Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Apirl 8th, 1994

(I couldn't get a good shot of the Flipper t shirt)

Let me tell you kids about the 90s. There was this band from Seattle that changed everything. The singer was the voice of a generatation but sadly died far too young.

They were called Alice in Chains.

Ahem... but seriously, folks...

When Nirvana broke, I was pretty much the perfect age for them to have maximum impact on me. I had just turned 14, entered high school and was just starting to get into the whole rock music thing. I was already interested in "alternative" music (a term that was slightly less laughable then than it is now) and probably picked up the Pixies' Trompe Le Monde and Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque around the same time I bought Nevermind.

Of course, Nirvana was the band that became huge, thus increasing their importance in my mind. It also helped that a) the insane amount of press the band got allowed me to read all about them and b) being a lonely, alienated teenager made me identify with Cobain and co. more than I had with any other pop star prior. It was the only thing in my life close a cultural revolution in which I could sincerely feel I was participating. Even if something similar happened now or in the future, it wouldn't have same effect on the cynical jerk adult I am now. It may well be that I would have discovered Flipper or the Vaselines or Sebadoh (to name a few) on my own as my interests were already leaning that way but Nirvana certainly helped speed up the process. I owe them a lot.

That said, there's a tendency to romanticize the legacy of Nirvana from which I'd rather refrain. This undoubtedly at least partially attributable to Cobain's death, a rock star notion that Cobain himself probably have abhorred. Frankly, Nirvana's recorded output was slim and, though solid, not terribly impressive in hindsight: three studio albums, one a classic and two kind of spotty. Bleach was fairly unremarkable Seattle grunge with a few choice moments that gave an indication of better things to come. Nevermind remains the band's greatest accomplishment, some its best moments also its least obvious. You, me and everyone we know are probably fine with never hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" again but side two of Nevermind (with no hit singles) still absolutely kills. In Utero suffers from its intention to alienate its audience. Nirvana was better at emulating the Vaselines than the Amphetamine Reptile roster and even then many of the album's more melodic moments were less than inspired. If the studio albums don't quite paint the portrait of a legend, the band also had a wealth of excellent non-album tracks, which is good for some kind of extra credit. The "Dive"/"Silver" single might actually be the greatest thing they ever did.

It's pretty pointless to postulate hypotheticals, but you have to wonder if Nirvana would have continued to make worthwhile music or perhaps gotten even better had Cobain not decided to take his own life. Certainly, their popularity would have declined over the course of the past 15 years. They may have wound up something like Pearl Jam today, something of a cult band who may not sell millions of records anymore but retain a large and dedicated following. Ironically, Cobain derided Pearl Jam as grunge sellouts back in the day but their eventual fate closer matches the profile of principled musicians than the cliché of the beautiful dead rock star who "tragically" went too early that Cobain has become. What's even more ironic is that Nirvana's popularity and subsequent status as icons made "alternative" a profitable genre for any hack to exploit. The weirdos on the fringe never took over. Instead, there's a bunch of lunkheaded white guys groaning about their "dark" feelings (read: self-pitying) and crassly employing soft/loud dynamics without any of Nirvana's finesse.

Ugh, that last sentence made me too sad to want to write anymore. I just should have thanked them for turning me on to the Raincoats and that would have been that.

1 comment:

dola said...

While Heart Shaped Box, Rape Me, and even Serve the Servants haven't aged well, I think side two of In Utero has some of Nirvana's best songs. Also, Dave Grohl + Steve Albini = yes thank you.

I think this interview with Nirvana in '92 sums them up best. They were a band that, while certainly very ambitious, always took pains to contextualize themselves within a wider undergound/punk scene. Yes Nevermind unleashed some unintended negative consequences, but for the biggest rock band in the world to say "if you like us, you'll love this" over and over was pretty remarkable and necessary (for most) before the internet.

Plus Kurt Cobain was a nice feminist role-model for impressionable kids with a penis. Underrated that way.