Breaking News: Nirvana Was The Last Band That Really Mattered
As media outlets around the world just reported, Nirvana has been nominated as an inductee into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. This is, of course, no surprise. In 2011, Nirvana celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind. In September of this year, fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of In Utero. Everyone knows it was only a matter of time until Nirvana was everywhere they didn’t want to be. Institutionalized.
Nirvana was the last “biggest band in the world.” They were the last band that changed the world. The last band that drew a line across music history and announced there was the time before us and then there’s the time after us. They’re definitely first ballot hall-of-fame candidates. They’re fucking Nirvana!
Writing hugely popular pop songs that fans and critics both love ain’t easy. It’s pretty much… The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Kanye West and Nirvana. And Nirvana did it ugly and sludgey, playfully dark and obscenely sarcastic, meaningful and meaningless, and still somehow they made music that remains rather timeless. Now, before they become further enshrined as museum pieces, or sold as Halloween costumes, let’s crank this shit up loud enough to piss off your neighbors, and really consider why Nirvana was the last band that had a chance to change the world. One key reason is obvious, timing. They blew up just before the internet. And thus, they were the last ones to grab everyone’s attention and kill off what came before them.
In order to consider Nirvana, every discussion must begin and end with Kurt Cobain. Even though he was just another skinny metal white kid from bum-fuck Aberdeen, in rural eastern Washington where towns smell like industrial paper mills and logging trucks crowd the two lane highways, when I think of Kurt Cobain I think of someone else. And the person I most closely associate with Kurt Cobain isn’t from the Northwest, or even from the ‘90s, although he was punk rock. The person I most associate with Kurt is another sensitive artist, another genius who wasn’t really built well for this world but his hand changed the direction of the culture and left us with lots of beautiful shit to contemplate and appreciate, the painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Think about it for a second and the parallels will jump out at you.
- In the artworld, there was the time before JMB and the time after.
- They both left their homes of divorce to live as a homeless artist.
- They both relied on women, and were advocates of the strength/power of women.
- They both made art that felt like the creation of a developmentally-stunted child.
- They were both obsessed with the human body from a clinical, medical angle.
- And they both share an odd connection with Courtney Love. IRL, she was obviously Kurt Cobain’s wife. In the movie Basquiat she plays one of JMB’s romantic interests. Which is just a funny strange coincidence that they were both paramours of Courtney. (For the record: I fucking love Courtney Love and everything she does, so I consider it a lucky blessing for both.)
- Neither of them could ever find the peace they were seeking. Ever.
- And lastly, of course, they both died at 27.
When you go back and consider Nirvana’s influence on the ‘90s and beyond, Kurt Cobain’s influence on our culture it’s just as obvious and palpable as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s still-expanding influence on our culture. In their primes, both men chafed at the monkey suits they were asked to wear, both acted out against the audiences that mocked them, and consequently, both lead short, brilliant, uneasy, heroin-sustained lives. And now, just as street art is being enshrined in the museums of the world, Kurt Cobain’s ghost will be enshrined in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. The ultimate outsiders are being canonized by the white-haired insiders. So be it.
Quick! Let’s appreciate Nirvana for the band they were before we get soaked by the approaching monsoon of bullshit and hype about what a great band they were.
So here they are: The Top 10 Reasons Nirvana Was The Last Band That Really Mattered
1. They killed off hairspray-metalhead cock rock poseurs
Nirvana murdered Sunset Strip cock rock right there on national television. With one performance they declared the whole genre irrelevant. They assassinated cock rock in front of millions of people, all around the world, all watching MTV. Here’s the clip of Nirvana playing their song Lithium at the ‘92 MTV Video Music Awards. This clip has everything!
If you didn’t watch the clip, here’s the gist: Kurt Cobain pretends to play their song Rape Me, horrifying the MTV execs, only to transition into Lithium, a song they band previously agreed on playing. They play a sick version of the song, toward the end of the performance, Kris Novoselic throws his bass way up in the air, loses sight of it in the stage-lights, it falls back down, cracks him in the head, he crashes to the stage, gets back up, staggers around as he’s losing consciousness. Unaware, the bassist has suffered a major head wound, at the end of the song, as if Kurt wants to make it perfectly clear who they are and what they’ve come to do, he ends the song in this fury of squelch and buzz and the whine of feedback. He stabs his amp with his guitar, a few times. He tosses his guitar, climbs up the stacked speakers, pulls them down and sends a speaker cabinet tumbling, like he was a willful toddler and they were his toy blocks. Then he stands, balances a moment, and then sorta throws himself down onto the drum kit. Meanwhile, after crawling out from behind that same drum kit, Dave Grohl runs on stage and finds the mic. He shouts his now-famous mockery of Axl Rose, and by extension, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and every other band like them.
This is the moment when Dave Grohl made it clear that Axl Rose and cock rock were no longer relevant. He repeatedly mocked Axl in a sing-song voice from the center of the destroyed stage, “Hi, Axl! Hi, Axl!” Rumor has it, Nirvana was responding to a pre-show fight backstage between the two bands.
And well, after that performance of Lithium, kids stopped wanting to be in or listen to hair metal bands. Suddenly, those dudes looked like badly hair-sprayed rock n’ roll zombies caught rotting in some LA nudie bar.
Here’s the TL;DR edited video version of the highlights I just mentioned:
2. Nirvana wrestled with the moribund notion of “selling-out”
They were the last important band to really struggle with that now-lost notion of what it means (or meant) to sell-out. They believed there was The Man and you sure as shit couldn’t be on his side, at least not and respect yourself. But yet, they signed major label deals, played videos on MTV and chased that fame buzz like every other corporate whore on their same major label. Yet somehow, with a certain honest oxymoronic quality, they wore their new success and mainstream appeal uncomfortably like a wet wool Goodwill sweater. Nirvana always wanted their audience to know, they were doing it to get their music out to their crowd. But obviously, they wanted the fame, too. They were the last time this paradox was still a worthwhile or interesting question. Now, we’re all hustlers. These days, there’s so many distractions any public awareness of your brand is actually really fucking valuable. It’s hard to get everyone’s attention.
Juxtapose their more innocent media reality against ours and you look at this Rolling Stone cover. It’s the perfect image of their punk rock innocence meeting the ever-hungry corporate media machine.
This is Nirvana’s first Rolling Stone cover:
3. And then there’s… Dave Grohl’s drums!
The guy pounded the heaviest drum sound since John Bonham and Keith Moon quit the game. He’s a drummer you can identify after just a few beats. If it sounds like someone is playing drums with two sledgehammers for drumsticks, then you know it’s Dave Grohl. Seriously, he’s one of the best drummers… ever.
4. And don’t forget… Kris Novoselic’s weirdly dark and wryly honest Eastern European sense of humor/timing
Here’s an interview with all three members of Nirvana. But Kris Novoselic sorta takes over the interview. He starts talking about logs, average life expectancy, he urges viewers to slack off, and suggests they don’t have babies; he’s basically fucking with the journalist, but in a way you don’t see our modern self-serious, always-on, always-selling-themselves, equivalent celebrities do today. He’s both smart and silly, yet strangely very real and trenchant at the same time. He plays the holy fool. He’s a lot like a very drunk/stoned Louis CK.
“…People standing on escalators! That is a testament to human laziness!”
5. Kurt Cobain was the smartest/coolest pop star since John Lennon
It’s rare that a major musician/celebrity/brand-name pop star is bitterly funny, bitingly acid funny, subversive and angry, yet also softly sentimental and obviously inwardly rather tender, and apparently, often-mending. Like John Lennon before him, Kurt Cobain was a beautiful/horrible paradox. If you’re a hardcore Nirvana fan, here are three different interviews with an English music journalist (so, you know they’re good) all recorded in a busy pub.
One is just after Bleach was released. The second is just before Nevermind was released. And the third is just after Nevermind was released. It’s fascinating stuff if you’ve ever wanted to eavesdrop on a conversation worth hearing between a relaxed Kurt Cobain and a smart interviewer. Kurt was on that Lennon level of being on a next-level fame ride. He anticipated it, so he could play with it. Here’s the interviews.
6. Steve Albini produced what is arguably their best album: In Utero
I have a huge soft spot for Incesticide, but it’s mostly covers. If I were asked, on my deathbed, and I had only one last breath to say my answer to the question which is Nirvana’s best album, I’d have to say… it’s In Utero.
For one, it’s a real album. It’s intended to be one coherent whole. And two, it was produced by ridiculously talented punk rock legend/producer Steve Albini. He came in and saved Nirvana from the possible excesses of their success. His no-bullshit attitude was key for them and that album. Together they made a rather perfect album. Here’s the letter Albini wrote when he proposed how he wanted the recording process to work. He’s British, if that helps.
7. They could actually play the blues
It’s not easy. Just ask Everlast from House of Pain. And don’t get me wrong, he did it well. But Nirvana, and specifically Kurt Cobain believably ached with the blues. And now, every day their version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” turns more and more kids on to the blues and artists like Leadbelly. Thanks to YouTube, every day kids around the world become fans of the blues because of Nirvana. And let’s cut the shit, Nirvana’s version of that particular Leadbelly song puts pennies on eyes. It’s a murderous track.
8. They wore dresses to rebel against the curses of fame, fans and fortune
All three dudes in Nirvana were adamant feminists. They were fun, cool allies who were motivated by their shared riot grrrl feminist attitudes, which were ahead of their times. And this time-divide left them hating part of their audience. Some of the people (asshole dudes) who showed up to their stadium shows and sang their songs back to them were also the ones bullying people in the crowd, and would most likely be bullying/harassing people the next day when they were all back at high school. The same sort of frathead jockstraps that made their younger years hell were now some of their biggest fans. To show the fans where exactly the band stood, Nirvana put on dresses and made this video.
9. They made one of the ten best music videos ever: Heart-shaped Box
To this day, Heart-shaped Box is still one of the coolest videos ever shot. And perhaps, most importantly, it still says something about who we are, twenty years later. After shooting four music videos with Kevin Kerslake, Nirvana turned to Dutch photographer, Anton Corbijn. And together they made a visual wonder, strange as it is beautiful.
In the video, there’s an old man. He’s naked, except for a loincloth wrap, and he wears a Santa hat. He uses a wooden ladder to climb onto a Christian cross. A little blonde girl in a KKK hood leaps to grab human fetuses dangling like fruit from a tree. But she can’t reach them. An obese woman in a skinsuit with her organs painted on it walks with arms outstretched, reaching. And she smiles. The mechanical crows. The surreal poppy field. The set and background look like the Wizard of Oz painted by someone on bad acid. And each frame was hand-tinted to create the super-saturated colors, to give it that fever dream feel, to make all the vibrant colors feel like the old Technicolor movies. And, to be cute, they even had a heart-shaped box for Nirvana to perform inside.
Speaking to the Daily Beast , Anton Corbijn described working on the video with Kurt Cobain:
Generally, the ideas for videos are mine, with sometimes an idea from a singer or a band worked into it. But usually the ideas are sparked off by me listening to a song. I tend to need a long time. I need to play the song 20 or 30 times in a row while I do exercise or sit in the bath; these are places where I always get ideas. But Kurt’s ideas came fully formed, along with the song. Kurt was so incredibly detailed in his ideas, and they were so good, that of course I went with those. I would say that I contributed, idea-wise, maybe 15 percent.
…He was a totally unique figure. He was visionary. For somebody to write a song and have a detailed vision for the video, or anything connected to it, that’s really rare. I have not encountered it to that level elsewhere.
10. Relationships formed by the band… spun-off and created talented offspring
Never forget, Nirvana also gave us… The Foo Fighters …and Francis Bean Cobain. Both of whom make the world a better place.
(11. Bonus Reason) Even VH-1 agrees with me about Nirvana…and we never agree about anything!
VH-1 did one of their pop culture specials, they focused on grunge music, and well, here’s what their glass menagerie of talking heads had to say:
Nirvana was the world’s last great punk band. They were the last “biggest band in the world.” They were the last band to be “as big as the Beatles.” And their Nirvana-mania level of fame was based on their talent and audience’s love. They weren’t a product of super-clever corporate-sponsored word-of-mouth campaigns, cross-platform brand awareness, big money ad dollars outreach or hyper-targeted youth marketing. Nirvana just fucking rocked like it meant something to them. And that was the secret to their appeal.
Unlike the pop-punk bands that followed them, there’s no reason to attach the word pop to them, even though Nirvana was the most pop and wrote some of the best pop songs of the last 20 years. Just like the Fab Four they transcended the limits of pop music and created timeless songs that remain new for every kid who hears them for the first time. I never got to see them perform live. Which sucks mad donkey balls. But I watch their live shows on YouTube. Which, I guess is the next best thing. And the videos are unreal.
It’s been 20 years since their last album was released. Yet, Nirvana doesn’t feel dated, at least, not the way the hair metal bands, or boy bands, or even West Coast gangsta rap, all sound dated. Play their track Radio Friendly Unit Shifter and ask yourself if it could be a hit today. Their music remains very much alive.
Some time next year, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame plans to swallow them whole, gobble up Nirvana and claim them as their own the way the white hairs of the art world have claimed Basquiat, Haring, Schnabel, Blondie, punk rock, early Bronx hip-hop and all the rest of the New York art scene that gave us so much of the cultural fuel and energy of ‘80s, and even on into the ‘90s.
None of that art belongs in a museum, not that way. It needed new museums. We didn’t have them. But now we do. At least, for music videos we do. Ignore the museum and hall of fame. YouTube is our new museum space, and it’s an evolving hall of fame. And that’s where Nirvana lives. That’s where they can be found playing their music.
Go and seek them there!
Here are Nirvana’s Top 10 Music Videos
2. In Bloom
Here are their full albums:
4. In Utero
Here are some live performances:
And here’s a full concert:
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