Ten years on, we search interviews and books for clues to the mystery of music that once shook the world.
We seem to like anniversaries. They’re an excuse to look back. To feel nostalgic. To take another look. Or to re-evaluate.
A special section devoted to Nirvana’s Nevermind appears in an issue of Rolling Stone with Britney Spears on the cover. It would, quite likely, make Kurt Cobain sick – not only to be in the Britney issue, but to have Nirvana’s punk rock dissected in the first place. I think he’d be horrified to see his own band deified while many groups he championed, or was influenced by – the Melvins, the Vaselines, the Raincoats – are all but unknown to most fans of rock, punk and grunge.
Still, Nirvana touched us. Nirvana connected with kids all over the world. And we can’t help ourselves – we want to keep connecting.
“Slower And Heavier Than Sabbath”
We read interview after interview, trying to unravel the mystery of the music we love. Who was Kurt Cobain? What is that song about? How did it come to be? What was it like in the studio the day it was recorded? What did Kurt say? How did he feel?
The Britney issue of Rolling Stone includes interviews with former Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, as well as Nevermind producer Butch Vig. I think they’re all proud of the album they made, and they should be. Ten years on, when it’s playing you could think that nothing else can touch it. That’s not true, of course – I have piles of CDs that are as strong, in their own way, as Nevermind. But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a contest. Nevermind is a great album; it contains amazing, breathtaking music. Nevermind changed people’s lives. That’s what matters.
The interviews are kinda interesting. I read ’em. I was looking for clues. Hmm. Novoselic remembers that in addition to listening to the Beatles, they had a tape with a Smithereens album on one side and a Celtic Frost album on the other. “That tape was always getting played, turned over and over again,” he recalls. “I think back now and go, ‘Yeah, maybe that was an influence.’ ” Grohl muses that one of the reasons he was brought in to be Nirvana’s drummer (shortly before Nevermind was recorded) was because he could sing backup vocals. Butch Vig says Cobain was moody during the sessions. And that “one of the first things Kurt said was, ‘We want to sound slower and heavier than Black Sabbath. Turn the treble off on all the tracks.'”
Solving The Mystery
None of this sheds any real light on the mystery of Nevermind or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It’s funny. Musicians often want to know what guitar a favorite musician used, which drum kit and vocal mic, as if by using the same equipment as the artists they idolize, they’ll get closer to the source. I think our need to read books and articles about the artists we love comes from that same kind of desire (need?) to get close. And to understand.
If Kurt Cobain were alive today, though, I think he’d be no better than Grohl or Novoselic at decoding the magic they made. “We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us to feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity,” Cobain wrote in the liner notes to Incesticide.
I plan to read Charles Cross’ new Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, but I don’t expect to get any closer to understanding the music than I already am.
Come As You Are
In a way, the mystery is already revealed. The answers are there for the taking. We have taken them. I know I have, and I bet some of you have too.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ refutes the packaged life society wants to sell you. The sound makes me feel so alive. I hear in it: “Fuck the bullshit.” I hear: “There are others who feel like you do.” I hear: “You can make up your life as you go.” I hear: “Punk does matter. Come as you are, not as they want you to be.”
Listening to the music, I think: Why are we here? Is it simply to carry on the species? Is there any point to this? Is it really just about getting what you can for yourself, your family, your friends? Is it about making the world a better place? And why? For what? For who? Eventually – a hundred thousand years from now – this will all be gone. Will anything we’ve done matter?
“Here we are now, entertain us.” Yeah, sure.
© Michael Goldberg, Neumu, 1 September 2001