influenced them. I wasn’t cool enough to hear the beauty in The Sex Pistols, or The Stooges. Never mind that I hadn’t been exposed to them through no fault of my own. These were the dark days before Spotify and YouTube. The barrier to entry was high, and it felt to me that people like Kurt Cobain were shaming people like me.
Seeing Kurt and his band explode to the top of culture made me think that he was this fully-formed, self-confident icon of counter-culture who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. The irony of it all is that I mistook Kurt Cobain’s outward lack of caring for convention as a sign that he was comfortable in his own skin. Turns out, it was probably a defense mechanism because he never felt comfortable in his life and his world after his band broke big. And then Kurt Cobain killed himself, dashing all of my preconceived notions of who and what this man was.
All those signals and signs that I thought I was reading one way changed completely with the new information that this man was so utterly broken that he couldn’t bear to go on living. What I took for arrogance and a weird sense of elitism turned out to be self-consciousness, self-doubt, and self-hatred. The amount of self-loathing someone must feel to kill themselves is incalculable. I barely know what to do with it as a 42-year-old writing today. I certainly didn’t know what to do with it as a zit-faced kid trying to find his way through freshman year of high school.
It’s obvious to say, but my whole concept of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana changed upon his death. It re-cast him as a figure and every bit of art he created in his short time on earth. It certainly put a different spin on the most iconic album of the era, Nevermind.
Kurt Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994. We would find out he died on April 8, 1994. It’s dark to reference Kurt Cobain’s suicide note as we look to celebrate his pinnacle achievement as a commercial artist. However, I think it’s important for me as I look back on how Kurt and Nevermind made me feel as a person trying to figure out who I was and maybe more importantly, who I wasn’t. I’m guessing for many of you out there, it’s the same.
In his suicide note, Cobain says, “I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things.” Kurt Cobain didn’t feel punk rock enough because if he had been, he would have certainly loved listening and writing music. He goes on to say how much of a fraud he feels like when the lights go down and the crowd roars and “it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy.” You can read the rest for yourself, but it’s instructive that this guy who seemed to build really high walls for everyone one day trapped himself behind those walls. “Why don’t you just enjoy it?” he says, before answering himself with, “I don’t know!”
Let’s talk about the album. I don’t feel like I need to say much of anything about the biggest songs from the album. What am I really going to say about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that hasn’t been said before? One thing that we can talk about is something I referenced when talking about Ten by Pearl Jam. Nevermind was something I owned on cassette tape first. Side A was impossibly dense. It’s got to be up there with the greatest Side As in the history of recorded music.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Come As You Are
That’s an album in and of itself. Those songs all stand the test of time as classics forever and ever. What’s undersold about Nirvana to this day are the songs that weren’t videos on MTV that became musical gateway drugs for young, impressionable music fans such as myself.
When I loaded up Side B and heard the opening of Territorial Pissings mocking a song - “Get Together” by the Youngbloods - that I originally learned about from the TV infomercial for a nostalgic CD set from Time-Life. Then it launched into a vicious 2-minute 22-second music spasm that devolves into a distorted vocal breakdown by Kurt Cobain and the band. I don’t know exactly what impact that song had on my future listening to music, but it was influential. I would eventually go on to listen to tons of bands that were at least as hardcore as “Territorial Pissings.” It opened my eyes to raw music that had a harder edge than anything I’d ever heard before.
Not to push too far ahead, but Nevermind couldn’t have ended more perfectly. “Something In the Way” showed a range in Kurt and his band in terms of songwriting. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl were as capable of going up and down as Kurt’s songs needed. Cobain gets all the writing credits except for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Territorial Pissings,” but this isn’t a one-man band. What these guys had was special because it just worked. A song as beautiful and heartbreaking as “Something in the Way” was a shocking way to end Nevermind.
The story of that song is incredible. It was originally recorded by Kurt in the control room of the studio on a mostly untuned guitar. According to the legend, it was very difficult for Dave Grohl to play drums to a song with an uneven meter. Usually, in the studio, everyone performs to a click track so that all the beats are predictable. With Kurt Cobain playing it raw, it took extra work for Grohl to hit the uneven beats just right. Additionally, Krist Novoselic had trouble “tuning” his bass to match Kurt’s guitar.
I’m not sure exactly what that song had to say to me, but it spoke to me just the same. When music hits me, it’s electricity up the back of my neck and into my scalp. That’s the feeling I’m chasing when I listen to music. “Something in the Way” hits me in all those nerves better than any other song on Nevermind.
One of the most common conversations I’ve had with friends over the years is what would Kurt and Nirvana have done if not for his suicide? Never mind the question of what happens (or doesn’t happen) with the Foo Fighters. Does Kurt Cobain end up as some kind of Neil Young artist who carves his own path of gritty rock and roll into his old age? Does he disappear completely from the spotlight? Is it a band breakup and eventual reunion? Obviously, we’ll never know.
What I do know is that we’re lucky to have the music that Kurt Cobain created. We’re fortunate that many of us who were in our formative years were able to learn something about ourselves from his tortured life and unfortunate end. It’s a tragic story and I wish it hadn’t ended that way, but it did. What you do with it is up to you.
I ended up going back and reliving all of Nirvana’s work when “You Know You’re Right” was released in the early 2000s. And that’s where I’ll leave you today. This doesn’t settle any debates on what Kurt and Nirvana would have continued to do if not for his suicide. However, it’s such a great song, it leaves me hungry for what could have been.
Another fantastic write up, Craig. Well done!
I really enjoy the point about the cassette Side A of both Ten and Nevermind. I had never really realized how similar they were in being loaded with hits on the front side, but then the back side having more of the songs that showed the depth these bands were capable of.
I was a 24 year old freshman at OSU when Cobain died. I feel very fortunate that I got to see Nirvana as a warm-up act to Dinosaur Jr just a few months prior to the Nevermind release. I recall trying to describe my excitement over the new songs without knowing the titles: "They played a new song with a chorus that was just "Yeah, yeah, yeaaaah.." I had no idea or ability to empathize with the demons he had and at the time his death seemed so pointless. Agree that Nevermind holds up extremely well, even though I don't find myself listening to it that often. It thoroughly kicked open doors to new genres of music for me and for that, I will always be grateful.