The Ephemeral Existence of Nirvana

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For nostalgic lovers of popular music, September 2016 became an exhausting month of anniversaries of the release of influential albums from 1991. September 24th saw the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind (which was preceded, of course, by the September 10th anniversary of that album’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”). Also turning 25 in September of 2016 was Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band whose edge has faded considerably in the intervening years. Just days before the arrival of this year’s September, on August 27, we beheld the 25th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s Ten. That these albums and singles which still resonate us with us today saw their release within just weeks of each other in the halcyon days of 1991 is, quite frankly, a marvel.

Two and a half decades after Nirvana achieved superstardom, I realize that for most of its contemporary fans the band existed only for two and a half years. Sure, there were those in Seattle and other hip corners of the country who knew the band from its beginnings in the late 1980’s, but most of us came to learn of Kurt Cobain and his comrades when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit MTV. From September of 1991 to April of 1994, Nirvana’s fans bore witness to Nevermind and its endless throng of singles. The band’s success led to the reissuance of its first album, 1989’s Bleach, and the assembly of older and archival material that became Incesticide. In 1993, Nirvana recorded In Utero with famed producer Steve Albini and appeared on MTV”s “Unplugged.” Then, in April of 1994, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, bringing the band’s existence to a close but ushering it into the hall of legends. We’ve seen a good bit of material released in the many years since Cobain’s death, but it struck me recently that the band existed (and thrived) in the public arena for such a relatively short period of time before it came to an end.

Like many then and now, I considered myself a Nirvana fan. In September of 1991, I had just begun my sophomore year of high school in suburban Houston, Texas. I’m not entirely certain when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or bought Nevermind, but it couldn’t have been too long after September of 1991. I bought Incesticide on the day of its release in December of 1992 (just a few days before my 17th birthday). I even tracked down and purchased the band’s compact disc singles and compilation album on which the band appeared. In December of 1993, I had the chance to see Nirvana perform in Houston, but I foolishly elected not to do so on a school night. Two years ago, upon the twentieth anniversary of the death of Cobain, I penned a few thoughts about him and his legacy:

Cobain was an interesting contradiction. He brought punk rock music to the masses (making 1991 the year that genre finally “broke” into the mainstream). But he clearly disdained the many suburban fans who flocked to his band’s shows. “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it,” he said to the crowd on November 18, 1993 as he introduced “About A Girl” during the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. With that statement, Cobain passive aggressively suggested that the general public, who had heaped praise upon him and bought his album in droves for more than two years at that point, was somehow neglectful in not owning 1989’s Bleach, his band’s first record. Basically, if a fan was not the type of person he would have befriended in high school, or if a listener did not share his political and social opinions, Cobain didn’t want their support. An interesting marketing strategy, that. We suspect that if Cobain had lived into the Internet days, we’d be hearing a myriad stories about his rudeness to certain segments of fans (which is consistent with some actual anecdotes we’ve heard about him in the early 1990’s, as well).

But you can’t deny his talent. He mixed the elements of light hearted pop with heavy grunge and punk (in a far, far more sophisticated and appealing way than what passes for punk, or the inappropriately named “pop punk” genre, these days).  Even within the same song, he would shift from melodic and almost quiet poppiness to heavily distorted and loud guitar, and in so doing, create an extraordinarily catchy tune. Although he downplayed his lyrical abilities (telling interviewers that the lyrics were the last part of a song he would develop, sometimes as late as the day the song was to be recorded), his words, often contradictory themselves, were more thought provoking than he would claim them to be. In addition to his own merits, he introduced a generation of young music listeners to bands they’d never before encountered such as the Melvins, Shonen Knife, Scratch Acid, Daniel Johnston, the Raincoats, and the Wipers. On the aforementioned Unplugged album, he covered the Meat Puppets, Leadbelly, the Vaselines, and even David Bowie. Back in the early 1990’s, there was no Internet (at least not one that was accessible to the general public), and the task of finding new music – especially that which was not promoted on MTV or discussed in Rolling Stone or Spin – was a challenge indeed. In those days, a decision by a musician as famous as Cobain to don a t-shirt promoting a previously obscure band had an immense effect, and thus, fans of Nirvana, if they elected to do so, could explore Cobain’s own musical influences and save such bands from the ash heap of music history.

September 17th of this year also heralded the 25th anniversary of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums (for all intents and purposes, at least to date, the last notable works of that band). What an odd historical coincidence that the last meaningful hard rock albums from that era arrived in stores just a week before the album that would seal that genre’s doom. 1991, as they say, was the year punk broke, but it was also the beginning of the end of the unironic hard rock and heavy metal genre which had dominated both the charts and the hearts of high school students for so many years beforehand. As a fan of both hard rock and grunge, I mourned the demise of heavy metal but enjoyed the rise of alternative music (or whatever else we were electing to call the new style of music emerging in those days).

Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl took hold of us and released a significant amount of material over such a small amount of time. Consider what that band accomplished both musically and culturally in that period of time and consider how other bands have squandered months and years of their existence.As a teenager, time seemed to move far more slowly than it does in my more advanced years. Remember those youthful days when we all longed for time to pass more quickly but realized we must endure the slow passage of days, months, and years? So, to the me of 1991, 2.5 years must have seemed an eternity, whereas I’ve now lived that period of time tenfold since 1991. Now, in 2016, 25 years after the release of the band’s most famous album, it doesn’t seem so long ago.

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