Albums of Our Lives: Nirvana’s Nevermind

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“I miss you; I’m not gonna crack”

I was 14 and following older kids through the woods. Our destination was a structure known as “the shack.” Its walls were pieced together from squares and rectangles of plywood and cardboard. Lengths of carpet covered the bare dirt of the floor. A clever indoor fire-pit occupied one corner, complete with a chimney made from lengths of old ductwork. The fire itself—burning trash and fallen branches—was the only source of light or heat.

The shack served as a late-night gathering place for kids to drink and do drugs, and as a temporary home for short-term runaways. Most importantly, there was a battery-powered tape deck. The first co-called Seattle album I remember hearing there was Soundgarden’s Louder than Love. This was different than the obscure punk rock normally played by the shack’s elders. It overflowed with heavy grooves reminiscent of Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix—the groups I most enjoyed in the privacy of my own headphones.

Those same older kids next turned us on to TAD and Mudhoney. With less bare-chested machismo, these two bands spoke to me directly. They dressed the way that my friends and I did. They liked power tools and poop jokes and drinking whiskey in the woods—all of our favorite things. Nirvana’s name was sometimes uttered; I recall the entire crowd approving of “Splinter.”

I got into some trouble—legal and otherwise—around the middle of 1991; in the end I had to change schools. Friends graduated or dropped out. Some transferred to yet other schools; some simply stopped being friends. High school turned from an annoying rite of passage into a psychologically unbearable experience—something I’d be lucky to survive. Then one day, all the Juniors and Seniors traded in their black Metallica t-shirts—with skulls and electric chairs—for white ones with a naked, swimming baby.

For me, now 15, this was mostly a source of confusion. I’d never taken enough ownership of Nirvana to feel my tastes usurped by latecomers. Like the record industry, I was surprised to see them bear the Seattle-sound standard.

Then there was the music itself. It had the textures and timbres that first attracted me to those other groups, with fewer catch phrases and musical inside jokes. At that age when sentimentality was an unforgivable sin, this album deftly struck a series of balances: cryptic enough, earnest enough, heavy enough, with just the right amount of beauty.

Between the lyrics and the tunes, Nevermind offered endless nooks and crannies for a teenage mind to explore. It didn’t dumb down, and it didn’t preach. In a sense, the album was like that shack in the woods: functional, unadorned, shorn together from cast-off fragments, not expected to stand for long, a warm place that those without a fixed musical address could inhabit for a while and take shelter in.

Twenty years later, I spend much of my time teaching college freshman, sometimes about music history. I’ve often faced the unenviable task of explaining the significance of this album to students born around the year of its release.

I lean heavily on the work of Michael Azerrad. He draws a convincing line between Nirvana’s success and the efforts of America’s punk underground—the grassroots network of independent labels and bands that dates back to the late ’70s. He also argues that Nevermind represents the first time another generation’s music emerged from the shadow of the baby-boomers, and interrupted their long victory lap over the pop of their childhoods.

But I wasn’t aware of all that in 1991. At a time when teenagers still had to cull their identities from television, commercial radio, and the occasional forest get-together, Nevermind was a rich new vein ripe for tapping. Everything about it was uncompromising, or appeared that way. From afar, it looked as if three guys with guitars and drums had pressed PLAY and RECORD and somehow transcended a system controlled by rich grown-ups. Whatever the reality, Kurt Cobain seemed an accidental star. That sounds like an utterly naïve and outdated notion to me now, like the old political saw: “the office should seek the man; the man should not seek the office.” Perhaps Nirvana was both a symptom and a triumph of what might be called Art/Hype Dualism—a belief system that traded heavily on ideals. Like a willing spirit overcoming weak flesh in dualisms of the past, strong art was capable of an end-run around the whole hype enterprise—or so it felt to us, the faithful.

But does it still matter? Jeff Gordinier, champion of all things Gen X, claims that, “If Nevermind changed the world, the world changed back pretty fast.” I would argue that the world didn’t change back; it changed further. Indeed, the world that Nevermind changed only had a short time left to live.

Now, an album can be recorded and distributed for the price of a steak dinner. The record industry is hardly an institution worth transcending. High school outsiders can find their virtual communities faster than real ones. They don’t need t-shirts to identify their social caste. Many of them—like Cobain—can make their own t-shirts.

To their eyes, hype isn’t a sin so much as another kind of art, and subject to its own aesthetics and criticism. They’ve seen misfits much younger than Nirvana change the world far more drastically, with far more outlandish ideas. The light of the laptop or smart-phone screen might not sound as romantic as the light from that crude hearth in the shack. But you know what: that fire wasn’t all that warm, and it didn’t illuminate anything that wasn’t already right in front of my face.

So let the legacy of Generation X be that we didn’t resist these changes. Let us not look back with nostalgia at that era of wealth and depression, nor push it on the kids. It’s to our credit that we haven’t spent the last 20 years patting ourselves on the back over Nirvana, as the boomers did over Elvis and the Beatles. My hope—and my guess—for my students’ generation is that their collective adolescence be less in need of redemption. After all, many kinds of suffering can build character and produce great art, but that’s no reason to keep them around.

A few years later, I saw the shack burn to the ground. It’s a hazy and vague memory. It may have been a dream or a drug-addled vision. But I do recall being sickened and saddened by both the yellow flames and the demise of that place, of that era in my life. Come to think of it, I might have been among those who lit the match.


Tyler McMahon is the author of How the Mistakes Were Made. He teaches writing at Hawai'i Pacific University. More from this author →