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Nirvana: Smells like Our Entire Generation

You know the riff I’m talking about, four chords and a pick scratch that sounds like a rifle bolt clicking shut, the first one you learn when you’re playing guitar. The first time I heard it I was ten, it came from a video playing on a display television in a department store. I remember feeling something like anger, or excitement, I couldn’t tell which, the bass drum triplets like a kick in the nuts, a sound that was brutal and yet immediately intelligible. The song? Smells Like Nirvana, by Weird Al Yankovic.

It is somehow appropriate that my introduction to Nirvana would come from a mock performance of their most famous song. Throughout its career the band seemed unable to decide whether to make fun of themselves or accept the mantle of rock saviors thrust upon them after symbolically dethroning Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” from the Billboard charts with 1991’s “Nevermind”. At times Kurt Cobain seemed determined to destroy his ‘rock star’ image, or at least throw it into question. Consider the explanation at www.nirvanaclub.com about the origins of the title for Track 1 of Nevermind, “Smells like Teen Spirit.”

One day Kurt and a friend were having a discussion about teenage revolution, they later got drunk and his friend wrote on the wall 'Kurt smells like teen spirit.' Kurt was inspired, he thought she meant he would be the type of person who could incite a teen rebellion. He went and wrote the song. She thought that he just smelled like the deodorant. Kurt hadn't heard of the deodorant at the time, and he claimed to have rarely used it himself.

Kurt eventually developed a dislike for the popularity of “Teen Spirit” and would often bait audiences by playing the first few chords of the song and then stopping, waiting for their confusion to turn into anger, whipping the mosh pit into further chaos.

Here we are now

Entertain us

The tension between mockery, emotional release and outright self-destruction was the hallmark of their live shows. The audience were not the only victims. Kurt constantly threatened to make controversial additions to live shows, even for television appearances. On the BBC’s Top of the Pops he sang Teen Spirit in a false baritone and sang with both of his hands on the microphone, refusing to pretend to play his instrument to the pre-recorded version. On the 1992 MTV music awards Kurt played the first chords of “Rape Me”, sending furious producers into a panicked stampede to the switchboards, only to switch to the less controversial “Lithium” before he sang the first verse. This was the same performance that ended with Krist Novoselic running offstage after the bass guitar he drunkenly threw into the air landed on his head. The same awards show also led to the following backstage confrontation, as described by Kurt in The Advocate (courtesy of www.nirvanaclub.com):

Q: Didn't Axl Rose say something nasty to you at the MTV Video Music Awards in September?

A: They actually tried to beat us up. Courtney and I were with the baby in the eating area backstage, and Axl walked by. So Courtney yelled, "Axl! Axl, come over here!" We just wanted to say hi to him--we think he's a joke, but we just wanted to say something to him. So I said, "Will you be the godfather of our child?" I don't know what had happened before that to piss him off, but he took his aggressions out on us and began screaming bloody murder.

These were his words: "You shut your bitch up, or I'm taking you down to the pavement." [laughs] Everyone around us just burst out into tears of laughter. She wasn't even saying anything mean, you know? So I turned to Courtney and said, "Shut up, bitch!" And everyone laughed and he left. So I guess I did what he wanted me to do--be a man. [laughs]

Cobain often reserved his greatest scorn for himself. During Nirvana’s performance at the Reading Festival Kurt preceded “Teen Spirit” with a smirking version of Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” a wincing blow directed at himself to acknowledge those who felt that the two songs were too similar. Cobain’s self-destructiveness combined with Novoselic’s restless, alcohol-fueled abandon and Dave Grohl’s playful nihilism in a painful but always compelling spectacle that usually culminated in the mindless destruction of their equipment.

Come on over

We’ll do the twist

In my sister’s Grade 8 yearbook students were asked to list their likes, dislikes, and ambitions. Most of the girls listed their ambitions as some variance of “To be Axl’s Wife”. Most of the boys listed their likes as “Girls”. One of them listed his as “Women”. I thought that was so cool. In January 1994 my family moved to a smaller city. We lived in a six-plex next door to a bunch of overly-polite German soldiers who were training at an Army base a few kilometers out of town. They would listen to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson a lot, you could practically hear them run across the living room to turn the music down when my dad pounded on the walls, bass seething through the drywall. One of them had a girlfriend with a shaved head, she used to cut across our square of lawn to get to their apartment.

I started a new school. My old school had been a Protestant-looking, boxy structure inscribed with affirmations to the King of England, built not long after the First World War in what was probably then a new neighbourhood. We began every day with O Canada and the Lord’s Prayer and ended with God Save the Queen. My new school was constructed in a bomb shelter that had been thrown together in the heady early days of the Cold War. Every classroom was built on an ‘open concept’, with no walls for the back of the classrooms and large, almost floor-to-ceiling round windows looking from one classroom into the next. Science, Art and History were taught as one subject, aptly called “combined studies.” It was a joke. In April 1994 Kurt Cobain held a shotgun under his chin, and using his thumb to pull the trigger, blew his head off.

I made friends with a guy at school named Gord. I had another friend who worked with Gord when we were in high school, he said Gord used to do this thing where he would be like, Hey, I got something for you, and you’d be like, What, and he’d check his pockets and look through all of the containers of onions and lettuce and after a while (he took a long time doing it, just to psych you out) finally he’d open a drawer and then pop up his hand and give you the finger and be like, OH and open his eyes real wide and smile, and you’d be like Aww Fuck, because he did it at least once a month but you fell for it every time. Back in grade six, one of the first times we walked home together, Gord asked me if I knew who Nirvana was. I said I didn’t. Gord was wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, the one with the lyrics from “Dumb” on the back. I remember there was snow on the ground, and it was really cold, I know when people get old they always say it used to be a lot colder when they were young but it really was a lot colder back then, I swear.

“He was, like, our Elvis,” said Gord. We walked for a bit. “And he killed himself.”

Overdo it

Have a fit

I remember this comedian I saw once on the CBC talking about the Alanis Morissette song “Ironic”.

“Ten thousand spoooons when all ye need is a knife.” (He was Scottish or Welsh or something, I forget which) He glowered into the audience. “That’s not ironic. It’s just bloooody unfoooortunate.” Laughter from the audience. “And a traffic jam when yooou’re already late?” Stifled guffaws. “That’s just poor planning.” More laughter. “Nuw, if yoooou’re a civic planner who desiee-gned the roooad, oooon yer way tae a meetin with a group of engineers,” – a few people begin to snicker – “tae givva presentay-tion on haew yooou’ve soelved the city’s traffic proooblem….” The audience bursts into prolonged laughter, the punchline a foregone conclusion. “THAT’S Ironic.”

Kurt Cobain often said in interviews that the only magazine cover he wanted to be on was for People. He got his wish after his death, the same picture that was on Gord’s t-shirt that day we walked home from school. Cobain lived his life obsessed with the idea of rock stardom and disgusted by the reality of it. Although others who have garnered the title of rock stars, such as John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Elvis, and Freddy Mercury died premature deaths, Cobain’s death was different in that it was an outright suicide. Mark David Chapman didn’t pull the trigger, he didn’t overdose (although he had come close to doing so before), or die of AIDS or too many fried peanut butter sandwiches. Kurt was unmistakeably conscious of this. He was also conscious of his own ‘rock star’ aspirations, and shortcomings. Was Kurt’s death one of narcissistic self-loathing taken to its pathetic extreme, or was it the ultimate act of dramatic irony in an artistic life that was lived in a manner that constantly provoked its audience to question what was real and what was just joking around?

Love you so much

It makes me sick 

My friend Jim was the only person I knew who could beatbox Rage Against the Machine songs. We met in June 1994, when my family moved again and I started another school. This one had temporary classrooms the teachers called “cottages” that stood on planks built in the parking lot after the baby boom. They definitely didn’t play the national anthem. Jim lived a few blocks from school, I went to his house a few times after shop class. His dad had a moustache and a collection of trucker’s caps that went all the way around the walls of his basement. Jim gave me my first Nirvana album, In Utero, taped over a copy of Slade’s “Keep Your Hands Off My Power Supply”, which had featured such hits as Slam the Hammer Down, In the Doghouse, Cheap ‘N’ Nasty Luv, C’est La Vie (And Now the Waltz), and Ready to Explode: The Warm Up/ The Grid/ The Race/ The Dream. I listened to it at nights in my Walkman in my room, in the attic of our old home, the haunting refrain of “Scentless Apprentice”, the undeniable catchiness of “Very Ape”, the hollow inevitability of “All Apologies”. I still have that tape, somewhere, in a box in my parents’ basement.

Jim and I learned to play guitar in a hallway of our high school on old acoustic loaners we got for five months by enrolling in guitar class, sitting in a hallway upstairs at lunch, sneaking bites of shitty sandwiches (I can still hear Mr. McColl, “NO FOOD ALLOWED UPSTAIRS, YOU KNOW THIS”). Our group mostly consisted of electronics class losers, computer class losers, and just plain losers. We debated the virtues of free market and socialist economies, concocted lame plots to sabotage the school elections, and passed around the guitar socially, like a joint. We played The Smashing Pumpkins, Pantera, The Sex Pistols, Alice in Chains, and always, always, Nirvana. The songs come easily: In Bloom takes about twenty minutes to learn, Come As You Are takes two fingers and two strings, Tourette’s is just four chords and a string flick. But no matter what, my favorite song to play, even to this day, is “Aneurysm”. The last track from Incesticide, their third album of B-sides that came out before “In Utero”, the song is simple: a couple sets of power chords and an ascending finger-pluck that goes up the G-string (hardy ha) one fret as a time, easy as sin, but somehow every time, even with an acoustic guitar, the tension comes. Higher and higher, more and more, a single set of notes that dares you to stop, to say it’s too much, to turn back, to admit that you’re afraid. When I think about it I can see Kurt onstage in my mind, scowling, in a dress, clumps of hair in his eyes, fucking up the song and stammering, as if trying to decide whether to run offstage or stay. Then suddenly you switch to the verse, a quiet power chord, consistent and brooding, and when you switch to the second chord, fingernails chipping, punching the strings to mimic the sound of distortion, and if you do it right, you completely grasp the beauty and the horror, the indecision and frailty and strength that made Nirvana great.

Come on over

We'll do the twist