Tuesday, February 12, 2008

[010] Nevermind

Album: Nevermind
Artist: Nirvana
Release Date: October 1991
Label: DGC/Geffen
Producer: Butch Vig & Nirvana

"The finest day that I ever had
Was when I learned to cry on command
It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don't make sense"
- from "On A Plain"

I don’t always want to be a revisionist, but the narrow-minded inhabitants of the world continually open their mouths and incense me enough to fly off the geek handle, pushing me into that corner. Nirvana’s Nevermind is one of those albums, the ones that make me want to tell the zealots to calm the fuck down. Like Public Enemy’s Nation Of Millions, and even films like Scorcese’s Goodfellas and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Nevermind is every bit as good as everyone says it is, and yet it’s also supremely overrated. People get too wrapped in the historical significance and they’re liable to go spouting exaggerations that fluff the piece up to a ridiculous level. It’s like, hey man, it’s basically a fuckin’ Punk Rock record; you gotta take a step back and listen to it like he didn’t off himself right when you happened to be at your most impressionable age. In order to form a real opinion, you need to not take it too seriously and pretend like it’s the winter of ‘91 again; for me, that’s when that Indian girl who sat next to me in Mr. Fields’ English class had just dubbed the album on a cassette for me. Playing devil’s advocate for a second, it is nearly a perfect album, thrown together with the same kind of effortlessness as A Tribe Called Quest had on Low End Theory, so it deserves its respected place in the halls of justice, the centerpiece of the “little bands that could” wing. When you clear all this extraneous bullshitting away though, you’re left with 11 great songs and 1 pretty good one, played with maximum verve by a trio at the peak of the powers, and put on tape to sound as big as possible (The end of “Stay Away” sounds like a plane crash). If it sounds like I’m being too matter-of-fact and demystifying Nirvana’s capital-C capital-A “Classic Album”, well, that’s tough - suck it up. There was no ex-stripper punk succubus, no misanthropic producer for unnecessary street cred, no nervous A&R men, no overly serious drug problems or mental disorders (that we know of) – just a fuckin’ good band making a fuckin’ good Rock record. I’m not here trying to trick you into liking these albums; I’m simply calling it like I see it, and you can use this as your wish list or not. But, if you really want the magic of Rock, here, read this out loud, fast:

Dang uh dang, Chikkachikka Duhdangdang
Dung uh dung, Chikkachikka Duhdungdung
Dang uh dang, Chikkachikka Duhdangdang

Let the pep rally begin. It’s just one of those moments, one of those things that everyone knows, like if I say, “One, two, three and to tha four,” you’d say, “Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Doctor Dre is at the door.” Despite countless compressed radio spins wearing out its ferocity for each and every one of us, when you slap on a pair of headphones, and play the CD as loud as you can stand, the lion’s roar of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will still devour you way more than whatever Kurt was saying about mosquitoes and libidos, though the line “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous” is one of the greatest in Rock history. But Kurt knew, as usual with Rock & Roll, it ain’t what you’re saying but how you’re saying it. His raspy yell was one of the most incredible sounds ever heard in music, a soulful wail and biting whine at the same time, somewhere in the field between Ozzy Osbourne and Otis Redding – he is the pleasure/pain of “I’ve been loving you too long to stop now” thrown in a blender with the crippling fear of “Oh no no, please God help me”, and then inverted and shot back at the world through a filter of the 80’s underground, and laced with the palatable apathy and defeatist boredom of this new insurgent “alternative” true Rock grit. And Kurt usually gets all the attention, but not today, not from me, because the one thing that strikes me in revisiting Nevermind is the wholeness of the trio’s sound, no doubt due in large part to producer Butch Vig. When Kurt is on about “a denial” at the end of “Teen Spirit”, Vig makes his full-throated attack sound so large that you could drive the Black Flag tour van straight down his esophagus. Dave Grohl’s beat is one of the most rudimentary beats this side of “We Will Rock You”, but it does hint at his ability to stop and turn on the Minutemen’s dime, besides also sounding like the (Keith) Moon crashing into Earth.

If there is a sound that is as identifiable with Nirvana as Cobain’s screech and Grohl’s thunderclap it’s the bass playing of Krist Novoselic. Unfortunately, we all have the same three mental images of Krist: that slow-motion butter-churning grind of his pelvis that he used to do while playing, that goofy smile that made you think he might be retarded, and of course, that time he threw his bass in the air and it came down and smacked him in the face. None of these things have anything to do with the legacy he should leave in Rock & Roll though. I am now of the opinion that he is one of the best bass players of all time, not because he was burning up his fretboard with Entwistle-like skill, but because his playing was always the base for every Nirvana song – even the acoustic “Polly” has a Novoselic breakdown – and also because when you hear those basslines, you immediately know from the playing that you’re listening to Nirvana. His sound is a specific balance between a perfect feel for timing and the wrist control to actually play what he was hearing in his head; also, it always seemed like he was using a pick on strings that were most likely slightly loose. His part during the verses of “In Bloom” is the perfect example of what I’m talking about, though he doesn’t disappear during the chorus either, his bass melody recalling David Bowie’s “Moondage Dayrdream”. He’s all over the place in “Stay Away”, and on “Lithium”, just listen to the little stink he puts on it when Kurt sings, “That’s OK, my will is good”. Even on “Lounge Act”, the album’s only less-than-monolithic song, Novoselic’s plucky playing carries the weight, even coaxing Grohl to come alive in the third verse.

The bigness of “Teen Spirit” – it’s the longest song on the album – in a way sets it apart from the rest of an album more concerned with blending delectable Power-Pop and Hardcore crunch. It’s in this way that the real map to Nirvana, and Nevermind specifically, has always been more through Hüsker Dü, another punk power trio with a knack for tasty tunes, than the jagged mayhem of the Pixies, who Nirvana got their quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic from. The torrent of “Territorial Pissings” would be right at home on the Hüsker’s 1985 opus New Day Rising, while the stadium pop of “On A Plain”, Nirvana’s most underrated song, seems to be pulled straight off the first side of 1987’s Warehouse (or Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight for that matter). But let me stop and point to something before I go off on a tangent: Just the fact that we’re talking like this, about these influences, etc. is a testament to the shockwaves Nirvana sent through the post-Punk underground. Kurt Cobain was an Indie Rock nerd. If he had shown up ten years later, maybe he would’ve been a writer for Pitchfork or Magnet instead of a rock star. Kurt was all about putting his favorite unsung bands out there for people; he wasn’t into pimping his own thing. He got label deals and reissues going for bands none of Nirvana’s fans had ever really heard of, like The Vaselines and The Raincoats. Think about how many Beat Happening records Calvin Johnson sold just cuz Kurt had a K Records tattoo, or how many tapes Daniel Johnston sent out because Kurt always wore that one t-shirt. This is something completely separate from Nevermind, except that this phenomenon is a side effect of the album; Kurt Cobain’s taste in music was the most influential since Mick & Keef were into Muddy Waters. It helped usher Indie Rock above ground, and now 16 years later you’ve got Modest Mouse debuting at number one.

It’s funny how your tastes change, because for me Nirvana wasn’t That Band, the one that hooks you and pulls down into a whole new world. I had already gotten hooked a month earlier when Pearl Jam came out with Ten, and I was kind of diggin’ on Soundgarden too. It wasn’t until years later when I went through and gobbled up 25 years of Punk Rock history that I started to appreciate Nirvana as a sort of culmination, a triumph. And that’s not a unique sentiment – it was one of those things that got tossed around in the moment. In that frame of mind, I wonder why “Lithium” didn’t become the band’s signature song, because it seems to pinpoint exactly the kind of impulsiveness and individuality and mischief that they were about, more so than “Teen Spirit”; the psychosis of Kurt’s lyrics are revealing but funny too, and whatever apathy there was in the chorus of “Teen Spirit” was twisted tenfold into the wordless incantations of “Lithium”. As the sonic companion to the crafted carelessness of the lyrics in “Lithium”, the jetpack strapped to “Breed” is like a blueprint for how every garage band should rock, pushing the indifference further forward with pronouncements of “I don’t care” and “I don’t mind”, but also tempering it with that mischievous humor again – “I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed / We can plant a house, we can build a tree”. These two songs form the core of Nirvana’s entire spiritual being, a band that is heavy without being hard, like a chocolate egg with a soft center. As massive as they sounded, Nirvana were just a scrappy bunch of guys with questions, questions they never cared whether they got the answers to or not… Well, maybe, cuz you can only sing “Oh well, whatever, never mind” and “I don’t care” in so many songs before someone gets suspicious that you’re pulling the collective leg, and when the poptastic “In Bloom” gushes that “he’s the one who loves our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along”, it’s like, well, I thought you didn’t care, so which is it?

And of course, “He like to shoot his gun” as well, which is kinda creepy now – the same goes for the insistent refrain of “Come As You Are” – but at the time, it came off as a throw-away lyric, completely innocent and in no way warning of anything. The murky mutterings of “Come As You Are”, like a lot of the album’s lyrical content, always confused me. It almost was like Kurt was predicting the Grunge phenomenon with the lines “Come, doused in mud, soaked in bleach, as I want you to be / As a trend, as a friend, as a known memory”, or even possibly his future marriage to Courtney, him as the mud, her as the bleach. Without a lyric sheet, it’s tough to make sense of a few of these songs, which is part of the charm of Nevermind – don’t ask me what the hell “Drain You” is about, cuz like Kurt says in “In Bloom”, ‘I don’t know what it means’. “Polly”, on the other hand, is quite clear even in its bizarre one-sided narrative, a terrifying hostage power-play based on a newspaper story Cobain had read. There is a vague ugliness to the song that permeates the middle of the album, between “In Bloom” and “On A Plain” – the two…nicest numbers – whether it’s Kurt’s vocal chords ripping apart by the end of “Stay Away”, or the disoriented breakdown of “Drain You” aspiring to Led Zep’s comparable “Whole Lotta Love”, with Grohl trying to break his kit with maximum force; the band knows it’s OK to get ugly though, cuz remember “so are you”. By the time you crawl to the spent “Something In The Way”, you’re collapsing in a heap, knowing you got rocked proper. And I think that’s what people jettison when they put Kurt Cobain and Nirvana up on a pedestal – he wasn’t a Voice of a Generation and they weren’t Rock Gods, they were Kiss fans and Wipers fans and Flipper fans, and they probably just wanted to melt the front row’s faces off. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to put that hero worship bullshit aside, and bang my head instead.

01. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
02. “In Bloom”
03. “Come As You Are”
04. “Breed”
05. “Lithium”
06. “Polly”
07. “Territorial Pissings”
08. “Drain You”
09. “Lounge Act”
10. “Stay Away”
11. “On A Plain”
12. “Something In The Way” **
** Original pressings contained the b-side “Endless Nameless” as an unlisted bonus track.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" [live at MTV Studios, 01.92]

"In Bloom" [video]

"Breed" [live in Seattle, 12.93]
from MTV's Live & Loud

"Lithium" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
from the Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! DVD

- BONUS: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" [video]
- BONUS: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" [first live performance, 04.91]
- BONUS: "More Than A Feeling/Smells Like Teen Spirit" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "In Bloom" [original Sub Pop version - video]
- BONUS: "In Bloom" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Come As You Are" [video]
- BONUS: "Come As You Are" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Breed" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Breed" [live, 19??]
Rare pre-Grohl version for like 50 people in a basement
- BONUS: "Lithium" [video]
- BONUS: "Lithium" [live at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards]
The "Rape Me" false-start, the bass throw, the "Hi, Axl!" - you know the deal
- BONUS: "Polly" [live in Seattle, 10.91]
- BONUS: "Polly" [live at MTV Studios, 01.92]
- BONUS: "Territorial Pissings" [live on UK TV, 12.91]
- BONUS: "Territorial Pissings" [live at MTV Studios, 01.92]
- BONUS: "Drain You/Smells Like Teen Spirit" [live at the 1991 Reading Festival]
Amazing to see them here, shot from the crowd, just another scrappy band, before the album is out and no one screams for the songs of a generation...and only to return the next year as the headliners. Damn.
- BONUS: "Drain You" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Drain You" [live in Seattle, 12.93]
- BONUS: "Lounge Act" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Stay Away" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "On A Plain" [Nevermind rehearsal, 05.91]
- BONUS: "On A Plain" [live, 1992]
- BONUS: "On A Plain" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Something In The Way" [live]
from the Live! Tonight! Sold Out! DVD
- BONUS: "Something In The Way" [audio]

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