Happy Anniversary, Nirvana's Nevermind
This past Friday, a significant musical anniversary came and went with barely a peep. It was only 19 years to the day the last album to cause a legitimate sea change in popular music - both the industry and the art - was released. Rocks Off knows that was a few days ago, but hey, we had a busy weekend. A very busy weekend.
True, 19 is an odd anniversary to celebrate. Rocks Off just figured we'd get a head start on all the generational hand-wringing that's going to happen on the 20th almost exactly a year from now. And there's going to be a lot.
On September 24, 1991, DGC records released Nirvana's Nevermind, which didn't exactly set the world on fire at first. The album debuted at No. 144 on the Billboard 200, although it did top the magazine's Heatseekers chart its first week. We all know what happened a few months after that: Nevermind booted Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the No. 1 spot in January 1992, "alternative" culture hit the mainstream, a song named after a deodorant became an anthem for millions of disaffected, disinterested youth, Things Were Never The Same Again, yada yada yada.
Rocks Off polled some of our regulars for their thoughts on Nevermind almost 20 years after Nirvana made it safe to go to work or school with holes in your jeans and without washing your hair. Those were the days...
Chris Gray: The first time I remember becoming aware of Nirvana was seeing them on Saturday Night Live in January 1992. I remember liking "Smells Like Teen Spirit," more for the melody than the feedback, but it was when they wrecked the stage after playing "Territorial Pissing" that really impressed me.
I was a junior in high school, and that spring my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. I think he brought the CD with him and I dubbed it onto cassette, or else I eventually bought it at one of the two (two!) record stores in Baybrook Mall. KLOL also started playing "Teen Spirit" and "Come As You Are," so by that summer I was well on my way to becoming a fan. But it took a while.
Although I was already a fan of poppier alternative acts like Depeche Mode and New Order, Nirvana was my first real exposure to anything touched by punk rock, and I liked it a lot. Ever the classic-rock loyalist, though, Pearl Jam was my favorite out of Seattle's Class of '92 at first. But Nevermind got more and more play in my car's cassette player, the Black Crowes and John Mellencamp less and less, and by the time In Utero came out in fall 1993, I was a UT freshman and squarely in the Nirvana camp.
To this day I still kick myself for staying in Austin to study for a piano test instead of driving to Houston to see the band at the AstroArena in December 1993 with the Breeders and Shonen Knife. Especially since I dropped that class not long after, and Kurt wasn't around much longer after that.
In Utero is still my favorite Nirvana album, and honestly, until I saw the anniversary of Nevermind's release was coming up I hadn't given the band a whole lot of thought for a long, long time. Because they are both bluesier, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden have long since replaced both Nirvana and Pearl Jam as my favorite grunge groups.
Although if we're talking about blues - and unless I'm raging drunk, in which case it will always be Soundgarden's "Outshined" - I still think the single best song any Seattle band recorded during those years is Nirvana's cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (or "In the Pines") on MTV Unplugged In New York. Chills, I tell you.
Afghan Whigs aside (blues again), I think I was already disgusted with what U.S. alternative rock had become by about 1995, by which time I had moved on to Britpop via Oasis' Definitely Maybe and then discovered alternative country thanks to a little band called Wilco. Too young for Tupelo, this one.
But I put on Nevermind for the first time in what must be years earlier this afternoon, and damned if "Breed" didn't blow me away all over again. I was one of those typical suburban kids who never quite listened to music the same way again thanks to this album. There were a lot of us.
John Seaborn Gray: I was 13 when someone gave me a Nirvana tape. It was fall of 1992, the year most everybody was into them, and although I'd liked what I heard on the radio, I hadn't yet become a big fan. A girl in my art class had just bought their CD and no longer needed the tape, so she gave it to me.
I took it home, listened to it, and loved it. My infatuation with alternative rock had already started to bloom, and I could tell immediately that they were right up my alley. For a kid just discovering punk, grunge and indie rock, they were a godsend, being equal parts of each. Those drums. I will never forget the way the drums sounded on Nevermind.
To this day I don't know how Butch Vig and Dave Grohl managed to make those drums sound so monstrous and huge, but, having already decided to be a drummer, I now knew the sound I wanted to emulate. Not the note-perfect studio sound of most of the metal drummers of the day, and not the plastic drum-machine snap of pop music. I wanted my drums loud, deep, messy and real like Grohl's.
The next year, I fell even harder for In Utero, but Nevermind is where I discovered that, yes, sometimes it's okay to like what everyone else likes, because every once in a while there's a damn good reason they do so.
Craig Hlavaty: I'm sick of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and after 19 years it sounds like any other classic-rock song to me. But history has shown it to be monolithic in the sense that it was the Neil Armstrong of Nevermind, the first song to touch the face of God.
My favorite song on the album, though, is "Drain You" and has been since I heard the live version on band's concert album From The Muddy Banks of The Wishkah. But when I am feeling moody and sullen, I lunge for "Something In the Way" every time.
The second-best part about Nevermind for me, aside from the songs, is that it made In Utero possible.
Jef With One F: Nevermind may have been one of the most important albums of the '90s, but I honestly can't name a single song off it that wasn't a single. In Utero was the album that was played endlessly with Marilyn's Manson's Antichrist Superstar and Weezer's "Blue Album" on a scratchy tape deck while Misty Aday and I cruised aimlessly through Montrose in a gold Pontiac Whatchmacallit striking up conversations with the prostitutes outside Taco Cabana.
Sure, I was mesmerized by the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Who wasn't, after a steady stream of Styx, Stryper and Cinderella on MTV? I selected the album on my monthly Columbia Record Club catalog, but frankly it never really hit with me. It was was a sign that a certain mindset in music was going to go into hibernation for a decade, a flag, and to me that's all it was.
Maybe I hadn't seen enough pain in my life at that point to respect it. I don't own it anymore, and feel no lack because of it.
Matthew Keever: I'm a late-'80s baby, but everyone in my class listened to Sublime and Nirvana, because it was what their older brothers listened to. And who doesn't look up to their older brother?
I remember wanting to buy Nevermind when I was in seventh or eighth grade, but my parents wouldn't get it for me because of the young child's exposed penis on the cover of the album. I thought they were being ridiculous and, like any other rebellious kid, got a friend to copy me a tape of the album.
I used to fall asleep listening to it. At the time, I'm not too sure if I listened to them for the music or merely for the fact that I knew my parents didn't want me to... but either way, to this day, I still love the album.
Brittanie Shey: It was my dad, as usual, who got me into Nirvana. He'd gone through quite a metal/hard rock streak and was really, really into G N' R when he heard Nirvana for the first time. He went right out and bought the CD and played it for me. I was 11 at the time and couldn't see how it sounded any different than the noise that Axl made. Just a few years later I was head over heels in love with Kurt Cobain and his riot-grrrl wife.
Here's a funny childhood story: Dad and I were at Walmart late one night, looking through the posters. We saw a poster of Nirvana. (I think this one.) This was around the same time that Walmart was refusing to sell the CD because you could see the baby's penis on the cover.
Well, that got my dad in a real tiff. He found some scrap paper on the floor and borrowed a pen from my bag and wrote a note urging people not to buy the poster because of Walmart's hypocritical selling practices, which he stuck to the poster display. For some reason his outrage in that moment has always stuck with me.
I think I also said something about my dad and Nirvana/GnR in the Appetite post? What a character, that guy. And yet, I owe all of my love for music and trouble-makin' to him.
Pete Vonder Haar: I was enjoying my extended senior year at the University of Texas in 1991. Well, not exactly; instead of relaxing at the Hole in the Wall in anticipation of a lucrative post-liberal arts degree job market, I spent that fall holed up in my apartment trying desperately to repairthe damage the late 1980s had done to my GPA.
Unsurprisingly, I was also listening to a lot of music, with Uncle Tupelo's No Depression and Megadeth's Rust In Peace in almost constant rotation.
I'd heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a couple times and honestly didn't care for it. Not because it "sounded like Boston" or whatever, it just didn't grab me. It wasn't until I got Nevermind for Christmas and finally heard it in its entirety that I realized "Teen Spirit" was nowhere near the album's strongest cut.
I listened to the CD quite a bit over the next year, and "Drain You" and "Territorial Pissings" still pop up on the iPod from time to time. But while I'd never deny Nevermind's influence, the best album released in September of 1991 will always be Tupelo's Still Feel Gone.
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