Wax Stories #7: Nirvana – Bleach

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Previous Wax Story: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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Wax Stories #2: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”

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I know in my last post I said I was going to write about David Bazan’s “Curse Your Branches” next week, but this is still technically the same week and I promise I’ll get Bazan ready in the coming days. Given certain events in Seattle today, I thought this one would be a bit more appropriate and timely.

Discovering Elliott Smith always seems like a poignant moment for most people I’ve talked to who listen to him. For me, it felt like finally discovering that unknown artist you’d always wanted to find. In my fantasy it was usually finding an old tape or CD that had fallen off the rack and was covered with dust – long forgotten to anyone else. That’d be pretty romantic, huh? Instead, I found Elliott on MSN Messenger.

My buddy Nate and I started sharing music with each other when I was 15 and he was 14. I’m sure he’s going to come up a lot in this blog series; he helped shape a lot of stuff I listen to today. At the time, most of our friends weren’t listening to the same music as us. We were what would become the annoying hipster “you probably haven’t heard of it” cliche. We weren’t trying to be cool. We just liked different music than our peers. Pretty much every night after school we were on MSN Messenger talking about music, classes, or whatever else was going on. Periodically we would send each other MP3s of new music we were listening to. There used to be a feature on chat where you could see what the other person was listening to.

One summer evening when I was 16 I remember seeing it say Nate was listening to a song by Elliott Smith. I’d heard the name before. For a school project a couple years prior, I interviewed one of my all time favorite artists (Cinjun Tate of the band Remy Zero) and in one of the questions I asked him what his favorite album of all time was – he said “When I think of perfect albums, Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’ comes to mind.” For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go and pick up the record…idiot.

I was on a big singer-songwriter kick when I saw Nate’s music status and I got the impression Elliott Smith was probably along those lines. I asked Nate how Elliott is. He responded pretty ecstatically, singing Elliott’s praises. He sent me over a couple of tracks. The first one I can remember hearing was “Rose Parade.”

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The lightly strummed guitar chords with a simple three note lead played over it felt elating. Then Elliott comes in with his hush voice, telling a story about a trivial parade that slowly becomes more and more bitter as it goes along. It was unlike any songwriting I had been exposed to before. Something about being at such a happy event like a parade and critiquing it for all it’s fake pageantry felt so desperate and lonely to me – I’d later have many of these same feelings listening to the majority of his work.

I had Nate send me over the rest of “Either/Or.” I listened to it all night at the computer. I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that I intentionally listened to “2:45 A.M.” at 2:45 A.M. The album became a secret obsession. I’d spend down time fumbling through “Between The Bars” on guitar, smirk every time at the opening line to “Say Yes” (“I’m in love with the world, through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after”), and burn copies of the album for friends who I thought might appreciate it. As I looked at my small record collection, I thought about how “Either/Or” would probably be the best sounding vinyl out there. I had my first “holy grail” record and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it in a junk bin at Great Prospects.

That spring Nate and I decided to go hang out in Seattle on a Saturday. We walked on a ferry over and checked out the Experience Music Project – spending most of our time messing around in the fake recording studio. They had a feature that would let you record for 10 minutes and then you could buy a CD copy to take home. We messed around with the guitars and played a partial version of “Rose Parade” (which I refuse to go back and listen to) and some silly songs I’d written.

Afterward we walked over to Easy Street Records in Lower Queen Anne. We dug through the crates, marveling at their impressive selection. In Kitsap County the closest thing to a music store that I was aware of was the electronics department of Fred Meyer. Being able to walk through these aisles and see stuff that I only thought existed on the Internet was amazing. I had been to both Easy Street locations before, but not since I had expanded my taste out of exclusively alternative rock radio.

Then I saw it. “Either/Or.” I could not believe it was actually there. I thought no one knew about him, let alone would take the time to stock his stuff in a record store. Shouldn’t this be covered with dust in a corner? It was amazing to final see the cover art as it was meant to be seen, and the stark back cover with the blurry, swaying chandelier.

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Nate and I marveled at it and kept repeating how good it was going to sound. I didn’t hesitate to buy it; I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance. I took it home in my black plastic bag with the Easy Street logo and carried it with pride. I listened to the record repeatedly for months. I even held up the sleeve as a model as I tried to recreate the cover art in my sketchbook (which included the “fuck you” graffiti behind Elliott in the picture, because I was a total rebel).

Seven years later and this is still one of my favorite albums and vinyl records. I live in Seattle now and literally can walk down a few blocks to Sonic Boom where there’s always at least a few Elliott Smith albums in the bins and other bands I’m continuing to discover. It’s a convenience I love to exploit (my wallet is not so fond of it though). I’ve continued to fill my collection with records from Easy Street Records too. Sometimes I forget that it wasn’t that long ago when finding these records was a big deal for me.

Now today Easy Street Records in Queen Anne is closing its doors for good to be replaced by a Chase Bank. It may seem trivial to be saddened by the lose of a business, but to me and a lot of other music fans this a huge loss. I can’t find a treasure like “Either/Or” at a bank. I won’t have that same feeling of discovery and excitement when I go to cash a check or make a withdrawal. Every time I put “Either/Or” on my turntable now, I’m going to think about Easy Street and how it inadvertently encouraged my interest in music and brought me closer with artists like Elliott Smith. We’re really lucky here in Seattle. I hope we don’t take for granted that we have so much access to culture and art that helps us express ourselves; I hope we don’t ever favor chain stores and condos over priceless things like these.

Thanks Elliott. Thanks Easy Street. You’ve both given me and others some truly great music.

Here’s a video of Elliott Smith playing on a pilot for The Jon Brion show, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”):

Next week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (for REAL this time)

Previous Wax Story: U2 – War / INXS – Shabooh Shoobah

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