My Own Private Nirvana: Revisiting Nevermind 30 Years On

Three decades on from Nevermind, John Calvert explores Nirvana's smash record in comparison to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho

This feature was originally published in 2011 to mark the album’s 20th anniversary

Released in 1991 within three weeks of Nevermind, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho told the story of boy interrupted ‘Mike’. A classic Van Sant character, Mike is a vagrant prostitute prone to bouts of narcolepsy, his fits presaged by visions of his missing mother, whom he deifies. A typically solipsistic Van Sant film, it’s always Mike’s world we are in – to the point that his isolation is felt to the bones. The role was played by a reluctant icon of the time, the ill-fated River Phoenix, who commanded the film yet seemed lost within the fabric of it. Indeed the character of Mike is lost too, but what he does have is the drifter’s limitless freedom.

As well as drawing uncanny parallels with both Cobain’s day-to-day existence and his state of mind, Idaho was every bit as emblematic of the time – the era of white spiritual frustration – as Nevermind. A misfit mood poem, "Whatever, Whenever, Have A Nice Day" was Idaho‘s shrug of a tagline: a final salute from your local foodmart-cowboy as he recedes into the dusty horizon. But the key to Idaho is Mike’s narcolepsy. It symbolised the bleary wilderness the children of divorce had been been drawn to for years. This painless oblivion, this existential fade out, this nirvana, was craved by a generation – Sonic Youth’s so-called Daydream Nation – that favoured amnesic self-dissolution over both druggy transcendence and angry action. A supreme champion of Iggy Pop’s ‘to feel nothing’ concept of punk, Cobain may have weaponised Idaho‘s conceit but the message remained: oh well, whatever, never mind.

If punk rock told the youth of the day that anything was possible, then grunge – or ‘pain rock’ as the press first called it – spoke of impossibility. The Melvins were drowning in it, Mudhoney were choking in it, and Nirvana made pop from it: the sensation of wading through the ooze. Marinated in Sabbath’s late-60s negativity, the only semblance of crusading belief in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is Cobain’s faith in punk rock. Not as a means of saving the world, only himself. The rest is just churning trash talk, or "fuck", as Frank Black described his own stream of consciousness lyrics. The nonsense was almost certainly Cobain’s take on the Pixies’ surrealist content and was also indicative of his distaste for the ‘sharing’ approach plied by Pearl Jam. However, save a few youthquake gems – most famously "Here we are now/ Entertain us" and the rallying "Load up on guns/ Bring your friends"- the inanity of the lyrics played beautifully into ‘Teen Spirit”s overall sentiment, the conviction that pop music and, in a greater sense, American culture, were inherently pointless. Analyse all you want but this song doesn’t mean shit, Cobain was telling the listener, you are being duped.

So, as he rocks out against ‘The Man’ – who Gen-X were the first to realise was something of a cardboard enemy – the actual intimation is one of sleepy, wry nihilism; so tragically casual it is almost carefree. Over his wasted take on hard rock Cobain subverts his own passion, sighing ‘this whole teen revolution thing is folly, but never mind eh?’, the punk spirit lodged firmly between two fat scare quotes. If on the last note Cobain had finished the song with a sniffy ‘Yeah, right’, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place.

Timing is a big factor as to why a full blown grunge revival has never caught fire – the conditions and the climate are simply no longer there. But period/cultural significance aside, as well as being anthemic by force of its sheer immensity, there are other reasons for ‘Teen Spirit”s iconic place in history aside from generation-defining resonance. Firstly, no other band in memory made the urge to self-destruct quite as listenable. Secondly, however ironically framed, incontestably the disaffection was authentic, the pain real, which will always be a prized quality in our rock stars. Today, punk’s only presence in pop is boyband emo, or technically Nickelback: that final sorry vestige of post-grunge following the demise of Puddle Of Mudd and The Distillers. ‘Teen Spirit’ by comparison is downright animalistic in its bloody sincerity. There’s also the importance of Cobain’s humanist side which underwrites almost every song and served to place a welcoming arm around the prospective Nirvana fan. It inspired a sense of belonging, no matter how hostile the music or sullen the live performance. The masses connected with Cobain on this level – with his ‘common touch’ – as much as with the ‘voice of a generation’ truth-saying. If he was, in fact, some kind of messiah, he was also a friend. Finally there was the part played by MTV – the network coming into its own with both Nirvana and ‘Teen Spirit”s iconic promo. Apart from being a bone fide marketing masterpiece, the video is constructed with such belief in the band’s future significance that director Samuel Bayer had to have known he was paying witness to the birth of an icon.

Musically speaking, ‘Teen Spirit’ is a tightly regimented, dynamically impeccable bit of pop-craft; borrowing Pixies’ 4-chord riff cycle, Kim Deal’s brooding bass and of course the Bostonians’ loud/quiet trajectory. Whereas Bleach presented its nihilism in inconsequential, linear dead-ends – eight or so variations on an all-for-nothing race for combustion – ‘Teen Spirit’ is both panoramic in its dread and limber. To date it’s also chart history’s most ferocious, dark and intense moment since the first wave of punk. Jagged, icy but melodically sweet, it was both reminiscent of the crispest examples of new wave pop and a distant descendent of the post-punk era, a movement which found its true legacy in America in the post-hardcore scene. However it wasn’t only its spare, angular severity that connected Nevermind to British post-punk, but also its otherworldly quality, which recalled the unnatural lambency records like Chairs Missing and Colossal Youth emitted.

It was also heavy, right when heaviness was needed. Shortly before Seattle came of age you had gloomy Washington twee-poppers Beat Happening and their droney alt opus ‘Sleepy Head’, Galaxie 500’s ‘Strange’ in 1989 and, from Minnesota, The Replacements. With their talk of the "bastards of young" and themes of abortive adulthood (‘Here Comes A Regular’) the latter’s flagship tune ‘Unsatisfied’ cemented an ethos that would endure all the way to alt-rock’s eulogy – the Pumpkins ‘1979’. Alas though, The Mats’ Big Star-inspired ditties sounded trivial next to grunge’s clobbering downer and doom punk weight. The natural export of a poor, bad-weather region such as Washington, it both jarred young America awake and gave them something corporeal to cling to. A dangerous but poptastic vision of doomed youth will always be seductive, in any form, with or without the downtuned power chords. But, as Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto later said of Nevermind: "By comparison, it was like our record could have been a hobo pissing in the forest for the amount of impact it had. It felt like we were playing ukuleles." Sometimes counterculturalism needs mass and monstrousness to get under the ribs of the establishment.

"Do you like Smashing Pumpkins?", asked Heather Graham’s promiscuous starlet in 1999 comedy Bowfinger. "Are you kidding?", replies her hapless director, Steve Martin. "I love to do that!" By the end of the decade, alt rock had been reduced to an inspired punchline – an easily parodied caricature Homer Simpson would regularly bait ("Kurt Cobain made teenagers unhappy. Big Wow!".) But there was once a time when for some, or many as it would later transpire, far from being a joke it was the voice that finally answered the phone which had been ringing for years. ‘Come As You Are’, Nevermind‘s third single and the title of Michael Azarrad’s celebrated biography, was every bit an olive branch for that alienated faction as ‘Teen Spirit’. On its chorus mercurial guitars swim psychedelically below Cobain’s slacker manifesto, lending an alien aura to the misfit underworld he renders so perfectly. You get a clear sense of exactly how phantasmagoric a life it was to loiter in those graffiti’d punk dungeons under the gleaming Reaganworld dome. Indeed, Bayer played on that vibe when modelling his cinematically gothic spin on shiny teen conformity, populating the ‘Teen Spirit’ video’s moodily-lit basketball court with black-clothed cheerleaders.

With the help of a little editing on Butch Vig’s part, on ‘In Bloom’ bombastic rock never sounded so finite, spare and acute. Following on from opener ‘Teen Spirit’ it’s also a second consecutive offering of sublime singalong pop…with lyrics about guns. The ying and yang dynamics are in full effect, but whereas in the Pixies’ case the heaviness would flare up from a launchpad of antic mania and chirpy if creepy humour, Nirvana balanced their excited heaviness with an enervated, slouching disposition – a far trickier pairing. Fortunately ‘In Bloom’ speaks of dark-pop perfection in that field. No matter how polished the casing, it always conveys the illusion of reckless apathy; however sugary the melodies, it is persistently the sound of self-abasement and however much Cobain rages – and that he does on the chorus’s snare-rolled primal scream – he is never exultant. (Later on ‘Stay Away’, as well as hoisting a not-fucking-welcome banner over the underground, Cobain literally screams his shyness.) On top of that, miraculously the cut-and-change compositions are seldom plastic-sounding, the songs unravelling with fluid economy. ‘In Bloom’ also contains alt rock’s finest guitar solo before Billy Corgan took the reins. All of 20 seconds in length, and at odds with every grotesque power-shredder and lacy filigree in cock rock’s inventory, Cobain’s ‘give a fuck’ tour around his Fender is broken, atrophied but searing, and – in the great tradition of Keith Levene’s atonal pyrotechnics – wrong in all the right ways. Basically it’s a hopeless person’s idea of a face-melting solo, and so sentient it almost talks to you while Cobain keeps schtum.

Lyrically, his talent lay in making piercing statements from jumbled impressionism. Being a dishevelled contrarian, logically Cobain’s approach is a perfunctory one, depositing images and ideas randomly, the 24-year old pleased with their apparent irrelevancy. But despite his best efforts, cumulatively the lyrics often form an overall picture that makes perfect sense. On Nevermind Nirvana’s subtextual staples are out in full force: parasitic love and embryonic regression on ‘Drain You’; mental illness – a Gen-X standard – on ‘Lithium’ (the crazies ward as sanctuary); and rape – both literal and metaphorical – on ‘Polly’. Cobain’s soul wasn’t crushed – by his estimations it was decayed. He feels "contagious", so overwhelmed with psychic sickness he worries he might not be able to contain it. So instead he expels his squalid insides onto the right people, a toxic retch directed at those nasty jocks he so despised: welcome to my world. On ‘Come As You Are’, the combination of "I don’t have a gun", a dreamy refrain of "Memoria" and finally a bit of dirty shame in the shape of "Doused in mud / Soaked in bleach" together makes for a vivid poetry of damage and detachment.

‘Breed’, the fourth track on a Side A to rival any in history, is all about blunt force. Cobain’s lead riff, the most commercial thing on the album, is mimicked by Novelic’s fuzz bass, so as to multiply the effect, while Grohl drives the whole shebang with muscular flair. Instead of an anti-solo, vaguely ashamed of its own existence, Cobain’s guitar break here serves a definite purpose, upping the pitch four times with increasingly hysterical chords. He ruptures the neck and the trio plunge into a repeat of the hyper-ventilating chorus, until it too burns itself out. Right across Nevermind Nirvana’s greatest songwriting skill, and indeed their greatest gift to punk, was their ability to prime their choruses. Using a stretch of precarious monotony, a pregnant pause, or a manic uplift in Cobain’s vocals, the tracks invariably tense up before the inevitable cathartic release. Every chorus hits the ground running.

Named after the pre-Prozac drug ‘choice-of-a-new-generation’, ‘Lithium’ is another of Cobain’s darkly comic monologues. Uncertainty and confusion have him plastered to the floor but he relishes the absurdity of his situation with a weary grin. On The Beta Band’s ‘Dry The Rain’ the ’emotionally compromised’ Gordon Anderson conjured that same banal, tragicomic derangement that would materialise in the afternoon light; the feeling at once of stultification and painful saturation. The difference being that Cobain blows the cobwebs off with a catastrophic chorus, while Anderson remains trapped in stasis. However, if redemption escapes the Scot, the wan mantra Anderson recites for reassurance holds sway on ‘Lithium’. That being: "If there’s something inside that you want to say/ Say it out loud/ It’ll be okay." Better out than in.

On the other side of ‘Polly,’ is ‘Territorial Pissings,’ the song they pranked Jonathan Ross with on their second Brit TV appearance (they were supposed to play ‘Lithium’). A snotty grebo barnstormer with added Seattle-style bulk, Cobain is at his most wicked. He’s also perceptibly more comfortable, maybe because a good old grotty, back-to-basics punk tune rid him temporarily of the guilt of making a pop record. Nirvana’s punk allies in the classic rock-dominated grunge world, Mudhoney may have defined the sound on Superfuzz Bigmuff, but their coltish, cheerily boneheaded output was soft, frivolous, and dallying next to the excoriating minimalism Nirvana mustered on the likes of ‘Territorial Pissings’. For all their pop stylings, fundamentally Nirvana were a wrathful punk band, whereas technically Mudhoney were a punk-inspired rock band, as Jelly Biafro once pointed out. Although ‘Stay Away’ makes a good fist of it, not until ‘tourette’s’ on In Utero did Nirvana match ‘Territorial Pissings’ in the fury stakes.

On the downside, if ‘Lounge Act’ falls flat, by the time it came to ‘On A Plain’ the formula was faltering. The weakest moment of the album, Nevermind‘s penultimate track is slightly vanilla, the backing vocals a cheesy addition and the dynamics drained of their biting sense of relative motion. If Cobain did in fact develop a disgust for the album’s commerciality, it can be assumed ‘On A Plain’ was the focus of his resentment. Both throwaway and vaguely passionless, it’s a far cry from the Cobain Ian Tilton photographed back stage in 1990, consumed by his own passion and falling apart mythically.

Always ready with a mordant quip, the frontman was the very scourge of sentimentality. More Albini than Alice In Chains, he had little time for self-pity, despite his reputation. But after an album of snarling, on the cello-graced ‘Something In The Way’ his chin finally drops. His voice is almost beautiful. Softened to a sonorous hush those knobbly North-Western tones come through, heightening the air of the sylvan macabre that prevails from logging country Oregon to the Canadian border. A song so low you’re in danger of treading on it, lines such as "It’s OK to eat fish/ ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings" sound like the inane observations that lay around Cobain’s exhausted mind as he peered into the waters below Aberdeen’s Young St. Bridge. A very private prayer for better times, it’s claustrophobic to be in such close proximity to his headspace. His perspective seems squeezed by insurmountable pressure, flattening his previously acrobatic vocals to an affectless, steady hum. The song was used to stunning effect in Gulf War drama Jarhead – a film about inertia, frustration and spiritual vacuity. In the film’s case though the war was real, if every bit as meaningless as the bankrupt culture Cobain censured over the course of Nevermind, a beacon and an article of faith to this day for the irascible and the disillusioned.

If Van Sant’s quasi-Cobain biopic Last Days resembles anything like the reality, in his final hours Cobain lived Idaho‘s surrealist oblivion – missing in a dream, absent, fading away rather than burning out. Events overtook him and he climbed away from a life he described on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as both hard and hard to find. Whatever, whenever, have a nice day.

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