The Ten That Matter Most ’85-’95: Nirvana

What does it take to be named one of the top ten artists of the decade? Innovation, influence, imagination, integrity. It all adds up to genius, and the following honorees have it in spades.

IN 1990, a Sub Pop single called ‘Sliver’/’Dive’ circulated by word of mouth among record collectors, college DJs, and suchlike; I could never remember which title referred to the little gem I thought of as “Grandma Take Me Home'” But it’s ‘Dive’, the flip, that ironically seems far more prophetic now. Recorded during the band’s first session with producer Butch Vig (who’d go on to helm you-know-what), it’s got one of those lumbering lumberjack riffs Nirvana executed with a singer-songwriter’s hookiness, peaking, as always, at the chorus. “Dive, dive, dive, dive in me.” Did Kurt Cobain already know we all would?

By any reasonable comparison to what followed, ‘Sliver’ is a two-minute nonentity. Krist Novoselic’s curling bass line parts for some tightly drawn lyrics. “Mom and Dad went to a show / They dropped me off at Grandpa Joe’s / I kicked and screamed / Said please don’t go / Grandma take me home / Grandma take me home / Grandma take me home / Grandma take me home / Grandma take me home / Grandma take me home / Grandma take me home.” Dinner isn’t very good. The singer’s told to stop crying over his meat and go ride his bike. Then he eats ice cream for dessert (the lyrics don’t exactly track), falls asleep, watches TV, and wakes up in his mother’s arms. Still screaming, “Grandma take me home”.

I can’t help wishing ‘Sliver’ had been the blueprint for the Nirvana that emerged in 1991. Not the supergroup with a lead singer given to idolizing the Vaselines and the Raincoats, but a smaller “international pop underground” trio like the Vaselines and the Raincoats. Shamblingly off-kilter. Incredibly rocking anyhow, but only for those dog-eared enough (in the sales sense) to register its pitch.

You can hear traces of this Nirvana in Nevermind‘s ‘On a Plain’ (resurrected even more clearly in the Unplugged version), in In Utero’s ‘Dumb’ (“My heart is broke / But I have some glue / Help me inhale / And mend it with you… / Then we’ll come down / And have a hangover”). The aesthete in me may prefer this Nirvana to any other, but that’s irrelevant. Like it or not, Cobain had more important work to do.

Every time Novoselic’s bass, Dave Grohl’s drums, and Cobain’s guitar crunch into each other on Nevermind, their chiming chords ring as though the world were a town with one church bell. Complaining purists are indie-minded granola heads — Vig’s bold production, which assumed a social dominance that alternative rock hadn’t yet achieved, may be the album’s most revolutionary quality. “A denial,” rasps Cobain at the end of you-know-what. But that’s only half of it. Nirvana could translate underground affinities into mass music because Cobain’s fragmented personality bridged the gap — inhabiting the psychopaths of ‘Lithium’ and ‘Polly’ but just as deeply linked to their female targets, singing with the battlefield command of a rocker and the reserve of a proud subculturalist, viscerally judgmental without a shred of elitism.

Now metaphors are all we have. What if we hadn’t 
dived in Nirvana but waded in gradually, getting our toes 
wet first? Watched the band grow sliver by sliver, instead 
of being left trading memories like splinters off the 
original cross? My only answer is this: The pop Cobain 
loved — call it indie punk, retro classic rock, it was all still
 pop to him, a balm — would then have remained sub pop, as private a pleasure as ‘Sliver’. And for better or worse, that will never be enough.     

© Eric WeisbardSpin, April 1995

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