1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
I used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes1.
I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud of my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.
My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay relationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader2 with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.
As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? They were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant3. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!
Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to awaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”
When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. But if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors4? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.
So, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”
As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. I came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.
In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at your grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.
Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.
Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release with a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation5, were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us6, Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.
Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.
It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write7. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after our set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching some spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.
Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people8 and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.
While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”
The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! But what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.
The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”
The vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.
“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs9 without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided excellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”
“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.
“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feminist “Territorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was always pleasing.
I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out10. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end11.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA12, were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.
But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.
Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“Come As You Are”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)