Sunday, November 27, 2011

#20YRSAGO: NIRVANA - NEVERMIND (+ boxset review!)

A lot of incredible albums came out in 1991 (hence my series of "#20yrsago" posts), but none had the game changing impact of Nirvana's Nevermind.

I remember hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time.  I was driving my car on the Meadowbrook Parkway in Long Island while I was in college.  I ejected whatever cassette I was listening to, and my radio was set to 92.7 FM (it was either WLIR or WDRE).  I heard the guitar first. Why are they playing a band as heavy as Metallica?  Of course, when I heard the singer, he sounded nothing like Metallica or anyone else. Who was this?  I soon found out.

I got Nevermind when it first came out. Obviously it is a classic album.  I loved "Lounge Act," I thought it sounded like The Smithereens (I later read that they were, in fact, an influence). At some point, I found Kurt Cobain a bit too precious and annoying (wearing a "corporate magazines still suck" shirt while doing a corporate magazine cover was cute, but complaining about Pearl Jam bugged me), and I stopped listening to them for a bit. That was dumb of me.  They are one of the greatest bands ever, and Nevermind is an incredible album.  I'm sure Dylan said some things about other artists that I like, it would never make me stop listening to his music.

There's lots of stories about Nirvana's concrete impact (the oft-told stories of hair metal bands hearing Nirvana and realizing that their day was done) and how they didn't care about their new-found status (famously turning down opening slots on tours by U2 and Guns N Roses/Metallica). My story is this:  I was DJing at a great rock and roll bar called Fezziwigs, owned by two great guys, ex-hippies who performed at the bar as an acoustic duo.  Almost all of their repertoire was '60s and '70s songs, but they threw in Dire Straits and Traveling Wilburys songs as well. They didn't always "get" the music I played, but Nirvana was the only band they ever paid me to NOT play. $5 extra per night, just as long as they didn't have to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Sometimes I would have to sacrifice the extra fiver, other nights I played "Lounge Act" instead.

Anyway. I've been listening to the super-deluxe box set lately, and I'm stunned by how great it is.  Why did I buy the super deluxe version, instead of the just the deluxe one?  Well, one reason is that it comes with a live concert recording from the era, and a DVD of the same concert.  You could buy that DVD/CD package separately.  There are tons of B-sides and bonus tracks, many of which come with the deluxe version.  I was kind of attracted to the super-delxue by the idea of the Butch Vig's original mixes.  Butch Vig, of course, produced Nevermind, and went on to be a famous producer, as well as the drummer of the band Garbage. But this was one of his first big major label projects, and I guess the label didn't like his mixes, so they hired Andy Wallace to mix it instead.  So, it's cool to hear Butch's original vision for the album. Also included are "boombox demos": literally, the band performing and recording themselves on a cassette deck on a boombox.  It's interesting to hear them in that raw of a format, but I don't think I'll listen to that too often.  Finally, there are some early demos of the songs that pre-date Dave Grohl joining the band: they feature Chad Channing on drums.

Nevermind is an album that I have a complicated relationship with, but it's certainly one of the greatest and most important albums released in my lifetime, and I'm grateful for it.  It helped to wipe out a lot of crap bands (of course, it inspired a movement of those crap bands pretending to be Nirvana, instead of pretending to be Van Halen). It also sort of brought a system of ethics to bands who come from the underground and end up in the mainstream.  Stone Gossard basically admitted as much in Pearl Jam 20.  The idea of Kurt Cobain giving a public beatdown over something that smells like a sell-out helped to keep the band on their best behavior.  For a time, it felt like most of pop music felt the same way. Maybe a lot of us (including some of Kurt's bandmates, friends and fans) have outgrown that rigid ethic, but you know that people are probably influenced by Kurt's personality as much as they are by his songs.

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