We’re talking sublime here. NIRVANA are the greatest band to emerge from the American post-hardcore meltdown since Sonic Youth, they sound nothing like Hüsker Dü and, with Nevermind, have the best rock LP of the year. KEITH CAMERON meets the armchair anarchists who thrive on teen spirit.
STRIDING INTO the lobby of Cork’s Grand Parade Hotel, Chris Novoselic ruffles his unruly mane, strokes his beard and announces to no one and everyone in particular: “I’ve just been on the phone to Boris Yeltsin. He asked me to come over and help him sort things out, and I said sure, but he’d have to wait ’til after Reading. Sorry!”
Simultaneously thinking global and local, Nirvana’s bass-playing giant is on fine extemporal form. His band are in Ireland limbering up for the Reading Festival freak-out with a couple of club dates supporting mentors and major label-mates Sonic Youth, while in the other real world the tribes of Eastern Europe are celebrating the collapse of the totalitarian yoke by beating the shit out of each other. The surreality of life in a rock ‘n’ roll band is not lost on Chris, an ex-pat Yugoslav. He’s about to release his second album, they’re mobilising the local militia.
Later that day, as we drive from Cork to Dublin, and his Nirvana colleagues Kurdt Kobain and Dave Grohl respectively sleep and play with a yo-yo, Novoselic alternates between chuckling at the obligatory This Is Spinal Tap video and sadly bemoaning the inevitability of the carnage in the land of his birth.
“I just joke around all day, just say stupid things as much as possible, for my own amusement I mean, what’s that about? Being aware of all this shit going on, it can be pretty heart-aching. You have to be realistic — people are so stupid. When the Gulf War was going on I was out of my mind, I was so freaked out and so angry that it was so wrong, it was such a f***in’ lie. I bored everybody ‘cos that’s all I’d talk about, it was like a pressure release valve. So I think the best thing for me to do is to go through life the best I can. I’m gonna get a vasectomy ‘cos that way I’m not responsible for anyone but myself.”
The dictionary definition of “Nirvana” reads: “the ultimate state of spiritual enlightenment and bliss attained by extinction of all desires and individual existence.” Kurdt Kobain recently applied a large sticker to his guitar that reads: “Vandalism: Beautiful As A Rock In A Cop’s Face.”
Somewhere in between these two statements lies the key to why Nirvana are the greatest band to emerge from the American post-hardcore melting pot since Sonic Youth started spiking our drinks all those years ago.
The former is a pretty accurate description of the personal chemical combustion one experiences at a full-on Nirvana live show, or playing a Nirvana record LOUD. The latter hints at latent starpower, a smart/dumb polemical know-how that seems informed by their roots in the bland, isolated Pacific North-West.
Musically, Nirvana spring from the same generic pool as their ex-Sub Pop colleagues Mudhoney — a raw-boned mix of ’60s garage pop and ’70s punk and metal — but they infuse it with an unsettling intensity that’s far removed from the Mud boys’ tongue-in-cheeky rifling of the history books. Nirvana’s music shudders with frustration, born out of small-town ennui and disgust at the reactionary nature of mainstream American culture. That they also write brilliant, surging, melodic pop songs, the perfect blend of gut-quaking physicality and sunny day freshness, is the icing on the cake and the tale’s twist for, as Nirvana prepare to unleash their major label debut LP Nevermind later this month, they are poised to buck the system and, uh, shift units.
Or something like that. The trouble with Nirvana is these three scruffy, fazed young men are at best perplexed at their position and find it a struggle to offer many insights to the source of their muse. Mudhoney said recently that the reason Nirvana will be big and they won’t is that only Nirvana are motivated. Hmmmm. Anyone who’s ever seen Kurdt Kobain on stage will concur that hot fires burn barely below the surface, but in person Kurdt is on some permanent audition for the part of the dormouse in Alice In Wonderland.
“Urm,” he mumbles. “I’m a narcoleptic, so I have a hard time being motivated at any time.”
“We have a manager and Mudhoney don’t,” offers Chris. “He’s motivated for us. We don’t give a f***, y’know, we just practise and go on tour.”
“It’s just that we don’t have the patience to deal with all the managerial problems and the business part of the band,” says Kurdt. “I don’t care enough about it to deal with it. I forget things all the time. When people would call up and try to book a show, I just wouldn’t give a f***.”
Ask Kurdt to explain a song and he gets considerably more animated, but only in order to avoid giving an explanation. An inquiry concerning the band’s next single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, elicits the following rap.
“It’s about hey brother, especially sister, throw away the fruit and eat all the rind… No longer is it taboo for the tattooed to take their generational solidarity and shove it up the ass of The Byrds and Herman’s Hermits-loving disgraces we call parents… Posing as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system, to slowly start its rot from the inside. It’s an inside job, it starts with the custodians and the cheerleaders.”
Let’s try again. Why’s the album called Nevermind?
“Because most people would just as soon forget or say ‘never mind’ than to take a can of spray paint, or start a band, make up excuses for not starting a band,” says Kurdt. “People just don’t do things very often anymore. I’m kinda disturbed by it. It’d be just as easy to spray-paint ‘Kill George Bush’ over and over again. Whether that would have an impact on anything or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s still fun to do. Which is one of the lines in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’; ‘It’s more fun to lose than to pretend’.”
Kurdt, it turns out, is quite the armchair anarchist. He’s been arrested three times for unspecified acts of vandalism in Aberdeen, South Dakota, the redneck town where he used to live, and considers such acts of subversion wholly admirable.
“Sure. I mean, I wouldn’t want to assassinate anyone. Not just anyone. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to, either. Christ, the United States are worse than anywhere I can think of besides a completely communist country. They just passed a law where to come into the US and play music you have to be part of the Musician’s Union and you also have to prove you’ve ‘achieved greatness’! So it’s been virtually impossible for underground bands to come into the States. Who knows what ‘achieved greatness’ means?!”
“They’re really smart, the government, those fascists,” says Chris. “They’re not dumb. They don’t want any punk bands to come over and rant to the kids when they could be listening to Paula Abdul talk about broken hearts.”
Nirvana clearly hope their David Geffen-backed attempt to kybosh MTV will offer America’s disaffected youth a more valid concept of rebellion than the establishment-tolerated Guns N’ Roses.
“Yeah,” says Kurdt. “Maybe we can expose ourselves to a few gullible 15-year-olds and steer them in a better direction. I’m sure once Guns N’ Roses got as big as they did, the government checked up on it and realised they didn’t have the brains to be a threat to anyone.”
Chris digs this one.
“I mean, what does Axl Rose have to say to anyone? What is his platform, what’s his core, where does he come from? There’s nothing! He just talks shit. He just… he throws bottles!”
“Actually,” says Kurdt, “MTV really does try and be as subversive as it can, as subversive as it’s allowed, especially the news. They’re constantly exposing all the rights that are being taken away from Americans. But no one gives a f***. They just wanna see that damn Warrant video!”
Of course, cool words or not, Nirvana are just a fly on the pachyderm’s back. George Bush is not about to be asphyxiated by the smell of their teen spirit, far less Warrant or Axl Rose. But once you accept that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really matter in any great political sense, then Nirvana are seriously important. Watching the kids in Cork and Dublin, all gaping mouths and shaking heads, it’s obvious this is a band that will inspire a generation to pick up guitars — and, who knows, maybe the odd marker pen too.
But the guitars would do. Nirvana think being Nirvana is enough.
“What are we gonna do?” demands Chris. “Work in a gas station and pay off a car? Is that what life’s about? Slack off! Take it easy, man, know what I mean?! All you really have to do is eat. And drink and be merry. Whatever comes in between, just always have a good attitude, brother.”
So is this the message from Nirvana — get your priorities right?
“I asked my little four-year-old sister,” smiles Kurdt, ‘”what’s the biggest problem in the whole world, Brianne?’ And she said, ‘People need to concentrate more’. It was so awesome! She’s gonna grow up to be something really great… and it won’t be the president.”
Yeah, that smells like teen spirit, for sure.
© Keith Cameron, New Musical Express, 21 September 1991