I remember the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” like it was yesterday. I was driving on a little country road with my brother, listening to a rock ‘n’ roll station out of San Antonio and this strange song blasted out of my speakers. I was stunned. I didn’t know whether I loved it or hated it. I couldn’t even say exactly what kind of music it was, couldn’t make out all the words. I just knew it was powerful. And it was the first time in ages I had heard anything like real rebellion in a rock song.
It arrived just in time. I had little or no interest in what the top 40 pop stations were playing and had spent the last 5 years or so getting sick and tired of what passed for heavy metal.
Growing up in rural radio hell, metal and hard rock were about as “alternative” as I could get. I heard new wave in the early ’80s and liked it, but punk rock completely passed me by. There were no stations that played it. I asked a classmate in high school once what punk rock was and he thought Kiss might be a punk band — way off. None of us had a clue.
Hard rock and metal seemed rebellious to me at the time, because the songs flouted the norms of the day and because you had to get in the orbit of San Antonio or Corpus Christi to hear it, or hang out with stoner friends. If the preachers didn’t like AC/DC or Van Halen they had to be cool.
Over the years though, rock ‘n’ roll got more and more mainstream and just didn’t satisfy. All the songs about partying and chicks started to come across as bland and boring, awful ballads began to predominate. At some point it became clear that the main point of rock ‘n’ roll had become, not melody, not attitude, but commerce.
I was always jealous of my mom’s generation. Even when it wasn’t obvious, the music back then had a rebellious streak. Songs protested the Vietnam War and mainstream culture, promoted free love and hinted at drug use and pushed musical boundaries. I used to love digging my uncle’s old albums.
Unbeknownst to me, there was a whole class of exciting music being created, from the ’80s through the ’90s. Punk, hardcore, British and American postpunk, industrial. There were bands that pushed the envelope — The Pixies, Mission of Burma, The Meat Puppets, The Minutemen, Butthole Surfers. The thing is, it was all underground. I never heard any of it until years later.
Nirvana took all that stuff that had been bubbling under the surface and created something that was at once familiar and full of hooks — and subversive as hell. Their music was powerful stuff and somehow it managed to crack the mainstream. It changed the way I listened to music, and it changed the music business. Suddenly bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains ruled the airwaves. It made the ’90s into an exciting time for music.
Nothing good lasts forever, alas. Singer Kurt Cobain fought his demons and lost, killing himself in April 1994. And gradually the grunge music revolution ended. Music became less and less exciting and the bands less creative. It was about commerce once again. It’s a shame Kurt wasn’t able to keep it together. His heroin addiction got the best of him and I don’t think he ever came to terms with his popularity. Trying to do something different and underground and having it suddenly turn huge time and again. Wanting to be a rebel and at the same time be a rock star. That plus the heroin — mostly the heroin — did him in.
It’s a damn shame, but I think if he hadn’t been so tormented, he wouldn’t have made the music he did.
We’ve been waiting a long time for another revolutionary figure of his caliber to turn up in music. There is a lot of awesome music out there, but is any band or musician likely to turn everything on its head the way Nirvana did? Is it even possible with the music industry’s current state? Not sure. I’m definitely open to the possibility. In the meantime I reckon I’ll keep digging around in the underground. That’s what gave us Nirvana in the first place, and where the most interesting art and culture has always been.