As we commemorate the quarter century anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s ascendant to the 27 Club, I thought it’d be topical to have a cursory glance back at a handful of personal moments in Nirvana’s all too brief catalogue.
Formed in 1987 just south of Seattle in the Washington town of Aberdeen, and made up of lead vocalist and guitarist Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s tenure ended in 1994 with Kurt’s suicide. Inevitably, the death factor has helped cement his status that often sees him hailed as one of music’s greats alongside the likes of John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, and continues to have a rabid cult-like following.
I’ve never been a huge fan of American rockist types (I’d plump for Blondie over Breeders, or The Smiths over Patti Smith every time), so I felt pretty indifferent towards grunge as a genre. Despite that, I marvelled at how Nirvana’s singles were noisy but infectious, with an unsung melodicism. I eventually bought Nevermind, their magnum opus, on CD soon after my housemate Judi and I moved from Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire to East Acton in London in September 1992, a full year after the album had been released.
Thanks in no small part to Judi, I was already an admirer of The Pixies but not nearly as much as Cobain and Co were. In fact, Kurt made no secret of the fact that the Boston four-piece were his favourite band, though he’s also on record as having had a fondness for The Beatles, Queen and, most surprisingly, ABBA, of which their then new greatest hits album ABBA Gold was a staple of his tour bus listening.
It has to be said, when you get past the raised intonation shouty chorus thing (the trademark grunge trick where after a low and moody first verse, the chorus explodes at full volume and locks in the listener), Pixies and Nirvana were markedly different in several ways. For one thing, Nirvana was a trio and Pixies were a quartet. Pixies’ dynamics are built on layering Joey’s guitars on top of Charles’s rhythm work, and sometimes they cut out to favour Kim Deal’s oddly steady bass. Nirvana built dynamics by stepping on a DS-2. Krist Novoselic’s bass lines actually use 16th notes, whereas Kim doesn’t know what those are.
Likewise, Lovering’s drums are operated with machine-like precision and much finesse (very few fills), whereas Grohl’s nuclear drums and aggressive tom rolls are very much your standard powerhouse rock set up that refused to keep strict tempo. Anyway, none of this matters because in September 1991 three incredibly important albums in rock history were released: Nevermind, Trompe Le Monde and Tin Machine II.*
Nevermind was Nirvana’s accidentally massive second album that neither the band nor its management expected to exceed 45,000 sales — indeed, that’s how many records were initially pressed. And here we are over 27 years and 30 million sales later, and it’s an indelible fixture in pop culture. On 11 January 1992, Nevermind even managed to edge out Michael Jackson’s Dangerous long-long-player to take the top slot on the Billboard 200 chart, and Nirvana swiftly became one of the most popular bands in the world.
On the very day their album reached pole position, the trio performed its lead single Smells Like Teen Spirit on one of the most watched shows on American television, NBC’s Saturday Night Live. But it was the second song they performed, the chaotic Territorial Pissings that made the prime time SNL appearance so memorable.
In the best punk fashion, at the end of the performance, Kurt, Krist and Dave smashed their instruments and stomped off the stage amid a massive wall of feedback. Later they returned along with the cast of the show for the end credits, but decided to give something different to the live audience rather than just smiling sweetly and waving goodbye. The threesome snogged each other, not really as a Madonna-style shock tactic to grab headlines, but as a serious political statement.
Nirvana were passionate advocates for gay rights (“It’s very flattering our fans are thought of as ‘fags’”, said Kurt) and even though his songs dealing with gender roles (Been a Son, Sappy) and rape (Polly, Rape Me) could be uncomfortable, Cobain deserved plaudits for being bold enough to attack Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose in the press for his sexist and homophobic lyrics. In a high-profile interview with LGBT publication The Advocate, he tore into Rose, lambasting him as “a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side.”
Although there’s a lot of talk about how much Cobain hated fame, his popularity wasn’t the real issue. What he really hated was what came along with being the biggest band in the world: having complete assholes as fans. In 1992, he told Spin “I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there and it really bothers me.”
He tried to weed them out of his audience by any means necessary — his approach would be way too confrontational for major record labels today. In the liner notes to their 1992 odds ‘n’ sods compilation Incesticide, Kurt expressed how furious he was that his fans were using his lyrics in hideous ways. He tried to drive away anyone in his audience that was prejudiced in any way. He wasn’t afraid to use insults, either.
“At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records. Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song Polly. I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”
As the effortlessly groovy Dave Grohl explained in 2010, “We were the antithesis of a lot of that bullshit heavy metal, and that homophobic jock rock. We grew up in an underground community where everyone was different and everyone was cool about it.”
Of course, the masses tend to favour Teen Spirit, which established the template and became the alt-rock anthem of a generation. Though a candid Cobain admitted to Rolling Stone that the song had far more wishful beginnings: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.” Regardless of its origin, it’s staggering to consider the list of A listers that may not have reached critical mass without Kurt’s desiccated blasts of feedback blowing open the doors for alternative culture: Beck, Green Day, the White Stripes, Quentin Tarantino, Arcade Fire, Radiohead et al.
Personally, I veered more towards Come As You Are, Nevermind’s second single which famously lifted its brooding guitar motif from Eighties, the 1984 single by British post-punk outfit Killing Joke (but had they, in turn, originally lifted it from The Damned?). These days it’s even used as the gateway welcome sign as you enter Nirvana’s hometown.
Interpreting Come As You Are is somewhat difficult. The lyrics, Cobain said, were about “people and what they’re expected to act like.” I’ve often thought of it as the recognition of us all as equals, the phrase “come as you are” meaning don’t change anything just be yourself.
Other elements of the song put this definition into question, the mention of “an old enemy” and the line “and I swear I don’t have a gun” could suggest something sinister from the past but now a need for peaceful co-existence.
Other interpretations believe it to be about drug use while many cannot resist mention of the gun in the track, the means by which Cobain killed himself.
Whatever the definition this is a fabulous song from an amazing group that continue to resonate with fans, old and new, today.
Interpretations aside, with Come As You Are, Nirvana seized on the zeitgeist they’d fashioned from thin air and ran with it. Sure, Teen Spirit lit the fuse, but with their second hit the band distilled teen angst and social suspicion with such clarity – that it was with this that they truly established a place from which they’d change history.
A dark call-to-arms, the third single Lithium was an awkward, insular tale of a suicidal manic depressive who turns to religion as an escape. carried the band’s Big Muff fuzz and buzz from two-hit wonders to bona fide, world-conquering rock stars. Its soft verses and chaotic choruses perfected upon the loud-quiet template, and it produced not just some of the band’s most iconic lyrics, but also Nevermind’s true outsider anthem (Lithium being a type of old fashioned bipolar medication).
The moody, hypnotic set closer Something In The Way were also eminently worthwhile listening experiences. And the fact that I could pretend Nirvana were singing about Polly, my pet hamster (though I’s actually named her after Connie Booth’s character in Fawlty Towers) just made the whole album even better.
In Bloom, too, was tremendous, once you get past the retro-parodic video. “Near-vanna!” Judi used to like to exclaim, repeatedly, imitating the promo’s Ed Sullivan type telly presenter as we watched it on the Saturday morning ITV Chart Show.
The fourth and final single was one of the most visceral songs on Nevermind: a scathing takedown of what Cobain perceived to be the fair-weather fans his band were attracting from the Seattle underground. The irony that it would appear on the album that catapulted them into superstardom and beyond hasn’t diminished over the years.
With its major key pop hooks and singalong chorus, In Bloom was one the most accessible songs the band wrote, and its brazen cajoling of fans who “like to sing along” but “don’t know what it means” seems all the more audacious. But in retrospect, it’s also a slightly wistful listen: as this song was released into the world, Nirvana’s star began to rise beyond anyone’s control, marking the beginning of the relentless media attention – and frenzied fans – that Cobain found so difficult to manage.
On 8 April 1994, I was at home in Golders Green, the third and final house I shared with Judi, when an ITV Teletext (remember that?) headline reported “Suicide mystery of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain.” Before clicking on the page number to find out more, I assumed it was a follow up story to his intentional overdose in Rome episode a few weeks earlier, which had all the hallmarks of a suicide attempt; indeed, his widow Courtney Love later stated that the incident had been exactly that, and probably one of many.
No, this time he’d finally succeeded, and had laid dead in the Seattle house he shared with Love from a self-inflicted gunshot wound for at least three days.
By the October 2002 release of Nirvana, the band’s first career-encompassing ‘best of’ compilation album, I had emigrated to The Netherlands, the very same month in fact. The LP was front loaded with the collector’s ‘carrot’, a brand new lead single, in fact. You Know You’re Right.
Cobain’s last known composition, a “gnarly little heart-shaped box crammed with feedback, bile, and a gut-shredding chorus” (thank you Spin magazine) was the last completed song recorded by Nirvana at their final studio session on 30 January 1994, as the band prepared to lay down a fourth album. “Please promise me you will never play that song again while I’m at home,” said my partner.
And he had a point. Driven by Cobain’s weathered yawp, it was a bit of a dirge. More impotent than potent, really (I’m still talking about the song).
Far better was the inclusion of the sensitively acoustic material from the band’s MTV Unplugged in New York set, which had been taped in 1993, five months before Cobain’s demise.
The Unplugged recording essentially served as Cobain’s musical epitaph; indeed the frontman requested that the stage at Sony Studios in NYC be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier, which prompted the show’s producer to ask him, “You mean like a funeral?”, to which the singer replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.
Among the boldly non-hits set list (Come As You Are would have been the only recognisable tune for radio listeners) were half a dozen wildly varying cover versions.
Of course, the famous one, which Kurt prefaced nervously with, “I guarantee you, I will screw this song up,” was Nirvana’s reimagining of David Bowie’s then almost forgotten The Man Who Sold The World, which he’d kept fluffing in rehearsal, despite the band playing it live a handful of times, including another MTV show, Live and Loud, recorded in Seattle a month later. Even now, it‘s a spine-tingling rendition that channels the original’s haunting wisdom and imbues it with added pathos, especially given that 8 April 1994 was just around the corner.
And for those of you confused by the interaction in the beginning, an audience heckler shouts out: “MTV sucks!” You had to be part of the MTV fan club to bag a ticket for this particular show, hence Kurt’s quick as a flash response, “Then why are you here?”
In many ways, his death marked the passing of one of the last monoculture stars—a name you knew no matter what kind of music you were into. His band’s three proper studio albums—1989’s Bleach, 1991’s Nevermind, and 1993’s In Utero—are considered seminal, and have all received obligatory deluxe reissues as they’ve aged into exalted classic-rock territory.
And in Kurt Cobain, it created a new, albeit reluctant, icon who is still worshipped today, 25 years after he tragically killed himself. In so many ways, there was the world before Nevermind, and the world after.
Freakily, April 8 was also the date Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World album had been released in Britain, 23 years earlier:
”It’s a very sad rendition, of course, because it’s so tied up with his own life and death, so it takes on all these different shades. So it really has two mystical states: the time I wrote and recorded it and the time he recorded it, and the things that led up to his end after that.” — David Bowie, 1995
*Please allow me to kinda amuse myself. Tin Machine were a sort of comedy act anyway