Music Musings: Nirvana

I was late to the Nirvana party, like morbidly late. I was 11 when Kurt Cobain died and not really into music yet. That would come a year or two later, so I missed out on most of the pop culture revolution that was Nirvana. I think I had an idea of the band and had maybe heard a few songs, but I did not realize that they had changed the face of popular music nor did I have any idea of the drama surrounding his death (I won’t call it a suicide because the documentary Kurt & Courtney raised way too many questions for me). Whatever you think of Nirvana you can’t argue against the fact that they drove a stake through 80 hair metal and even unseated the King of Pop from the number one spot. No matter how you look at it, that’s a huge deal. Like a lot of kids in my generation, the first Nirvana record I picked up was Nevermind. I picked it up at a used CD place in Toledo called CD Warehouse and was embarrassed because of the naked baby on the cover. I probably only paid a few bucks for it because much like Green Day’s Dookie, this record was everywhere. I remember my dad seeing that and joking around by saying “THIS is the kind of music you’re listening to now?”

I can’t pinpoint what my attraction to Nirvana stemmed from. I wasn’t a particularly angry or angsty kid, though my parents and friends might beg to differ. I also wasn’t a real punk rock kid. I was fine with some levels of conformity and didn’t have any real desire for anarchy though I liked drawing the symbol on my notebooks. I think I had a sense that I had missed out on something huge and I wanted to be a part of it even if it was too late to enjoy it in the moment. I also liked the hard hitting, head banging songs that also had some pretty amazing lyrics if you really took the time to translate them. I spent those early days, weeks and years of fandom picking up every legitimate Nirvana record I could find in the used section at my beloved Boogie Records. I don’t remember the exact order I purchased them in, but I soon had Bleach, Incesticide, In Utero, the amazing Unplugged disc and the live compilation From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah. I also stumbled upon a lengthy interview disc called The Bark, Not The Bite there and wound up trading for a few bootleg performances online. Years later I’d even pick up the greatest-hits-with-one-new-song Nirvana and the three-disc-with-a-DVD outtakes and live set With The Lights Out. Heck, last summer I even bought a quartet of VHS bootleg concert tapes at a flea market for a buck, one of which turned out to actually feature The Cure (bleh) and another which I’m watching right now and inspired me to write this post. I already mentioned watching Kurt & Courtney, but I also checked out Hype! because it featured Nirvana, I own Cobain’s Journals book and have checked out a ton of groups because they influenced Nirvnana (from Leadbelly to the Mudhoney) and I’m the proud owner of Bleach and one of the singles on vinyl. I even had a Nirvana T-shirt that I bought in Ireland and a patch on my longtme backpack. The only reason I don’t have more Nirvana stuff is because they only made a handful of albums. Needless to say, I dug Nirvana. I liked their sound and their attitude and I also liked the fact that they seemed like regular guys, like anyone could do this whole rock and roll thing. In high school, when I started playing bass and formed a band with my buddies, we instantly gravitated towards Nirvana songs. I know we did “Rape Me,” though weren’t allowed to play it at our high school’s battle of the bands and I think we did “Come As You Are” (or maybe I just learned that one on my own because it’s such a great bass line). I was pretty surprised to learn that a lot of the songs were simple power chords and sometimes just single notes played through a ton of distortion.

It’s easy to think of Nirvana songs as simple because they’re so distorted, they seemed like such normal guys and you can deeply feel the four-on-the-floor, three or four chord structure of most of their songs, but there’s also some real musicality there. Cobain was no slouch when it came to guitar solos, but he didn’t throw them around like the cock rock guitar gods he was seemingly railing against. Dave Grohl had a wild man savagery when it came to the drums and Krist Novoselic used some fairly complicated bass lines at times as I discovered when I started looking up tabs online as I learned to play. He wasn’t  just hitting a note four times then moving on to the next note, some of his lines walked like blues songs. Below the howling, metal-meets-punk growl of the music, there’s a real rhythm that gets overlooked sometimes.For what it’s worth, the album that sticks out as my favorite is Incesticide. I know it’s basically a compilation disc, but there’s just so much goodness on there. I particularly like “Molly’s Lips” and “Been A Son.” I had no idea that some of these songs were covers, but it didn’t really matter. They had a knack for taking songs and really making them their own. The songs I dig are poppier than you might expect from Nirvana which might sound strange, but I also love the intense lo-fi aspects of Bleach as well as the mournful melodies of Unplugged. I probably listen to Nevermind the least but every time I do, I’m reminded of how damn good they could sound, even if overly polished. And man, In Utero‘s fantastic. When you get into the live and compilation stuff, they get a little shakier for me and I’ve only listened to that interview CD once or twice, but there’s no way I’d ever get rid of any of that stuff. In fact, writing this post just makes me want to listen to With The Lights Out one disc after the other. Nirvana not only introduced me to a whole new kind of music (a few genres, actually), but also holds a really special place in my heart. No matter how many other bands I get really into, Nirvana will always be the first one that captured my attention and my imagination. I like to imagine myself sitting around on a porch at 80 listening to the soothing sounds of In Utero. Good thing the records are so loud, cause I might need that extra volume boost!

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