Article about Nirvana's Nevermind album
by Charles Aaron. Transcribed by Tyler for NFC, 1999.
Punk rockers are opinionated little shits who care too much about what does and doesn't suck and get by on a wicked sense of humor. Kurt Cobain was always a wickedly funny little shit. My favorite Cobain quote: “Even the guys in the safety patrol called me 'faggot'.” My favorite Nirvana moment: During the fake-pep-rally video for “Smell Like Teen Spirit,” a cheerleader's boobs bounce across the screen sporting an anarchy symbol, while Nirvana (‘the band’) lurches in the back of the gym almost catatonically. Yo, the punk rock revolution will be televised 15 years too late! Mom and Dad, guess what? The kids aren't all right! Where have you been?
Here was Cobain on Nevermind, the supposed soundtrack of disenchantment for so-called Generation X (from Michael Azzerad's band bio ‘Come As You Are’): “I'm embarrassed by it. It's closer to a Motley Crüe record that it is to a punk-rock record.” - On ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit,’ the 'grunge' rallying cry: “It's really not that abrasive at all. It only screams at the end. It's kind of lame.”
Like many who had listened to classic rock (Beatles, Who, Black Sabbath) and 80's punk (Bad Brains, Scratch Acid, Replacements, Hüsker Dü), Cobain knew that his band's sound wasn't astoundingly original; he and bassist Krist Novoselic were even scared that people would nail them for ripping off the Pixies on ‘Teen Spirit.’ But behind his sarcastic self-depreciation, Cobain knew he had a gift, and after the band's turgid indie debut Bleach, he knew he was writing much better songs; plus, in Dave Grohl (ex of the D.C. Hardcore band Scream), he'd found “the drummer of our dreams.” A demo produced by Butch Vig (now of Garbage) got the band signed to major label DGC [Geffen Records] and not a second to soon. “It was kind of a desperate time,” says Grohl, now a Foo Fighter. “Kurt and I were living together, selling amplifiers and 45's of 'Love Buzz' (a rare early single) for food. We actually played an all ages show in Seattle for gas money to go down to Los Angeles to record Nevermind.” But when they finally met [Butch] Vig at [the] Van Nuys studios (where Fleetwood Mac's ‘Rumors’ was dreamed up) months later, hopes were high. “We were just living and breathing the music,” Novoselic says. “Kurt was busting all these riffs and vocal lines, and the songs were coming together so beautifully.”
Vig adds: “The first day, they ran through everything, and it just sounded unbelievable. It was in this sort of warehouse room, Kurt and Krist had these huge, fuckin' stun-volume amps, and Dave was so intensely loud and dead on; he was just thrilled to be in the band, and his enthusiasm infected Kurt.” Nevermind's stark, yearning melodies, darkly witty lyrics, and controlled thrash differ from Nirvana's harsher recordings before and after (Geffen A&R man Gary Gersch even talked about leaving off some catchier songs so the album didn't sound like a sellout). “It was so wild to be tossed into this world of 'professionalism,'” Grohl says. “Nevermind was us dealing with being treated like professional rock musicians, which we weren't. I mean, when we heard 'Teen Spirit' put up on those big speakers, everybody freaked out. Cobain was obviously writing with an insistent, hopeful voice in his head that argued-and joked-with the famously gnawing pit in his stomach. He even wrote a love song of sorts (“Drain You”), a touching, searing exchange between two sickly infants who share the same hospital bed. Of Course, Cobain was also sedating himself with Jack Daniels and codeine cough syrup (the latter to stave off his heroine cravings and preserve his frayed voice). “Kurt could charm the pants off you,” Vig says, “then go into a corner and refuse to speak. He had ridiculous mood swings.” There's an old Black Flag lyric that screams (with some sarcasm), “I want to live / I wish I was wish,” and that was Nevermind's eternal tangle. The tenderly surging “On A Plain” features sweet “ah-ah” harmonies and Cobain confessing matter-of-factly, “I got so high I scratched 'till I bled.”
After Cobain died, he became the “voice of a generation,” but while he was here, he was beloved because he got life's blackest jokes (unlike, say, Axl Rose, who raged at the void like he deserved an answer). As a result, the songs on Nevermind are sad, cryptic, hostile, childlike, and yeah, funny. From “Lithium”: “I'm so lonely, but that's okay, I shaved my head.” And for a minute in the early '90's, Cobain's corrosive plaints rasped like the truth-the wisdom of an abused, smart-alecky white kid with a down tuned guitar and dream (inject necessary level of sarcasm; Cobain would've). For whatever confluence of reasons-the Reagan-plague's legacy, the industry need of fresh rock meat after hair-metal, the band's talent (!) - that rasp got heard, and sold. Nevermind topped the pop charts in January 1992, displacing Michael Jackson, and punk's scowly, smirky face entered the youth mainstream. Then we moved on. As the Breeders' Kim Deal sums it up, “Yeah, (Nevermind) changed the way record companies hired VP's and A&R people. But now it's back to being about ass.” Still, after all the death and hype, Nevermind shakes the walls like a storm. You feel it as Grohl's drum rolls make your heart race into the choruses and Novoselic's melodic bass lines give you room to breathe in the roar. You feel it in the way Cobain's discordant guitar never chokes the melody, but stains it with just enough doubt to make it real. But most all, you feel it in Cobain's paper-thin voice, as he stares down the lethal horrors of growing up, and somehow manages to rock a shit-eating grin.
Note: In the same magazine, Spin named “Nevermind” best album of the nineties.