Thursday, March 16, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 18: Nirvana, On Fame and Authenticity

It is what it is.
In a break with past tradition for this series, I’m not going to say a whole lot about Nirvana’s songs and music. I mean, it’s not like Nirvana’s some band pleading for word of mouth buzz to help them break-through. They’re fucking Nirvana, a band you couldn’t get away from for a period of time, at least not without going off the grid. If you haven't heard them, it's because you don't want to.

To get it out of the way, though, my favorite Nirvana songs came out right at the sweet spot in their arc between obscurity (say, playing Seattle’s OK Hotel for a couple dozen or so people over capacity (think it’s about 500, but it’s been years)) and global, cultural-altering fame. So, that’s “Dive” and "Sliver" (actual favorite; those themes) even as I’m not so clear (again) on just how big a role nostalgia plays in this, but, after that, I’ve always been partial to everything about Bleach, whether sound, song structure, production…just, all of it (and, favorites there include, “Blew” (for starting off the album), “Negative Creep” (because that was the song they most clearly got sick of live; the chorus became things like "I like strawberry crepes, I like strawberry crepes"), “Mr. Moustache” and “Love Buzz,” a song I now appreciate in a whole new way after hearing Krist Novoselic switching up the bass during the song’s long middle passage for the first time this past week).

Between Nirvana’s fame and (semi-ongoing) ubiquity, the central question of this entire volume became this: what the hell do you say a band that just about everyone knows, and well?

The first starting point I came up with turned on the question of why, after “Sliver” and “Dive” came out, I basically stopped listening to Nirvana. By way of that approach, I learned I had never listened to Nevermind all the way through. Also, it turns out I never once listened to In Utero. And I mean, never: as the (original) album (Spotify has re-releases that include 70 songs) played through, I kept thinking, “this is what now?” I thought “Scentless Apprentice” was by a completely different band. No joke.

The journey passed through a couple google searches, most of them fairly pointless, but coming across this Magnum Opus on Urban Dictionary, a piece written, no, crafted by the most feverishly-devoted fan of mid-to-late-80s hair metal (or just some guy having a laugh with a character; it’s amazing either way), made the effort 100% worthwhile. By way of balance, I also came across this more sincere, and reasonably reverent, review of Nirvana and its impact on rock history.

I can think of fewer more dead-end arguments than debating which bands or artists are “great.” For what it’s worth, I have a shit-load of discomfort and maybe even grief coming my way when I post thoughts on Kanye West, should people find it – and that’s precisely because I (and that other guy, he of the “reasonably reverent” article) will be saying the same thing about both of them: sure, lots of people love them, but they don’t really float my boat, at least not past low tide. (Actually, I like Kanye better than I like Nirvana at this point, so…)

The main thing I want to talk about here (after all the other shit above, of course), are concepts like fame, selling out, and musical consumption. I was at the show at the OK Hotel when – bear with me, because I’m not totally clear on the time-line – I think Nirvana had signed with whatever major label they finally signed on to (does it matter, really?). The first thing Kurt Cobain said when walking on stage was, “We are corporate rock sellouts,” or something to that effect. And then the show started. And, to paraphrase Hemingway, it was good.

That was it, really. Nirvana got big. I probably saw them after that, but, if I did, I can’t remember where. And, to be clear, I saw a shit-stack of shows after that. Just not Nirvana. I didn’t start hating them or anything; even as the “sellout” debate raged pretty goddamn loud back then (if Generation X has a signature crisis, it revolves around authenticity); instead, I sort of checked out. I do remember Nevermind hitting the shelves, and I remember hearing (as it turns out) most of the songs. What I don’t remember, though, is buying Nevermind. Or thinking to myself, “You know what I’m in the mood for? Nevermind!” They put out a bunch of stuff during their short run, besides the studio stuff noted above: Incesticide (which has my favorite songs that don’t show up on Bleach; probably has something to do with The Vaselines covers), or their famous turn on MTV’s Unplugged (srsly, if you let any Nirvana album bleed past its running time on Spotify, they will go straight fucking to Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” – and, yes, great song, great interpretation, but still Bowie…speaking of a fucking complex upcoming chapter).

If there’s one band who I think got pilloried most for selling out, it’s Green Day. I also saw them play at the OK Hotel and, for the record, that show wasn’t even sorta sold out. We’re talking 200 people, maybe 300. I didn’t live in the Bay Area at the relevant time (or ever), so I can’t imagine the scale of the back-lash when Green Day jumped off Lookout Records, but I remember people being pissy, articles being written (this was before blogs), etc. While I remember that happening with Nirvana, the intensity didn’t feel the same. That could have been a function of my personal circle (pretty tight, pretty open), but there was a fairly persistent sense that, yeah, they “sold out,” but what’s wrong, exactly, with these guys getting paid to make music, even stupid money, so long as it doesn’t sound like selling out?

So, for the record, I think “selling out” is less a monetary question, than an artistic one. If you take the money without changing your sound (or even improving it), what difference does it make?

In the end, I lost interest in Nirvana because everything about listening to them and finding out what they’d do next lost its urgency the minute they went big/global. Basically, I never (consciously; important qualifier) listened to all of Nevermind, and I never listened to In Utero at all because I always assumed that, because it was everywhere – and for a time, inescapable - I’d get to it. And, as noted above, I never actually did. Till now. 24 years later, in the case of In Utero, and only in service of a death-march project that even I don’t fully understand, so…

It’s actually trickier than that. I have some vague memories of saying that I lost interest in Nirvana on the grounds that they’d become “too self-indulgent.” Some part of me hung all that on “Heart-Shaped Box,” the song I’ll always associate with In Utero; the half-formed thought was that they took themselves "too seriously," whatever that means. That thinking was weird and lazy, but also understandable. When Nirvana hit, I was at an age when certain bands and artists did certain things for me – e.g., Nirvana “should” sound some specific way, otherwise, how was that a “Nirvana song”? “Heart-Shaped Box” slipped far enough outside that mold for me to ignore it, and that was that.

The last sentence above should read a little weird to anyone who's read, say, five entries in this series. How many times have I taken issue with an artists’ evolution, or lack thereof? And, to get back into the songs, a couple added tones and elements that explicitly broke from what Nirvana should sound like – here, I’m going with “Something in the Way” from Nevermind (which, because I hadn’t heard it, I assumed covered The Beatles tune), and “Dumb” from In Utero (cello!; also, “Lounge Act” fits here, too, though not so snugly). Those songs really do make me wonder what Nirvana would sound like today, or even just 10-15 years later. Different, I’m sure, but also better, I’m guessing. For all that, my favorite songs from Nirvana’s oeuvre still sound like songs off Bleach – e.g. “Breed” (close to "Bleach pure," love it or hate it) and “Territorial Pissing” - and that had/has everything to do with those songs meeting "Nirvana" expectations. And, now that I’ve spent the last few days with them, I’m getting partial to “Penny Royal Tea” but that’s the last I’ll bore you with songs you already know…and perhaps could fart in key. In peculiar cases…

I was living in Seattle the day Kurt Cobain died. I heard word of his death over NPR, and in the “breaking news” style we all know so well. The weird thing is, that, along with 9/11, are sort of my “Kennedy Assassination” moments, things where I remember every last detail, down to the slow-motion moments. With Kurt Cobain, I remember walking toward a radio I had perched on top of a 2 X 4 in a greenhouse, so I could turn up the volume to make sure I’d heard what I’d just thought I’d heard clearly. That greenhouse doesn't exist anymore (formerly, the corner of 25th and 65th, up in NE), but that vividness of that memory is such that I feel like I could find the same spot in the current structure and re-enact the moment.

I don’t know what that means, or how I feel about that, to this day. I also don’t think I’d rank Nirvana in my personal pantheon of “great” bands. I’m also confident, and highly, that I failed to mention a lot of people’s favorite songs in all of the above. My only thought there is that music is very personal, so…just like your jams, love ‘em even; you do you, boo, etc. For all that, Nirvana was, and is, enormously influential on culture. And I think they bent it towards something good. Real good, even, because they were real, goddammit. That’s a precious commodity wherever you find it.

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