Thursday, December 16, 2004
According to former New York Times critic Neil Strauss, only 11 out of the 30 teenagers he surveyed in a Tower Records in an upscale LA suburb had ever heard of the band Nirvana. That’s what Strauss reports at the start of his portion of the liner notes to the long-awaited Nirvana box set, the four-disc With the Lights Out (DGC/Universal).
Strauss is shocked to find that a band who had come along and changed the world only a generation earlier were already in the process of being relegated to the dustbin of history.
It seems that there are those bands who have the right temperament to make a career out of rock and roll—an ability or a willingness to settle in with an audience and continue making their music. And there are others whose entire concept of rock and roll is simply too volatile to support a long career. These are the bands who, like Nirvana, never come to terms with the inherent conflict between art and commerce and the confrontation of an underground band with a mass audience.
At first, these bands—like the Sex Pistols and the Clash—draw strength and inspiration from the sense of mission that comes from tearing at the system from within. But the system always seems to win or, at least, change comes too slowly. Incapable of accepting that their art has become a commodity, these bands hit a wall and implode. Their legacy may fade for a time, but more often than not, pop-culture cycles back around to a point where their music, stripped of the baggage of its era, reaches and inspires a whole new generation.
That’s one of the stories of Nirvana. But it’s not the one I want to tell. Because, 10 years after the voice of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, put a needle in his arm, a gun to his head, and extinguished his life, it’s remarkable how little attention has been paid to the music his band made between 1988 and 1994.
All kinds of books and articles (along with one feature-length film) dealing with the circumstances surrounding Cobain’s life and death have been researched, written, and released to a once-curious public. But the only result has been to paint Cobain as just another in a long line of rock and roll casualties. And his widow, Courtney Love, has made a habit of acting so poorly in public that the whole tragedy has taken on an ugliness tawdry enough to make the most devoted cultural rubbernecker avert his or her eyes.
In the process, the music has been overshadowed. We take it for granted that Nirvana was the band that took the oil and vinegar of pop metal and punk rock and mixed them until, in an effort to imitate the Pixies, they wrote a song that came to represent not just a generation but a point in history: ”Smells like Teen Spirit.”
For those of us who were around at the time, Nirvana did more than that. And as Kurt Cobain evolved from the raging frontman of a noisy trio into a thoughtful and poetic songwriter who was learning to articulate his very personal feelings of pain, joy, anger, and alienation, there were those of us who thought we saw the emergence of the next great rock and roll songwriter. The definition of a great rock and roll songwriter is simply someone who can put what you feel into words and music until it seems he or she has tapped into your nervous system and pinpointed the weak spots. So much of that has been overshadowed by the notoriety that surrounded Cobain’s death, by the pale imitations that followed in Nirvana’s footsteps, that I think a lot of people stopped listening to the music. For me, it was just too difficult to spend quality time with Bleach, Nevermind, or In Utero. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.