If you peruse the Internet and look for the top 50 rock bands or the top 100 rock songs of all time, it’s as if a time warp occurred during the 1990s when I was living in Seattle and grunge took over the world.
I guess the 1960s had their fair share of influential bands and there is plenty of prime music to suggest so, but I felt like Seattle in the 1990s could go toe-to-toe with any other music movement and represent itself nicely. But when you look at these contests, some with input from hundreds of thousands of people, you don’t even taste Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or Alice in Chains in the discussion.
This doesn’t really arrive as a surprise because I’ve been reading Eating The Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman and that is what he details in a strange chapter called, Oh the Guilt, which is as much about David Koresh, the leader of the infamous Branch Dividians who went down in flames in Waco, Texas, as it is about Nirvana’s absence from the elite. I’m not going to delve into the relationship the author draws between Koresh and Cobain, except to say that Klosterman poses this interesting question: “Koresh decided he was literally God. Cobain was told he was figuratively God. Taken on balance, which would make a man crazier?”
So why the oversight? I feel like Nirvana is definitely deserving of a solid ranking in rock history and they are always on my iPod, blowing out my speakers when driving from one stream to another. Maybe Nirvana didn’t create grunge. Who cares? Maybe they weren’t pretty. Oh well? Maybe they didn’t last long, but that’s only because Cobain blew his head off. What they did was take a sound and message and run with it. And they hit it big with the album Nevermind, which was a polished, commercial effort driven by Cobain’s desperate and corrosive voice.
The message reached a core group of teens who were slinking around in the Seattle rain, desperate for an icon. Just a bunch of little smart-ass, smoking-section stoners who were suddenly made cool by Cobain’s lyrics. Trenchcoats and torn clothing were in. Stonewash was on its way out.
A lot of what Klosterman writes about in Eating The Dinosaur deals with the release of Nirvana’s third album, In Utero, which was released in 1993. At that time I was doing one of my stints in Sun Valley, Idaho, living with three fish guides and rockheads. The buildup to this album was insane with Cobain and the producer saying it was unlistenable. Cobain went on to say that many of his friends didn’t even like the songs they recorded and that it would be a commercial failure. Some news reports said the album was so vulgar that it wouldn’t even be released. And, with song titles like Heart-Shaped Box and Rape Me, I had to wonder what was in store. Also this: I always regarded the song In Bloom, which was offered on Nevermind, to be a hate rant directed at those who were just along for the ride and hadn’t grown up on the Kitsap Peninsula in a trailer getting beat up by the jocks. In that song Cobain screams, “He’s the one, who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he don’t know what it means.” In Utero, I suspected, would continue this rant to the point of overdose. Naturally, I had to have it.
What In Utero became an absolute motherload of a commercial success, just the thing that Cobain and his cohorts claimed they didn’t want. And soon after, in 1994, they appeared on MTV’s Unplugged and produced an artistic masterpiece. All of a sudden Nirvana was the biggest commercial rock band in the world, although its helmsman was sinking fast on heroin.
And that may be because Cobain was beginning to feel like God. People looked to him for answers. They tried to interpret his every move and sound. And to Cobain, when he turned around and looked behind him, it must have appeared as if lemmings were following in his wake, made up of all varieties, not just the desperate, low-budget scumbag teens that he really identified with. As Klosterman writes, …the social role (Cobain) was burdened to bear required that he remain inflexible about teenage ideals normal adults would never seriously consider.” He added, “…it illustrates Cobain’s darkest, most depressing artistic weakness: He could not stop himself from caring about people who would only appreciate his work if he were a mainstream failure, just like they were. And that was never going to happen, because true genius is commercially uncontainable.”
Klosterman, like many people, doesn’t let up on Cobain and goes so far as to call Cobain and In Utero a farce. He’s particularly bitter about Nirvana’s act of smashing its equipment at the end of a show and Cobain’s swan dives into the drum set. Some of his theory: “Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman was mailing Cobain innumerable pawnshop guitars that he could break at his convenience, supposedly because Kurt was really attached to the Fender Mustang he had used during the recording of In Utero. He was still breaking things for the benefit of other people, but only things he did not want or need.
“On a human-emptiness scale of one to ten (one being ‘emotionally complete,’ ten being ‘metaphysically devoid of feeling’),” Klosterman concluded, “this is a fourteen.”
I don’t care if Cobain liked the “steakheads” in the moshpit or not. I don’t care if he saved some cherished instruments and smashed others for the specter. I don’t even care if he knew what he was doing, had a big plan, and capitalized on his apparent disgust for wealth. All I know is when I plug Nirvana into the speakers and let it roar, at full decibel, I like what I hear. I love Nevermind and the message it sends. I love the commercial gloss and the little bit of pop that intrudes on pure rock. But In Utero seems to me to be Nirvana’s most honest offering, an in your face, play it as they wanted to, authentic, harsh, raw offering. Go to iTunes, download Scentless Apprentice, tell me if that scream “Go Away!” doesn’t come from the soul and make you want to track down everyone who’s wronged you and drive a turkey skewer through their scull. Maybe Cobain cut it when a swam of hornets flew in his ear and stung the shit out of his brain. Whatever the message it’s just some pure rage coming out from Cobain that exists, in some way, in all of us. The voice is more like an instrument than lyrical and the sound makes you want to stand up for a revolution. I don’t care about the words when I listen to Nirvana, partially because I can barely understand what Cobain is screaming. Instead, it’s the music and the angst that might make me charge around a campfire screaming into the dark, at the coyotes and anything else that might listen, a brief, though superficial release of all those reservations and detractions that invade our lives.
So who knows. Maybe Nirvana was real. Or maybe they were a farce. Maybe they deserve to be remembered as a top-50 band. Maybe not. In the end, I’m inclined to say that Nirvana knew what they were doing and they created music so that backwards-ass teens had something to latch on to. Klosterman lashes Cobain for never letting those losers go. I’m inclined to say he stuck with his posse. I think people like Nirvana’s music because it’s different and good. I don’t think they care about smashed instruments and whether Cobain never grew up.
Case in point: I was sitting here last night listening to In Utero and my daughter, Tate, 6, waltzed out of bed and sat on my lap. “Cant sleep,” she said. I said, “What do you think about this music?” Very Ape was playing and it was just the type of song Cobain had promised that people would detest.
Tate said, “I like it.”
I was surprised and said, “Why? What do you like about it?”
She said—and I’ll never forget this—
“I like it because I don’t like it.”