“And I’m not sad and just maybe / I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…”

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Today is Kurt Cobain’s birthday. He would have been 47.

Excerpt from Cobain’s journal:

In the summer of 1983 … I remember hanging out at a Montesano, Washington Thriftway when this short-haired employee box-boy, who kind [of] looked like the guy in Air Supply, handed me a flyer that read: “The Them Festival. Tomorrow night in the parking lot behind Thriftway. Free live rock music.” Monte was a place not accustomed to having live rock acts in their little village, a population of a few thousand loggers and their subservient wives. I showed up with stoner friends in a van. And there stood the Air Supply box-boy holding a Les Paul with a picture from a magazine of Kool Cigarettes on it. They played faster than I ever imagined music could be played and with more energy than my Iron Maiden records could provide. This was what I was looking for. Ah, punk rock. The other stoners were bored and kept shouting, “Play some Def Leppard.” God, I hated those fucks more than ever. I came to the promised land of a grocery store parking lot and I found my special purpose.

1989 review of Nirvana’s show, written by Gillian Gaar in The Rocket:

Nirvana careens from one end of the thrash spectrum to the other, giving a nod towards garage grunge, alternative noise, and hell-raising metal without swearing allegiance to any of them.

1989 journal entry, Kurt Cobain:

My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions. They’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have, and sarcastic, hopeful, humorous rebuttals towards cliche, bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years. I mean to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork.

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Bob Dylan, after hearing the song “Polly” for the first time:

The kid has heart.

Excerpt from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles Cross:

During one rambunctious night of partying at Kurt’s house, Hanna spray-painted “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on the bedroom wall. She was referring to a deodorant for teenage girls, so her graffiti was not without implication: Tobi used Teen Spirit, and by writing this on the wall, Kathleen was taunting Kurt about sleeping with her, implying that he was marked by her scent.

Line from the first draft of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?

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Excerpt from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles Cross:

On November 25 [1990], Nirvana played a show at Seattle’s Off Ramp that attracted more A&R representatives than any concert in Northwest history. Representatives from Columbia, Capitol, Slash, RCA, and several other labels were bumping into each other. “The A & R guys were in full-court press,” observed Sony’s Damon Stewart. The sheer number of A & R reps altered the way the band was perceived in Seattle. “By that time,” explained Susan Silver, “there was a competitive feeding frenzy going on around them.”

The show itself was remarkable – Kurt later told a friend it was his favorite Nirvana performance. During an eighteen-song set, the band played twelve unreleased tunes. They opened with the powerful “Aneurysm,” the first time it was played in public, and the crowd slam-danced and body-surfed until they broke the light bulbs on the ceiling. “I thought the show was amazing,” recalled Kim Thayil of Soundgarden. “They did a cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now’ that I thought was brilliant. And then, when I heard ‘Lithium’, it stuck in my mind. Ben, our bass player, came up to me and said, ‘That’s the hit. That’s a Top 40 hit right there.’”

Excerpt from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles Cross:

… but the surprise came [at the show played in Seattle in April, 1991] when the band played a new composition. Kurt slurred the vocals, perhaps not even knowing all the words, but the guitar part was already in place, as was the tremendous driving drum beat. “I didn’t know what they were playing,” recalled Susie Tennant, DGC promotion rep, “but I knew it was amazing. I remember jumping up and down and asking everyone next to me, ‘What is this song?’ ”

Tennant’s words mimicked what Novoselic and Grohl had said just three weeks earlier, when Kurt brought a new riff into rehearsal. “It’s called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” Kurt announced to his bandmates, stealing the Kathleen Hanna graffiti. At the time, no one in the band knew of the deodorant, and it wasn’t until the song was recorded and mastered that anyone pointed out it had the name of a product in it. When Kurt first brought the song into the studio, it ha a faster beat and less focus on the bridge. “Kurt was playing just the chorus,” Krist remembered. It was Krist’s idea to slow the tune down, and Grohl instinctively added a powerful beat.

At the O.K. Hotel, Kurt just hummed a couple of the verses. He was changing the lyrics to all his songs during this period, and “Teen Spirit” had about a dozen drafts. One of the final drafts featured the chorus: “A denial and from strangers / A revival and from favors / Here we are now, we’re so famous / We’re so stupid and from Vegas.” Another began with: “Come out and play, make up the rules / Have lots of fun, we know we’ll lose.” Later in the same version was a line that had no rhyming couplet: “The finest day I ever had was when tomorrow never came.”

September, 1991 – letter written by Cobain to a friend, the same week that “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the single, would go on sale:

I got evicted from my apartment. I’m living in my car so I have no address, but here’s Krist’s phone number for messages.

Excerpt from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles Cross:

Two days later [September 15, 1991], Nirvana held an “in-store” at Beehive Records. DGC expected about 50 patrons, but when over 200 kids were lined up by two in the afternoon – for an event scheduled to start at seven – it began to dawn on them that perhaps the band’s popularity was greater than first thought. Kurt had decided that rather than simply sign albums and shake people’s hands – the usual business of an in-store – Nirvana would play. When he saw the line at the store that afternoon, it marked the first time he was heard to utter the words “holy shit” in response to his popularity. The band retreated to the Blue Moon Tavern and began drinking, but when they looked out the window and saw dozens of fans looking in, they felt like they were in the movie A Hard Day’s Night. When the show began, Beehive was so crowded that kids were standing on racks of albums and sawhorses had to be lined up in front of the store’s glass windows to protect them. Nirvana played a 45-minute set – performing on the store floor – until the crowd began smashing into the band like the pep rally in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Kurt was bewildered by just how big a deal it had all become. Looking into the crowd, he saw half of the Seattle music scene and dozens of his friends. It was particularly unnerving for him to see two of his ex-girlfriends – Tobi and Tracy – there, bopping away to the songs. Even these intimates were now part of an audience he felt pressure to serve. The store was selling the first copies of Nevermind the public had a chance at, and they quickly sold out. “People were ripping posters off the wall,” remembered store manager Jamie Brown, “just so they’d have a piece of paper for Kurt to autograph.” Kurt kept shaking his head in amazement …

Though he had always wanted to be famous – and back when he was in school in Monte, he had promised his classmates one day he would be – the actual culmination of his dreams deeply unnerved him.

On September 24, 1991, Nevermind went on sale nationwide.

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Lines began forming at record stores across the country.

Mark Kates, representative from DGC, was with Novoselic and Grohl in Boston, on that day, and they went to Newbury Comics, and passed by a record store with a line around the block. Kates said:

It was amazing. There were like a thousand kids trying to buy this record.

Excerpt from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles Cross:

It took two weeks for Nevermind to register in the Billboard Top 200, but when it did chart, the album entered at No. 144. By the second week it rose to No. 109; by the third week it was at No. 65; and after four weeks, on the second of November [1991], it was at No. 35, with a bullet. Few bands have had such a quick ascendancy to the Top 40 with their debuts. Nevermind would have registered even higher if DGC had been more prepared – due to their modest expectations, the label had initially pressed only 46,251 copies. For several weeks, the record was sold out.

Usually a quick rise on the charts is attributable to a well-orchestrated promotional effort, backed by marketing muscle, yet Nevermind achieved its early success without such grease. During its first few weeks, the record had little help from radio except in a few selected cities. When DGC’s promotion staff tried to convince programmers to play “Teen Spirit”, they initially met with resistance. “People at rock radio, even in Seattle, told me, ‘We cant play this. I can’t understand what the guy is saying,’” recalled DGC’s Susie Tennant. Most stations that added the single slated it late at night, thinking it “too aggressive” to put on during the day.

I continue to listen to Nirvana regularly, and, like the Beatles, like Elvis, they don’t seem to “wear out” with repetition. “Rape Me”, “Lithium”, “Love Buzz”, “Aneurysm”, “Heart-Shaped Box”, “All Apologies”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” still, after all this time, make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It still sounds fresh, it still sounds dangerous and new. You can still feel the risk in it.

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Tori Amos describes a similar moment to what my brother describes (in the essay I posted below) when she first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (a song which she immediately covered). She was in Iceland, touring (with just her piano and herself). She had not “hit” yet. That would come the following year. There was no place for her, either, in the world of radio at that time. She was unclassifiable. Perhaps she was okay with that, who knows – but she says she was in Iceland in a little bar, and suddenly she felt goosebumps go all over her body, as she heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” start playing. What the hell was going on back in the United States that that was number one? It was a prescient moment for her. She had this strange prickly sixth sense that “it” could happen for her now. If there was a place for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the Top 40, then something had been loosed in music, some energy had been unleashed … and so there could be a place for her, too.

She says,

“‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was really like an injection. It propelled people to choose what they wanted to do with themselves and their questioning, and it gave a generation some juice.”

A couple years ago, I asked my brother Brendan to write down an experience from his life, a story he had told me many times, one that I never got sick of hearing. It is the story of the first time he heard the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Here is my brother’s essay, and with his words I will close this tribute to an artist I still miss.

Quelle Chanson, Non?
by Brendan O’Malley

My fifth year of college (!) was spent abroad in Orleans, France at L’Universite d’Orleans. Up until that point, I”d lived in Rhode Island all my life. From the time I was 15 until that year my main contact with the world outside of Little Rhody was through various punk rock bands.

This is what ’83 to ’91 looked like for me:

7Seconds were from out West and toured relentlessly, singing melodic breakneck hardcore punk that thematically took on “important” issues like racism, sexism, and “the-world-doesn’t-understand-our-mohawks-ism”.

Minor Threat were from D.C. and not as upbeat as 7Seconds. They were more attuned to the forces that lay behind the ills of society and therefore less inclined to sing passionately about being able to change it. They later morphed into Fugazi, another of my all-time faves.

The Midwest was represented by a two-headed hydra of searing punk rock, The Replacements and Husker Du. The Replacements were the ill-advised Thursday night booze-off before a big test and Husker Du was the all-night study session for a political science exam that devolves into a meth-fueled rage against some machine.

All these bands were connected to other lesser lights. Before the internet, there was DIY (Do It Yourself) punk rock. They started their own record labels, they printed their own LP’s, they drew their own posters. They toured the country in vans sleeping on the couches of their biggest fans.

Rolling Stone didn’t write about them, radio wouldn’t touch them with an any length foot pole, MTV was already in the business of creating megastars, and the majority of the public winced at anything that was LOUD. I vividly remember playing a Replacements song for a friend of mine in high school. This guy was a musician, a guitar player who liked heavy metal for Pete’s sake, but he simply could not hear the song. All he heard was noise.

This scene would be replayed throughout the late ’80′s for me, both in high school and in my first few years in college. I had my circle of like-minded friends. There were four of us. Tom, Justin, Joe, moi. We were occasionally a band, but more often than not we were intense spectators. To be a fan of this music meant a certain level of danger. Concerts were rag-tag affairs in which the crowd threw itself against itself as ferociously as possible. There were violent elements who were attracted to this kind of freedom and we often found ourselves rescuing punk maidens from slam-dance circles and avenging uncalled for elbows with punches. Skinheads, completely missing the point, weren’t dancing so much as they were trolling for conflict. Depending on our mood, we either gave it to them or didn’t.

Outside the shows this underground element would collide with “normal” American life. The leeriness of capitalism was astounding. The feeling of “us vs. them” was overwhelming. Restaurants would refuse to serve you. Store owners would deny you their products. Business owners would refuse your money. I could romanticize that whole aspect as having added some level of enjoyment, but to be honest, it just sucked. I had thousands of “what is the deal with THAT” conversations with my co-conspirators. The justifications we concocted on behalf of our oppressors could never quite be pinned down into any certain set of criteria. Suffice it to say, we were, by definition, outsiders.

Did this status affect my view of said mainstream? In other words, was I as much of a douchebag to the world as the world was a douchebag to me? Of course not. I bought “Thriller” like everyone else. I rocked out to Van Halen’s “Runnin’™ With The Devil”. I lusted over Sade. I never cared for Madonna, but I didn’t SPIT at people who did. I even had some classic rock in the collection. My tastes ran towards punk rock but I could appreciate Duran Duran, perhaps the weirdest boy band ever. And Prince was from Minneapolis like my other two favorite bands. What wasn’t there to like about Prince?

But my open-mindedness was definitely not reciprocated. For some reason the music that meant the most to me was not just disliked, it was seen as a threat.

So, college happened in there somewhere. In between punk rock concerts, I did a ton of plays at the wonderful University of Rhode Island theater department. I had a series of disastrous relationships and abused alcohol. I had a blast.

I kept three majors. Theater, English, and French. My youthful enjoyment of Inspector Clouseau had improbably turned into a major. Thus everything about my French studies seemed vaguely comedic to me. The opportunity to live in France for a year was going to be a laugh riot. I’d completed 4 full years of college and only needed 9 credits to graduate. 5 classes per semester equals 15 credits, so you do the math. Over the course of my two semesters in France, I only needed to do less than one semester of work. France was in trouble, people.

That summer wasn’t exactly a victory lap of an exit. I got Lyme’s Disease and went through a horrific breakup. I left the country an emotional wreck and very unhealthy. In fact, I took the last of my antibiotics right before I got on the plane, hoping they’d done their work. I invested in an expensive CD Walkman and a small set of speakers. I brought two notebooks of CD’s with me, perhaps 20 of my favorites.

My first couple of months in France were primarily recuperative. I went to classes with my other Foreign Exchange students, I ate pleasant dinners with my host family, I went to every movie in town to get used to listening to French when I didn’t have to respond. I read in my little dorm room. I ate the same meal twice a day at the cafeteria. Slowly the language unfurled itself to me and social situations became bearable.

Two of my American friends had joined a local American football team and made some French friends. This was what I was after. Instead of hanging out with my classmates, other non-French speaking foreigners, I began hanging out primarily with French people. But America was about to reach out to me.

The campus of L’Universite d’Orleans is a 20 minute bus ride outside of the city of Orleans. We all began to spend far more time in the city and very little on campus. On one of these excursions, we stopped in at FNAC. FNAC (said as one word by the French, hilarious) was the French version of Tower Records. In a “holy shit I feel old” side note, Tower recently disappeared off of the face of the planet.

I’d been in France a couple of months and I’d yet to buy any music, preferring instead to start smoking. So I wasn’t all that into going to FNAC, to be honest. I loitered, looking at French chicks.

And then a song came on over the in-store stereo system.

I am not exaggerating anything that follows.

My memory of this moment is like one of those long unbroken movie shots: the camera starts up in the very highest corner of the store. The song begins and slowly the camera begins to swoop, capturing the silly French fashions, the funny haircuts, the multi-colored crazily buttoned jackets, the pointy shoes, late ’80′s American culture reappropriated back to Europe and funneled inappropriately into Mass Appeal. The focus of the shot narrows in on the face of an obviously American post-teen. As the music builds, the camera nears his face as his mouth opens, his toes tap, his head bounces. He is obviously amazed at this sound. The sound obliterates everything else.

The camera stays in close up. The song ends. The next voice you hear you have to try to imagine a little bit. Do you remember the morning rock DJ in your town? Do you remember the inherent utter hyperbole in their speech? Now cross that with Inspector Clouseau!

Eh, mes amis, quelle chanson, non? C’etait le Number One des Etats Unis, la nouvelle son de …

Interjection: Did I just hear him say that that was the Number One song in the United States? When I flew out of Logan Airport, the number one song was “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams. It had just replaced “Rush Rush” by Paula Abdul. Those were the big hits of the summer. Think about that for a second.

Cut back to gape-mouthed post-teen listening to the DJ who keeps talking:

… la nouvelle son de Nirvana! “Smells Like Teen Spirit” de l’album Nevermind.”

Dropping the camera metaphor, I could barely believe what I’d been hearing. I tore over to the Rock section and found Nirvana. Sold out. I had heard of them after they put out their “Bleach” album in 1989 but I hadn’t bought the album and knew very little about them. I was almost angry. That song was Number One??? What the hell was going on back there???? I turn my back for one second and all of a sudden everyone can handle loud music? Not only can they handle it, but it is the most popular song in the country??

I seriously thought about getting on a plane immediately and flying back to the States.

Imagine you work for a political candidate, Mr. So-and-so. You’ve been tirelessly campaigning for years. You’ve poured your heart and soul into a race that people seem ambivalent about at best. By some fluke, you are on a deserted island when the actual voting takes place. Your isolation makes you wonder what ever compelled you to get involved in politics in the first place. A plane flies overhead. Instead of rescuing you, it drops a newspaper on your head. The headline says, “So-and-So Elected in a Landslide!”

I’d spent the better part of ten years catching flak for how loud and out of control my tastes were, how what I liked was actually an affront to decent American consumerism, and that such a horrific assault on art and sound was everything that was wrong with the youth of today.

Bryan Adams was considered a ROCK STAR. Huey Lewis (god love ‘im) was considered a ROCK STAR. Now, I have nothing against either of these guys, but come on. ROCK STARS? I don’t think so. Rock stars scare people. David Bowie is a ROCK STAR. Mick Jagger is a ROCK STAR. They scared people! They might even have slept together just to show the world they could do whatever they wanted!

I have never felt such a sensation of vertigo as I did that day in that French record store. One listen of that song and I knew that nothing would be the same when I got back to America. Name another song that could truthfully make such a claim.

One final note. I only got 8 credits and had to take another class when I got back Stateside. C’est la vie!

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6 Responses to “And I’m not sad and just maybe / I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…”

  1. Bigplatts says:

    That was a really great post, I’m a huge Nirvana fan but I was born soon after Cobain died so I’m always interested at what it was like to be alive when this was all going on. I was wondering, I’m a big fan of Beatles and Nirvana too and I’ve just started getting into Elvis, so what other bands do you like? because it sounds like we have similar musical tastes.

  2. sheila says:

    Hi there! Yes, I love my brother’s essay because he does capture just how dramatic a shift it was. I certainly haven’t seen such a dramatic and quick shift in my lifetime quite like that one!

    If you click on the “Music” tag at the bottom of the post, there’s lots of music stuff – mainly Elvis – but also my iPod shuffles, which I enjoy marking down and writing about, because I’m a nerd. Maybe you’ll see some of your faves there too.

    Very eclectic taste! I love Metallica, and I love Jeff Buckley. I love Maria McKee and the Foo Fighters. Dolly Parton. Elvis. Queen. Led Zeppelin. Etta James. All the old Sun Records artists: Carl Perkins, Sonny Burgess. I love Bleu (he’s one of my current favorites) and Brendan Benson and Mike Viola. I love Eminem. I love old piano boogie-woogie, and show tunes.

    Thanks so much for your comment – I still miss Cobain. He left a hole that will never be filled.

  3. Cara Ellison says:

    So much yes in all this. I just loved every word.

  4. shahn says:

    I saw Nirvana in 1990. We had gone to see the headliner band (and my favorite) The Screaming Trees but were completely knocked over by this insanely powerful opening act instead. The next day we all ran to the record store to special order Bleach, since it wasn’t in the stores at the time.

    We never spoke of The Screaming Trees again.

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