It’s the underdog world strike! — Eugene Hutz

Back in the fall of 1991 (the year punk broke), I used to sit in the back of my 2nd/3rd period chemistry class discussing important musical matters like whether or not Hammer truly was too legit to quit (of course he was!) and which Illusion was more vivid (I rocked harder, but II had better lyrics) with Black Cloud, Gear Head, and the Real American Hero.  Around this time a new video began airing on MTV, and at first it seemed really strange.  There were no pyrotechnics or scantily clad women.  The lead singer didn’t have a perm and he never sang in a high falsetto.  And he was wearing jeans and a striped long sleeve t-shirt instead of leather pants and a wife-beater.  The video was for the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and although it was really weird, you had to admit it rocked.  Rocked hard.  And mi madre didn’t like it because she couldn’t understand the words, which probably made me like it even more.

So that was how I discovered Nirvana, the little band that changed the world.  And despite the fact that I really liked “Smell Like Teen Spirit” (me and seemingly every other person in the world), I didn’t run out and buy the album right away. You see, back then I had a rule: never buy an album unless you like the first three singles.  Working at an ice cream stand and as a carny in the land of endless summer wasn’t exactly making me rich, and I had been burned several times by albums with one good song.  So I waited patiently while “Come As You Are” came and went, and then finally “Lithium” rocked my world and called me Sally, so I decided to go ahead and buy the album.  At bandcamp.  Yup, “Nevermind” became one of my souvenirs from the Edinboro University bookstore my junior year at bandcamp (purchases from other years included “Sunshine on Leith” by the Proclaimers and “Sons of Soul” by Tony! Toni! Tone!, winners no doubt).  Unfortunately, the copy I bought did not have the hidden track, “Endless Nameless” on it, which caused me great consternation, but I was able to somehow convince the Elusive One to trade me his copy, which had the hidden track on it (that copy was subsequently stolen in the Rape of the Red Saturn, but I was able to replace it with a similar copy).

I was able to afford the album because by this time I was old enough to begin my indentured servitude to the Evil Empire.  As the new kid on the block, my job was to stand by the grill and cook the Royales with Cheese.  Next to me, Black Cloud toasted the buns.  Across from a table behind us, Lord Bacchus and Lightning 101 would assemble the Royales with Cheese and hand them to the manager, who would deliver them to the masses.  And as the four of us worked, we would argue about music.  You see, Lord Bacchus and Lightning 101 had already begun to worship at the temple of Pearl Jam (the temple of the dog?), and were devoted followers of the high priest Edward Louis Severson III (yes Pearl Jam is a religion…Eddie said so in Columbus on 5/6/2010).  Black Cloud and I were Nirvana fans (Black Cloud later ruined his credibility by claiming that Stone Temple Pilots’ “Core” was the best grunge album of the era), and since at the time there was a trumped up media rivalry between Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the four of us felt compelled to argue incessantly over which band was better.  Truth be told, I think all four of us liked both bands, but none of us would ever admit it.

As so often happens, arguing on behalf of Nirvana made me like them even more.  Kurt’s lyrics were delightfully sarcastic and contradictory, which fit my sense of humor perfectly.  His guitar playing was far from sophisticated, but he could strum some incredible rhythm parts (yeah, I realize that most of the solos just copy the vocal melody) and he could create an incredible effect by starting the song soft and then suddenly launching into an incredibly loud and distorted wall of sound.  Dave Grohl’s drumming drove the songs forward (such an upgrade of Chad Channing), and Krist Noveselic laid down the perfect mix of energy and groove with his bass lines.  And somehow cutting through this sonic assault was the wail of Kurt Cobain’s voice, scratchy yet powerful.  All of it combined to create an incredible energy and sound that drives every song on the album, including the slow songs.

Nirvana quickly became one of my favorite bands.  I bought their previous album “Bleach”, and I continued to buy their next several releases.  They were also a gateway band for me, as soon I was buying records by the other big Seattle bands like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and yes, Pearl Jam.  Soon I was wearing flannel and watching the movie Singles (best. soundtrack. ever.) on Friday nights with my friends at Black Cloud’s house.  Nirvana had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of my teenage life.

I suppose I can’t finish this entry without commenting on Kurt Cobain’s death.  About six months prior to his suicide, Nirvana was scheduled to play a show in Akron on October 31st, 1993.  Tickets were available for about a week, and Lord Bacchus, Black Cloud, Lightning,  and I all decided we wanted to go.  Back in the day, you had to go to an actual Ticketmaster outlet to buy tix (what was the world like before the world wide interweb?), and if you lived in northeast Ohio, that meant you had to drive to the Great Lakes Mall in Mentor.  Lord Bacchus agreed to go buy the tix while we were all working a shift for the Evil Empire, and on his way to Mentor the tickets sold out.  We were disappointed, but we shrugged it off and said we would see them the next time they came around.  Famous last words! (In retrospect, it’s probably good that we didn’t go to the show with Black Cloud, or else one of us would have fractured his tibia in multiple locations, asphyxiated on a sausage, or had his entire collection of ceramic sports figurines destroyed.)  I found out about his suicide along with the rest of the world on April 8th, 1994.  That day I had to work a shift for the Evil Empire after school, and I was pretty much worthless.  Unable to do much else, they stuck me on fries, and I couldn’t even keep up with that.  My friends, including Black Cloud, Lord Bacchus, and the Artistic One kept stopping by to make sure I was okay.  Finally, the manager just sent me home because I couldn’t do anything.  The Artistic One and the Music Lover, both big Nirvana fans, came over to my shitty little trailer on Myers Road and we sat on the couch and watched the coverage on MTV well into the night.

It’s a shame that Cobain’s death and the hype over the “birth of alternative rock” overshadow so much of Nirvana’s legacy.  If you strip all that away, “Nevermind” still holds its own as an incredible rock album.  The songs are catchy and well crafted.  The lyrics are witty and sarcastic.  The drums pound and the guitars scream.  And twenty some years later, it still sounds fresh and exciting.  Maybe that is because so many other bands have tried to steal this sound, but none of them have quite gotten it right.

Other lists: On the Rolling Stone list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ranks #9, “In Bloom” is #415, and “Come As You Are” is #452.  Nirvana is #30 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists, and Kurt Cobain is #45 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #73 on the list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. “Nevermind” is also the #1 album on the list of the 100 Best Albums of the 90s.

My favorite track: “Drain You” (although Dave Grohl has stolen this formula for virtually every Foo Fighters song)

Honorable mention: “Polly”

Quote: “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he knows not what it means.”