That pretty much sums up Nirvana and its creative center, Kurt Cobain. If you listen to their music, particularly on Nevermind, their breakout album, you hear lyrics that are personal to the point of being impossible to understand. And yet it worked.
The classic line-up of Nirvana was Cobain, bass player Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, later of the Foo Fighters. Near the end, they added a second guitarist, former Germs guitar player Pat Smear. Nirvana broke out at the dawn of the 1990’s as hair metal was breathing its last. After five years of band after band wanting to be Led Zeppelin or, failing that, a really loud, really high, really oversexed version of Aerosmith, we had a power trio steeped in punk rather than hard rock. And they exploded on MTV hitting you over the head with the sinister “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
This was a new sound. They called it grunge. Not quite punk. Not quite heavy metal. It encompassed bands that didn’t quite fit the heavy metal label, but were too polished to be truly punk. Cynics suggested grunge simply meant “comes from Seattle,” noting the major differences in sound between the city’s three most famous grunge bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. And yet grunge did have a certain vibe to it. It was all organic, guitar-driven, almost completely keyboard free. And the singers did not sound at all like they wanted to be Robert Plant. (For which, one suspects, Plant was probably grateful.)
Nirvana had three hits right off the bat: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” and “In Bloom.” The last showed Nirvana parodying the old Ed Sullivan Show, with People’s Court announcer Doug Llewellyn playing Ed. The video was shot in kinescope with cuts of Nirvana as clean-cut boys, a la Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, intercut with the band in drag getting their Who on by smashing their instruments.
But while the rest of the nation was discovering Nirvana, this was actually the culmination of years as an underground band. Grohl, who by all rights should have disappeared into obscurity after Cobain’s death, was actually the last of a Spinal Tap line of drummers. By the time they released In Utero, they were international stars. Yet Cobain decried the studio trickery on Nevermind done by producer Butch Vig (later of Garbage.) The album was meant to be a rougher, edgier album. Cobain wanted to recapture the early days of the band.
And therein lies their downfall. Cobain did not handle success well and could not combat addictions. Couple that with the way his cryptic lyrics transformed him into a Generation X version of Jim Morrison, and you have a recipe for tragedy. Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994. It was the one time I wondered if MTV’s Kurt Loder would actually lose it on the air. Wife Courtney Love, not exactly a paragon of patience and reserve, lashed out in her statement following her husband’s death. But the fact was the ride was over, and Kurt Cobain had jumped off the bridge to end it.
But for a brief shining moment, Nirvana helped give rock the jolt it so desperately needed at the end of the eighties.