I remember first hearing Nirvana in 1991, when MTV premiered the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video on its token college-rock program, 120 Minutes. The song was all fuzzy guitars and commercial doublespeak, fueled by Kurt Cobain's chorus, "Here we are now/Entertain us," and I immediately turned up my nose at it, wondering why a blatantly mainstream clip was being played on the show. Later that fall, as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made its way through my high school in Sacramento and all the lame, popular kids I despised adopted it as some sort of weird anthem, I decided that I would never like that song, Nirvana, or its album, Nevermind. Yes, it's stupid, but what do you expect? I was seventeen.
More than a decade later my opinion of Nevermind hasn't changed. I still don't like it, even though I've since warmed up to other grunge rock classics such as Pearl Jam's Ten. I don't think Nevermind is the seventeenth greatest album of all time, a ranking Rolling Stone magazine awarded it on December 11 in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time issue. But Nirvana, and particularly Cobain, are another story. The group has managed to become an important participant in the soundtrack to my life. I imagine that millions of other people who lived through the early Nineties can attest to the same thing.
There's the time my friend Rudy played Nirvana's debut, Bleach, for me. I adopted it as a cool alternative to Nevermind, since none of the trendroids at my high school had heard the group's Sub Pop material, even though Bleach had just six decent songs on it. (My favorite was "School" and its screamed chorus, "No recess!") The next year, I spent several months at Patrick Macias's house while he turned me on to all sorts of great bands: the Residents, XTC, Joy Division, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, the Verlaines, Mission of Burma. He played me Nirvana's Hormoaning EP and I really took to the two Vaselines covers, "Son of a Gun" and "Molly's Lips," because Cobain's voice was so cool and sardonic when he sang silly lyrics like "Kiss, kiss, Molly's lips."
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I think, in light of what happened later, that people tend to forget how fun and subversive Nirvana could be, like when Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic used to kiss each other onstage and wear summer dresses. This was stuff my Sacto friends used to do, and it felt strange to see that subculture discovered by the rest of the world. In some ways I was naive. I didn't realize that punk rock wasn't exactly a big secret no one knew about, so I directed my antipathy at Nirvana because they were the ones who had sold out and supposedly brought that scene to the mainstream. I rejected Nevermind and the followup, In Utero; I couldn't bring myself to buy Incesticide even though "Son of a Gun" and "Molly's Lips" were included on the album.
In 1994 I went to hear Greil Marcus, a legendary rock critic, at a bookstore on Haight Street in San Francisco. I caught the tail end of the reading, and he and the mostly twentysomething audience were caught up in a rambling discussion about punk rock speckled with names of bands I had never heard of. Near the end Marcus professed his love for Nevermind, and an audience member noted how, lyrically, the whole album was driven by Cobain's fascination with guns. The next day, on April 8, I was driving to my sandwich-making job at Togo's in Berkeley when I heard on Live 105 (KITS-FM 105.3) that Cobain had shot and killed himself.
Later that night, Rudy called me and we talked for a half-hour. I can't remember the exact details, just the overwhelming sadness between us. What made me mourn someone I never knew, someone I posited to be the antithesis of everything I stood for? I guess it's the same way my mother says she cried when John Lennon was murdered -- these pop icons were an inextricable part of our lives because their words and images were broadcast through the media, becoming omnipresent. In spite of myself, I linked Cobain with an era; he was a totem for a range of experiences, even though he did not personally share them with me.
Two years later, I remember sitting in Ellen's bedroom one morning as she played Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York. If I could single out one Nirvana memory, it would be sitting there with her as the sunlight filled her room, bathing it in an autumnal glow. What did Andre 3000 say on his "Da Art of Storytellin'?" I could have died. At the center of us was "All Apologies," and Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl harmonizing on its last, long refrain: "All in all is all we are."