1991: Nevermind released

Get ready for all the hype, blather, “news” and generally ignorant bullshit about how Nevermind allegedly changed the musical landscape…unless it has already started where you live.

Spin got a head start with its August issue but in defense of the magazine, they did a thoughtful job on the reminiscing by interviewing more than musicians: comedians (Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron), actors, authors, the band’s former manager and filmmakers (John Waters). It was amusing to see Billy Ray Cyrus amongst the gaggle. Should you see the issue, there’s an infographic on page 43 showing various factoids. Hard to believe Nirvana’s label (DGC) only shipped 46,000 copies at the beginning. Then again, I wouldn’t have put much stock in Nirvana neither after hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I initially mistook it for the Cult since they had been trying to be Metal with Electric in 1987. When I learned the single really came from this “new Seattle band” called Nirvana, I disliked them even more because in 1991 Seattle was famous for Queensryche, Heart and Mother Love Bone/Temple of the Dog. Ergo, they were another pseudo Metal/Dinosaur Rock act. People forget that Heavy Metal wasn’t dead too: Guns n’ Roses and Metallica were still relevant and both released records around the same time as Nirvana.

My stance softened a bit once I started receiving WXRT on my stereo. The Chicago tastemaker would play better tracks like “Come As You Are” and “Lithium.” I  scored a cheaper new copy from a lady who received it as an unwanted gift. How hard a laughed when I opened the jewel box and saw the blurry photo of Kurt Cobain giving the finger. Butch Vig took a similar cue with Garbage’s debut. “In Bloom” proved to be catchy while the rest was tolerable, I didn’t think it would set the world on fire. Nirvana’s loud, angry schtick was just a modified, less-polished version of what Minneapolis (the previous “it” city) was known for in the mid-to-late Eighties: see Husker Du, Soul Asylum and the Replacements.

Obviously I was wrong as Nevermind went on to be my generation’s Dark Side of the Moon…an overplayed, tiresome album which became annoyingly ubiquitous thanks to lazy radio programmers, MTV, the clueless media and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. If it weren’t for Nirvana, the alternative (no pun intended) would’ve been U2’s insufferably pretentious The Joshua Tree; often heard blaring from numerous dorm-room stereos until Achtung Baby proved U2’s fallibility. The fashion/sheep orders soon followed: flannel, Doc Martin’s, piercings, smoking weed, heroin chic, dirty-mussy hair and tattoos. The recording industry’s panic to sign everything in Seattle was a nice side effect as it brought attention to the city’s more diverse sound: The Posies, Young Fresh Fellows, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains and unfortunately Pearl Jam. One friend I knew in Bloomington predicted the rise of the latter and it would come at Nirvana’s expense, how right he was as “Hurl Jam” continues to exist.

The Grunge trend cascaded over to Chicago through producer Butch Vig’s proximity to the city and made Smashing Pumpkins a bigger phenomenon than they deserved to be. You can hear its DNA in Weezer’s and Silverchair’s debut too. Sadly, all acts’ breakthrough albums share Nevermind‘s played-to-death notoriety with so-called “Alternative” radio stations. Trust me, if you tune in Austin’s 101X, you’d think your radio was replaced by the crappiest mix tape of 1995.

For those who claim Cobain was a troubled genius, In Utero proves them dead wrong and demonstrates how Nirvana was a one-album wonder, there was nothing left in the creative gas tank. Had he not killed himself, the band would’ve limped along for a couple more years until it imploded with Dave Grohl quitting to form Foo Fighters. Trust me, things weren’t going well as Utero failed to live up to the hype. Their appearance on MTV’s Unplugged show featuring a Bowie cover gave them a brief boost but Nirvana was on the fast lane to being a guest on VH-1’s Bands Reunited in 15 years.

Cobain’s death didn’t come as a major shock, I figured his well-known heroin addiction would catch up with him eventually or worse, he’d become a born-again Christian post-rehab. I remember almost trying not to gag on my food because I was laughing at Kurt Loder of MTV breaking the news during lunch that day; he advised other dumb, copy-catting teenagers to seek help if they felt like joining Cobain. My prediction about Death as a great career move did come true. Today you see T-shirts and posters canonizing him with the pantheon of other overrated rock stars who share his early demise (and unlikely future potential): Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Tim Buckley. Amy Winehouse clocking out this year got the comparisons rolling within hours of the news.

My post isn’t all piss and vinegar. Nevermind is a product of its day. The Eighties were officially over, Heavy Metal was dying (it just didn’t know yet) and Alternative/College stuff was dominated by the Madchester genre. Nirvana’s success was timing as it gave voice to a younger generation’s seething, pent-up anger like the Sex Pistol’s did 14 years earlier through Never Mind the Bollocks. Both weren’t really meant to last once they achieved their goal of kicking the musical establishment in the ass, a paraphrased quote I must give credit to Billy Idol on.

Beyond Spin, VH-1 did an intriguing Classic Albums episode covering Nevermind. Butch Vig’s stories on how he often had to trick Kurt into using certain recording techniques are funny. Dave Grohl never ceases to amuse me when he’s interviewed and how well he handles Nirvana/Cobain questions.

Tonight I’m going to see Weird Al Yankovic, a guy whose career was also revived by Nirvana’s success, something I sure some find horrifying. If you watch his 1999 appearance on VH-1’s Behind the Music, the Prince of Parody almost retired since 1988’s Even Worse and 1989 movie UHF did poorly. He didn’t want to ride on Michael Jackson’s coattails for a third time so he considered getting a real job. Thankfully Cobain’s unintelligible singing inspired him to write “Smells Like Nirvana” but there was a complication. Despite the law protecting parodies from requiring permission, Weird Al prefers to get it from the original artists before releasing his take. Due to Nirvana being overwhelmingly popular and unreachable, it looked it wasn’t going to happen, the joke’s immediacy would be lost. Then they were scheduled to be the musical guest on SNL. In 1992, Victoria Jackson was still a cast member before she became a bat-shit crazy Teabagger and Al worked with her on his movie. Through her, Al got Kurt on the phone after the rehearsal. The conversation went something like this:

Weird Al: Kurt, hi, this is Weird Al Yankovic. I want to know if I can do a parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for my next record.
Kurt: I don’t know. Is it going to be about food?
Weird Al: (taken aback) Umm, no. It’s about how no one can understand the lyrics of your song.
Kurt: Oh, OK. As long as it’s not about food you can do it.

Dave Grohl concludes the anecdote best, “I knew Nirvana had arrived when we were being made fun of by Weird Al.”

The year 1991 does have a special place in my heart, it just doesn’t have much space allocated to Nevermind, a footnote at best really. Below are 10 albums which I enjoyed much more, I’m not ashamed of owning them and I think they should be given consideration:

  1. Woodface – Crowded House: The band’s pinnacle and best work with producer/unofficial member Mitchell Froom.
  2. Worldwide – everything but the girl: Not quite as good as 1990’s The Language of Life but had memorable tracks before they went Techno in 1995.
  3. Kinky – Hoodoo Gurus: The Aussie fad ushered in by INXS had ended yet this was the quartet’s last solid album I would listen too from start to finish.
  4. Honey LingersVoice of the Beehive: Their Partridge Family cover overshadows the better singles “Adonis Blue” and “I’m Shooting Cupid.”
  5. Doo Dad – Webb Wilder: I mistook him for Nick Lowe when I first heard “Tough It Out.” Another killer-no-filler album of out-of-vogue Rockabilly.
  6. International Pop OverthowMaterial Issue: The big-label debut of Chicago’s best Power Pop trio. The Pumpkins killed their success in my opinion.
  7. Chorus – Erasure: The Brit duo regained the mojo they had lost with their EP Crackers Int’l and disappointing 1989 LP Wild!.
  8. Tin Machine II – Tin Machine: Bowie’s band experiment was a commercial failure to the general public. I loved it, especially “You Belong In Rock & Roll.”
  9. Lulu – Trip Shakespeare: Finale to the lesser-known Minneapolis band who often visited my alma mater. They would resurface years later as Semisonic.
  10. Blow Up – The Smithereens: Their for college radio because of Nirvana. It may explain why their next album had a song called “Sick of Seattle.”

Consider the above list my middle finger back at Kurt Cobain…and the darkly humorous Magic Eightball site he inspired hasn’t been around for years. I always loved the list of frequently asked questions it had, namely, “Who is the better air-hockey player? Ben Franklin or Jimi Hendrix?”

I know I ran pretty long. We could blame Courtney E Smith for the recent burst of inspiration!

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