Punk rockers are opinionated little shits who care too much about what does and doesn't suck and get by on a wicked sense of humor. Kurt cobain was always a wickedly funny little shit. My favorite Cobain quote: "Even the guys on the safty patrol called me 'faggot.'" My favorite Nevermind moment: During the fake-pep-rally video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a cheerleader's boobs bounce across the screen sporting an anarchy symbol, while Nirvana ("the band") lurches in the back of the gym almost catatonically. Yo, the punk-rock revolution will be televised 15 years too late! Mom and Dad, guess what? The kids aren't all right! Where have you been?
Here was Cobain on Nevermind, the supposed soundtrack of dienchantment for so-called Generation X (from Micheal Azzerrad's band bio Come As You Are): "I'm embarressed by it. It's closer to a Motley Crue record than it is to a punk-rock record." On "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the "grunge" rallying cry: "It's really not that abrasive at all. It only screams at the end. It's kind of lame."
Like many who had listed to classic rock (Beatles, Who, Sabbath) and '80s punk (Bad Brains, Scratch Acid, Replacements, Husker Du), Cobain knew that his band's sound wasn't astoundingly original; he and bassist Krist Novoselic were even scared that people would nail them for ripping off the Pixies on "Teen Spirit." But behind his self-deprecation, Cobain knew he had a gift, and after the band's turgid indie debut Bleach, he knew that he was writing much better songs; plus, in Dave Grohl (ex of the D.C. hardcore bnad Scream), he'd found "the drummer of our dreams." A demo produced by Butch Vig (now of Garbage) got the band signed to major label DGC and not a second too soon. "It was kind of a desperate time," says Grohl, now a Foo Fighter. "Kurt and I were living together, selling amplifiers and 45s of 'Love Buzz' (a rare early single) for food. We actually played an all-ages show in Seattle for gas money to go down to Los Angeles to record Nevermind." But when they finally met Vig at a Van Nuys studio (where Fleetwood Mac's Roumers was dreamed up) months later, hopes were high. "We were just living and breathing the music," Novoselic says. "Kurt was busting out all these riffs and vocal lines, and the songs were coming together so beautifully."
Adds Vig: "The first day, they ran through everything, and it just sounded unbelievable. It was in this sort of warehouse room, Kurt and Krist had this huge, fuckin' stun-volume amps, and Dave was so instenely loud and dead on; he was just thrilled to be in the band, and his enthusiasm infected Kurt."
Nevermind's startk, yearning melodies, darkly witty lyrics, and controlled thrash differ from Nirvana's harsher recordings before and after (Geffen A&R man Gary Gersh even talked about leaving off some catchier songs so the album didn't sound like a sellout). "It was so wild to be tossed into this word of 'professionalism," Grohl says. "Nevermind was us dealing with being treated like professional musicians, which we weren't. I mean, when we heard 'Teen Spirit' put up on those big speakers, everybody freaked out."
Cobain was obviously writing with an insistant, hopeful voice in his head that argued- and joked- with the famousely gnawing pit in his stomach. He even wrote a love song of sorts ("Drain You") , a touching, searing exchange between two sickly infants who share the same hospital bed. Of course, Cobain was also sedating himself with Jack Daniels and cocdine cough syrup (the latter to starve off his heroin cravings and preserve his frayed voice). "Kurt could charm the pants off you," Vig says, "then go into a corner and refuse to speak. He had these rediculous mood swings." There's an old Black Flag lyric that screams (with some sarcasm) "I wanna live / I wish I was dead," and that was Nevermind's eternal tangle. The tenderly surging "On A Plain" features sweet "ah-ah" harmonies and Cobain confessing matter-of-factly, "I go so high I scratched 'till I bled."
After Kurt Cobain died, he became the "voice of a generation," but when he was here, he was beloved because he got life's blackest jokes (unlike, say, Axl Rose, who raged at the voide like he deserved an answer). As a result, the songs on Nevermind are sad, crypitc, hostile, childlike, and yeah, funny. From "Lithium": "I'm so lonely, but that's okay, I shaved my head." And for a minute in the early '90s, Cobain's corrosive plaints rasped like the truth- the wisdom of an abused, smart-alacky white kid with a down-tuned guitar and a dream (inject neccessary level of sarcasm; Cobain would've.) For whatever confluence of reasons- the Reagan-plague's legacy, the industry need for fresh rock meat after hair-metal, the band's talent (!)- that rasp got heard, and sold. Nevermind topped the pop charts in January 1992, displacing Micheal Jackson, and punk's scowly, smirky face entered the youth mainstream.
Then we moved on. As the Breeders' Kim Deal sums it up, "Yeah, [Nevermind changed the way record companies hired VPs and A&R people. But now it's back to being about ass."
Still, after all the death and hype, Nevermind shakes the walls like a storm. You feel it as Grohl's drumrolls make your heart race into chouruses and Novoselic's melodic bas lines give you room to breathe in the roar. You feel it in the way Cobain's discordant guitar never chokes the melody, but stains it with just enough doubt to make it real. but most of all, you feel it in Cobain's paper-thin voice, as he stares down the lethal horrors of growing up, and somehow manages to rock a shit-eating grin.
18 Nirvana: In Utero (DGC, 1993)
This poisonous sequal to the hardly saccharine Nevermind was heard as a fame-spurning volley in the early-'90s alternawars, but In Utero makes more sense as a honest attempt to portray life with Kurt Cobain's famous stomach- the measure of beauty avaukabke ti sineibe rolling around on a hotel bed, wavering between pain, spew, and fog.
The facillitator was postpunk ideologue Steve Albini, who treats the recording studio as a knife-sharpening device. Loud drums, unadorned vocals, and guitar and bass luching in dead air produced "as close to the sound that I had heard in my head [as] I've ever found," Cobain said once. Krist Novoselic remembers Albini "looking through the glass, standing by the tape deck with his arms crossed, just staring at us, and we were like, 'Okay, here you go, Steve.' we were bombing these songs off- we showed him we had the goods" "In recording that are done quickly," says Dave Grohl, "you get this quality of, I don't know, desperation."
A worried Geffen Records persuaded the band to overdub some commercial sweetness into "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies," but In Utero still ranks amoung the most forbidding rock-smash follow-ups ever, respected far more than it's played. Yet the performances aren't self-pitying in the least- just indie rock trying to find handholds in the stratosphere. As Novoselic still takes satisfaction in nothing, "When we wanted to play, Nirvana could slay -Eric Weisbard