Whenever there’s a Nirvana related anniversary, I get oddly nostalgic. It always feels a bit misplaced. I was alive through Nirvana’s ascension but I’m pretty sure I was more interested in Mr. Rogers’ cardigans at the time – not Kurt Cobain’s. Nevertheless, when I released today is what would have been Kurt’s 46th birthday, I immediately went to my record shelf to play some of his work as a tribute.
I started to get into Nirvana when I picked up their greatest hits at a Sam Goody on a whim when I was 14. It’s a super lame way to get into a band (as detailed in a post I did in 2011), but it opened up the door for me at least. The music struck me in a way that nothing else had before. The demolishing crashes of the drums, the gritty sloppiness of the bass, the cutting sound of the guitar, and Kurt’s aching angry voice; it was fuel for my burgeoning teenage angst. I’d later pick up a CD copy of MTV Unplugged In New York to flesh out the image of Kurt as a misunderstood artist. He was not just a musician in my eyes. He was a symbol of identity and struggle that I thought I could relate to.
In the summer of 2005 I went over to West Seattle for a day where my mom had an office near California Avenue. She pointed me in the direction of the Easy Street Records down the road and I eagerly made my way over there. I had only just recently got my record player a few months before. I made my way upstairs to the vinyl section to partake in one of my first Seattle crate digging experiences. There was no real agenda, nothing in particular I was hoping to find. This was also the first time I’d get a chance to buy a record new instead of used from a junk shop. I was a bit floored when I found the Nirvana section. For some reason I never really thought that they’d have anything available on wax and thought this rare opportunity – I had to pick up one of these. I inspected the track list on the back of each album and weighed out which was going to make the most sense. In Utero and Nevermind both featured tracks that I already had on my greatest hits CD so I dismissed those (dumb, dumb, dumb). I seriously considered picking up the Unplugged album because I thought it would sound so good. I remembered my dad telling me that on acoustic albums you could sometimes hear the fingers moving across the strings on vinyl releases.
I held up Bleach and examined it. The cover was stark and intense. A negative photo of Kurt headbanging with the band behind him in what appears to be a basement. I recognized one of the tracks, “About A Girl,” but everything else was unfamiliar. The fact that it was their first album also intrigued me. Sub Pop. That name sounded vaguely familiar. White vinyl? The case for Bleach got stronger and stronger the more I looked at it.
It must have been a funny sight to watch a gangly kid 15-year-old wearing cargo pants and probably a buttoned up, bright colored short sleeve shirt walking up to the counter clutching Bleach. I imagine the disenchanted cashier wanted to face palm at the sight. Maybe not.
I had to wait till we got home late that night to listen to it. Funny how most of my early memories of vinyl are listening to them late at night on low volume in my room. Krist’s sludgy bass lead in on “Blew” bellowed out of my crackling speakers. Immediately it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was used to Kurt being dark and lots of heavy guitars, but this felt different. There was a sense of doom looming over their playing. It was unrefined and harsh. It only got more so by the time the needle moved over to the second track, “Floyd the Barber.” The low thumps of guitar synchronized with the drums gave a sense of impending dread. I anxiously awaited for “About A Girl” to come on so I could hear something familiar. When it finally did I rejoiced in the Beatles sensibilities and brighter guitar tones.
I knew I liked the album because it was Nirvana, but looking back I’m not entirely sure how keen I was to the record. I played it repeatedly because that’s what I thought a Cobain disciple should do. I was supposed to like it. I desperately tried to relate to it. “Hah! On ‘School’ he talks about high school and there being ‘no recess.’ I know what that’s like!” Obviously I wasn’t exactly Lester Bangs in my interpretations, but I was trying. I did take to “Love Buzz” almost immediately with its incredible bass groove. I stayed away from the b-sides for the most part, which were marked by a label depicting the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. My aversion came down to one primary reason, which in turn applied to the whole album and that I would not admit to myself at the time: Bleach terrified me.
While Nevermind had just as much self-deprecating and fuming imagery, it also had Butch Vig’s crisp production to act as a filter. It’s like when you ask someone how they’re doing and they unload you all their problems without even easing into it. Bleach was full-on Cobain without anyone interpreting or holding him back. Not that I think Nevermind is in anyway lackluster. If anything it succeeded in making Kurt’s pain accessible to a wider group of people. I didn’t feel prepared to jump into this without Vig holding my hand.
Over the course of the summer, I found myself coming back again and again to the last track on side a – “Negative Creep.” Sometimes I’d drop the needle on just that track over and over again just to hear it. This is when I started to have my revelation. Kurt wasn’t the “loveable martyr” I’d made him out to be who opted to burn out instead of fading away. He was more like the intense guy I tried to avoid making eye contact with at shows, scribbling “fuck you” furiously in his notebook. I wanted desperately to believe that he and I had so much in common, but we really didn’t. Not only was he dealing with different (and albeit, much bigger) issues in his life, he was also just living in a different world. I was going to a private school, had a dopey golden retriever, and said “shoot” instead of “shit.” As much as I thought of myself as a negative creep, I really wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune from feeling emotions of angst or despair. We all can feel like negative creeps sometimes, but most of us don’t embody it or suffer through it like Kurt did.
My image of Kurt was broken down even more as I read Charles R. Cross’ biography on Kurt, “Heavier Than Heaven,” this last summer. The inkling I had that Kurt had it worse was proved to be true. I began sympathize for him instead of empathize with him. Looking back at Bleach in the context of the rest of his life is overwhelming and daunting. It’s not even that there’s an excess of imagery of suicidal imagery like some of his later work. It’s the brashness and dissonance and loudness that grabs me. To me, Bleach is his most tortured sounding work. I can feel more uncomfortable listening to tracks on here than I do listening to tracks like “Rape Me.”
Bleach feels more accessible to me today than it did in 2005. A lot of that I can attest to my change in taste over the years. My heart still pounds when the bass comes in on “Blew” and I’ve taken to screaming along to some of the b-sides (“gimme back me alcohol” on “Scoff” may be one of my favorite Nirvana lines now). It’s hard to think of many other records in my collection that has received this much consistent replay. Despite how much I’ve listened to it, I’ve come to terms that I’m never going to fully understand it or any of the bands other albums. Kurt will always have a shroud of mystery to him. I wish we could have understood him so we could have helped. Now I think the next best thing we can do is celebrate his life by indulging in his music in those those negative creep moments.
Happy birthday, Kurt.
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