This month of September is certainly a time of reflecting on past events, particularly the September of 10 years ago. It is great to look back on that time, remember the day, remember what we did right, and what we did wrong. Without going into too much more detail on that, I do want to say it makes me sick that we are merchandising 9/11, and people are using that day for profit. Still, I gave my recollection on the day itself 2 years ago.
What I would like to do instead is reflect on the September which occurred 20 years ago – 1991. This was one of those rare moments in my life when I remember exactly where I was as a life-altering event took place. I clearly recall the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, the day the Detroit Tigers clinched the East Division in 1987, the day Rich Mullins died (another September memory), attending the Rose Bowl with my grandfather on January 1, 1998, my wedding day, 9/11, the day the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003, and the day in September 1991 when I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana for the first time.
I was a sophomore in high school, and I heard several people talking about this new band out of Seattle. I remember thinking around this time how tired I was of the 80s sound, and I was losing interest in music in general. Radio stations I was listening to in Flint were playing MC Hammer, The Black Crowes, Damn Yankees, Bell Biv DeVoe, DePeche Mode, Salt-N-Pepa, Sinead O’Connor, Bryan Adams, En Vogue, Johnny Gill, REM, Sonic Youth, FireHouse, LL Cool J, Garth Brooks, Vanilla Ice, Warrant, Enigma, C+C Music Factory, Jesus Jones, The B-52s, Amy Grant, Rick Astley, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, EMF, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Cypress Hill, Spin Doctors, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and another new band called Pearl Jam.
My musical tastes were varied. I grew up mostly on Pop Rock music (I still sing songs I heard on Cars Love Songs to my wife in grocery stores and pharmacies when they come on over the speakers). Still, this was high school, a time to explore new sounds and change my taste in music. I found myself enjoying a lot more Hip Hop and R&B music, because the tired 80s Rock sound was just plain boring to me. Nothing new seemed to have come from rock music since Led Zeppelin.
I remember the day, although not the date. It was a fairly normal, fall day at school, except I recall hearing snippets here and there about a band named Nirvana. I particularly remember going to golf practice after school, and talking about music. As far as rock music went, nothing at the time was better than Metallica’s Black Album. To this day, that is one of my favorite heavy metal albums, but I was talking about how great it was to one of my teammates who told me I had to listen to Nirvana.
I went home that night, and after dinner I was helping to clean the dishes. Since I was the designated dryer, I remember the towel in my hand. I also remember turning on the radio which was attached to the underside of one of our cabinets to listen to CK 105.5s Top 8 at 8. I decided to dry slowly in order to listen to the whole program. I don’t remember which spot the song had in the Top 8, and I don’t remember any of the other songs which placed in the Top 8. What I do remember is when the DJ introduced the song I turned the volume up in full anticipation and excitement and listened to the first, deceptively tame licks of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Once the first riff was complete, and the song went from soft to loud, my jaw hit the floor. I had never heard a band do that before (and I know they took the idea from the Pixies, but the Pixies weren’t playing on pop radio in Flint at that time). Either bands started heavy and stayed that way, or made a softer song; never both.
Then I heard Kurt Cobain’s voice for the first time. “Load up on guns…” is how the song starts, in full Washington accent. The cool thing for me was he didn’t sound like another bad Robert Plant wanna be, like all of the hair band lead singers. He sounded sarcastic, raspy, and like he was playing a joke on the rest of the world, while it was our job to figure out that we were the punch line.
Then came the bridge with Kurt repeating “hello” while the song built tension toward the chorus, until Kurt thrust himself into the most explosive single moment I have ever heard in any song. When he jumped into the chorus, yelling “With the lights out…” I couldn’t believe a person could sound so angry. I am convinced that the reason “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the great songs of all time is due to Kurt’s ability to capture frustration at such a level, and pour it out, without having to say anything that made sense, in a way that the listener can’t help but connect to the raw power of the rage being expressed. With a stomp petal and an unmatchable, enormous voice, Kurt changed the world.
Here’s what I remember about that moment: by the time the first chorus of the song was complete, I was frozen in place, holding a towel in one hand and a dish in the other, with my mouth wide open, staring blankly at the radio. The song hit a nerve in me, but one I couldn’t quite express with my 15 year old mind. I heard pain and anger in his voice unlike any I had ever heard, and yet he made it sound melodic. It was like watching a sniper who was really good at his craft. You are amazed at his precision and ability, yet in order to fully grasp it, you have to watch something die. Kurt was amazing in his gifts – songwriting, guitar playing, and vocals, but to appreciate his gift you had to hear a man tear open his soul and show you how much life had viciously hurt him. In my opinion, this is what makes great art – the ability to express our deepest emotions and feelings despite there being no words to accomplish the task. The simple thought that ran through my head as I listened to this song was “this guy is really mad.”
After the song ended, I felt tired. I actually felt like Kurt’s rage had drained me of energy. It was sort of like the first time I drank a beer – the taste was really bitter, but later I went back to it until I began to appreciate what it was. I didn’t think I liked the song, and wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it again. I was wise enough to understand that a new era had come to music, however. There was no way bands were going to continue to try to copy Robert Plant and Jimmy Page when there was a Kurt Cobain on the loose.
Looking back as a historian on the event, what is shocking to me is the knowledge that Kurt Cobain was homeless the weak “Nevermind” was released. This was a pattern in Kurt’s life going back to his teenage years, which helped shed light on his angst. The songs are inspired by his own parents’ divorce, his feelings of abandonment, loneliness, homelessness, being an outsider, and a break-up with his girlfriend Tobi Vail. As a 15 year old kid listening to the music for the first time, I had no clue of the source of Kurt’s pain. Still, it is a rare person who can take the upbringing Cobain had and turn it into something so creative.
The other thing that amazes me was Kurt’s penchant to be the “anti-rock star.” Much is made of the fact that Kurt often spoke about how much he hated “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after it became the uber-popular song it is now known as. There is certainly truth to Kurt not wanting to be known for only one song, but there is also evidence which states that he contacted MTV on a regular basis to ask why his videos were not being shown more frequently.
Last, the reason I think Nirvana has stood the test of time, and will continue to outshine most bands since 1991, is that they were shocking without theatrics. This was a 3 person band, with no make-up, no pyrotechnics, no gimmicks, or anything. They wore second-hand clothes, and often played second-hand instruments. Their concerts did not have huge, elaborate stage sets. Also, without being graphic or using expletives, Nirvana managed to shock and scare people. It is their music, and that alone which made them unique. That’s what connected with me 20 years ago, and why Nirvana is still at the top of the heap of bands I listen to.