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 Scott Creney

Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Later

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By Scott Creney

First things first. Nirvana had a bigger effect on American culture than any rock band since The Beatles. I was there, and anyone who tells you any differently is a goddamned liar. They changed the way people dressed (flannel!, thrift stores!). They changed the way people acted (sullen! unenthusiastic!). They changed television (My So-Called Life! Friends! Punk Rock Car Commercials!). They changed movies (Reality Bites! SFW! The Doom Generation!). Suddenly it was cool to be poor. It was cool to wear cheap clothes that were falling apart. It was cool to be sarcastic. It was cool to believe you were doomed. Nevermind made the world a little less chipper and a little bit more real.

This was all before In Utero, before things turned sour, before Kurt Cobain killed himself. Up until, say, 1993, Nirvana were fun, hilarious, and truly transcendent. There was a huge NO at the center of Nirvana’s music, but it was still offset by an even bigger YES. Their music sounded like an explosion rather than the implosion it would eventually become. That suicide would taint the way people heard their music, but from late 1991 to late 1992 Nirvana were absolutely glorious, a rock and roll dream come true.

I was 18 years old when Nevermind came out, about to start attending community college in my hometown of El Cajon, California, a blue-collar, redneck (race-cars and classic rock, country music and meth) town about 20 miles east of San Diego. I have two relevant memories about Nevermind and El Cajon.

Kelly was a volleyball player who held some kind of student government position at Granite Hills High School. She was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, thin, tanned, and muscular. My friend Eric was living at her family’s house while his parents were separated, and we all hung out a bit that fall. I’ll never forget driving her and Eric somewhere—probably to go get milkshakes since they were both good Christians — and Nevermind was playing in my car. Kelly squealed that she loved Nirvana, which was pretty strange. Then ‘Lithium’ came on and she began singing the words, quietly, to herself, as if the song held some kind of secret meaning to her.

Hearing the epitome of California perfection whisper, I’m so ugly, that’s okay cause so are you, we broke our mirrors. Or even more oddly, I’m so horny, that’s okay my will is good, as if we weren’t even in the car with her, is just — it’s just crazy. It’s as if a Justin Bieber fan started reciting Rimbaud. You’d think they were possessed by some kind of ghost.

The second memory involves Baxter’s restaurant, some chain-type Applebee’s monstrosity that was across the street from the mall. I think I was there picking up a friend of mine who was home from college, so it must have been around Christmas-time. Anyway, Baxter’s had a huge dance floor in its center, which on this night was packed full of people — adults, the kind of people who had real jobs and wore hairspray and stuff — dancing to the latest hits. Probably something like this.

Then the opening chords of ‘Teen Spirit’ came on, which was, in the context of Baxter’s burgers and mozzarella sticks, unbelievably strange. I actually started laughing. Then people on the dance floor started jumping into each other—not quite moshing or slam-dancing, more like throwing themselves around with abandon. I made my friend wait until the song was over before we left. I think this was the next song.

(continues overleaf)

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39 Responses to Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Later

  1. Everett True August 24, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I sat there, and applauded when I finished reading this article. Thanks Scott.

    It’s taken me 20 years to admit but the reason I goddamn hate that Nirvana Unplugged album so much was because I was too goddamn proud to go down to MTV’s studios that day. I could have done. I was pretty much encamped in Kurt and Courtney’s hotel room, but the punk rock kids hated MTV … and I suspect Kurt might’ve been (not-so) secretly pleased that I refused to go. And even now, I still can’t listen to even a few notes of Nirvana’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’ without wanting to tear the whole fucking world down. It’s so great I can’t bear it.

  2. greg mcgarvey August 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    :)

  3. Tim Footman August 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    “It’s as if a Justin Bieber fan started reciting Rimbaud.” Oh, that’s gooood…

  4. Tim Footman August 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Oh, and ‘Finally’ is a bloody brilliant song and I’ll punch anyone who says otherwise. Quite hard.

  5. Conan Neutron August 24, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Fucking masterful.
    God damn.

    Amazing Scott, seriously amazing.

  6. Tom Randall August 24, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Yeah, you nailed it. Thanks Scott.

  7. Victoria Birch August 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    The perfect piece for CB’s birthday week. It’s everything that’s great about this place. Awesome work Scott.

  8. Darragh August 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Kudos Scott, this was enjoyable.

  9. sleevie nicks August 24, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    ehhhhh, it’s alright, i mean i would like to hear more about el cajon and not so much about this loser kurt fellow.

  10. ophu August 24, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Yes, I was about that age when this album came out. I heard the song way too many times over the space of a few hours in a crowded van with about ten other people and I haven’t been able to stand their music since. Blehh. :p

  11. Scott Creney August 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Hey, Sleevie. The first book I ever wrote was a collection of stories set in El Cajon. Hit me up and I’ll e-mail you a copy. In the meantime, enjoy this nugget. It isn’t in the book. And as a bonus, it features Nirvana.

    The summer after I graduated high school, I worked at this run-down amusement park just outside El Cajon called Marshal Scotty’s. Most of the rides were just old shitty carnival rides, but a few years back the owner had invested in a water slide. It was a cool place to work. Everyone was in their late teens/early 20s and there was a lot of fun to be had.

    Frank was the brother of one of the guys in Sprung Monkey–the biggest band in El Cajon at that time. A few years later they had a minor alternative hit with this gem http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVg5_gCeBRQ. But at the time all they had was a demo tape featuring a song called ‘Love Slug’, the chorus of which went ‘Hop aboard my love slug, you fucking bitch’. Ah, El Cajon… A girl at Cuyamaca Community College told a friend of mine around this time that the singer of Sprung Monkey was a poet.

    I hung out a bit with Frank and his friend Joe, a football player at El Cajon Valley High. Mostly we’d just drink beer and play videogames. Go see dollar movies. Those guys liked me because I had a smart mouth. It was fun, we’d go out and I’d insult people and piss them off. Then Frank, Joe, and their buddies would step up and try and get in a fight while I slowly backed away. We made a good team.

    I remember going to Joe’s apartment one night across from the Aero Drive-In to hang out for a bit. We were playing Tecmo Bowl or something when his alarm clock went off, which was weird because it was 9:30 at night. Suddenly, Joe jumped up opened the vertical blinds and told us all to look across the street. Sure enough, on the big screen at the drive-in, you could see Patrick Swayze fucking some chick up against the wall in RoadHouse. It turned out that whatever movie was playing across the street, Joe would figure out when the sex scenes were and then set his alarm clock so he wouldn’t miss them.

    Anyway, in early spring of 1991 Frank invited me to come down to Tijuana and see this awesome band called Nirvana. I hadn’t heard of them, but given that Frank’s three favorite bands were Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, and Alice In Chains, I politely declined. Besides, it was around the height of my Smiths/UK obsession and the way he described it, Nirvana just sounded like a bunch of heavy metal screaming. Oh well.

  12. Everett True August 24, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I got sent an advance cassette tape of ‘Teen Spirit’, months before it came out. I’d just moved into my swinging bachelor pad in Cricklewood – just me, my cat, my set of Battling Tops (which was how editorial decisions at Melody Maker would get sorted out: I was unbeatable with Tricky Dicky) and 3,000 tapes lining the stairs. I thought it’d be a pretty cool idea to put the “hello/hello” refrain on my newfangled answer phone. Man, I was sick of that refrain by the time the single came out.

    “Oh well,” I thought. “At least no one will ever buy it…”

    Another time, Courtney Love phoned up and left a long message, most of which was her bragging to a friend (in the background) how she knew me, and how I ruled England, and how I was a bastard for never answering my phone. So I put it as the answer phone message. First person to phone up and leave a message afterwards? You guessed it…

    You could her pause, do a double-take, and then continue regardless.

    Three folk not to befriend, if you valued your sleep hours.

    Kim Fowley
    Brian Molko
    Courtney Love

    All of whom preferred to call between 4 and 5 in the morning.

    Charlotte used to do a great impression of Brian Molko, gleaned only from listening to the answer phone go off an hour or so before she had to get up for work.

  13. Person August 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Hey, how did Nirvana influence Friends? It sounds like an interesting idea and I’d like to know more.

  14. Princess Stomper August 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Great article :)

    It’s funny. I never thought of Nirvana as “standing” for anything, and I don’t think my friends did, either. Smart, funny? A lot of the bands I liked at the time were, and I think that was tied into the ability to write great songs – you have to be a little clever, a little perceptive. Feminism wasn’t a word we used, and I’d certainly have never connected it to Nirvana, but kick-ass women were just part of that zeitgeist. Courtney was, for a brief time, a kind of totem of kick-assery and came over as being very smart and eloquent. Kurt fell for that? Of course he did! He was a little clever and perceptive, wasn’t he? You’d have to be a moron not to think she was cool.

    I’d never thought of the Teen Spirit lyrics, either. They were just something we mindlessly sang along to on car journeys or sneaking in under age to the local indie club. (I always had to leave after an hour to get the bus home.) What did ring through was that feeling of elation – “explosion”, as you put it – through the album. A celebration of catharsis.

    I still can’t listen to the album now – just heard it waaaaaaaaaaay too many times – but then? By God, it was perfect.

  15. Scott Creney August 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Originally, Friends was meant as a ‘cash-in’ on the Grunge/Generation X ‘phenomenon’ then sweeping the nation. In the first season, most of the characters wear flannel. They hang out in a coffee shop. They are jaded and sarcastic with one another. One of them dreams of a being a musician. Etc. Etc. It may have been a sanitized hollywood version of all those things, but it certainly owed its existence to ‘Nirvana-mania’ (an actual phrase that popped up a lot in the mainstream media around this time).

  16. hannah golightly August 24, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    A fantastic piece. Good job there Scott. Could have benefited without the post text in my opinion, it steals focus from the powerful piece you wrote. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about the music again after so long. These days you can’t turn on a youtube clip of Nirvana’s music without pages upon pages of conjecture about what caused the demise of our hero now legend.

  17. Joseph Kyle August 25, 2011 at 12:26 am

    If I recall correctly, wasn’t the Lisa Kudrow character inspired by Mary Lou Lord?

  18. sleevie nicks August 25, 2011 at 4:17 am

    yeah you could tell nirvana was really hitting big influence wise. i remember the jocks at my high school went from queer-bashing and rape to just beating up minorities and date rape. kurt had really helped them get in touch with their more sensitive sides.

  19. Nate M August 25, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Nice job, Scott. Enjoyed the article very much. Three most important albums in my life thus far are: “The Chipmunks play the Beatles” (age 2), “Nevermind” (age 15), and “Aeroplane Over the Sea” (age 21). I keep hoping for another album that will provide that glorious white-light revelation/epiphany moment, but have been waiting long enough to reluctantly accept that it probably ain’t happening again.
    Thanks for recapturing the joy of ’91-’92, watching the old columns crumble…even if they were resurrected with baggy denim and bad goatees instead of spandex.

  20. Niall Mac August 25, 2011 at 9:41 am

    It’s funny cos I was way too young (9) to know about, never mind (no pun intended) enjoy that record. I only started getting into it 10 years after it came out in 2001. And yet it was still as potent to me then as it was to the people who heard it first time in 1991. Cos music sucked big time between say 1998 to 2002 and it was frustrating to be coming of age and hearing it. Harkening back to that record gave me the enthusiasm I’d been searching for. This article taps into that. Well done Scott.

  21. Aaron Curran August 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Good one Scott, yup this accurately describes the significance of Nevermind for many of us. Kurt and co’s pro-feminism, anti-jock stance married to such unconventional pop music was (still is) a big deal and should be accorded the respect it deserves. But there were big down sides to the whole (dare I say it) grunge phenomenon. Not that Nirvana deserve blame for that – I’m just offering a different perspective on the results of their success.

    You say in your article “I don’t know what it was like in UK or Australia…” so I’ll describe how it was in the latter anyway. Nirvana’s success was so huge in Australia that it created a massive market for Seattle/US guitar bands…which was fine for Nirvana and Mudhoney, less fine for contrived acts like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox. The problem is that previously some of that market would have gravitated to the less-conventional, guitar-based stuff produced locally, bands following on from the Scientists, feedtime, Beasts of Bourbon, X, the Hard Ons etc, some of whom influenced US musicians like Kurt Cobain, Mark Arm and Jon Spencer. Also grunge’s success destroyed interest in non-guitar based indie music – it was cultural hegemony.

    The success of grunge actually hampered the Australian independent scene, and I’m sure those of other countries too, as it destroyed interest in different kinds of indie music, while our wallets were emptying en masse in the direction of USA rather than locally. Sure that had been the case in pop music for years, but not on such a scale for alternative music or whatever we call it (yeah we bought Husker Du and Black Flag in Australia, but we also bought a load of records by locals like Mass Appeal and God)

    And when, in the wake of Nirvana, the Australian major labels tried to sign every young band with guitars and a fuzz box, they often made a serious fucking mess of what could have been promising careers if those acts had had a chance to develop gradually on a supportive indie label (who now had no money to compete, coz kids stopped buying the equivalents of ‘Slave Girl’ or ‘My Pal’ and bought ‘Plush’ or ‘Alive’ on major labels instead). I’ll defer to Craig Mathieson and his book ‘The Sell-In’ for a more comprehensive account of how the majors steamrolled over Australia’s independent music scene here in the 90s, in the wake of Nirvana’s success.

    Given that Kurt Cobain was an avowed fan of Aust acts like feedtime and the Saints, and non-grunge O/S stuff like the Raincoats and the Vaselines (of which there were many comparable acts in Australia in the 80s), it’s ironic that his band’s success might have undermined the next wave of local independent bands that followed them, especially those that didn’t play loud guitar-based music.

  22. Daniel August 26, 2011 at 2:59 am

    Even having read this, I feel like the legacy of this record is largely a projection of nostalgia. It’s effect was profound on popular music, but it’s also assisted in a movement of privileged white males pitying themselves (some in song). Nevermind isn’t a bad record, but Cobain’s suicide elevated all hyperbole surrounding it to the status of official written record. But didn’t his suicide play a role in making self-pity the unifying theme in all things 90’s alternative?

    I really do think Scott’s piece is well written, but I’m wondering if having been in junior high when this record came out (as opposed to 18) explains the difference in perspective.

  23. Scott Creney August 26, 2011 at 5:19 am

    This seems to be coming up a lot, so I’ll throw in my two cents.

    I think anytime something comes along that touches a great deal of people (or makes a great deal of money), there’s going to be a lot of people who follow in the wake regurgitating the shallowest, most straightfoward aspects of the music. Same thing happened with the Beatles, or the Sex Pistols, or White Stripes.

    But I think KC’s suicide not only destroyed his life, it also destroyed Nirvana’s legacy. It’s not surprising that subsequent generations would seize on the music’s darkness/self-indulgence and completely bypass the spontaneity & fun that were also a part of the music.

    His absence left a void in many ways, but in a commercial sense, it allowed even more soundalikes/pretenders to step forward and satisfy the demand for more Nirvana (this also happened when the band essentially took all of 1992 off). Imagine if The Beatles has stopped making music in 1965. The remainder of that decade would have been a much different place.

    It’s tempting to think, based on things he said, that KC was very much interested in taking the band’s music in other directions. Given Kurt’s recent discovery of Os Mutantes, the enduring success of Nirvana’s unplugged appearance, and the stunning melodic template of ‘Do Re Mi’, it’s tempting to imagine the next Nirvana album going off in whole new directions that would have left their imitators looking even more stupid than they actually were.

    On the other hand, it’s also easy to imagine him breaking up the band, taking loads of drugs, and never making another album again. That’s the thing about suicide, you never know what would have happened.

    Either way, I can’t help feeling that any consideration of Nirvana’s legacy is ultimately going to be incomplete, and possibly unfair to the band’s music. I do know that while Nirvana were still around, The Breeders had a platinum album in the US and a top 40 single. Belly nearly went platinum. Bands like Bikini Kill, Half Japanese, The Vaselines, Shonen Knife, Daniel Johnston, Beat Happening , Flipper, The Raincoats, and many others got introduced to a wider audience than they’d ever had before. There’s a lot of positives to Nirvana’s legacy as well.

    But I appreciate everyone tempering the glass-half-full nature of the article. I think EVERY band’s legacy deserves to be questioned. No more heroes. Kill rock stars. Down with the tyranny of the masterpiece, and an end to the worship of the past. Everyone talks about where we’ve been, but no one ever talks about where we’re going.

  24. Wallace Wylie August 26, 2011 at 6:10 am

    Beck and Pavement were the figureheads of 90s US alternative. Self-pitying?

  25. AbyLopezPiL August 26, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Nice article.

    Few my random thoughts about Nirvana :-

    I do think some rmber Nirvana for Cobain’s grumpy interviews in final year and his unfortunate and very sad death and forget that Nirvana were actually a lot of fun too.

    Nirvana – make no mistake – were an exciting , fun and very lively rock n roll band live in their prime – they were never a “whiny indie band ” or whatever ppl label things.

    Cobain might have been a short , sleight , sensitive bloke who complained about things but he sounded at times on stage like an absolute lion.
    That is partly what made them so powerful.

    His voice would charm the girls , then scare the hell out of ppl all within the same song.
    Actually that again that is important to mention that Nirvana had a very mixed sex following – lots of girls loved Nirvana.

    Nirvana were full of contradictions that worked – soft/loud , light/ dark , happy/sad , intense / silly etc

    think Cobain despite whatever problems he had he did seem to have decent intentions at heart. First off he wasn’t thick as shit – itself almost a rarity in lot of rock frontmen (in the mainstream) and Novoselic and Grohl were all very likeable , witty and worked so well together as a band. They also tried to promote lot of bands they liked – which sadly sometimes fell on death ears sometimes.

    Nirvana’s general mantra if anything seemed to be “don’t be an asshole”
    as sort of reflected in his Incesticide inlay notes:-

    “At this point I have a request for our fans. if any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records. ”

    Might not seem much now but back then was quite blunt and admirable for its time.

  26. Matt O'Neill August 26, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Ah, excuse me, Scott. I think you’d best get your facts straight: Daniel Johnston is a person – not a band. Just FYI.

  27. Everett True August 26, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    I think you’d best get your facts straight: Daniel Johnston is a person – not a band.

    Just for that Matt, I’m going to start a band called Daniel Johnston. There is a precedent. Oly singer Lois Maffeo had a great band called Courtney Love in the early 90s, released two singles on K Records.

  28. Matt O'Neill August 26, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    If you don’t, I will. And I’ll have a side project called Everett True.

  29. Everett True August 26, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    And I’ll have a side project called Everett True.

    You’ve been beaten to it. Bunch of Rolling Stone (US) journalists had a band in the mid 90s called Ever True after me. I don’t think it was a tribute, by the way…

  30. Jed August 27, 2011 at 2:59 am

    I was there too, and I liked the album a lot, but the Velvet Underground had an infinitely bigger effect on me. Not because I was too cool for Nirvana, who’s ACTUALLY too cool for anything at age 15 or 16? No, it was because the Velvet Underground were better, in my mind. I’m not sure what my point is…I guess I’m saying yes, Nirvana was really important, but I really don’t think they made it any cooler or acceptable to be actually angry, sarcastic, disaffected, or whatever. I think that’s a little insulting to everyone who was any or all of those things before Nirvana. I also don’t think the evidence is there that they were the ones responsible. I think it opened up new possibilities for bands to use the approximation of those things as gimmicks, but I don’t think by and large it changed the culture as much as you’re saying you did. Not that it didn’t AT ALL, because it’s clear that’s not true, but….I dunno.

    I wish he were still alive, because I think his music stood to get even better. I haven’t listened to Nirvana regularly since that age. I think the songs have aged really well but the recordings not so much.

    Maybe I should sleep before I write any more.

  31. Curmudgeon September 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Fuckin’ amazing piece by Scott. Easily the best piece of writing I’ve happened upon during the Nevermind revisited period we find ourselves in currently.

    And kudos to Everett True for taking his incessant name-dropping to radical new heights! The post somewhere above where, in reply to a beautifully crafted, well thought out, moving piece on Nirvana, Everett manages to name drop – Courtney Love, Kim Fowley, Brian Molko (Brian Molko!?) AND mention that Courtney Love was bragging to someone that she knew him is a work of genius. Almost left me speechless.

    Scott Creney, I salute you. You’ve written the best piece on Nirvana that I’ve read in the years.

    Everett True, I salute you also. You’ve shown us all what would happen if David Brent was to’ve somehow infiltrated the cool kids.

  32. Everett True September 16, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Ah, we’ve reached the Second Stage of a new magazine. Take careful note. This is the stage where our readers will attempt to play off our writers against one another. You wait. This is the first such attempt, but it certainly won’t be the last …

    Incidentally, Al Larsen’s article is also amazing.

  33. Curmudgeon September 17, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Everett, I’ll read the Larsen article later on, thanks for linking.

    Just to say, I wasn’t attempting to play anyone off against anyone else. If anything, I was perhaps attempting to give you a much needed kick up the backside in regards to your present day writing of the grunge scene.

    You were there, we get it. But for goodness’ sakes, man, you’re a talented writer with the ability (and the memories and platform) to really weave some literary magic on this topic. I know because I’ve bought and read two of your books – one on Nirvana and the other on the alternative scene in the late 80’s early 90’s – and they’re both really good. Essential, even.

    But it seems nowadays, when given the task of summarizing anything from that time in the form of an article, you immediately assume this kind of lowly, name-dropping ligger persona and it’s embarrassing.

    People have obviously pulled you up on this, and in reaction (I assume as a defense mechanism) you’ve started putting daft “troll” elements into your writings, case in point the ‘legacy’ segment at the end of your Nevermind article. This gives off the vibe that you’re actually mocking the subject matter in a sort of aloof, knowing manner, but you’re not – you do care about it, this time period more than any other has defined you as a writer and you should show it, and yourself, a little more care and attention when called upon to roll the years back and reflect.

    After all, a lot of kids reading these articles weren’t around when Nevermind dropped, and few journalists were as lucky as you were when it came to access granted.

    Pull your socks up.

  34. Everett True September 17, 2011 at 7:14 am

    it was nothing to do with luck.

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  36. Jaime Rodriguez October 6, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Really great article, Nevermind changed my life

  37. nirvanatributeband October 27, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Good job Scott.
    Loved this article!

  38. Bartosz Biniek February 25, 2012 at 7:17 am

    Sorry, but weren’t you rather 28 than 18 when this album came out?

  39. Everett True February 25, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Sorry, but weren’t you rather 28 than 18 when this album came out?

    I have no idea of Scott’s age. I think it’s a little unlikely he’d lie about it so blatantly, though.

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