Nirvana thrived in contradiction: quiet and loud, passion and disassociation, melody and dissonance, clarity and obliqueness, pop-unfriendly and radio-baiting. Like their breakthrough single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the grunge pioneers headed a revolution and simultaneously made a cruel farce of it.
The re-release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind
” features that same clashing nature. Today (Sept. 24) is the exact day 20 years ago that the album dropped; on Tuesday, “Nevermind” can be found in multiple re-released formats, like on a single, or 2- or 4-disc set, or vinyl; there’s video on the DVD of the Paramount show from 1991, a digital version; newly unearthed demos, old alternative takes, live takes, remixes. It smacks of exhaustive capitalization from the get-go, but a celebratory injection of nostalgia and remembrance doesn’t serve to merely restock the raided coffers of Geffen records.
As acclaimed rock writer Simon Reynolds wrote for Slate
on the recent Nirvana revisitation, it “feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots.” There’s something particularly inauthentic about capitalizing on a band lauded for its authenticity, and on its face never registered as a capital-generating band.
Because in the entertainment business, we don’t get away with just celebrating anniversaries. We celebrate artist’s birthdays, and death-iversarys, starts of careers, ends of careers and other pivotal dates, months and years. Just look at figureheads like Elvis to Elliott Smith, or at Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain
himself. And put that in perspective of “Nevermind.”
In a way, “Nevermind” and its massive worldwide adoption was a death as much as a birth. Grunge may very have marked the last distinctive rock genre epoch, it’s character defined by its fans, fashion and lore as by the music. Like Killdozer and the Pixies begot Nirvana, so did their success pave the way for Bush and Live, or hits like Sponge’s “Plowed” or Silverchair’s “Tomorrow." Then the late ‘90s gave way to pop princesses and boy bands, hip-pop and R&B/dance crossovers. When the Internet broke the traditional music business model circa 2001, we launched ourselves into a long-tail appreciation of rock and rock genres, none of which since have touched the dominance that grunge had.
So to celebrate “Nevermind” becomes an ambiguous mourning of the rock era as well. To put an anniversary to a slow death is arbitrary, considering its passing means something different to everybody on that 20-year mark. For sample’s sake, I was nine when “Nevermind” came out: my Nirvana entry wasn’t it but “In Utero,” which I bought the same week after seeing “Heart-Shaped Box” on MTV (RIP) in 1993. (“Nevermind” arrived at Christmas, happy holidays.) As I reflected on the conclusion of R.E.M. this week, I remembered that 1994’s “Monster” – which itself was influenced by “Nevermind” – was the start of my R.E.M. collection, not “Murmur” or “Document” or whatever. When I saw Michael Stipe take the stage the first time, it was right after an opening set from Sonic Youth; my 12-year-old mind didn't exactly “get" them.
Did I miss “a happening?” No, because those albums still happened to me. I most lament never having seen Dave Grohl hit those cans like he did back then, nor Cobain tear through those belly yelps like on “Negative Creep” live. Somebody else has now done the job of pulling out the best videos and concert footage for my at-home viewing. I would have loved to witness those Everymen, as Washington Post’s Chris Richards
wrote, “Three poorly postured guys wearing Salvation Army scraps explode into a new decade by articulating the disenchantment of a generation.” But in my way, I did.
I met Kurt Cobain at a Nirvana show, around the time "Bleach" came out. As I was talking with him, he said, “Touch and Go was my favorite label growing up. We sent you a demo but we never heard from you.” Back in those days, we listened to every demo. We’d still felt like some kid took the trouble to send this to us. I actually kept every demo that ever got sent to us back then, so I got home and dug through every box in the garage. I felt like, “Did he really send it?” But it wasn’t there. “Did I throw it out? Maybe it never made it?” I loved “Bleach.” It was heartbreaking, because here was a great band that sent us a great demo.
Touch & Go has since shuttered; ironically, the only band the Chicago-based indie ever signed off of an unsolicited demo was Killdozer, produced by “Nevermind’s” eventual producer Butch Vig. (Vig has continued to work with Grohl and Foo Fighters. He also worked with Smashing Pumpkins early on… so guess which band just announced the tracklisting to their new album this week?)
What if it had been T&G that released “Bleach" rather than Sub Pop? Was Nirvana’s signing to a major inevitable? Would their fame have been as influential on Cobain’s troubled state of mind if they hadn’t? Would we be eulogizing (and, frankly, mythologizing) “Nevermind” as much as we are if Cobain didn’t kill himself and lived on to make more records?
The questions are interesting to ponder, but the conflicted act of commemorating “Nevermind” is more undemanding than all that. In an interview with the AP
this week, Grohl described the act of releasing their album as “innocent.”
“I have this shut-off valve. When I start getting to that place where I consider the impact of the album, I just turn off because it's hard to imagine something so innocent and simple turning into something that's out of your hands,” Grohl said. “I think that album came out at a time when a lot of kids didn't have anything to believe in and Nirvana was entirely real.”
So here’s what’s simple: The vocal inflection at the end of “Breed.” The lone strains of “Polly,” minimal and almost unforgivable in today’s era of rock records. The toy sounds in “Drain You” after Cobain cooed, “One baby to another says I'm lucky to ‘ve met you.” The vital bass line for “In Bloom.” The dubs and back-and-forths on “Stay Away,” like rappers playing sides at a concert. The guitar effect on “Territorial Pissings.” The lyrics sung “love myself, better than you” in harmony that would have Paul and John applauding. Proof that you don’t need to be the world’s greatest singer to be one of its best frontmen.
There haven’t been many rock touchstones as significant as “Nevermind” these days, though I doubt this reissue will bring about a revival. But of a revisit, reminisce, remembering, it is certainly worthy.