Artist Spotlight: Nirvana – Of Myths and Men

NOTE: This was originally written September 2013; a subthread earlier today reminded me of my somewhat-complicated feelings about the band, so I thought I’d repost it here today in lieu of an Artist Spotlight.


There have been a lot of pieces commemorating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s third and final studio album In Utero in the last week or two.

Of course, there’s a deluxe reissue; I probably won’t be buying it (though I am curious about the newer mix).

I liked the album and the band well enough at the time; but looking on my shelves, I see that I must have sold my physical copies of their albums at some point. They live on in my hard drive, but I hadn’t played them in years. I guess I figured they were ubiquitous enough that if I ever needed them, they’d always be available.


When Nirvana broke big, there was something off-putting to me about the way they simply eclipsed all the bands that clearly inspired them. Didn’t seem fair.

That wasn’t really their fault; Kurt Cobain was always very open about all the music he loved, rarely missing an opportunity to talk up his peers, elders and inspirations – in many cases, Cobain was personally or indirectly responsible for significantly raising the profiles (and bank accounts) of artists who’d been toiling in semi-obscurity for years. He did his best to pull others up with him.

But the time was right for Nirvana, and people were hungry, and the band exploded in popularity; though Cobain clearly spent a lot of time questioning whether what he’d gotten was what he’d wanted.

Without question Cobain was extremely ambitious; yet he retained an admirable (to me) determination to be a fly in the ointment, a pesky hairball in the eternally-swallowing throat of pop culture.

Say what you will about the tenets of so-called punk, indie and DIY, at least it’s an ethos.


Then he killed himself, and I was mad about it.

Not because I thought we’d been deprived of godlike genius or anything – I thought then (and think now) that he was merely a pretty good guitarist, and a decent songwriter.

No, I was mad because I knew that once again we would be canonizing someone who – in my mind at that time – took the coward’s way out; and I knew we’d still be talking about him – and it – in twenty years. I’d spent some time as a goth kid, I’d witnessed the ridiculous genuflections at the altar of St. Ian; all of a sudden here comes St. Kurt, only on a much larger and more inescapable scale.

I was mad because he left a small child behind, and you just don’t do that; not ever.

In time, that anger passed. In the intervening twenty years, I have witnessed severe, suicidal depression up close in some dear friends. I still think killing oneself generally isn’t a noble thing, and we do the victim and ourselves a great disservice when we act as though suicide bestows some sort of holy aura, seemingly retroactively imparting some special insight to the words or actions of the deceased.

(Of course, people mostly tend to do this with famous artists who kill themselves, but not old Joe down the street, who was just mentally ill, or drank too much, or whatever).

But eventually I came to a place where I could no longer hold a depressed person who commits suicide fully responsible for that action – in my opinion, a mind in sufficient pain to even be able to override the universal and innate biological drive to survive at all costs, that animal instinct to thrash impotently and draw just one more breath even as the dark waves close overhead, often (not always, but often) can’t be said to be thinking clearly (for this reason alone, we should be at least somewhat wary of accepting at face value the things they said and did when they were alive).


Anyway, I’ve been listening to their records again for the first time in a long time, and wondering what, if anything, I had to say about them.

The band (after Dave Grohl joined on drums) is tight, and the songs are melodic and sturdy and raw; they thump and they thrash, even as the dark waves close overhead.

Cobain was a pretty good guitarist, and a decent songwriter; and more important than any of that, a real person who was in real pain.

And after all these years it still feels like a shame: that he couldn’t find a path through that blackness, some way to throw just one more punch or laugh just one more time, until he safely reached the other side of it; that he’s not around now, like many of his peers and influences.


Here’s some of the songs that inspired the band.

If I had to pick one reason why Nirvana’s runaway success didn’t seem fair, it’d be because they seemed so clearly to me to be aping the more articulate (and much funnier) Replacements, a band that meant a lot to me as a teen, and yet never made it big.

If the ripped jeans and matted hair and dress-wearing on stage and vocals that could tunefully turn on a dime from a rasp to a melodic-yet-ragged existential howl weren’t enough to clue you in, then the title of this song and its paradoxically-anthemic bitterness should be a dead giveaway.

One might as well segue into the other: The words I thought I brought, I left behind; oh well, whatever, nevermind:

Also like the Replacements, Nirvana did a lot of covers; they covered Wipers twice.

I wasn’t hip enough to be listening to Wipers at the time; don’t know why, but they weren’t well-known, even amongst the punk and hardcore enthusiasts I knew. I didn’t get into them until about five years ago, when I went on a serious kick that hasn’t really abated – they have a trove of great songs that I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on for so long.

Their first three records are indispensable, not just to any fan of tuneful American punk rock (to me, they are every bit the equals of, say, the Ramones or Hüsker Dü, and by rights should be as well-known), but anyone who likes seriously, seriously cool guitar tones; like a missing link between Hendrix and Sonic Youth:

Nirvana’s “Unplugged” set revealed some of the folk and blues influences that lurked under the snarl, and this song, with its references to those cold and gloomy pine copses, was a perfect cover choice for a band from the Pacific Northwest:

Not just traditional folk fed Cobain’s muse, but all sorts of twee, nearly childlike stuff: Beat Happening/K Records, the Pastels, and the Vaselines, whom Nirvana covered three times:

But of course:

This may be heresy, because I love me some Bowie, but I think Nirvana’s cover of this song might actually surpass the original. The riff seems more fluid, and Cobain is less arch; he’s able to disappear into the character in a way that Bowie’s ever-present artifice won’t allow:

Partly because we need to cheer up a bit, and partly because Nirvana does have a bit of Devo’s tightly-wound hooky melodic simplicity, not to mention their pitch-black sense of humor:

And some of their own songs.

“Sliver” not only evokes a very specific childhood memory, but its repetitive riff/chorus/melody – like a loose tooth you keep obsessively working around with your tongue – is, as its title suggests, a nagging splinter of a nursery rhyme that, once heard, you’ll need brain tweezers to remove:

A heaving beast of a queasy seasick riff, married to a pop song of sorts. Cobain was open about his love for Pixies; on this one, even more sonically-dynamic and lyrically-perverse than “Teen Spirit”, he nearly beats them at their own game:

And, the eulogy he creepily wrote for himself. It doesn’t make it OK, but it’s undeniably pretty (as was Cobain; I’m as straight as they come, but I’m man enough to say that the man was beautiful):

What about y’all? Anybody still listen to the band regularly? Heard the reissue? Ever see them live?

Is it possible for you to separate Nirvana the band, and place them in their proper context on the rock continuum, from Nirvana the phenomenon, and what they meant (and mean) to the pop-culture landscape?