Two years sober, two years after Hurricane Hugo, I was listening to the radio in my Daytona (how quaint that sounds). The DJ (equally quaint) introduced a band from Seattle, a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Then I heard that opening riff, now as immediately recognizable as any intro in rock; the mangled but articulate vocal; then the hammering chorus with the obliquely cynical lyric…
Viewing the last quarter of 1991 from an historical perspective, it’s easy, even natural, to consider the success of Nevermind as representative of a drastic paradigmatic shift, a cultural leap into a new era. In real time, however, plots and subplots segue, and one experiences a transition as incremental, part of a broader continuum. Change of whatever kind is rarely as pervasive as singularizing hindsight would suggest.
To offer some perspective, the best-selling album of 1991 was Mariah Carey’s self-titled debut album. The best-selling release of 1992 was Billy Ray Cyrus’s Some Gave All. That said, for an antisocial manifesto such as “Teen Spirit” to be winning over the airwaves, albeit on alternative formats, didn’t seem in the least bit odd to me; it somehow made perfect sense.
In April 1994, I was filling the gas tank (a Jeep this time) at a convenience station. A guy who’d been getting gas on the other side of the pump suddenly stepped toward me, gave me a quick glance, and said — I remember his comment verbatim — “Hey dude, did you hear, Kurt Cobain just killed himself, man?” I got back into the car and turned on the radio, probably that same station on which I’d first heard “Teen Spirit”, and sure enough, within 20 minutes the DJ announced the death of Kurt Cobain. He was 27. So was I.
On 24 September 1991, Nirvana released its major-label debut, Nevermind, the album that would catapult the band into unexpected stardom, and onto a tumultuous trajectory that ended approximately two-and-a-half years later with Cobain’s suicide. Listening to the album periodically over the years (two-and-a-half decades, now!), I’ve been struck on numerous occasions that it’s a peculiar project, especially when compared with Nirvana’s other releases. The songs, as many have expressed, are infused with a primal energy and archetypal angst; however, they’re also treated with production values characteristic of the previous decade. The fundamental rawness of the material and delivery are frequently suppressed rather than complemented by what sound to me like compression, chorus, and mixing techniques reminiscent of late ’70s / early ’80s New Wave, or mid- to late ’80s hard-rock recordings.
At the heart of the album are Cobain’s exemplary songcraft and frayed vocals. While Cobain may have identified (perhaps over-identified) with punk, at least egoically, he was also a pop-smith along the lines of Lennon and McCartney (pre-Sgt. Pepper’s) and Brian Wilson (pre-Pet Sounds). Indeed, to some degree, all effective punk is a return to and reinterpretation of classic pop elements, chiefly melody; that, coupled with the tones and ambience of repressed and sublimated anger; i.e., volume, distortion, strained vocals, and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. I’ve frequently thought of Nevermind as the quintessence of what I’d call Id Pop — unrestrained instinct saran-wrapped in ’80s pop production. As much as I appreciate Nevermind, personally and historically, I have to note that it’s the deeper cuts that continue to stand out, as in “Breed”, “Territorial Pissings”, “Drain You”, “Lounge Act”m and “On a Plain”.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” do remain, to my ears, anthemic, despite how they’re produced, mostly for their melodies, use of “soft / loud” dynamics, and disjointed but poetic lyrics (that would make Andre Breton, John Ashbery, or Rae Armantrout proud), and again, the way in which primal impulses are delivered via impeccable pop structures. The disturbing starkness of “Polly” and minimal beauty of “Something in the Way” also continue to deliver, though I’ll reiterate that over the years I’ve grown more bothered by the production’s muting effect — it’s like viewing an evocative painting placed within a compromising frame — including on the above-listed tracks. The hidden piece, “Endless Nameless”, which begins after ten minutes of silence following “Something in the Way”, may actually be the track most congruent with Nirvana’s inherent aesthetic and is certainly the one that most clearly prefigures the sound and content of 1993’s In Utero.
On the other hand: the standardized production approaches used on Nevermind, including how the album was mastered, probably contributed to its success, perhaps even rendered its success possible. Had the production approaches used on, for example, the band’s 1989 Sub Pop release Bleach been replicated on Nevermind, would the album have appealed to a mainstream audience? Perhaps not. It’s likely that the way in which the production smoothed and brightened the album, heightening the pop elements, rendered it palatable for an audience that would’ve been repelled by a project that more unwaveringly embraced the punk tone, demeanor, and overall sound.
Nevermind, while containing most of the hits for which Nirvana is celebrated, is, to my ears, the band’s least representative album; of the four primary releases, its least emotionally and aesthetically complex. The above mentioned Bleach more aptly illustrates the band in its element, the performances rawer and more spontaneous, the album drawing from and integrating elements of pop, punk, and proto-metal. In addition, the production approaches, including the mixing of the vocals, are more congruent with the mutinous spirit of the material.
With In Utero, Cobain’s songwriting seems more mature, in terms of melody and lyrics; the band’s sound is more integrated and textural, referencing and transcending such influences as psychedelic pop a la 1972’s Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, punk as mined by the Melvins and Pixies, and hardcore a la Black Flag and Bad Brains. I’d argue that In Utero contains some of the best songs Cobain ever wrote, including the pop-punk masterpiece, “Dumb”.
In addition, tracks 7-11 represent an original iteration of punk as undeniably as any song sequence by the Stooges, Ramones, Sex Pistols, or Sonic Youth. The Unplugged album, while not introducing new original songs, stands to me as a highly original set, and as stellar a swan song as any in rock history. The universality of the songs and versatility of the guest musicians (including the Meat Puppets) are memorably highlighted, as are the band’s dynamic cohesiveness and Cobain’s emotional range as a vocalist. The carefully chosen covers — including the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”, Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”, and Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — aptly acknowledge the band’s influences and affinities.
Still, Nevermind is the album with which many people immediately associate the grunge genre and a release that arguably served as a soundtrack for a generation. While Cobain acknowledged that the central riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was drawn from the Pixies (others have suggested Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”), that particular progression, as reconfigured by Nirvana, and heard by millions, was referenced in numerous post-grunge songs, including pieces by Bush, The Offspring, Blur, Hole, and Green Day, as well as newcomer Angel Olsen.
The shift from glam and indulgent post-glam, so integral to the ’80s, toward the self-effacing and slacker ’90s, however, cannot be credited to Nirvana and Nevermind alone. Other bands and albums, including Pearl Jam (Ten and Vs.), Soundgarden (Badmotorfinger and possibly Superunknown), and Alice in Chains (Facelift and Dirt), among others, helped to fuel this early and mid-’90s transition. But the transition began with Nevermind — or, more precisely, wouldn’t have happened without it — or without “Teen Spirit” — or, I hesitate to say, without the music video of “Teen Spirit”, which aired on MTV on 29 September 1991, quickly enthralling the teens and 20-somethings of America, providing an audio / visual imprint for the Gen Xers’ internal experience and ironically transforming “outsider-ism” into a fad. Nevermind would go on to strike an international resonance as well, selling millions of copies worldwide.
A particular legacy, however, grows more general and diffuse as time passes. Nirvana, like so many other bands, inherited and passed along the Promethean mantle, influencing other musicians and artists with their pop-punk sound and lyrical obliqueness, but probably more so with their stark authenticity and anti-authoritarianism; this sense of life’s irrepressible and regenerative nature, more than belief in a God or afterlife, is a source of faith for many, me included. Who carries the fire, however, and from where to where, is typically forgotten, though we can’t help but love the bearers by whose works we were moved, changed, and even defined.
A couple of years ago I wrote a poem called “curtain speech”. The following lines from which come to mind:
fact is, every dream ever conceived was at its best
prior to being scripted
before its author was even born
before the big bang
making all these dramas possible
Watching Nirvana be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I was reminded — hearing those songs, experiencing what they evoke — that nothing’s ours, least of all what we learn, create, or leave behind, everything but energy destined for oblivion, indeed born into oblivion, even if it’s remembered for a spell.
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John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry; most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books, 2015). His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.