By Wil Forbis
Hey folks. The following piece is selected from my current writing project: an unnamed cultural and personal memoir about living in the 90s Northwest music scene. I'll be running selections from it during the writing process. Since it's part of a larger work there may be a few points in the individual chunks that seem unclear or reference nonexistent sections. But that's all the more reason for you to buy the book when it's available.
By January of 1992 American youth culture was experiencing a tectonic shift of monumental proportions. In September of the previous year, Nirvana's "Nevermind" album had been released. It quickly took hold with its intended audience of teenagers and young adults and shot up the charts. Perhaps its most symbolic victory --- the event that signified a real changing of the guard in the world of music --- came when "Nevermind" replaced Michael Jackson's "Dangerous*" on the Billboard music chart.
* It's worth noting that "Dangerous" had no business being on the music charts --- it was a terrible album. But Jackson had enjoyed phenomenal success with the outstanding "Thriller" and it was automatically assumed that his follow-up albums should do the same. It was precisely these kinds of assumptions that "Nevermind" attacked.
The success of "Nevermind" had special significance for Olympia. Kurt Cobain had grown up in the nearby coastal town of Aberdeen, Washington. And he'd been living in Olympia as recently as a year previous; some might say it was where his creative talents reached their fruition. There was definitely a sense that Kurt Cobain was Olympia's native son.
And with Nirvana's success came a degree of anticipation for the Olympia music scene. As mentioned earlier, the definitive bands of Olympia were not just in it for the fun of it, they wanted to make some sort of cultural impact. But they were also aware that the odds were stacked against them. Conventional wisdom of the pop metal era had decreed that for a band to achieve success they had to move to Los Angeles and willingly rescind their geographic and cultural identity, something no band in Olympia wanted to do. Additionally, the whole Olympia rock aesthetic was thumbing its nose at the music industry and that likely did not endear them to the powers that be. (Though the industry has never had any problem packaging youthful rebellion.) But "Nevermind" changed all that. It was the Trojan horse that had been snuck past the gates and would now allow the punk rock Trojans to overrun the city.
"Nevermind" pulled off one other admirable feat. The underground and alternative music scenes had, at this point, a tendency to eat their young. If a band stayed local and underground, touring in a dilapidated VW van and releasing albums on their own DIY record label, they could count on support from indie critics and "the scene." But if that band started to get big and expand their base, the original core group of fans and rock critics who had supported them would often turn their backs. And if a indie band signed with a major record label they could count on open mutiny from their original audience. (In such a situation, a band's only hope was to trade in their original following for a much larger group of clueless, unhip, lowest common denominator fans. They had to directly trade their underground cachet for dollars.) But this was not the case with Nirvana and "Nevermind." Nirvana did appeal to the un-punk, middle-of-the-road teenagers that populated midwestern America (a fact Cobain agonized over) but the band also maintained support from the underground audience that had nurtured them*. Nirvana was able to have their cake and eat it too; so much so that I would hazard a guess that there was only one person in America in 1992 that didn't like them.
* It wasn't complete support of course. I recall an ongoing debate in the letters to the editor and columns of punk periodical "Maximum Rock 'n Roll" as to whether Nirvana's success mandated their expulsion from the punk movement. But even there most people favored Nirvana.
And, of course, that person was me*. Frankly I thought Nirvana sucked. I thought "Nevermind" was pretty fucking boring. And I freely confess that out of all the contentious opinions I've held about music, this is probably the one that has earned me the greatest backlash from friends, neighbors and complete strangers. When I would express my views on the subject throughout the 90s people would look at me like I was crazy. It was like telling a Baptist that Jesus Christ was a third-rate carpenter with delusions of grandeur.
* Yes, I realize I'm being somewhat hyperbolic here. There were other members of Generation X who were disinterested in Nirvana (I recall a Time magazine cover story that came out immediately after Cobain killed himself and quoted a black kid who said something like, "he didn't speak for me.") but my perception at the time, as I was bound to progressive, indie loving Olympia, was that I was alone.
I realize it falls upon me to defend my position. And this is a bit difficult because as time has gone on my opinion has softened and in some areas I've decided it was flat out wrong. But I think I can break my beef with Nirvana down into three chunks. (Mmmmmm... chunky beef soup.)
Chunk #1: Music
As I've mentioned before, I've always been a musician's music snob. I tend like music that is multi-layered and with several things going on at once (the syncopated, near Contrapunctual synth lines of Devo are perfect example of this.) And I like a bit of experimentation. What I liked about bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush and Yes was that they were going outside the predictable verse-prechorus-chorus structure of pop music, playing with meter changes and writing longer, denser songs. Nirvana, Cobain being the Beatles fan he was, stuck mostly to the fairly predictable architecture of standard pop music. And instrumentally there wasn't much interesting happening either. Cobain was a passable guitarist, Novoselic a mediocre bass player; I do give Dave Grohl a lot of credit for his powerful and excellent drumming. But the band was playing songs in their most basic form. Cobain played chords or a riff, Novoselic duplicated it on bass and Grohl pinned the whole thing down rhythmically. (The obvious retort is that this sort of minimalism is exactly what the band was going for. Yes, I get that. I'm saying I didn't like it.)
Chunk #2: Lyrics
Almost immediately after "Nevermind" took off Cobain started gathering accolades for his lyric writing. This always baffled me. Let's take a look at a sample lyrical nugget from "Lithium."
I'm so lonely but that's okay I shaved my head...
And I'm not sad
And just maybe I'm to blame for all I've heard...
But I'm not sure
I hear this and think, why would you shave your head because you're lonely? And why does that make everything okay? Like the work of Michael Stipe, Cobain's lyrics seem to be a series of random phrases glued together with no particular larger theme or meaning. This sort of Da Da, free association style of lyric writing has never done it for me.
Go ahead and call me a philistine if you want. I'm not a big fan of Dylan either.
Chunk #3: The Friend of Mine Enemy Is Mine Enemy
This is probably the essential reason I disliked Nirvana. The kinds of people I hated --- the trendy, underground uber hipsters who sat in bohemian cafés clutching their Charles Bukowski to their chest while sipping fair trade coffee; claiming to be oppressed while exuding the height of snobbery; anxiously awaiting their first experiments with bisexuality* --- loved the band! These were the kinds of people who dismissed the music I liked with a roll of their eyes and some college-educated mumbo-jumbo about, "dull-witted, misogynistic, vapidly commercial pap." There was no way I was going to fall down and worship their false idols!
* Not that I'm trafficking in stereotypes or anything.
I'm the first to admit this was pure childishness on my part. My biggest complaint with the whole punk movement has always been its absolutist radicalism ("This is mainstream. I hate it.") yet I was engaging in the same sort of behavior. And it's also worth noting that all my friends loved Nirvana. Conrad, James and Dan were all fans.
So, uh, I believe I said something about my opinions on this matter softening. I'm still largely unimpressed by Nirvana's instrumental skill and Cobain's lyrics, but as the years have gone on I've had to concede that Cobain was a pop songwriting genius. There are few musicians that seem to be an endless font of catchy, hooky melodies --- McCartney comes to mind --- and Cobain definitely belonged to that pedigree. Crafting a great pop song is an onerous task requiring an almost subconscious understanding of how melody, rhythm and dynamics can be shaped and molded to interact with each other. It's often a matter of knowing what not to do. Overdoing any element can cause the song to crash in upon itself. As I listen through the Cobain catalog --- primarily while writing this book --- I'm struck by his mastery of the art form.
This is not to say that I think Nirvana's massive success can be solely attributed to Cobain's songwriting ability. (I would argue the album I happened to be listening to right now, The Replacements's "Tim", is every bit the equal of "Nevermind" in terms of songwriting.) "Nevermind" also arrived at the right cultural moment. The kids were getting burned out on pop metal and synth laden R&B. The alternative music movement had been gestating underground for years, slowly ratcheting up its street cred. The time was right for an explosion. All that was needed was charismatic figurehead to mount the white horse and lead the charge.