I learned on the radio today that had he lived, Kurt Cobain would have been 50 years old on February 20, 2017. While it didn't really tug at the heartstrings or inspire a nostalgia trip, it brought to mind a conversation I had a few years back.
I was sitting at the Little Palace with a Dennison student who had some sort of connection with my Uncle Bill. She was taking a bus to NYC that would be picking her up down the street, and my wife had insisted that I stay with her she got on board. We got to talking about music. She was an enthusiastic proponent of the string band revival which at the time was approaching its high water mark, and in my view also approaching tedious. At some point she asked me what I was listening to when I was in High School, paused a split second, and said “Nirvana, right?” Well, I thought, that’s a really interesting question.
I was in high school during Nirvana's heyday in the early 90's, although I really can’t say I was fan. I was more into metal acts like Slayer and Morbid Angel, and my friends and I just sort of lumped Nirvana in with shitty “alternative rock” acts like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. In retrospect this was unfair – Nirvana was a million times better and more interesting than the Journey-in-flannel crowd – but high school metal heads aren’t known for their nuanced views.
But yeah, I remember when Nirvana hit. When music changed.
When I first heard Nirvana in the fall of 1991, I was a 13 year old freshman riding in a car driven by my friend Nate. Nate was a couple years older than me, and had both a driver's license and a new cassette tape. I remember him saying “hey, I've got Nirvana,” and plugging it into his tape deck. I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. Immediately, I realized that I was going to have to go back to my house and throw out or hide most of the music I owned.
I’ll confess to purchasing a little bit of Hair Metal in middle school (and anybody who says they didn’t listen to that stuff in 1990 is either lying or a closet NKOTB fan). But at that moment I realized that Bon Jovi’s “Young Guns” soundtrack and Warrant's “Cherry Pie” weren't just yesterday's news – they were now a severe embarrassment. Every part of Hair Metal – the clothes, the power ballads, the drum solos, the makeup – was now just a bag of shit. You would look your best friend in the eye and swear you had never even heard of the stuff, and he would say the same thing right back to you.
Oh sure, there had been rumblings before Nirvana. I had picked up both Jane's Addition's “Ritual de lo Habitual” and the Chili Peppers “Mother's Milk,” both of which were the wildest, craziest music thing I had ever heard (and in the case of “Ritual,” still is). But for whatever reason, they didn't look out of place on a tape rack alongside Motley Crue's “Dr. Feelgood.”
But after Nirvana hit, you didn't want a Motley Crue tape in your house. You didn't even want to know that Motley Crue existed.
Pitching those tapes wasn’t easy to do; back then they were a pretty significant investment to the tune of $18.00 in today’s money. My weekly paycheck for bagging groceries at Kroger got me two tapes, a couple comic books, a set of guitar strings, bus fare to campus and lunch. But it had to be done.
Speaking of guitar strings. Nevermind didn’t just kill Hair Metal; it also ended the whole Guitar Hero concept. I remember that my guitar teacher at Coyle Music hated Nirvana to the point where he wouldn’t teach you how to play their songs. As fucked up as it sounds now, he actually celebrated when Cobain committed suicide.
He didn’t want change – he still wanted to go out and play amazing finger-tapped solos in tight pants with guitar groupies (allegedly) throwing themselves at him. He was no longer a star attraction. Although the merits of guitar acrobatics are debatable, there is no doubt that shit required a lot of practice. Dude was, as they say, invested.
Lots of people were. I had a friend named Michelle, who was about five years older than me and married to the singer of a Nu Metal Band. She once confided to me that she missed 80’s music because it was fun and everyone had a good time. Post-Nirvana, she said, everything was serious and depressing.
The change was final and severe. And I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like that before or since.
Thoughts and constructive criticism can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org