Saturday, September 24, 2011

20 years since Nevermind

I think every dog and his Norwegian grandmother will be writing about the 20 year anniversary of Nevermind (released 20 years ago today), what it meant, how it stands up blah blah blah so I won't go too crazy on it but talk about how it affected me. All I know is that at the time it meant a lot to me.

I remember hearing Teen Spirit for the first time on (alternative radio station) Triple J being introduced by Helen Razer as the "the best song ever fucking written." My ears pricked up at the swearing but I was almost in shock when the song hit its refrain - the power of that song was so immediate that even though I couldn't understand a single word being sung, it felt like a glorious discovery. Most of my friends had heard it around the same time and we anxiously waited for the album which someone bought and we all copied it onto tape for each other. This became our instant soundtrack, an album we bonded over.

At the time (the death throes of high school), I played in a terrible, terrible band called Wrapped in Plastic (yes, Twin Peaks was big for all of us). We were awful - I could barely play guitar but we entered an audition for a battle of the bands. We played four songs I think - early 90's standards Enter Sandman, Helter Skelter, some other song I can't remember and we finished with Teen Spirit. Even Wrapped in Plastic (we might have changed our name to Lithium by then), plausibly the worst band in the world at that point in time, could make that song sound good. I'm sure we sounded pretty bad but somehow those four chords translated and had power no matter how badly played. We didn't make the cut but other bands were coming up to us and asking if the last song was one we had written. "Sure" someone said but it was only a few weeks before Nirvana broke and we would be revealed as the unoriginal teens we were.

I actually had tickets to see Nirvana in Brisbane (bought before they broke big but by the time the concert was on, Nirvana-mania was at fever pitch). It was a double bill with the Violent Femmes, a band I couldn't stand at the time. When a friend of mine travelled 26 hours from interstate to see them without a ticket I gave him mine as I had to work the next day and wasn't sold on standing through the Femmes set. My words were "get me a tshirt and I'll catch them on the next tour." Of course, there was no next tour of Australia.

Many people got a bit sneery and indie snobbish when their little sister started liking Nirvana but I never did (the common thing being, "I like Bleach more and they were better before they were famous" even though pretty much no one I knew had heard of Bleach until Nevermind broke). I was an avid music fan and until that time Billy Joel, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, et al, was the discourse of the mainstream and the major magazines spent most of their time devoted to talking about how great the 60s were - Hendrix, Dylan, Beatles etc or indulging these aging dinosaurs. To have a band that I liked at number one seemed unthinkable, much less, be able to actually talk to people about music and have them know what the hell I was talking about. That it changed the discourse of music too - now that was exciting to me. If it gives you an idea of how into it I was, my sociology honours thesis was called Youth Subcultures, Nihilism and Capitalism where I explored the marketing of grunge. It was all a bit sad really but probably not as sad as having a degree in sociology and English literature.

My girlfriend always badgers me about never getting over the 90's and while I still listen to a lot of music from that time, I am always trying to find new music that gets me excited. I kind of hate nostalgia but sometimes getting older lends itself to it. But as someone wiser than me pointed out, Nirvana were the right band at the right time with the right album - a lot of it was about timing. In terms of timing, a few weeks after the release of Nevermind I turned 18. It meant I could see bands freely, drink and have that magical experience which is finding out who you are once you leave school. Nirvana and the music that followed was the soundtrack to that transformation so it will always be important to me and that is a product of timing. Maybe if I'd been eighteen when the first Michael Bolton album came out, maybe I'd be writing about that but I seriously doubt that.

I can't say anything new about Nevermind - most people know it, at least casually, if not inside out. For all the thousands of words that will be written about Nirvana now, I think I'd sum up the situation as Kurt went too soon, Nevermind is a good album and the music meant something to me. In the end, that's a vital part of what music is about, meaning something to someone and that's why Nevermind will endure.



  1. what I remember - is a similar JJJ hearing, in the car, and the total punk energy of the sound. Then someone got the CD and played it over and over, and we were all into the Pixies' loud/quiet/loud at the same time, and a friend had gotten bleach when it first came out. I didn't quite connect fully - but I think this order of events is about right: 1. the punk sound of it, the sheer desperate ugly but tuneful anger of it 2. several cones and listening to the album loud and getting struck by the chilling stare of Something in the Way and then 3: seeing Pearl Jam's Alive on video hits and realising: this is the anti-Nirvana, the jock-safe hi-fiving grunge band who make it all a cash-in and a rip and just that degree *safer* emotionally, and then I knew why Nirvana was good/better/best and why every soundalike would be a minor simulacrum.

  2. I think it's true, there was some edge to it that no one else could replicate. Strangely, I'm more inclined to listen to In Utero these days than Nevermind but in terms of my personal history, Nevermind is more significant.

    I never know what to think about Pearl Jam - after all, Ten was released before Nevermind but they sure rode that grunge wave to their profit - it just sounds like middle of the road 70's rock now. To be honest, I probably liked it at the time. They've gone on to have this Deadhead like following around the world. Eddie Vedder could release an album of ukulele songs (what do you mean he did?!) and still sell out stadiums wherever they go. Is that to be admired (they stuck to their sound and prospered) or do they just suck? I have no idea...