NIRVANA AND ME
By Mike Chanay
Contributing TFW Writer
Wow. Nirvana’s mega-popular second album “Nevermind” is 20 years old. Where has the time gone? It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that my older brother gave me his used-up cassette copy of that album, complete with a baby’s penis on the cover. Our mother was so proud to see her sons bonding over something. After all, there were 13 years between us, and since he was already out in the world, we didn’t see each other much.
I grew up in a small and very isolated town in southwestern Colorado on the border of the desert and the Rocky Mountains. There was one small record store in town, and though they would sometimes be willing to special order items, they were mostly forced to stock what would sell — what had always sold in that town — bad country and worse country. As a bonus, there were only two radio stations in town that didn’t play country: an oldies station that played mostly 50’s music, and a right-wing talk station. Though “Nevermind” came out back in 1991, I wasn’t really aware of Nirvana until the end of ’92. A friend of mine mentioned them to me and let me borrow his copy, which I dubbed and soon began listening to nonstop. For me, they opened the door to what I consider to be good music. Or at the very least, decent music.
Before I started listening to Nirvana, I had really just started my habit of amassing music. I only had a few purchased cassettes, most of them were just badly recorded off of the radio, complete with DJ blabber and ads. Despite getting a boom box with a CD player for Christmas a couple years before, I only had two CDs. My tastes ran the wide gamut from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack and Phil Collins’ “No Jacket Required.” From Aerosmith’s “Get Your Wings” to the late great Michael Jackson.
So by the time I was into Nirvana, all the other great music of the early to mid-nineties was starting to get popular enough for even my little town to hear about it. And my music tree finally started growing. Any album I liked always lead to another. As I look at my current collection, I can connect almost every single one of them back to Nirvana using some kind of a musical Kevin Bacon game. Nirvana changed everything for me.
Not too long after my brother’s gift of said “Nevermind” cassette (the first official copy I had owned), Mr. Cobain was dead and Nirvana, as an actual band, died just as fast as they had been born. The day his body was found, I remember watching MTV at my piano teacher’s house while I waited downstairs for my lesson to start. They were playing the Unplugged special which I had never been able to watch, due to my parents not wanting to pay for cable (and being too honest to steal it). During the first commercial break, I saw Kurt Loder somberly repeat what had already been announced earlier in the day. I remember that it didn’t really sink in for awhile. I had really just found out about these guys and all of a sudden they were gone.
By this point I was a full fledged teenager. To differentiate myself from all the other Mikes and Michaels, and to emulate my hero, I started spelling my name with an unnecessary “h,” because Kurt would spell his with an unnecessary “d.”
According to Wikipedia (I’m too lazy to do actual research), I exist along the cusp between Generations X and Y. And I was hungry for more of this music, this beautifully loud and disenchanted attitude emanating from the so-called Generation X. I was particularly drawn to the “grunge” scene simply because it seemed like the purest version of what Nirvana seemed to present. Soundgarden, The Fastbacks, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, The Gits, Green River, Mother Love Bone — all the “alternative” bands were finally emerging from relative obscurity. Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Stone Temple Pilots, Garbage, Butthole Surfers, Primus, Tool, White Zombie. The early to mid nineties were an amazing time for music, with Nirvana essentially opening the door for so many other great bands. Not to mention all the seemingly endless amounts of, for lack of a better term, copycats.
And I absolutely have to mention Nirvana’s two other studio albums, 1989’s Bleach and 1993’s In Utero. While nearly everyone liked Nevermind, or at the very least “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” not many seemed to care for, or even know about their first and last albums. They are both utterly fantastic records. Bleach already had it’s anniversary version and I can’t wait for a deluxe edition of “In Utero.” I really didn’t know what to think the first time I had heard either of them. Inevitably compared to “Nevermind,” they are both stranger, much less polished, and almost better off because of it. Tracks on “Bleach” are straightforward and heavier, while “In Utero” almost boasts of intentional sloppiness and noise. Truly great sounds for angst-ridden adolescents.
After high school, around the turn of the millennium, I managed to fulfill my one true goal of moving away from that town. I went to school in Tennessee, which made no sense with Nashville being the capital of all that country music I had grown to develop such an intense dislike for. So I obviously brought all of my music with me. I eventually discovered that many people didn’t really like Nirvana anymore. Kurt had been dead for around five years, and the peaceful sounds of “nu metal” had taken over rock music. While some of the music from the late ’90s was really, really good, a lot of it was not. Nirvana, once considered fairly edgy and loud, were already thought of by most as weak and fragile. I found a few kindred spirits who still thought Nirvana was cool, and they introduced me to even more worthwhile music.
College was where I got my first real taste of The Beatles, and where I developed an affection for The White Stripes. It was also when I started to understand the concept of a local scene. Being a college town, there were plenty of local acts and bands full of students and former students. Most of them weren’t all that great, but just to have it all in my backyard after growing up in the musical desert of my hometown was inspiring.
Eventually, after living in Tennessee for about four years, I felt stagnated. I wasn’t doing anything except working. So I up and moved to Seattle. I had never been, but some acquaintances from high school lived there and needed a roommate. I didn’t feel as if I had anything better to do, so I loaded my car with everything that would fit inside and left the rest in a storage space. I remember everyone in Tennessee saying, “I hope you like the rain!” though it seemed like it rained more in Tennessee than Seattle. Seriously. And once I got to Seattle all the locals told me that they just perpetuated the rain story to keep anyone else from moving there.
Even though I was 15 years too late, just being in the birthplace of “grunge” was refreshing. I finally felt a sense of being home. I finally heard all the music I had been listening to for years actually being played on the radio. During this time I discovered the amazing Stereolab, while the awesomeness of Mastodon was just starting to take hold. I was in a band and we played a few shows here and there before our inevitable collapse. It was such a cool feeling to know that so many of my musical heroes had played in and around the same city. We even covered a Nirvana song off of Bleach, “Mr. Mustache.” In fact, now that I think of it, nearly every band I’ve been in has covered at least one Nirvana song.
Now, living in Arkansas, and being reminded that my favorite band stopped making music over 20 years ago makes me feel old. But not necessarily in a bad way. I feel like the fact that the band who opened my eyes to what music could and should be (but usually isn’t) is finally getting some of the real recognition that they have always deserved. I almost feel validated because they are still being talked about this long after their much too short of a stay. I’m not so happy about the fact that Courtney Love is probably making way too much money off of these retrospectives, though I do feel that Frances Bean deserves any and all of whatever money may come her way. But in the end I don’t really care. I’m a fan, and I will continue to purchase and repurchase those three albums however many times they want to officially release them.
In the end the energy, and Kurt Cobain’s songwriting along with Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl’s brilliant rhythm backings, made for some of the greatest music ever crafted. I have loved Nirvana for 20 years, and I will continue to love them until I reach the clearing at the end of the path. If I ever manage to spawn any progeny they will have to listen to my music, and we will more than likely start with Nirvana. Even their kids will have to deal with Grandpa’s loud music. More than likely I’ll be blindly driving down the sidewalk in my antique, gas guzzling, factory grey Pinto blasting the sweet sounds of “Rape Me,” “Negative Creep,” and “Territorial Pissings” when I’m 80. Or at least standing on my front porch, waving my cane at all the little whippersnappers running around in my lawn, and screaming, “Stay away!”