What Nirvana and NEVERMIND mean to me
July 8, 2008 · Print This Article
I was riding home with my mom when I first heard Nirvana. I have no idea how I was allowed to listen to the radio station of my choice that time. As I recall, it was usually her music. Yet this time I had it tuned to a rock radio station.
I heard this song come on. It transfixed me. I was more than mesmerized. We pulled into the driveway while it was still playing. I ran into my room, turned on the radio and called my best friend at the time, Rick (Ricardo). I told him to immediately turn on the radio and listen to this. He got his radio on in time for the last chorus. I had no idea at all what the singer was saying in the chorus, but I was totally gripped by it. I remember saying to Rick, “listen to what he’s saying in the chorus!”
No other song has ever stuck out in my mind the first time I heard it like that one did. I was 17 at the time, a senior in high school, living in Cape Coral, certainly no music mecca of any kind. My family didn’t even have MTV.
The song was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
I don’t remember what happened after the next song came on the radio. I didn’t even rush out to buy the album, NEVERMIND. I had started building a CD collection in 1988, but I didn’t own the CD of NEVERMIND until mid-December. It was given to me as a Christmas present by Becky, a co-worker at the country club I worked at then. The employees participated in a gift exchange. She said it was very hard to find. That CD resides still in my closet here in Tokyo, some thousands of miles from where I first possessed it. From January 1992 to May 1992, that album was played every time Rick and I drove down to the beach to play beach volleyball on Sunday mornings, save for the first track, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That song was given special reverential treatment. It was not meant to be played at just any unspecific time. It was something to be used only wisely, and deliberately. It was perhaps the first time I gave a song that kind of status. I have a long list of them now.
Yet it would not come to be even my favorite song from that album. Perhaps only one person in the whole world knows my absolute favorite song. The most powerful song in the world to me. That person would be Dee, co-owner of the Deepin in Jeonju, South Korea. The song is “Drain You.” It is the song I go to only when all else fails. Dee played this song for me as I took my leave of the Deepin for the last time. As I walked out into the alley from the Deepin, I wept, and strode out into the night as I always do.
In college I recall sitting in a parking lot on USF’s campus, in my car, and for some reason I needed to play that song. In my last college apartment, I also played the song, preparing pillows and using wooden spoons to play the drums along with the song. I believe “Drain You” to contain the best drumming of any song I’ve ever heard.
The way the song slows down in the last third almost to absolute quiet, then slowly builds up, and finally roars in catharsis, it’s the only sure, absolute thing that can break through anything, and relieve whatever pressure or illness that has taken hold of me. “I’ve traveled through and to you to end up in your affection,” which I know is not how the lyrics are written, but it is how I long believed they went, and continue to believe. “You’re my vitamins.” I know what people think the song is really about, but it’s not about that for me. You know what I think the song is about.
The weight of music for me comes from its level of desperation. If it has none, then the music has no weight at all. You can HEAR in Kurt’s voice the desperation, you hear in the way Dave beats the drumheads, trying to break them (he confirmed this in an interview, to my great joy as I always thought that’s what he must have been trying to do) the desperation. They HAVE to play this song. And I HAVE to listen.
In the following years I would come to love Kurt…..as much as almost anybody I’ve ever met in person. I never got to see Nirvana live. For some unknown, but now ludicrous, reason, I didn’t go see them when I had the chance to in Lakeland, Florida. Why didn’t I? I just don’t remember.
When Kurt passed I was in a daze. I did not LOVE Nirvana before this. I did not LOVE Kurt before that. But I did after. And I went about atoning for this. Pearl Jam were due to release a new album after Kurt’s passing, and I needed Eddie to pen a song explaining what happened. And he did. And I saw Pearl Jam perform “Immortality” on Saturday Night Live. And I heard Eddie say, “some die just to live.” And I said thank you Eddie, now I understand. “There is a trapdoor in the sun.” And then at the end of the performance Eddie pulled back his shirt and revealed a black “K” stitched into his shirt over his heart, and the next day when I went to work at MOSI, I fashioned a similar black “K” onto my work shirt and wore it in plain sight.
I am proud that Nirvana released NEVERMIND in 1991. For this album and the musical movement it sat upon the apex of, DEFINED my generation. My generation, had a definition. It had music to define it, unlike any generation since the 60s or 70s had. And I am proud of that and feel very lucky to have been a part of that. I can recall hearing through my dorm room door my neighbors talking about seeing a Nirvana video and saying feverishly to each other, “Did you see Kurt’s EYES?” My generation can any time in the future when asked, what was it like in 1991? What was it like in the 90’s? just simply play NEVERMIND, and answer the question completely. I feel sorry for kids today. I don’t know what they will be able to say defined their generation.
I’ve seen Hole, and I’ve seen Dave in the Foo Fighters three times. But I never got to see Kurt, though he influenced me the most. After all, he was the one that got me to start wearing old, thrift store cardigans (see above photo) after seeing him wear one for the MTV Unplugged performance. And he was the one who couldn’t fake it, couldn’t bring himself to perform when he wasn’t feeling it because playing music was like making art for him, and one cannot perform art on a schedule. And he was left-handed. And though I haven’t worn my cardigans in years, I think I will again when the cool of autumn returns. And I think I’ll continue to feel things are, with the lights out, less dangerous.
That’s what Nirvana and NEVERMIND means to me.
Please share your experience of hearing Nirvana or NEVERMIND for the first time in the comments below.