Now and Then, Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Death of Kurt Cobain
There was a stretch when Nirvana was the soundtrack for our Friday nights. No, check that. There was a stretch when Nirvana was our Friday nights.
Kevin was tall, over six feet, with blonde hair that flowed past his shoulders though it was thinning by our senior year. His dad had died before I met him, and he never spoke of him except once to say how one time during a tornado his dad had grabbed a camera to take pictures and how he and Kevin had marched down the middle of the road looking for the best shot while everyone else was scrambling to take cover and shouting what’s the matter with you, are you crazy at them. Kevin’s dad was a photographer, and Kevin himself was a graphic artist. He’d make pencil drawings and silk-screened t-shirts. One year, I bought a bulky leather jacket from him for $100 for my birthday. He was the first person I knew who had a chain that connected his wallet to his jeans.
By virtue of being the only two people in our class who rode skateboards, Kevin and I were thrust into a friendship, which was okay. Even without the bond of skateboards, we would have had the bond of music. For as much as I like music, I’ve never been one of those people who stayed ahead of the curve. I don’t have the time, the energy, or the money to keep my ear to the ground. This means that I rarely discover bands on my own. Instead, people introduce them to me. And Kevin was a trusted source. He was right about Ministry and 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, less so about Fugazi, right again about Bad Brains. I knew he knew his stuff, and I respected the hell out of him. So when he came into my room, flashed the CD, and said “Dude,” I was ready for something special.
My dad tells a story about reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a boy. He so loved the book that the thought of finishing it was too much for him to bear. Twenty pages from the end, he put it down. Refused to read. Waited for the perfect time. That uninterrupted hour for just him and Scout and Atticus and Jem to sit down and wrap things up. Finally, weeks later, he found it -- under the shade of a tree in a secret part of the only park in Bethany, West Virginia, or so I imagine -- and when he eventually did close that back cover, he couldn’t stand being without. He couldn’t stand being without so much that, book in hand, he went to, yes, Bethany’s only library where he held up the book and announced to the woman in the stacks: “I want another book just like this one.” The woman, on cue, replied, “Son, there are no other books like that one.”
That was how we felt about Nevermind. We listened, we listened, and we listened some more, and when, in years past, the needle would have worn through the grooves, we took it to the record store, held it up, and said “More!”
It was really Butch Vig with whom we fell in love. Vig would go on to cofound Garbage and to produce seminal albums for the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Helmet, L7, Sonic Youth, and, most recently, Green Day, but the first paragraph of his obituary will mention only one album by name: Nevermind.
In one of those Behind the Music specials that aired on MTV in an infinite loop in the days/weeks/months after Kurt’s death, Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player, talked about walking into the studio the day after a recording session. They strolled in, heard something thumping over the speakers, and started bobbing their heads to the beat. “This rocks”, Novoselic said. “Who is it?” “It’s you,” Vig replied. It was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
For all the talk about grunge, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has a pretty clean sound. It’s slick and ultimately has less in common with the small DIY stuff that Cobain so adored and more with other anthemic stadium-rockers like “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Enter Sandman.” Indeed, I often have to remind myself that Butch Vig is not Mutt Lange is not Bob Rock.
But these are the observations of a hundred listens. At the time, our only thought was this is the coolest fucking thing I have ever heard in my life ever.
I’ve long been jealous of my older friends who experienced original listens of Revolver, The Basement Tapes, What’s Going On, and Horses. That sense of being there where there meant the promise of something more.
This time, we were the ones who were there.
There was a stretch when Nirvana was the soundtrack for our Friday nights. No, check that. There was a stretch when Nirvana was our Friday nights. Cans of beer on Jeff’s front porch, the speakers in the window, music getting louder as the night got later, rowdier. One night, Patrick was running around the room, jumping up and down to the beat -- the Pogo by a guy who had never heard of the Pogo -- and he leapt up and clipped his head on the top of the door frame, right above his left eye. He required six stitches. Another night, Dave fell down the stairs and broke his arm. He may have been trying a trick on his bike. I’m not sure. He asked us to mums the word at work the following week, because he didn’t want it getting around how out of control he had been. Might ruin his chance at advancement at the toy store where we all worked.
These were dangerous days, girl-less days, as you might have guessed, and more emotionally open than any of us had ever been with other men. Dave had gone out wilding the summer before in Carthage. He smashed a car window or two, some headlights. He told it to us in the waning hours not with any sense of bravado but almost as a kind of confession. We absolved him with our silence. Jeff and I especially not knowing what we were doing with our lives. He -- already with the stigma of divorce; me -- every choice by default. Long walks to Parr Hill Park, beer hidden in cupped hands when the cops drove by, talking about our dads.
It’s a fair question -- What does any of this have to do with Nirvana, really? -- and I hope you’ll forgive an answer that smacks of justification even to me, but as anyone who has ever deeply loved an artist knows, the experience of actually listening to the band itself is often the least of it, and those first days after you are introduced to a new record are like falling in love, when not only the thing itself but everything around it takes on a heightened significance.
Thus, certain bands function as a kind of carbon dating of your life. The Sex Pistols/PIL Era, the Pink Floyd Era, the Bob Dylan, the John Lennon, the Jim Morrison, skip ahead to the Public Enemy, the Guns N’ Roses, the NWA, the Radiohead, the Miles Davis, the Patti Smith.
It’s a rare blessing when the era in one’s life actually conforms to the era of a band’s prime. Rarer still, and sadder, when the era in one’s life conforms to the entire life of the band. This was the case with Nirvana.
We followed them, more or less, from birth to death.
It was mid-day and I was where I usually was during mid-day: asleep.
The phone rang.
My bed at the time didn’t have any frame. Just box springs and a mattress on the floor.
I answered it. It was Matt Triplett, my least pop-culture infatuated friend.
“Kurt Cobain died.”
“He committed suicide.”
“Turn on the TV.”
I remember the through-the-window photograph most of all. He’s wearing sneakers, which is both in character and odd. And jeans. And a shirt that looks like the one he wore at the MTV Music Awards when he showed up with that bowl-cut hairdo and allegedly got into a fight with Axl Rose backstage.
You can tell he’s dead, because who would allow himself to have his picture taken while lying on a tile floor?