Nirvana marked a permanent shift in my appreciation of rock music, one that brought both losses and rewards. Not that it was any particular fault of the band, which is one I feel a natural affinity for both in sound and feel.
No, what happened with Nirvana was that this was the first band, fitting my own musical sensibilities, that I did not have a finger on from the earliest days of its existence. In fact, the entire Seattle scene was not even a blip on my radar until it broke nationally.
Considering I had been deeply immersed in the 1980s indie scene (taking in records and concerts by acts from Big Black, Game Theory, Thin White Rope, Husker Du,The Pixies, The True Believers, The Primitives – which turned into Uncle Tupelo – and true obscurities like Viv Akauldren and For Against), this blindsiding seems weird.
Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I had largely stopped reading the music press, finding the blend of uncritical fan-worship and relentless chopping of genres into lots of little meaningless pieces boring and unrewarding.
Perhaps, too, was a feeling of saturation. The 1980s indie scene was extraordinarily rich and most listeners today probably have only a glimmer of what was going on then. When I heard Nirvana – this amazing new breakout band – I heard only more of what I had heard earlier, even allowing for Nirvana’s unique blend of pop smarts and raw power.
But I think what put the nail in the coffin for me was Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam’s first album was so 1970s (and think 1970s’ mainstream rock rather than punk) that I was really put off. Pearl Jam improved, and although they are hardly my favorite band, I still think they are decent. But along came the flood of unremarkable Pearl-Jam wanna-bes, and rock became less than interesting.
Meanwhile, after the runaway success of Nevermind, Nirvana socked its listeners with In Utero. Prepared as was by my love of Big Black and early Pixies, the stark production by Steve Albini appealed to me. While the songs show little structural progression from Nevermind, the bleak framing of the sound in conjuction with Cobain’s increasing instability, gives this record a power that quite transcends the more radio-friendly Nevermind.
In Utero is where I connected with Nirvana, and yet within months Cobain was dead and the mostly uninteresting commercial alternative movement was in full flood.
Perhaps Cobain’s death affected me more deeply than I acknowledged. It was in some ways also the death of the glorious 1980s scene, and, as my life changed, I did not reconnect with anything later in quite the same way.
Which is not to say ‘rock is dead’. In fact, I currently feel that old familiar surge of excitment.
We’re at the beginning of a new age. Let’s hope it lives up to Cobain’s vision.