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DUST IT OFF: Nirvana’s “Nevermind” 20 years later

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As a longtime resident of Washington State, I was very aware of who Nirvana were when they released their second album on this day in 1991. I had been involved in my local punk scene at the time, and while I lived 200 miles from Seattle, I knew of some of what was going on up there. I loved Sub Pop Records and much of what they were releasing, but Soundgarden had moved on to A&M. Green River was long gone, so some of its members moved on to Mudhoney, others went to Mother Love Bone. Mother Love Bone had been signed to a major label when its vocalist, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose. In time, there would be discussion of a new band called Mookie Blaylock, who would eventually change their name to Pearl Jam. I liked the almighty Tad, but my favorite band on Sub Pop was Mudhoney. They were raw, grungy, and not grungy in “sound” but just… if they wanted to be sloppy, they had no problem in doing this. They were not my favorite Seattle or Seattle-area band, that honor went to Melvins and Melvins only, although by the time the 90′s started they had moved to Los Angeles.

Then there was Nirvana.

I think what I liked about Nirvana is that they could do the loud and distorted thing very well, but turn around and be pretty, harmonious, and delicate. Bleach was an album that became mandatory listening not only for music fans in the Pacific Northwest who loved the Seattle music scene, but anyone who looked to Seattle as a place for something different musically. If you wanted college rock, you normally had to turn to the “left of the dial” on the radio. Or you had to seek independent magazines or fanzines, and when you dipped into the underground, those publications were plentiful. If you wanted it, you had to seek it out yourself. England, however, showed an appreciation for the Seattle music long before the U.S. did, and that attention in England and the rest of Europe lead to an appreciation in Japan. Even if Sub Pop did find incredible ways to promote/hype their artists, it was effective and it got them into more venues, expanding their audiences incredibly. Or at least “incredible” in an indie label way.

In 1991, there was a great publication called Backlash, edited by Dawn Anderson, whose work I liked in another Seattle publication I had read frequently, The Rocket. In the March 1991 issue of Backlash was a Nirvana cover story, and it would become the magazine’s final issue. On the cover was a photo of the band, and the word “BYE”, which at the time seemed like nothing more than Anderson saying goodbye to her readers. The article hinted that the group were signed to a major, but it was almost as if she was hinting at something more, even though she didn’t know what that “more” would be. In truth, no one knew, but perhaps there were hints that Nirvana were going to get a greater push than any other Seattle band signed to a major label up until that point. Soundgarden were popular, but they were still a Seattle band. It was almost as if the “BYE” was saying aloha to another chapter in Seattle’s rich music history. Six months after that issue hit the streets, we’d found out exactly what would be changed.

Everyone has a Nirvana memory, or more specifically a Nevermind memory, and mine may not be any different than any others, but this is how I viewed things 20 years ago. A few weeks before the release of the album, MTV aired “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on its alternative music show, 120 Minutes. The music scene at the time was still about the power of hard rock and heavy metal, and while Nirvana never shied away from their love of hard rock & heavy metal, this was a different vibe. I was familiar with it, because the tattooed cheerleaders and slam dancers in the high school gym all looked like friends I hung out with at shows. Dave Grohl had been in the band for a short time at this point, but I knew of him from Scream. The video looked like the kind of mosh pit I wished I had in high school, and that everlasting note at the end of the song made me think “wow, what the hell?” I didn’t think “ooh, music is going to change from this point on”, it was an honor to realize that this band from 200 miles the west of me were getting airtime on MTV, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 by DGC, or the David Geffen Group. They had invested a good amount of money in the hopes Nirvana would break it big, but at that point in time, their major bread and butter was Guns N’ Roses. Geffen had just released the massive 2CD/4LP set Use Your Illusion, sold as two separate albums, on September 17th, so Geffen was more than happy to do anything for their golden boys. At that point in time, hard rock and heavy metal was king, so when it came to loud and abrasive, Guns N’ Roses were it. A month before this, Metallica had released their self-titled “Black Album”, which pushed them into the mainstream in a major way, pushed by the soon-to-be-radio-friendly “Enter Sandman”. Metal fans now had to battle between the old school GN’R and then-new school thrash of Metallica, there were headbanger battles on who would reign supreme, who would spend time with a patch on their denim jackets. Nirvana didn’t intend to be a swift kick in the nuts, but because they too also rocked but with an attitude that was far from metal and more like the prankster skateboarder kid who would mock you right in your face, people noticed. Nevermind caused a few ripples, which was to be expected since only 46,251 copies were initially pressed. Wikipedia also states that 35,000 more copies were pressed in the UK since most of Nirvana’s fans were there. The group were appreciated overseas, so they at least knew sales of it would lead to more tours. But the presence of a video on MTV, which for many was the first time they had witnessed slam dancing or a mosh pit, made everyone want to know who they were and what they were about. Sales of Nevermind would eventually grow, and of course the rest is history.

When I listened to Nevermind in full for the first time, I liked it. Lots of heaviness, lots of cool songs, and a few mellow tracks. It was merely a follow-up to Bleach and the other songs the group had released, nothing more than just “new Nirvana”. After “Something In The Way” ended, my CD player kept going but nothing was playing. I didn’t know what was going on, but I figured I’d wait it out. Then I fast forwarded. 9 minutes, 10 minutes, nothing. 12, 13, and then I hear something. Rewind the CD dial. The band begins a new song, not listed anywhere on the cover, and it starts out with nothing but a bass. Then the guitar comes in, then the drums. It’s loud and distorted, and then it gets to a delicate part. Kurt Cobain sounds like he’s just moaning into the mic, then the venom comes back. Not even a minute into the song and I’m completely feeling this song, as it reminds me of a band Nirvana knew very well, Melvins. I knew Cobain used to hang out and go to many Melvins shows, but this song to me sounded like some Melvins tribute. They were honoring their friends, the band who arguably pushed these guys to become who they were, and I ate it up. The song then sounded like he was smashing his guitar in the studio, so all you ended up hearing was Grohl’s drums and Krist Novoselic‘s bass. After almost seven minutes, the song was over and I had the biggest shit-eating grin on my face. This was truly “nirvana”, I felt spent but I went to play the song again.

It wasn’t until early 1992 that I found there was a title for this song: “Endless, Nameless”, which makes sense since it had no proper title and it sounded like it could/should never end. Even though “Something In The Way” is the album’s proper ending, when I hear the album get to that point, it’s so open-ended that it’s openness left me going “okay, now I want a proper close.” Was “Endless, Nameless” in a small way a thank you to Melvins, a tribute to the Pacific Northwest, and to all of their fans who had stayed with them in the few years of their existence? The feedback sounds like a massive, sonic fuck but it’s so beautiful because that stereophonic chaos feels like it’s meant to be for you. Everything you ever wanted for people to know about the Seattle music scene felt like it was coming out of that damn studio in Los Angeles, it was like they were saying “c’mon fuckers, now we’re going to kick you in your face, this is our shit.” The last 20 seconds of the song comes off like a chime from outer space before the fuzz of the amps slowly fades out. I knew I would be listening to it in a year, 5 years, 10 years and now? “Endless, Nameless” is as awesome as it was when I first heard it. The song was their orgasm, and now we were bathing in the afterglow.

Too poetic? It didn’t matter. People speak about the 27 curse, and when Cobain died three years later at the age of 27, it almost solidified him as someone of importance. When he died, people wanted to make him a monarch and maybe rightfully so, since the power of the band *as a whole* made people want to cheer. That’s the power of music. Would he want to be a monarch, hell no. But people looked at him dying at 27. People also noted that Cobain’s major label exposure was barely three years. roughly the same time that both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had between their first major label releases and deaths. Deep down, Cobain was just a punk rock kid from a small hillbilly town with a love for music, writing, and art. He wanted to escape, first through his music, and with his music he left the town that made him feel like an outsider. I think with age, he might have realized that a lot of us are outsiders, but we eventually find someone or something that takes us to where we need to be. I’d like to think for a short time, Cobain was able to see an escape from the doldrums, and I’m certain he knows that his music helped many to leave their own situations as well.

A band like Nirvana would never get the kind of attention by major labels as they did 20 years ago. Because of Nirvana, every other major label wanted to have a chunk of their Seattle pie, but it helped push alternative music to a place it had never been, something that would never happen in that way again. Nirvana were something long before Cobain died, and will remain that for those who put faith in their music and how they did it. Nevermind is some incredible music, and I hope people who discover it for the first time today will appreciate what it was like to hear it when it was released in 1991, same for those in 2031 who will honor its 40th anniversary.

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What do you think?