“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “Heart-Shaped Box”
Who Are They?
Now honestly, if you haven’t heard of Nirvana, just leave now. No excuses.
Innovators. Definers of grunge culture. This blog’s namesake. When discussing ‘90s music, Nirvana is usually the first band to come to mind. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” regularly graces “Greatest ‘90s Songs” lists as the #1 choice, and 1991’s Nevermind is often cited as one of the greatest albums of all time. Twenty years ago, Nirvana was the biggest band on the face of the earth. And Kurt Cobain realized how much he absolutely hated that fact.
Nirvana didn’t actually start as Nirvana. Before Kurt became good buddies with bassist Krist Novoselic in 1987, he was involved in a short-lived project with Buzz Osborne, founding member of The Melvins. This project became known as Fecal Matter. Catchy, eh?
After such name considerations as Pen Cap Chew and Ted Ed Fred, Kurt and Krist settled on Nirvana and proceeded to go through drummers like tissues. Aaron Burckhard, Dale Crover, Dave Foster, and Chad Channing took turns sitting behind the drum kit. Chad stuck around long enough to lend his skills on the band’s debut, Bleach (which was recorded for a mere $606.17).
After touring being Bleach, Nirvana went back to the studio to work with the almighty Butch Vig. During these sessions, Chad became increasingly frustrated about not being involved with the songwriting. So he ditched the band and Kurt and Krist were left to recycle drummers. Following repeated recommendations from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, a relatively unknown musician by the name of Dave Grohl auditioned. Turns out he was pretty damn talented.
The sessions with Vig produced Nevermind, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was chosen as the album’s first single. And all was right with the world. Angsty teenagers finally had a theme song and bands like Poison and Twisted Sister were left in the (glittery) dust.
As Nirvana began to conquer the world, Kurt quickly became disenchanted with his newfound fame. He was the anti-star, which ironically just made him even more famous. He resented being compared to other rock idols and even refused to ride in a limo to his own performance on Saturday Night Live. By 1992, Kurt had begun to withdraw from the rest of the band, causing Dave and Krist to become closer.
Incesticide, a compilation album, was released in 1992. Because everyone was still drooling over Nevermind, Incesticide wasn’t heavily promoted (which is a shame because there are some gems on that album).
In an attempt to distance themselves from the glossy sound of Nevermind, Nirvana chose to work with underground producer Steve Albini to record In Utero. The album was miles away from its predecessor. Christopher John Farley of Time put it quite simply: “Nirvana hasn’t gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana.”
The band appeared on MTV Unplugged in late 1993, and in typical Nirvana fashion, opted not to play their most popular songs. Instead, they performed several covers, most notably a rendition of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
After a suicide attempt in early 1994, Kurt was convinced to commit himself into rehab, but escaped after less than a week. On Friday, April 8, he was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head in his Seattle home. And so ends the legend of Nirvana.
Where Are They Now?
Gone, but the music lives on.
Because of the tragic loss of their front man, Dave and Krist thought it only appropriate to retire Nirvana for good. Of the two, Dave found the most success. He formed Foo Fighters in 1994, and also teamed up with Josh Homme to record with Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures (for the full story/my witty banter on Foo Fighters, click here).
Krist continued with music for a short time, forming various short-lived bands with old friends. He became a full time member of the band Flipper in 2006, but departed two years later. Krist is also active in politics as an elected State Committeeman, most famously supporting libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul in the 2008 Presidential election.
Dave and Krist recently teamed up on Foo Fighters’ upcoming album Wasting Light. Krist plays bass and accordion on the song “I Should Have Known.”
But Why Nirvana?
This week marks the 17th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, which still remains one of the most devastating tragedies in music history. Also, Nevermind will be celebrating its 20th birthday later this year. So break out the flannel and light a candle for Kurt.
What Does Sam Think?
I’m just gonna put it out there: Nirvana is one of my favorite bands of all time. Whether you like them or not, there’s no denying how much of an impact they made in the music industry. Without “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” without Kurt’s sense of anti-fashion, without all that feedback, a lot of the younger bands today wouldn’t exist. So yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.
But I’m sure a lot of people wonder how the hell Nirvana got so big. Some write off Nirvana’s sound as just plain noise. I can see where you’re coming from, anonymous music-basher. Kurt definitely wasn’t the greatest guitarist in the world, and he really couldn’t sing either. But that didn’t matter. It was his songwriting that caught people off-guard. He had the power (and the background story) to engage the social misfits of the world. To them, he was the ultimate symbol of despair and alienation. His words reached kids some would deem unreachable, and, whether he liked it or not, Kurt became the ultimate idol.
But it’s not all about Kurt. Nirvana was a group, not just one man with a guitar. Without Krist, we wouldn’t have the tasty bass lines in “Sliver” and “Lounge Act.” Without Dave, we wouldn’t have the overall incredible drum work that glued everything together. It all sounded so wrong, but when everything was said and done, it just worked.
Nirvana took the raw energy from punk rock, injected some smoky metal undertones, and packaged it all together with a few simple chords. It sounds easy, sure. But if that’s the case, why didn’t someone else think of it first?
This band did what other bands wish they could do, and that’s introduce a whole new side to music that no one had experienced yet. Kurt, Krist, and Dave single-handedly defined an entire decade. What have you done lately?
--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.