Friday, October 25, 2013

Nirvana


Sometimes life comes along and makes sure you can't feel too original. In this case, I'm a 42 year old from the Seattle area and my once and future favorite band is... Nirvana.

Oh, they're not always my favorite band of the moment, but as much as I come back to them and how I feel when I do, they are definitely my favorite band overall in this lifetime.

I think I started this round of binging with the news of the 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of In Utero. I've listened to that a few times now. It's great to hear. I'm especially happy the original Steve Albini mixes of "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" are finally officially released. Sometimes when you've lived with something long enough, you grow used to it and the greatness is taken for granted. It's good to get a jolt sometimes to get yourself to really listen again and appreciate it.

"In Utero" is a special case for that, carrying with it the legacy of Kurt Cobain's death.

In Q & A: Dave Grohl on Kurt's Last Days and the Making of "In Utero" by Jeff Kravitz, Dave Grohl is quoted as saying "The album should be listened to as it was the day it came out. That's my problem with the record. I used to like to listen to it. And I don't anymore, because of that. To me, if you listen to it without thinking of Kurt dying, you might get the original intention of the record. Like my kids. They know I was in Nirvana. They know Kurt was killed. I haven't told them that he killed himself. They're four and seven years old. So when they listen to 'In Utero', they'll have that fresh perspective – the original intention of the album, as a first-time listener.

"Someday they will learn what happened. And it'll change that. It did for me."

It did for everyone, I think. That and Nirvana Unplugged feel the most haunted. It's one of the many odd, even ironic, twists of Nirvana's legacy in that both felt vigorous and filled with life prior to Kurt's death.

Listening to it again, I got some of that back. A tremendous gift really.

Temporarily at least, the experience made me think I was up to finally reading Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross. This turned out to be not entirely accurate. Oh, I got through it, so I can check it off my list of things to do, so there's that. Frankly, among the things I'll credit it with doing a good job of stoking a lot of feelings and memories that I didn't necessarily want to revisit. Nor did I find it particularly productive to do so.

So, while it's on my mind, I'll share my thoughts on it.

First of all, it includes remarkably little praise for Bleach, the band's first album. Everything except "About a Girl", is dismissed entirely by nearly everyone quoted. This is odd to me, since where I come from, this is a popular album overall. If anything it suffers from too much hipster praise as their best album for the sole virtue of it being less well-known as well as less accessible.

I'm being terribly unfair and hypocritical is saying this of course, as I have at various times called The Crover Demo, the 10 song demo they recorded with Dale Crover of The Melvins under the supervision of Jack Endino to secure their deal with SubPop Records.

(There are some interesting details on the recording of that demo at Jack Endino's Nirvana FAQ.)

On the right day, I'd still consider giving that answer. It really is a fantastic collection of recordings. I even prefer that version of Spank Thru, which was re-recorded later due to the band's dissatisfaction with that recording. I'd question my motivations in giving that answer, suspecting more than a good share of pretentiousness, but not my taste.

My second thought on the Charles Cross book is that it feels, to me as an observer, like much of it loses the forest for the trees. He's did a lot of fantastic research and it shows, there are details and facts that I never read anywhere else, but somehow it never really evokes a three-dimensional person of Kurt Cobain for me.

Don't get me wrong, we're all to complicated to be "captured" in all of our depth and complexity by a single volume, however if you read Come As You Are, the official biography written by Michael Azerrad, it evokes a person. It's an officially sanctioned book and probably pretties up some details that Cross goes into more depth on, but it feels like it finds an essence of some kind that you can latch onto.

The third and last note I wanted to point out is the ending where he plays out Kurt's final days in a novel style. I have no issue with the speculation based on the facts, but I'm uncomfortable seeing it done so nakedly without any clarification where the speculation begins and ends. It's particularly frustrating for me because it never really captures Kurt as a fully rounded person well enough to make this convincing enough to not stand out as a gross presumption.

As it happens, while reading too many details about some aspects of Nirvana's career might not be good for my mental state, for a whole variety of reasons, nothing is more cathartic and life-affirming for me as listening to a shit-ton of their music. I've generally moved onto my Spotify Playlist. Unlike a lot of my playlists, which are fairly complete discographies with only a couple of songs removed or substituted for live or other alternate versions, my Nirvana playlist is kind of a somewhat living organism that I tinker with constantly. It has very few of the original recordings, all of which I've listened to hundreds of times.

In some cases the alternate versions reflect versions selected largely for their novelty, however some, such as the version of All Apologies recorded at the 1992 Reading Festival, are most assuredly my preferred versions. And, of course, some of the alternate versions are growing on me. All due respect to Butch Vig in particular, I do prefer my Nirvana rough and a little sloppy... I prefer most things that way, I suppose, but I'm rambling on about Nirvana right now.

I also put on the full OK Hotel Concert from 1991. This show is famous for being the first performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit. I was watching it while Conan was running around playing. He would stop occasionally and rock out, but mostly went on about the business of play.

Anyone doubting the continuing legacy and power of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", let me tell you this...

Conan is a super-duper music loving kid. Kim introduced him to Can't Hold Us by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and he was regularly singing a very clear and recognizable version of it, even if he couldn't make out the words. He even did the "Macklemo-oh-ore" bit. Then he discovered Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, which he also did a decent job of.

(I wouldn't have ever bothered to notice the similarity between the Mylie Cyrus song and that fucktastic Goiter-guy's intolerable earworm from a year or two back, if I hadn't heard it sung by a two-year-old in "nah-nah-nahs", trying to figure out what it is.)

Out of all of these songs, Conan picked that out to sing.

This is not some polished, nice version. This is a punk rock thumping on a still incomplete song. You can click the link under the song's title above to see. He picked it out and sung it for the rest of the night... at least until his mommy came home and I wanted him to show off his awesome new discovery, of course.

The years have been awkward for this punk band with pastiche lyrics that feature more than their share of throwaway bumper-sticker humor lines. The selling of Kurt Cobain has made him into a ghost before his time, a sad poet, an enigmatic rock tragedy.

I grew up in suburban Washington, not far from the another of its rural industrial areas, mine was Snohomish County, his was Grays Harbor County, it's not an insignificant difference, I know, but in this context it's similar enough for my recognition. I recognize the humanity of Kurt through all of that without any problem. He never seems (or seemed) much different than the folks I grew up around. That was the appeal all along.

The Kurt sold now on giant posters, t-shirts and whatever else you can find, doesn't feel like that to me at all. He's a stereotype, a character from a mediocre '70s b-movie... although certainly one I would have seen. I imagine an over-earnest rip off of Phantom of the Paradise or maybe Wild in the Streets, for some reason.

But I'm coming back to the point that if I turn it up, enjoy the interplay between Kurt's guitar and Krist Novoselic's bass and any of the tremendous drummers, the way Kurt uses his voice as another instrument in the mix, blending steam-of-consciousness lyrics with seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics with silly references with heartfelt statements of his inner feelings, it all just slips away. The stereotype-for-sale suicide star drops out and the same old comfortable person slips in and I feel all the same excitement I felt 20 years ago and more.

The generic complaint against Nirvana has always been that it's "depressing". I don't remember hearing it too often when they were together, but after Kurt's death, everyone who made it seemed assured that they had "always" said so. Who am I to argue?

The striking thing to me is that it's not. It's incredibly exciting. It makes me excited to be alive. I remember that being my reaction to hearing it the first time.

"Holy fuck! Someone's saying that. That's amazing."

Even something like Negative Creep. If anything has a right to sound like a downer, it's that - Well, and Downer, I suppose. - but it doesn't. It sounds like a fucking celebration! I can't begin to explain how freeing that was to me as a young man, just coming out of adolescence into an uncertain future.

So, here, I've got an idea. Put on "In Utero" and instead of picturing him looking dour or sitting in the corner moping, look through these Pictures of Kurt Cobain Looking Happy posted by Emily Temple and just let the music take over.

Was Nirvana the last band that really mattered? There's a good case for it.

Oh, as I said, I've obsessed over some other bands since then - Judas Priest, ZZ Top and Motörhead come to mind - but their careers all began before Nirvana.

I'm not sure that's as important as the fact that when I listen to their music, I feel ecstatic and like I can conquer the world. We all need that feeling occasionally.


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