Truly undisputed generation-defining rock songs don’t come along very often.
The first time Nirvana played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” live was in April 1991. They recorded it in May, and that September, it became the first single off the band’s second full-length album and major-label debut Nevermind, a record that would knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the number-one spot on the U.S. Billboard 200 in January 1992.
The first time I ever heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was live—exactly three months before its release, at a show in Denver. The band had finished recording Nevermind in Van Nuys with producer Butch Vig not more than a month before, and they were already back on tour. They played after a blistering set by angular noise rockers The Jesus Lizard and were opening for the deafening Dinosaur Jr. As a drummer, I was sizing up the new guy, Dave Grohl. I had designs. Maybe if he couldn’t hack it, I’d introduce myself after the show and those two weirdos from Aberdeen would let me take over. Heh.
And then it happened. Kurt Cobain played the now-famous funky-discordant opening riff and Grohl came in like a goddamn clap of thunder.
It was like a bomb went off in my head. I immediately started thrashing around, barely able to see the stage between the hair and the headbanging and all the air guitar and air drums I was simultaneously “playing.” And then Cobain got quiet.
“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” he said later about the song’s loud-quiet-loud structure, and I was big into the Pixies for sure but never connected it then. There was very little intellectualizing. The song was angry and gorgeous and foreign and new and familiar at the same time. I could make out few actual lyrics, but it didn’t matter because you could tell Kurt meant it. He wasn’t a tough-guy metalhead with chops for days, he was a pissed-off outsider whose guitar sounded like a chainsaw that also made vaguely guitar-like sounds too.
That set was a huge leap forward from their first album Bleach and even the SubPop single “Sliver/Dive,” which we wore out on my college radio show back home in Manhattan, Kansas. When the CD single for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came in the mail three months later, I cranked it as loud as it would go, reliving that glorious moment, jumping around like an asshole. After it was over, I rushed into the station manager’s office and beckoned him down the hall.
“You gotta hear this,“ I said, out of breath, putting it on again. “This.” I paused for dramatic effect—and I swear to God this is true—I said, “This is the future of pop music.”
For a brief moment, the guy who was raised on classic rock like Yes, Styx, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, paused to listen. And then he shrugged and said: “Well, maybe pop music according to Eric Melin.
That, in a nutshell, was why Nirvana was OURS. Late ‘80s indie-rock bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du had been simmering just below the mainstream for some time, but when Nirvana released Nevermind, it felt like Cobain had distilled all the fuzzed-out guitars, the sardonic humor, and the go-for-broke (pardon the reference) spirit borne out of bands who lived permanently in vans—and created a touring circuit in all ages clubs and shitty dive bars out of sheer will because they were so fed up with all the bullshit posturing passing for rock ‘n’ roll on the radio.
Rock wasn’t about rebellion anymore. It was about the appearance of being dangerous while playing it safer than ever and selling out. Van Hagar had just released an album titled For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge—F.U.C.K.—get it? Metallica hired a producer named Bob Rock (not kidding) to tone down their signature sound and get on the radio. (They were so far gone, they even released their “black” album seven years after parody-band Spinal Tap did it.) U2 had gone dance with Achtung Baby, and Guns N’ Roses were so far up their own asses, it took them a year and a half to make a bloated, self-important double album that was immediately dated (and virtually unlistenable) the moment it was released. 1991 was so shitty for mainstream rock that even Skid Row had a number-one album for one week. Skid Row!
The cover of Nevermind features a naked baby swimming to reach a dollar bill on a fish hook.
Nevermind is overflowing with 12 pure pop pleasures loaded to the gills with piss and shit and vinegar. Sure, with Andy Wallace mixing, it’s slicker than most of the independent rock of the day, but it rocks. Hard. Without showing off. Without vocal calisthenics. Without traditional guitar solos. And oh, the hooks. Kurt’s melodies are insanely infectious, he delivers them in two modes; either he’s shredding his voice to pieces or it’s cracking under the weight of his emotions.
The lyrics draw a clear line of demarcation. It’s us versus them. With “In Bloom,” Cobain is prescient about the meathead dumbshits who will soon be taken in by his hummable refrains and not even understand he’s making fun of them:
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
and he likes to sing a long and he likes to shoot his gun
but he don’t know what it means
Sometime right after Nevermind was released and before “Teen Spirit” was everywhere, I crashed a big house party with some like-minded friends. We took out the AC/DC cassette that had been playing on the stereo all night and slipped in Nevermind. The reaction was immediate, and we got all kinds of dirty looks. It didn’t last long. Finally: “Turn that punk shit off!”
It seems almost funny to consider an album that’s sold 30 million copies worldwide “punk,” but consider the perspective. This album signaled to classic rockers that everything they thought they knew about rock ‘n’ roll was about to change. The song “Territorial Pissings” features bassist Krist Novoselic mocking the Youngbloods’ peace-and-love anthem “Get Together” right before Cobain’s threatening guitar riff barrels into Grohl’s lightning-fast snare roll. The chorus “Gotta find a way / a better way / I better wait” signals both Kurt’s need to lash out at the status quo and his reluctance to commit to anything going forward.
Even though the band seemed like relative newcomers to the scene, Cobain was steeped in indie-rock history and had a deep respect for DIY rockers of all types, taking every interview and photo shoot as an opportunity to expose the public to someone like Bikini Kill, the Melvins, or the Vaselines. He didn’t want the mantle of generational spokesperson, but he tried to spread the word about the underground music he was passionate about.
As with anything pure and right and good and true, Nirvana couldn’t last. It was over way too quickly. Their place in history as spoilers remains, and for a good decade or so, bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard, and Poison had to put their leather pants in the closet because they couldn’t be taken seriously. But the rise of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and shitty wannabe sound-alike grunge babies like Stone Temple Pilots gave way to a second and third wave of talentless hacks who got it all wrong and exploited the “Seattle sound,” changing modern rock radio forever with that goddamned warbly moaning that’s supposed to denote artistic sensibility but is actually the first sign of complete and total fakery.
What does Nirvana have that none of those other bands will ever have? Songs. Real fucking songs. Well-crafted pop tunes—with timeless lyrics and haunting melodies. You know, like the Beatles. And even though Cobain always seemed like he was on the outside looking in, his music had a unique ability to make us feel like we weren’t alone, even when we knew the world was stacked against us.
Nevermind was more than an album, it was a fucking movement. And fuck Michael Jackson, Nevermind was the real “dangerous.”
The day after Kurt’s body was discovered on April 8, 1994, I was walking across the street on my way into work and a pickup truck with three redneck shitheels in it drove by.
“Why don’t you kill yourself like Kurt Cobain, you long-haired faggot?” they yelled at me.
Some things never change.