Last week I found myself at an exhibition in London, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind. I should probably start by saying that Nevermind is my least favourite Nirvana album. In contrast, I fell in love with In Utero the very second I heard it. And as for Bleach, I’d honestly never heard anyone make a guitar sound so moody and cool and gritty and dirty in all my life! I thought everything about Bleach was incredible. And the fact that Cobain had the foresight and guts to stick a beautifully melodic pop song (About A Girl) in an album that otherwise reeked of boy just made me love it even more.
But as for Nevermind – I never felt like that about it in the beginning. It was actually the first Nirvana album I got to hear (I discovered Bleach subsequently). And it’s not that I didn’t get it. It’s just that by the time I got round to listening to the whole thing for myself as an album, it had already been shoved down our eyes and ears relentlessly by the likes of MTV.
When Nevermind came out i was in my teens and i was still living in Gibraltar. As I was growing up there wasn’t a great deal to do other than go to the beach and drive around in cars a lot. Gibraltar is a peninsula geographically sandwiched between Spain and Morocco, Europe and Africa. Five square miles in size, last time i checked, meaning that it really doesn’t take long to drive all the way around and back. The only way off the peninsula is via the Spanish border, on a plane to the UK, or on a boat to Tangiers. And you need to be accompanied by a passport and an adult for all of those. So I was pretty screwed! Despite the many escape plans I devised there was no way out!
When I was growing up there was no live music scene. You had a choice of either listening to Spanish Europop – or Heavy Metal/Rock bands. Most of the boys were into Metallica and Guns n Roses. Most of the girls had no opinion on music. I had grown up listening to my parents records – my mum liked Julio Iglesias, my dad liked John Lennon and Nana Mouskouri. There were no musical instruments at home. Before Nevermind came out I had only ever listened to two ‘alternative’ bands – Ride, and The Smiths.
And then Nevermind was suddenly everywhere, on every fucking TV channel and radio station, the British ones, the Spanish ones, even our own local Gibraltarian channel. And at first I had no idea what to make of it! I didn’t particularly like the album cover – iconic as it has now become. The baby and the dollar? I suppose now in retrospect, knowing how the band moved from Subpop to Geffen it’s absolutely perfect, but back then I just didn’t get it.
But I ‘got’ Kurt. I ‘got ‘Kurt right from the start. Because growing up in my little isolated asteroid of a peninsula
But i had no idea it was humanely possible to scream like that! That growl comes straight from the gut and when you hear it, it fucking tears right through the core of you. Here was this scruffy skinny punk who I had no reason to relate to, screaming his guts out and describing exactly how I felt inside in the process. Like magic. And just like that, every time I heard that yell it would instantly make me feel better. It made me feel safe.
A few years later I would leave home and go and live in Manchester where Nirvana finally began to make a hell of a lot more sense to me. I remember my first walk down Oxford Rd to enrol at university. Everyone looked like they were auditioning to be in Nirvana. Madchester was getting over the baggy scene and suddenly the city was bang in the throes of Grunge and I loved every minute of it. I moved straight in and felt right at home. There was a club called Bar Kay, (now South) where I would get my fix of the likes of Nirvana, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr every Friday, the uni disco had the same set list on Saturdays, the Ritz would be playing the same on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the Hacienda would do the honours on Tuesdays. So you really could go out and dance to those bands every night of the week if you so wished. And I usually did.
My issues with Nevermind were somewhat different at that stage. What fucked me off about Nevermind, over and above everything else was Smells Like Teen Spirit. Yep. I know what it meant, and what it represented. And how it transcended barriers and was instrumental in finally pushing punk into the mainstream. I know. All of that. And it is a motherfucking great song (that was kind of its own worst enemy in hindsight). But the reason why Smells Like Teen Spirit used to piss me off, is because I wasn’t able to dance to it. I wasn’t able to dance to it because I am not particularly big and tall, and despite my best efforts to act all tough and cool and feisty, I don’t like getting pushed and shoved and trampled on. And i got pushed and bruised and battered by boys in DMs and para-boots and Alice in Chains t-shirts, who just used to go absolutely nuts the second they heard the opening riff. You could see the look in their eyes signalling that it was about to go off! I remember those nights at the Ritz in Manchester, where the dance floor would bounce so much it was practically a trampoline. I was resigned to the outer limits to avoid getting hit. Sometimes I would run up to the safety of the balcony to watch it unfold in all its glory. It made me smile from ear to ear. Oh the irony that Teen Spirit is a girl’s deodorant, and that the song title was a line that ‘Riot Grrrl’ Toby Vale came up with.
Nevermind will forever be described as an album that spoke to a generation, but here is a personal account of what it did for me:
My best friend at university gave me my first ever bass guitar for my 21st birthday present (i still have it). The first song I learnt how to play on it was Come As You Are. I would not be playing bass had it not been for Nirvana. And playing bass is when I am at my happiest. It was through Nirvana that I went on to discover Hole. The first time I ever saw them play live I decided there and then that I needed to get me some of that. The image of Courtney Love, dress hiked up, foot on the monitor, ripped tights, smudged lipstick, cranking up that guitar, remains etched on my mind to this day. I knew I wanted to be in a band then. And I wanted to play like Courtney, and like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
I had a ticket to see Nirvana in Manchester in April in 1994. The gig didn’t take place. I still have that ticket. The day after the news about Kurt broke, I walked down Market Street to find that both HMV and Virgin Records had turned their shops into money spinning Nirvana shrines. It made everything ugly and sickening. Thinking about what we had and then lost, deeply saddens me still. Despite Kurt’s well documented depression, and drug problems, and chronic stomach pain, it still came as a shock to me that he had taken his life. I knew that he was in pain, but I thought he would always have a way to channel it. I suppose it just got too much and he just wanted to make it stop. Permanently. I just never thought that one day he would just stop screaming.