To Lose And To Pretend: Nirvana’s Nevermind at 30
This morning I found out that Courtney Love dropped my name in a recent interview with the L.A. Times in an article about the 30th anniversary of the release of the Nirvana album Nevermind. In answer to the question, Is too much made of the idea of Nevermind being a “cultural revolution”, she responded, “I heard about [the critic] Gina Arnold. She had written some grunge book and said of it, “We won.” We won? No, he won. And we all rode his gravy train. That’s what happened.”
When I read that I thought, wow, she’s so right. For although I could argue my book’s through line was more nuanced than that, the oft-quoted ‘we won’ line was also just ridiculous journalist hyperbole. Anyway, hindsight is always 20–20. And as for the characterization of my life work as “some grunge book”: harsh, but fair.
It does seem crazy that it’s been 30 years though…30 years, during which so much has happened, to me, to Courtney, to everyone on earth. I mean…the world wide web, for instance. Streaming, i-phones, social media…not to mention the birth of my own kid and the death of my own parent. With all that happening, I seldom think about Nirvana and their role in my long life, but the faff around the anniversary of Nevermind has briefly reminded me of that time — my first listen to it, for instance, on cassette in a rental car as I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to Long Beach, over and over and over again, with my foot on the gas, my heart in my mouth — I always think of the song when I see the nuclear reactor at San Onofre. Then, later, watching the band perform it, in L.A. and San Francisco and then in Tijuana, at this astonishing roofless club called Iguana’s where boys in torn flannel threw themselves off the balcony, and finally, at tiny Pink’s Garage in Honolulu, where I was lifted bodily off my feet for most of the set, levitated not by magic but by the force of a tightened crowd of idolators.
Then, suddenly it was New Years Eve and Nirvana was playing the Cow Palace and I was covering it for Rolling Stone, and being headbanged upon by Keanu Reeves, whom I worshipped even then. That whole swift four month rise of that record up the charts was so exhilarating, so intense, so astonishing, that a sense of wonderment has never really left me. The sense that anything could happen to anyone you know. Because that one time it did.
It was great. But it’s also so saddening and weird to remember that on those heady days of insanity, Kurt had only two and half more years of life left.
Isn’t that so strange? Strange and sad but mostly, it’s just mythic. I saw a post recently that said the songs “Runaround Sue,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “I Fall to Pieces,” all turned 30 the year that Nevermind was released. And here’s the thing: I can assure you, at the time none of us was running around singing those songs all the time, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is still pretty much the only song I can count on that ALL my college students know.
Route 666 was my first book and I wrote it in a mad rush in the sixth months following the song’s ascendancy to the top of the charts. I never think about my “some grunge book” now, but I’m still so glad I wrote it because I don’t really remember most of what happened — for example, as I now see upon reading that portion of it, that the rental car I first heard Nevermind in didn’t have a tape deck in it, so I played it from my tape recorder, by dangling it off the dashboard.
In that same passage in my book, I wrote, “When I first heard “Teen Spirit,” I felt sick with love for that song, sick with the thought that other people might dare criticize it. Here, I knew, was one more thing to go to bat for, one more band by which I’d measure truth, one more life-changing, attitude-shaping, bigger-than-its-parts, song of surrender. I felt sick because it was a battle call and battles are always bloody. Somebody always loses.”
God knows whom I thought was going to lose at the time but I think we all know now who did. Indeed, knowing how the story ended, it’s easy to see that Kurt wasn’t the real winner as surmised above; that the winners were all of us who have heard that song in the days and months and years that followed. No shade to Courtney but upon reflection, maybe I was right after all?