(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every week we review an album from Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest albums list.)
On my boss’ desk, there is a book about John Lennon and a picture of Kurt Cobain side by side. Directly in front of them, a Jesus action figure stands with arms at his sides ready to heal or save or be ironic.
On Canada Day I walked through a food truck festival trying to decide if I’d eat the deep-fried risotto balls or the tamales (I had both). A boy, no more than five years old, walked by with a classic Nirvana t-shirt. You know, the one that’s supposed to be a smiley face but instead has Xs for eyes and a squiggly line for a mouth. The kid was cool, if five year olds can be considered cool.
At a bridge in Aberdeen, Washington (which I featured in a post here) a shrine has been erected to Cobain. He may have slept under this bridge a one point in his life. The closing song of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, Something in the way, may have been about Cobain’s life under that bridge.
At number 18 on Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest albums list you’ll find Nevermind. With lyrics that rhyme mulatto, albino, mosquito and libido, it captured minds, created fashion trends and changed music. It replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to capture the top spot on Billboard’s charts. It has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
Music is supposed to be emotional. Nirvana captured the prevailing emotion of the time and put it into an album that Cobain promptly rejected as being too mainstream and clean. The emotion it captured was angst. The music was noise.
I think the Drive-by Truckers said it best in their song Self Destructive Zones:
It was 1990 give or take I don’t remember
when the news of revolution hit the air
The girls hadn’t even started taking down our posters
when the boys started cutting off their hair
The radio stations all decided angst was finally old enough
it ought to have a proper home
Dead fat or rich nobody’s left to bitch
about the goings’ on in self destructive zones.
Listening to Nevermind again, with intent, I’m surprised to notice that Smells Like Teen Spirit starts the album. For some reason I thought their biggest hit was buried a little later on.
Released in 1991, I was shocked last year when people began celebrating the 20th anniversary of this album. It feels like yesterday that I was unwrapping the cellophane of my cd and slipping it into my Sanyo ghettoblaster. The album changed the way I looked at music. It was so different from anything I’d heard before. I grew out my hair, started wearing flannel and Doc Martens and largely stopped caring what others thought of me. Coincidentally, I also got my first girlfriend who had purple hair and wore Grateful Dead t-shirts.
Today as I listen, the album feels as fresh as it did the day that I first opened it. The cover is as iconic as ever – the picture of a baby in a pool chasing after an American dollar on a fish hook is brilliant.
I suppose each generation has its music milestones and for me it’s Nirvana and grunge. It stood for something and it stirred in me the reality that all was not well. Overnight, noise became music. That noise was born of discontent. It was visceral. It was real.
There isn’t a bad song on this album and each song brings something a little different. The sheer diversity of sounds is astounding considering this was a nascent genre. While I’ll always believe that Bleach captured the ethos of Nirvana better, you can’t argue against the influential power of Nevermind.
Cobain reflected on the success of Nevermind, and Nirvana in general, in his song Serve the Servants off of the album In Utero:
Teenaged angst has paid off well
Now I’m bored and old
Self-appointed judge’s judge
More than they have sold.
20 years later, I miss my long hair, my tattered jeans and my trusty eight hole Doc Martens, but I still have a rebellious streak, born in those early days of Nirvana when being different felt right.
My boss has a picture of Cobain next to Lennon – think about that for a second. Not Keith Richards or Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson. Cobain and Lennon – side by side. I want to ask why, but deep down inside I already know the answer. It’s because they stood for something more than music and as a result they changed music’s history.
Don’t ask me what the Jesus action figure means.
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