FUV Essentials: Russ Borris on Nirvana
Nirvana (photos courtesy of Geffen Records, collage by Laura Fedele)
Back in 1991, the musical landscape on the radio and on MTV was still dominated by the feel good rock and power ballads of Eighties hair metal bands. Admittedly, I was into a good amount of that stuff, so that wasn’t much of an issue for me. That being said, it all changed seemingly in an instant with four words: "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
The first time I heard that song, I likely had the same reaction as many other teens. Floored. What was this? Sure, I’d heard Sonic Youth, Pixies and other great alternative bands of the era, but this was different. Nirvana was next-level stuff. The distorted guitar riff, the beastly drumming from Dave Grohl and of course, Kurt Cobain.
In the beginning, it was not about what he was saying because, honestly, I didn’t know. Much of the chorus was unintelligible for the first couple of listens. But, once I picked up a cassette copy of Nevermind, and listened — and listened, and listened — those words came into focus and Cobain established himself as the voice of the voiceless.
Every teenager experiences feelings of isolation, loneliness, and angst and Cobain’s lyrics matched those moods to a T. To watch the album’s influence in a societal sense was incredible. Suddenly, the “alternative” kids were becoming more common and the music they loved filtered its way into the mainstream. I remember seeing students at school in “Sliver” t-shirts despite the fact that they hadn’t ever heard that song or the band’s debut record Bleach for that matter.
Or maybe that was me. Either way, the influence of Nevermind was undeniable. Cobain was an anti-star if there ever was one.
Fast forward to 1993 when Cobain, Grohl and Krist Novoselic had to follow the incredible success of Nevermind with their next release. In Utero was released that fall and to me, this is where the band really established its identity and brilliance, solidifying its place in music history. Rather than succumb to the pressure of following the incredible success of Nevermind, Nirvana chose to write and record a heavier and more aggressive album.
Much was made about Cobain’s desire to stay out of the limelight and the way he balked at the fame the band had garnered. I don’t think that statement could have been made clearer than it was with the controversial track “Rape Me.” The fact that the Cobain took the guitar riff from the band’s biggest success, “Smells Like Teen Spirit," and tweaked it into the intro of a song titled “Rape Me” spoke volumes to me. This guy did not care. He didn’t care what people thought of him, he didn’t care what the record company wanted the band to do, and he didn’t care about being famous.
Couple that attitude with the opening lyric of the album’s first song, the brilliant “Serve the Servants”: “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old.” Cobain became my new hero.
And then came the Unplugged in New York collection. Seeing the band members in this setting with their friends from Meat Puppets joining them for much of the session was different and cool. But that’s not really what makes this performance stand out from the other Unplugged shows MTV had produced at the time. For me, its power is built upon the otherworldly rendition of Lead Belly's “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
Near the very end of the performance, Cobain pauses before growling out the last words and there’s this indescribable look in his eyes. Was he simply feeling the emotion of the performance? Did he have some sort of epiphany that he was not long for this world? Or did he somehow channel Lead Belly himself? It’s impossible to know, but also impossible to forget.
That one moment, that one look, that sums up Kurt Cobain for me. Every great lyric, every great riff and every great live performance from Nirvana all comes down to that one moment. Their time was short, but their impact was immeasurable.