Thursday, November 12, 2009

Contextual Nirvana

I grew up with a specific system of buying records. If it was a current artist, I would wait until the second or third single, and if I liked it enough I would cop the album on principle. This method led me to buying P.O.D.'s Satellite, which was a shit album that even a screwy, Jah-lionizing guest appearance by H.R. ("Without Jah, Nothin'") couldn't save. So in late 2001, I amended the process to include going to Rolling Stone's website to read reviews. If it didn't get 3 1/2 stars or more, I wouldn't fuck with it. This system lasted me up until late 2004 when, either due to a Pitchforkian shift if writing staff or position on what constitutes a 4-star album to Rolling Stone, a few dud purchases (In On The Kill Taker being a major one around that time) to abandon the method and go off pure instinct. MTV2, VH1, MTV in the 90's, Rolling Stone from 2001-2004 and NY radio shaped what I would buy, like, and see up until I got to college and got access to, hence the nonsensical pre-iPod generation mix of genres on my Winamp playlist, where there was just as likely to be a song by Clinic as there was a song by Cold or the Pharcyde.

There was only one instance, save for my Christmas 2004 purchase of You Fail Me based on its album cover, of me bypassing both criterias: Nirvana.

Shortly before 9/11, when I began my awkward tranistion to a high school freshman, I bought Nevermind and In Utero at a Circuit City off of pure memory, nostalgia for my even then fading 90's memories, curiosity, and rock mythology. Before actually hearing those records in their entirety for the first time (which, in a then-rare display of self-control I listened to chronologically) I had probably been bombarded by the video blocks and concert footage that became a yearly ritual on MTV2 to commemorate Cobain's birthday. But before sitting down to be enveloped by what would define everything about me for a year-and-a-half (when I got into AFI), all I had to go on was the fact that I had heard the singles and that he was dead. None of this meant anything until I listened to the albums themselves, which gave me the same overwhelming mix of sadness and joy that I still get from certain records (The Hour of Bewilderbeast,Kid A, etc.) Its something odd beyond the kind of enjoyment I get from good (and bad) music now. Its something that I guess could be reductively described as being moved, if it wasn't for the wishy-washy connotations of that word.

By the end of freshman year, I owned all six Nirvana records, from Bleach to From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. I could play every song all the way through and knew almost all the lyrics. I used to lovingly sit with an acoustic guitar and play in real-time to the Unplugged record, singing along in my small Brooklyn room about how I wasn't a sunbeam to Jesus (which certainly fit my politics) and inadvertently learning what I quickly found out was a Bowie song. I bought Heavier Than Heaven, the Charles Cross biography, for my friend's older sister, who I had a crush on for a few years and summarily stole from her (leaving a passive aggressive note) after our first falling out when I was 15 and she was 17. Despite all the lug-headed shredder derisions of his guitar-playing, I cut my teeth playing guitar on those songs at a time when I couldn't ever fathom being able to play Hendrix, let alone play the solo from "Anarchy in the UK" properly. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of songs that I wrote during this period sounded like either Linkin Park, Tool, Puddle of Mudd, or Nirvana.

Unlike most 2Pac fans, who also get indoctrinated into a genre or their first cult of personality through a dead pop star, I actually realized that more and better artists of the same genre exist and that my love of a celebrity shoudln't stifle my development as a music fan. So I got into the Strokes and the White Stripes and punk, and AFI and metalcore and death metal, and black metal, and doom/sludge, etc. While I was delving into other genres and thickening (no Israel) my extant roots in dancehall, rap, and the kind of obnoxious dance music only ravers in NYC listen to, I still had a connection to Cobain and a vested interest in all of the myths, the gear, the stories, footage, and accusations that Courtney Love had him murdered. But it was peripheral. Over time my taste got much much better and Nevermind went to the bottom of the pile in terms of my favorite Nirvana records.

As the third Nirvana live album, and the accompanying "Live at Reading" DVD was released recently, I noticed that Nirvana sort of came back in vogue, or at least for people in my age group, because of the renewed context in which to enjoy them. When your first exposure to the band is the glossy and neutered Nevermind, all those comparisons to Black Flag, the Melvins, and Sabbath get lost (although this post itself was sparked by a song on this year's Pissed Jeans record that sounded just like Nirvana). This is how most people view the band and to think of them in the proper context of what they were, a raw and noisy Seattle power trio that sounded at once exactly like the Melvins and nothing like the Melvins. This is inherently cooler than the conception most fans and I grew up with, especially as sludge and crust/hardcore are so in vogue with everyone and all forms of rock consumed by the post-indie set are either fragile and drowned in cheap reverb or caked and flaking with dissonance and crusty textures.

I hated Bleach until I got into "extreme" metal. In the nascent days when I actually found Slayer alluring and scary (7th grade-10th grade),I couldn't get down with such a raw record. In fact, it wasn't until maybe 11th grade or so that I began declaring, with ineffable confidence, that In Utero was the best Nirvana record. My girlfriend of the time responded with a "Duh!", but she was the kind of girl who would videotape VH1 Classic's alternative rock video block's, so she was on some other shit at the time. I could handle Incesticide and From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah well enough in terms of rawness, the latter I actually preferred towards the close of 9th grade, but it took 5 years of shit-fi black metal, a purist love for old school death metal, and a slight attraction to pre-Houdini Melvins for Bleach to go past having a few good songs to being out and out great and weird.

I'm probably not the only one to notice this about the band. The greatest hits Courtney Love put out around 2004 or so to pay for Frances Bean Cobain's bourgeois sense of entitlement and aristocracy had a curious tracklisting that was celebrated by fans and Rolling Stone for belying obvious choices, or at the very least, providing a few non Neverming cuts.

As a 22-year old adult, I've grown to hate "Rape Me" and have, in my middle age, discoveredthat its a terrible song that tries too hard without delivering. I've discovered that all of the accusations of Nirvana creating the blueprint for late 90's radio rock and nu-metal was a complete fallacy. It was Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Bush, chiefly. But most of all, that, from the 70+ songs left to sort through, all essential in their own way, is a band of three eqally interesting musicians informed as much by hardcore and altrock as they were by the saccharine vibes of string-laden 70's AOR. Despite that period of outgrowth, Nirvana can be cool, but in context.

Or maybe its just the gradual shift from 80's retro-fetishism to 90's retro-fetishism (flannel, Vivian Girls, vice) skewing it all.

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