When you add it all up, Manchester United and Woody Allen and the penis insecurity and the fear of ex-girlfriends and the whole I’m-a-bit-nerdy-so-bear-with-me thing that I fall back on when I get scared, little of it matters… of the few things that ever really made an impact in my 20s, one of the biggest was Nirvana. Little else, even put together, comes close.
It’s easy to forget this. It has been a long time. Over two decades since Nirvana first seared that thing deep into our brain, made us feel like there was this whole other planet out there, good lord, what is out there, could there be more people like this, there couldn’t be, no way…
You see… we have grown old. We have changed. We are working 9-to-5 jobs now. We are worrying about the economy. We wonder where we’re going in our careers. We don’t want someone to release the plague in Trafalgar Square. We wonder if we’re missing out on the primes of our lives. We wonder if anyone will ever love us. That thing, that part of us that once flared up, previously undiscovered, where did that come from? We try to muffle it.
We discover new things. We find our new obsession. Some of us get married. Some of us devote ourselves to making money. Some of us giggle when we see our company’s commercial come on television. We forget. We forget what happened.
We rationalise it. We were young and stupid, we didn’t know shit. Man, that was college, or that was uni, or that was my 20s, dude. Yeah, that was a great song and everything… but a song’s a song. We were just kids.
Don’t you remember? It hasn’t been that long, has it? Come on, man… you remember. I know you do.
Everybody remembers when they first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Laugh if you will, mock us for being stupid twenty-somethings who never had to fight for anything in our lives, we get it, and we agree. But you ask any of us, we still know where we were when we saw the video for the first time.
You have to keep in mind, we were listening to bands like Warrant at the time. We were listening to Guns N’ Roses. We were telling ourselves that Axl Rose was the new Mick Jagger. We were looking for something, and, unable to find it, we just figured we’d take what we could. You have to cut us some slack here. We didn’t know they were coming.
So when that happened, the experience bore such a deep hole in us, we can all tell you when we first saw it. All of a sudden, some other force showed up. All of a sudden, something new happened, something we never could have anticipated. Where did they come from?
This weird little guy, not singing, not really, but not just screaming either. He was like a bent garden hose finally straightened, a spring uncoiled, a live wire with too much current running through it, as Jimi Hendrix was famously described. Sure, the song rocked, which was what caught our attention in the first place, but there was something else, something authentic, something afraid and pained and sardonic and intelligent and hopeful… and furious.
This sound was so unusual, we had no idea what to make of it. Who were these guys? You heard rumours. They were bisexuals. They were Satanists. I hear Axl hates them. One of them had a baby born addicted to cocaine. A friend of mine, still confused, threw away his CD after hearing that Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had kissed on Saturday Night Live and became convinced Kurt Cobain’s garbled lyrics were going to make him gay.
But man, did it hit us. Everything changed… like that. Suddenly everything we’d been doing up to that point was ridiculous. Authenticity was suddenly what mattered. Really believing, really caring. Sure, like everything eventually, what Nirvana meant was warped over time, and you could buy pre-ripped jeans at Gap and “Grunge!” compilation CDs. But you can’t deny that it was there, and it was pure. Suddenly, something was important. We just wanted to eat something that wasn’t spoon-fed to us; we wanted that fire. It really was a revolution, however brief and fleeting it was. And it was all started by one song, one verse, one chord, one man.
Sure, we’ve changed. Nirvana is classic rock now. But Kurt is as woven into the fabric of our lives as our first date, or our first love, or our first death in the family, or our first broken heart. Or did you forget?
Don’t you remember the first time you got your hands on the In Utero album? Or hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” on the radio? Don’t you remember arguing with skeptical friends that “Rape Me” wasn’t really about rape? Or MTV Unplugged, back when there was an MTV Unplugged, where we were shocked to learn that not only was Kurt not incapacitated by heroin, but also that he could also produce 70 minutes of utter beauty that people would still talk about years later in awe. And you remember the pain, the worry, the fear, those hidden parts of you that sprung up when you listened, even if you weren’t sure why.
Admit it. You do remember now… don’t you? Come on, you have to.
Some of us follow foggy tracks, full of faith that, if we stay true to what brought us here, they will lead us right. Some of us have lost our way all together. Some of us can’t remember what it was like to have believed. Some of us are too busy to notice much of anything anymore.
But, remember, dammit! Remember what that was like. It’s as close to something real and binding as we had. Don’t rationalise it away.
Just listen. That is, after all, why they recorded everything in the first place. To remember, to document, to celebrate.
And, today, don’t forget to play it loud. Really loud!