Thirty years ago, on September 24, 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind dropped like a sonic bomb into the world. I don’t remember what my thirteen-year-old self did that day, apart from go to school. I didn’t even listen to Nevermind till a few years later in 1994. Yet, I know the impact that the album and Nirvana had on my sensibilities. Nirvana introduced me to bands that I would have never found or listened to otherwise, bands like the Wipers or the Vaselines. Nirvana opened my eyes to injustices, even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, through their actions and statements for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and beyond, even in songs such as “Mr. Mustache.” Looking back, I see the biting commentary of rose-colored nostalgia in songs like “Floyd the Barber.”
Around March or April 1994, a friend’s brother let me borrow In Utero on cassette. I popped it into my Walkman and got hooked by Dave Ghrol’s drums on “Scentless Apprentice,” Krist Noveselic’s bass runs, and Cobain’s growls. I meandered from full frontal assault to melancholic valleys all within the span of minutes, and sometimes seconds within the same song. I would ride my bike around the neighborhood, swerving through parking lots, going to the mall as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” maneuvered its ways around my brain. A few weeks later, just found an expression for my feelings of alienation and a door into a whole new realm of culture, Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home.
During that time, I consumed Nirvana, buying into the mass-produced image of grunge while also delving deep into the Seattle scene. Nirvana was my gateway to Mudhoney, the Melvins, Soundgarden, and earlier bands from all of the world like The Pixies, Husker Du, and even The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, two bands I did not fully appreciate until years later, partly because of the stigma I placed on them due to people in my school who dismissed bands like Nirvana and upheld The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. I bought Nevermind and like everything else from the band, ate it up,. While it didn’t have the dirtiness, thanks to Steve Albini’s production, of In Utero, it nonetheless impacted me.
Nirvana led me to pick up a cheap Peavy guitar and amp. I taught myself, and the first song I learned to play was “Come as You Are” with its watery, echoey opening riff. I couldn’t replicate that sound with the equipment I had, so I started looking for phaser pedals, rotovibe pedals, and that all important perfect distortion pedal. I started to work on manipulating sound, taking my limited playing skills and morphing them into walls of sound with effects and feedback. That’s what I fell in love with bands such as The Mars Volta when they first came out. I enjoy taking the guitar, the bass, the drum machine, or whatever, and working with effects to create something unique and memorable, something that has the foundation of the instrument but becomes something much more with the layers added on top.
I think about the time I was recording with a band in college. While I was recording the solo for one of the songs, a song we played at the end of every show, my bandmates looked at me and asked, “Is that what you play every time? It sounds terrible.” I simply responded, “Yes.” When we listened to the playback, they were shocked. The sound they heard had all of the layered pedal effects (I forget exactly what I using) and it didn’t sound, on its own, like anything remotely pleasing to the ears. Yet, when placed with the other instruments, it jumped out of that indiscernible realm into the familiar, fitting perfectly within the construction of the song. One needs to only listen the recorded version of “Territorial Pissings” to hear this in action when it swells at the end of the solo.
Cobain taught me about feedback, the ways to use it constructively and not as an ear piercing annoyance that rears its head when one least expects it. I learned how to utilize it, causing it to ebb and flow at certain points as it oscillated amidst the bass and drums, complimenting them in a manner that brought out the visceral emotions of playing music. He taught me about the aggressive, in your face, anti-establishment nature of punk and raw, unbridled emotion in music. At the same time, he taught me about the importance of melody and song construction. All of this melded into my consciousness, following me as I progressed in my own musical journe
I’ve always wanted to play fast and hard, trying vigorously at the end of shows to break strings on my guitar. At every show with the band I mentioned earlier, and on that same song, I end the song by constantly pummeling the guitar and the end of the song in the hopes of breaking the low E string. Later, I’d take up playing tremolo with octaves in such a manner that my hands became a blur on the guitar, moving so fast and so hard that I would inevitably break something.
Nirvana taught me the raw power of music through their live shows. No matter what show or song I watched, Cobain, Noveselic, and Ghrol all seemed emotionally drained when they ended. The power of music came through, and I put that emotion into my own playing on stage. After countless shows, I’d feel completely drained. It wouldn’t be a physical drain. I’d be emotionally spent, collapsing in a booth, covered in sweat, laying there in the euphoria of the emotional outburst I’d just endured. I can’t explain it, no matter how hard I try. It’s something that I never got from sports or other activities. It’s a visceral feeling of catharsis that occurs. Nirvana introduced me to that catharsis, on ever occasion.
That catharsis doesn’t happen merely in the pulse-pounded punk-filled songs. It happens in the stripped down performances. Whenever I hear Cobain voice at the end of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” from MTV’s Unplugged, I tear up. The band crescendos and drops out, leaving Cobain’s wavering voice as he growls, “shiver the whole night through.” In the middle of that line, he looks up, takes a breath, and finishes it. That performance, or the the fact that Cobain recorded “Something in the Way” underneath the desk in the studio and Butch Vig had to coax him to sing it, reminds me of the cathartic, emotional power of music. It reminds me why I took up playing guitar and writing music. It reminds me that even if no one hears what I produce, I will, and it serves as my release, my emotional expression.
For all of this, and more, I am forever indebted to Nirvana. So, let’s raise a glass and toast Nevermind at 30.