My Path to Nirvana
/// Author’s Note ///
A bunch of us were asked in 2011 to submit some writing/art for a friend’s zine, K For Kurt, about when and how we discovered Nirvana. I decided to go for total honesty instead of revisionist history, which may make for better writing but might not be the most direct route to making friends. To say I have anything worthwhile to contribute to Nirvana’s story would be a joke but I can’t help but mull over their omnipresence, alone here in a hotel room, having basked in St Vincent’s cover of ‘Lithium’ for the past week. To see an audience so excited for the opening riffs of a song (and to watch them sing every word) is infectious – especially 20 years later. For a band that matters so much to myself and the people I live and work with, we rarely ever get a chance to share these stories that make up who we are and why we love, listen to and work in music.
Please forgive the sins and prejudices of the young Rachel Demy. She has been flogged with the same slice of humble pie for over a decade. Jeremy Matherly, this one is for you.
The first time I heard Nirvana was in the back of a van with the pastor’s son. It was 1992; I was 10 years old and not only too young to be in the back of a van with anyone but I had yet to embrace music in any kind of autobiographical sense. My uncle had turned me onto Depeche Mode and The Cure about 2 years earlier but I was barely a sentient being and had no idea what to do with all the FEELINGS. In 2 years I will have heard Siamese Dream for the first time and subsequently come into an awareness of a world that would define the next 2+ decades of my life. Until then, music was simply a soundtrack for yet another pre-adolescent experience, equally awkward and extrinsic. My grasp of Nirvana was defined by montage-style snippets taken at face value with the least amount of context possible, which I understand now is not the way Nirvana’s music was conceived nor, for that matter, received by an audience still reeling on what was left of New Wave, the continued polarity of early 90’s Brit Pop, and the nearly-inaudible death rattle of late-80’s hair metal. But I was a kid with zero experience of the world and little to rebel against. I wasn’t Nirvana’s target audience, I suppose.
The scene in the back of the van was a budding hormonal teenage bro-fest with the pastor’s son, his best friend, and my best friend – all of us escaping from some kind of Christian Adult meeting that was being held for our parents inside. I don’t even remember who the van belonged to but there was a radio in our impromptu tree house for the afternoon. We left the back doors open and after the momentous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on, it was followed up with the newly-released “Under The Bridge” and “Evenflow” – 3 songs that would become near-caricatures of Grunge™ in a largely flaccid decade for commercial music. Had I heard these three songs in a vacuum, I might have been able to internalize the experience in some sort of positive way. But this rock triad was merely a forum for the strangest of male mating calls – the ever-perplexing act of air drumming while maintaining direct eye contact with the nearest female in the vicinity – making me more uncomfortable than any Homecoming dance I would attend 5 years later. I wanted nothing to do with it. Nirvana was for dudes.
I remember the girl in middle school wearing the t-shirt of Kurt Cobain’s face, her makeup exactly matching his, right after he was found dead in 1994. She, a payer of some kind of homage to her decade’s newest Poet Laureate of the 27 Club. He, a martyr for disaffected citizens everywhere and now a conspiracy theory personified. She was too far from 27 to think she would actually get there so the romance of his suicide wasn’t scary yet, just sad for reasons she wouldn’t understand for another 15 years. I had no concept of mortality myself so I shrugged it off and tended to the even larger issue at hand: navigating the emotional fallout at my middle school without pissing anyone off. I dared not utter that I was a much bigger fan of “Live Through This”-era Hole at the time, but I could with all the conviction in the world, from my largest of pulpits, say, “I don’t really like Nirvana.” The former was criminal; the latter a general (read: safe from scrutiny), uneducated opinion. I could live with that. And did for about 7 years.
It’s difficult to not judge musicians by their fans. I remember in college desperately wanting to drop a bomb on San Diego as Jack Johnson’s debut record blasted out of every beach house window, inspiring every surf turd to pick up an acoustic guitar. And so it was in 1994. Nirvana’s fans were and continue to be utterly rabid and unapologetic, mistrusting of contrarians like myself with good reason. Living in the Pacific Northwest during that era with the hype surrounding Nirvana became more of a deterrent for me. I couldn’t tune into 94.7 KNRK without hearing each and every cut off of Nevermind multiple times daily*. Any idiot stumbling out of a cave would have thought it was their only record. Naturally, so did I - and I hated that record with every X chromosome of my DNA.
I had the privilege of discovering Riot Grrrl while everyone was drunk on grunge; a time when, even after Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Exene Cervenka and Karen Carpenter, women playing instruments powerfully, all by themselves was still a novelty. In a very roundabout way, I came across Kurt’s famous quote: “The future of rock belongs to women.” All of my experience with Nirvana’s testosterone-laden hype machine could not prepare me for the impact of that one line, so necessary for a divisive movement like Riot Grrrl. It is not because women needed a dude to help tow the line, but because it was proof that Riot Grrrl was not exclusively a feminine movement, to only be understood or made relevant by one’s possession of a vagina. It validated Riot Grrrl as a human movement and as a pivotal turning point in rock and roll. Kurt, despite his commercial, male-oriented appeal and certainly not the first male to contribute significantly to Riot Grrrl, came forward and said what these women were screaming from stages all over the country: what we’re doing and saying should matter to all of you.
I believe everyone’s relationship with music is a deeply personal path, a romance worth protecting from external influences, something to be experienced in the safety of your room or the embrace of your headphones. Often music discovers you and it can’t really be forced. Hype tends to make records tired and expendable and, though hype is not always incorrect, it can be indiscriminately bestowed upon anything with little to no vetting. I have never trusted it. It is my explanation for jumping in late with Radiohead, Swans, Belle & Sebastian and Pink Floyd, among others. They changed my life – just not at the same time as they changed yours.
I was 19 when I had my first significant relationship. I was studying revolutions and music scenes in the Eastern Bloc as a part of my Political Science degree, all the while beginning to grow roots in the music industry for which my degree would be rendered practically useless. I was an active student in just about every facet of my life, aware that the many prejudices I harbored with regard to what I thought I knew were heavy and no longer serving me. My boyfriend set out to prove me wrong about Nirvana (and many other things I considered categorically male – it turns out you can not only air drum, but air bass as well). He gave me a hand-curated 30-song mixed CD, full of hits and deep cuts that barely touched on Nevermind. His intuition was well honed.
The dénouement of the disc was a demo for “Marigold” – a song that immediately atoned for all of the future sins of Dave Grohl (I say this as a fan) and contextualized Nirvana in a way I could finally internalize. It was 2002, 10 years from the first time I heard Nirvana – a decade full of countless opportunities to experience a band so poignantly relevant they induced confusion. It was a very quiet personal revolution but it was massive. With no warning or reason, it was this moment that there was a possibility for Nirvana to matter to me. And not one second sooner. 13 years on, having shed all my adolescent dogmas about what it means to be cool, Kurt’s songs are more apropos for this time and, dare I say, transcendent than they ever were. His songs weren’t for cool kids. They were about alienation and isolation, the lifeblood of all teenagers, young adults and grownups everywhere. There was no way for me to embrace Nirvana’s music without feeling the full weight of adulthood first, to grapple with mortality and morality and find solace in an entire discography devoted to that struggle. It was just there waiting for me, benevolently holding out its hand with an understanding nod and I’m grateful. Nirvana mattered in the 90’s. They mattered in the 00’s. And after bleeding their way into the fabric of who I am, there’s no way they can’t fucking matter.
*Nirvana’s discography still continues to be played excessively by “modern” rock stations all over the country, despite ceasing to be a band since 1994.