Just over twenty years ago today, I returned to the communal flophouse I was living in at the time after a particularly stressful day at school only to be told that my favorite musician was dead.
"Yeah, it's all over the news," Mike said, pointing a lit cigarette towards the twenty-five-inch cathode ray beast propped up on our milk-crate entertainment center.
I hadn't even had a chance to take off my coat and backpack yet. For a while I just stood there, gaping dimly at the lurid, flickering images on the T.V. screen: police crawling all over a nondescript gray garage/greenhouse, all-too-familiar videos in heavy rotation, interviews with tearful fans, a grassroots gathering of lost souls in Seattle Center Park which would eventually coalesce into a massive candlelight vigil and then culminate with a stirring public address. It didn't make sense yet it made perfect sense.
Eventually I became aware of several sets of eyes trained on me, waiting for some sort of reaction.
"Mmmm, yeah...whatever," I shrugged, then turned on my heel and trudged slowly upstairs to my room. I was exhausted and needed sleep desperately.
As written these words look bitter. Or jaded. Or angry. But nothing could be further from the truth. I just recognized this latest dollop of bad news for what it was: the purest example of inevitability you could possible conceive of.
I've always had a really hard time recognizing when something good is well and truly over. When we moved away from Sydney I couldn't cope with the idea of never seeing my friends again. When High School was over the thought of permanently losing contact with my core group of hometown peeps was totally inconceivable. But thanks in some weird way to the grimly-decisive action of a chronically-depressed and blatantly-suicidal rock star, the permanence of change was finally beaten into my thick skull.
Indeed this was mutability's finishing move on my naive consciousness. Back then I was just weeks away from polishing off my final exams and in another three short months I'd be faced with convocation. At that moment I was finally forced to realize that nothing lasts forever. My third wave of friends would soon be scattering to the wind like matchsticks and, once again, I'd find myself virtually alone. But at least this time I'd be ready for it.
Now, before I go on, I must confess that I wasn't enough of a music nerd at the time to have already heard Nirvana's debut album Bleach. Indeed, like so many others, my first exposure to the band came with their album Nevermind. I distinctly remember sitting in my dorm room sometime in 1991, trying to make some headway on a massive term paper while "Good Rockin' Tonight" dangled the tantalizing and anarchic imagery of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in front of me. It immediately hijacked my attentions and then kept me permanently distracted for the rest of the night.
Not long after Nevermind went into heavy rotation in residence, played incessantly by my floor-mates Rod and Mike. I didn't rush out and buy the album right away; why would I? If I ever wanted to listen to it all I need to do was open my door.
To be brutally honest, I really didn't know what to make of it at first. Kurt's own admission that "we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath" was actually a fair description. It sounded a bit too poppy and overproduced to me. Thanks to my narrow-minded definition of music at the time, warped by a small-town alpha/omega audio bath which consisted exclusively of heavy metal and classic rock, I was much more apt to gravitate towards Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden at the time.
Forced to return to Stephenville for economic reasons, I bought Nevermind as a consolation prize for myself in the summer of 1991. I then proceeded to play the ever-lovin' bejesus out of it. Loneliness and isolation was a major theme in Kurt Cobain's music and my exile back home and separation from my newfound brethren was just one of many reasons why I loved it so much. That and the fact that it kicked Herculean amounts of ass.
During the following academic year it continued to be the omnipresent soundtrack for everything we did, whether it was eleventh-hour compositions, besotted four-day benders, road trips, or as an alternative score for our 16-bit video games. Just about the only way I could be lured onto a dance floor is with the promise of slam-dancing to a Nirvana track. With Mike's assistance I soon discovered their first album Bleach and my transformation from disillusioned metal-head to indie punk music snob was complete.
Now, I've already talked about the incendiary effect that Nirvana had on pop music here and here so I won't presume to rehash that. Just suffice to say that even back then we had the distinct impression that Nevermind didn't get released, it escaped. By my estimation it was the last time a genuine voice for youth was properly represented in the Zeitgeist of pop-culture, as opposed to the industry-approved swill that gets served up to kids today.
I wish I'd had more money back then. Or, more accurately, I wish that I knew that I had enough money to travel to Toronto or Montreal to see them live. Then again, at the time I thought I'd have an entire lifetime to do that.
Regardless, I just wanna say: thanks, Kurt, wherever you are. First off, thanks for the obvious: for all of the amazing music that affected a positive change in me.
But also thanks for a darker, more inadvertent reason.
Thanks for finally convincing me that change is very, very permanent.
EPIC TUNE No, my favorite Nirvana song is not "Smells Like Teen F#@king Spirit", thank you very much. In fact, it could very well be this hauntingly-beautiful unreleased track called "Do Re Mi", which was included on the With The Lights Out boxed set. Apparently the song was earmarked for Nirvana's next record. No words can describe how sad that makes me feel.
EXPLOITATIVE FAIL Really? Does every single thing have to be a conspiracy now? Cripes.