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Nirvana: The Year of Living Famously
RIP - June 1992.
By Steffan Chirazi
And then the rest of the world discovered that there is life in the underground. Nirvana were a Seattle band on Sub Pop who couldn't get arrested when their Bleach album and EP's came out three-odd years ago. Now they're doing innumerable interviews every day, selling millions of albums, and are the unwilling heroes of MTV youth around the world. Nevermind is a great album, no doubt. And, yes, you should get a copy if you don't already have one. But, News at Eleven. Nevermind is not a brand-spanking new sound: it just seems that way to the masses who don't care about, or have never had access to, underground music.
"The problem is that most kinds don't even know to got their local Mom and Pop record store," says guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain. "They just go to their local major record store and buy what they can. If you're in Kansas or somewhere, that's all y'have."
"And that's another problem, that most of the independent labels' distribution isn't very good," sighs drummer Dave Grohl.
There also doesn't seem to be much browsing in record stores here. People just go in, buy what they've seen on TV or heard on the radio, and walk out. Even the tape-trading networks are stretched pretty thin in comparison with, say, Europe, where a band like No Means No has managed to get the recognition they deserve, while here hardly anyone knows them.
"The underground is promoted way better in Europe," Cobain agrees. "It's more confined and easier to get communication. Here kids can grow up to their early 20s without knowing there's independent music - and they might really be into music too."
Now that we’ve come around to such issues as the underground music scene, we’re getting along fine, and I see that Nirvana are good people. That isn’t how the interview began though. In the first 90 minutes of photos and time spent together hardly a word passed between us. Trusting writers isn’t something that comes easily to Nirvana, and to them I was just another one who was going to somehow betray them in print. I, in turn, thought they were being rude, bratty jerks.
"We don’t have much patience with journalists who don’t bother to look into the archives of our history," Kurt grins. "It takes just a few minutes to figure it out."
"When they start asking you about your arts and crafts school..." Grohl begins.
"You know they haven’t looked into it too thoroughly," Kurt finishes.
"They’ve read the bio, listened to ‘Teen Spirit,’" Grohl says.
"When writers put their ‘perspective,’ their literary intentions, above what the band’s really about; when they impress their opinions of what you really are," sighs big bassist Chris Novoselic.
"Or they have this pathetic, third-rate evaluation of our personalities, coming to their conclusions within an hour," continues a mildly disgusted Kurt. "That isn’t very fair. It they have the power or the credentials to do such a thing, then they should be psychiatrists, not journalists."
"The last thing you want in the world is your psychiatric evaluation published!" exclaims Grohl.
So why are Nirvana uncomfortable with the position they’re in? It seems that they’re nervous about the fact that everyone suddenly thinks they’re great.
"The comments don’t bother us," says Kurt, slowly, thoughtfully. "They’re flattering, but I think it’s a bit exaggerated. There are plenty of other great bands. There are a lot of bands that are better than us, and I’m kinda guilty that we’re getting so much attention and other bands aren’t getting any."
So where does it end up? Self-destruction? Nasty drug habits? Will everything lead to Nirvana packing it in because they don’t want to know about all the bullshit trappings and might not be able, or want, to deal with them?
"That’s not necessarily going to make us self-destruct," Cobain says. "To coin an old cliché, we’ll still be a band until we stop writing good music. We’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding all the other crap that goes along with the music business. It’s pretty easy; y’just look the other way."
But it hasn’t been that easy being the reluctant recipients of so much success so quickly. Quite simply, it came at them with the force of a steam train and didn’t stop once it hit them. There has been no respite, no time to relax and review a situation that now finds them being hailed as everyone’s favorite, everyone’s discovery. Dealing with that kind of pressure is bound to make you nervous, reclusive, shy and extremely uncomfortable.
Nirvana are real people with real feelings on real issues. In a world where everyone’s afraid to stand up and talk about his/her beliefs, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear Nirvana go off on sexism.
"Sexism is the top of all ‘isms,’ as far as I’m concerned," Kurt says, "because man dominates and controls everything...corporate man, that is."
Chris chimes in: "This guy says last night, ‘There’s a lot of pussy walking around here,’ and it was like, wow, gimme a break, guy. There’s different facets of it, but these are our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our girlfriends...they’re people."
"And," Kurt adds, "as far as I’m concerned, superior!"
Add to this a hearty dislike of homophobia and racism. New fans take note: These are good issues for you to think about. And while Nirvana isn’t a political band as such, it is important that their views on such issues be known. If only one person adopts them because of the band’s MTV status, that’s truly a major achievement.
Another strange aspect of the Nirvana phenomenon is the fact that some of their original core audience turned on them simply because they’re on Geffen. Maximum Rock N Roll, the most famous underground fanzine, ripped into the group, claiming they’d caught "rockstaritis." How do they deal with that? Do they lose sleep over those dimwits?
"Those people are sick!" Kurt says. "There’s definitely a frustration there, yeah, but those people are exactly why the underground music scene is so segregated. They have just as closed minds as the average redneck, as far as I’m concerned. They’re wasting their time with their nitpicking and their raging anal ideals. They use their ideals as part of their lifestyle, to make themselves feel righteous, when they should open up a bit and support things, even if it is corporate-packaged rebellion."
Time to alter the pace a bit and discuss Nirvana’s musical plans. Will instant fame and fortune change the attitude behind the songs?
"I dunno," Cobain says. "I think the direction we’re going right now is in all extremes. Some of the new songs are wimpier than ever, and some are as heavy as ever. It’s pretty divided. I don’t know if things that are happening on the tour are gonna affect us, because we’re pretty comfortable with what we’re doing now. I don’t feel as much guilt as I did before, and it has nothing to do with selling more records. I just have more faith in the average person, because at least they like our music sincerely. Just because there’s a lot of hype behind us now doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us."
Guilt is indeed the word, because it certainly seems sometimes that Nirvana feel guilty about their success.
"Yeah, and I dunno why, really," Cobain says. "I’m not sure, maybe it was shock. We expected to hopefully sell 200,000 records, and it sold a few more than that."
So are the days of the thriving indie labels, like Sub
"Sub Pop’s still thriving," Kurt says, "but it’s really hard for independent labels to survive, because most people who start up labels don’t know the first thing about accounting, and that’s the biggest downfall in business, not being able to account for things. The people who start these labels are music lovers who are just trying to help out their friends. They don’t realize what’s involved with the business, and it’s really sad if has to happen that way."
We talk a bit about Nirvana’s appearances in arenas these days, and Cobain says he doesn’t notice that great a difference in the crowds.
"Y’know, kids are kids; they like music. I don’t care if they have a mustache or spiked hair, it just seems that they’re really sincere about the bands they like. They’re entitled to have quality music, and I hope things will get better in the next few years."
I don’t know what Nirvana "officially" are...I never did, and I don’t want to...but I know they are more important than just words. I hope the pressure doesn’t kill them; that they can acclimatize and even enjoy it all a bit more in the months to come. To me, they’re proving to the commercial world that reality cannot be ignored, that people who come from small towns like Aberdeen, Washington, and trailer-park homes have as much to say as anyone. They’re also (hopefully) educating a few million fans and helping them realize that being socially aware doesn’t make you some kind of asshole, just an intelligent human being. And Kurt Cobain loves cats, which is always a sign of great things in a person.
A Message from Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl to you: "Most of these bands and records can be found in small
Mom and Pop record stores: Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, the Melvins, Beat Happening, Fugazi, Mudhoney, Hole, Shonen Knife,
Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Teenage Fan Club...we could go on and on, but we don’t have our record collections in front of us. And
check out labels such as SST. Write away for their mail-order catalogs, because there’s ten years of good stuff to hear."