“And I’m not sad and just maybe / I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…” — Kurt Cobain, “Lithium”

“The kid has heart.” — Bob Dylan, after hearing Nirvana’s song “Polly” for the first time

Today is Kurt Cobain’s birthday. I’m not over it. There are defining moments in a generation, moments everyone remembers. For my generation it was the Challenger explosion and Kurt Cobain’s death. And maybe the fall of the Berlin Wall. Naturally when you speak in generalities, people get annoyed, and need to tell you what THEIR defining moment was, and how it had nothing to do with Cobain’s suicide. Well, good for you? I don’t know what to tell you. We’re talking in generalities because when you talk about a generation you’re always in the realm of the General. At any rate, the rise of Nirvana was a seismic event, a ferocious challenging of the status quo – and Cobain’s suicide was agonizing. He was mocked relentlessly by those who didn’t get it – the grown-ups, in other words – he was described as “whining” – the commentary was along the lines of “Stop whining. Be a man” – all of those lovely sentiments that keep men in a box, the “Boys don’t cry” contingency, which has just worked out SO WELL for us, hasn’t it. Yeah, tell a 5-year-old boy that “boys don’t cry” and then be totally BAFFLED at all the FURIOUS young men who can’t deal with their emotions. It is difficult to go back in time and describe Cobain’s importance, to describe what it was like when Nirvana arrived … And of course the flood-gates opened with Nirvana, letting in all of these other voices and sounds – which, of course, Nirvana didn’t START – they were PART of something, they didn’t INVENT something. But it went mainstream FAST. And then of course it all started to get ruined, as everything does when the mainstream gets a hold of it. But for a brief shining moment, Kurt Cobain emerged, and he was authentic, and he was OURS. You don’t forget someone like that.

Let me point you to my brother’s wonderful essay on Nevermind – because he explains it far better than I ever could.

And you never stop wishing that he could have just stuck around. You always miss someone like him. I had barely processed River Phoenix’s death when Kurt Cobain killed himself half a year later. These were my GUYS, my inspiration, I felt a sense of ownership/kinship – and they were both gone? It still seems unreal if I think about it for more than 10 seconds.

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.

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?

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.”

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. Lines began forming at record stores across the country. The lines became headline news.

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. You can still feel the risk in it.

Tori Amos describes the moment when she first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (a song which she immediately covered). She was in Iceland, touring. She had not “hit” yet. Little Earthquakes would come the following year. There was no place for her, either, in the world of radio at that time. She was a woman and a grand piano. She was unclassifiable. 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 SONG was number one? It was a prescient moment for her. If there was a place for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the Top 40, then something wild had been loosed in music, something unpredictable … and so maybe 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.”

Yup. The wild thing – and what makes them unique – is it was apparent what was happening at the time. You think only OTHER generations get to have formative moments and/or formative figures. Everything is past tense. This was especially true for my generation, since we grew up in the shadow of the Boomers, our parents. Now it seems like the situation is reverse. NOTHING is past tense. If it didn’t happen last year, it might as well have never happened. But I remember experiencing the whole Nirvana thing – and, to be honest, it was more than just them – it was … the whole thing … Bikini Kill, Hole, Sleater-Kinney, Soundgarden, Liz Phair … we were a generation who came of age with young-Boomer pop stars dominating the charts. Madonna. Prince. 10 years older than we were. Sometimes even more than that. A craggy-faced Boomer like Huey Lewis was a huge star. No shade. I love Huey. But seen in perspective: he was popularizing doo-wop, the music of his own youth, to us, the kids. He was a very VERY successful nostalgia act. And square as hell. It’s “hip to be square.” I’m sorry, is it 1954 all over again? Nobody seemed to think any of this was weird at the time. I sure as hell didn’t notice it.

But then suddenly, when we reached our 20s, all at once it seemed like, our PEERS started speaking.

It changed everything. As the kids say today, it just hit different.

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13 Responses to “And I’m not sad and just maybe / I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…” — Kurt Cobain, “Lithium”

  1. Cara Ellison says:

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

  2. 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.

  3. Dan Coffey says:

    I remember snapping up the EP with Tori Amos’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when it came out, but it never struck me till now how that song must have resonated with her as another artist just coming into her own. Thanks, for this and all your writing. It’s thought-provoking, and a joy to read.


    • sheila says:

      Dan – I know, it’s so fascinating to consider and remember what Nirvana cracked through – the space created by them. Of course they weren’t the only ones – there were all kinds of bands doing great stuff in the 80s – but Nirvana was a wave that pushed aside an entire decade. In retrospect it really did happen overnight. One minute, Bryan Adams had the #1 song on the Billboard charts, and the next minute it was Nirvana. At least that’s what it felt like. And there’s nothing wrong with Bryan Adams (although RYAN Adams is another story…) but, you know … he’s singing a song about The Summer of 69. He was another generation. Like Billy Joel was, or Springsteen, or any of the other 80s big-wigs. as Tori said – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” “gave a generation some juice.” Nirvana was OURS.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Scott Abraham says:

    Since so many of my favorite bands are done/dead/massively expensive, I feel fine with good cover bands because the songs are so good that seeing them live with great musicians who never made it – it reminds you that the songs are alive.

    But Nirvana…everytime I hear some dude screaming it out live, it’s just wrong. Somehow, the only way they can be played is with a woman singing it, like at the Hall of Fame show.

    • sheila says:

      Scott – You know, you’re so right. I hadn’t really thought about it before but you’re right.

      Speaking of women covering their songs – Sinead’s “all apologies” is I think amazing – and I do have an affection for Tori’s cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit – even though it’s exactly what you would expect from her – I feel like both artists have a deep personal response to the song, and had something they wanted to express about the song – you can feel it in how they cover it.

      But yeah – just screaming “hello hello hello hello” … without being Kurt Cobain … it’s just like, no. Why would you do that to yourself.

  5. Gem says:

    “Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?” Looks like he answered his own question, hah.

    There’s this video that a fan took, of a pissed-off Kurt stopping mid-performance to prevent a girl in the front row from getting assaulted, and then the rest of the band mocks the groper. It’s pretty great and always what I think about when I think of Kurt Cobain, The Person.

    I love your brother’s essay! The seismic shift in the record store…pretty cool.

  6. Marie says:

    Great essay on a seminal event for us Gen X-ers. I was in college in Texas when Kurt’s death was announced, and I remember the campus went completely quiet that day. People cried, and there were candlelight vigils all over that night. It was one of those days when everything just stopped.

    Grunge took its time getting to Texas (and flannel was not practical there, although we tried) but one of my dormmates in the early 90s was from Oregon, and she introduced me to all the bands, including Nirvana. Then someone in the dorm recorded the MTV Unplugged performance, and the tape made the rounds from person to person. I had missed the initial broadcast, but I watched the recorded version I don’t know how many times. I still own the dvd today. Like a lot of people, I wonder what would have happened to him if he lived. He was a genius, no doubt, but what happens when that becomes a nostalgia act?

    80s music – a lot of it was great, but you’re right that it was like the decade itself. Do you remember We Are the World? There’s a documentary on Netflix about the making of the song, and it’s fascinating to remember that we were ever that unhip that we thought it was a great song. Huey “Hip to be Square” makes an appearance in the doc. (Funniest moment, hands down, is when Bob Dylan has to solo and he gets shy, so they clear the room except for Stevie Wonder, who sings Bob’s part to him as Bob. Sings it just like he would, and his impersonation is dead on. He gets Bob to laugh and relax, and he sang his part, and they moved on. It’s hilarious.)

    • sheila says:

      Marie – Hi! Thanks for such a thoughtful beautiful comment.

      I remember exactly where I was when I heard he died – and – it’s funny, if it happened now there would be text threads, FB posts – at the time, it was just this sense of osmosis mourning – I just KNEW how big this was. It was a nightmare. and right after River Phoenix – two people I considered two bright lights of our generation. I always loved things older than my own life on the planet – my favorite actors are from the 1930s, and I love the music from the 50s and 60s – and in general I’m way more in touch with all of that than what’s going on right now. But “grunge” – even though I didn’t call it that – hit at just the right moment – when i was the age of all of those people – and Liz Phair lived right down the block from me – I mean, not literally, but definitely in the same neighborhood – so Exile in Guyville came out and I was like WHO is this person and HOW did she read my diaries and she lives right over THERE – WHAT THE FUCK ?? – and it was my first experience of being like “oh! WE can have these big moments too! These people are ours!”

      I often wonder who he would be now. He had so many struggles. Watching Dave Grohl just ascend – and then stay up there – with minimum stress and drama … has been great – especially since it’s lasted so long. (I still remember that Foo Fighters first album – which appeared from out of nowhere. It was a big big deal.) But it’s hard to picture Kurt going that route. He’d need to have gotten a lot of help, get healthy. I still wish, though, I could see it – see whatever he would have chosen to do. I miss him still!

      // remember that we were ever that unhip that we thought it was a great song. //


      I did see that doc. It really is so wild – the era of activist and yet corporate music events for this or that cause – with all these giant stars – and everything was so earnest! It’s so funny because once we came of age we really were ANTI-earnest. I think it was an improvement. :)

      I will always love Huey – he was my first concert ! – but still, it’s just wild to look back and think that he was a big star when I was in high school. like, wow. There was that whole 50s nostalgia when I was a kid – Happy Days – doo-wop – stray cats – and funnily enough I remember in my late 20s when the swing craze came back around, which I got really into as well. I used to go swing dancing at a club on 46th street and it was so fun. I’d love it if it came back again! Generations do have a way of blending together and / or coming around again. (If it’s cool, that is.)

      It’s wild to think that once upon a time – briefly – screaming angry women actually were on the radio. The Breeders, Sleater-Kinney, Alanis (although she was a bit later). It was brief! Britney and Christina were about to arrive! No shade on them but in looking back it feels almost like a conspiracy. How grown women disappeared and Lolitas arrived.

      I wrote about this in my huge piece on Eminem: how in the late 90s there was a huge cultural VOID. and that void was eventually filled by hip hop and the juggernaut of Eminem – on the one side – and Britney/Christina/boy bands on the other side. Kurt Cobain dying was part of what created the void – but there were other factors. Monica Lewinsky, a good economy, the internet arriving in more widespread use. There were a lot of different factors. It’s rare to have a void that huge – voids sometimes just dissipate, the pressure let out of it – but that one was just too huge. and Eminem was the one who filled it. And nobody saw him coming. In the same way nobody saw Nirvana coming. even though – looking back – you can sense the same VOID in the late 80s/early 90s (although the void wasn’t quite so big as the one in the late 90s.) The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War was over. Boomer-shadowed teenagers were coming of age. SOMEthing needed to change. Enter Kurt Cobain (and all the rest).

      It was quite a busy decade!!

      again, thanks for reading and commenting. I love talking about this stuff (obviously!)

      • Marie says:

        I love talking about the 80s and 90s too! It was such a great time. I love my iphone, but I miss the days before they existed, and you could actually talk to people with no interruptions. We would talk all night on phones that were tethered to the wall. And drive across the country in those cars that would break down every 500 miles, because they were shit, using paper maps. I love maps, and I miss paper maps.

        I once got my husband and I super lost in DC because I was navigating using a paper map, which did not tell you that certain roads were one-way during rush hour. We drove in circles for a couple of hours, and nearly missed the concert at the Kennedy Center we were driving to. My husband was pretty mad at the time (not at me, at the DC roads), but looking back, we saw quite a bit. A few years ago, we attempted to recreate our route in DC – the driving in circles that we did. I don’t think we got it all, but we drove quite a bit of it, and we had covered a lot of ground. It was funny. We laughed a lot that time.

        The late 80s/early 90s was such a moment. You could feel things changing. Bill Clinton’s election and all that. It felt like the young people were taking over, even though it did not really turn out that way. It never does. Kurt’s death was a moment. It was devastating. I got really angry about all those Voice of a Generation eulogies. What did they know? But they were right, sort of. Dave isn’t Kurt. He’s great, and he learned a lot from Kurt, but c’mon – would there ever be anyone else who could write a song like Lithium and turn it into a massive hit? He was our Voice.

        If you haven’t read it, I recommend Everybody Loves Our Town, the oral history of grunge by Mark Yarm. He starts in Seattle in the 80s and documents all the bands that contributed to the rise of Nirvana and Soundgarden and all the rest. My dormmate in the 90s was a huge fan of Mudhoney, and she played their albums all the time, to the point where I became a fan too. They never really got their due. But the book also documents the rise in anti-earnestness, as you call it, and reading it, you wonder if we swung too far in the other direction. Some of the musicians talk about how they got offered advertising money for their songs, but they couldn’t take it because they would get cancelled, although we didn’t call it that back then. But they say they could have used the money. That may have been another thing that helped the rise of Britney and Justin and all the rest. The anti-earnestness maybe was just too much, after a certain point. We Gen-Xers could be brutal about that stuff, even without social media. But today’s kids are the same, so maybe that’s just a young-person thing. We all think the older generation can’t possibly know how we’re feeling.

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