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The Enduring 20-Year Legacy of Nirvana’s Nevermind

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Unless you’ve been off living in a cave somewhere these past few weeks, you’ve no doubt been unable to escape all the hype surrounding the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s landmark 1991 album Nevermind.

That the album itself was an unexpectedly earth-shattering event has never even been in question. Nevermind was without a doubt, one of those rare moments in music where a single release changed literally everything. That the album knocked the piss out of everyone (especially King of Pop Michael Jackson) by inexplicably rising to the top of the charts on the strength of little more than street buzz that caught everyone by surprise, in and of itself makes it one of those rare and wonderful happy accidents where the fans became the tail wagging the industry dog.

Prior to 1991, the last time this occurred was when the Beastie Boys revealed to the world that black kids weren’t the only ones listening to rap with 1987’s Licensed To Ill. As big as that record proved to be, though, the scale of Nevermind’s success was something on an entirely different level.

Of course, it can be argued that not all of Nevermind’s initial impact was necessarily positive. Who doesn’t remember that brief, early nineties period when you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing a slew of imitators (Silverchair, anyone?).

All of the renewed “voice of a generation” accolades these past few weeks have also proven to be just a little bit much. Kurt Cobain’s legacy is marked as much by his suicide as it is by his music. Which probably makes the comparisons to John Lennon most often heard when discussing his impact more than a tad annoying to some Beatles fans. Understandably so, too.

Lennon’s murder was arguably a political act — albeit carried out by a deranged fan. Cobain on the other hand chose to take his own life, to become forever immortalized in what could rightfully be called the ultimate case of the angst-ridden, reluctant rock star. Where Lennon died for his art, Cobain may have died because of it.

Either way, Nirvana (and by association, the rest of the Seattle-based grunge movement) represent the last time rock music really mattered in both a musical and a cultural sense. The successes of modern day hitmakers like Coldplay and Kings Of Leon notwithstanding, rock and roll is mostly on life support these days. It just hasn’t produced anything comparable to the way that Nirvana and a fan-based, street level movement like grunge impacted mainstream culture on a similarly massive level since. In that respect, Nirvana really were a lot like the Beatles.

Among the many Nirvana tributes making the rounds right now, two notable new releases arrived in stores this week. The 2-CD expanded edition of Nevermind will be followed next month by a limited edition 5-CD boxed set. But for fans, the release of Live at the Paramount on DVD and Blu-ray is the more significant event of this week’s Nirvana mini-windfall.

Recorded on Halloween night 1991 at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, this show has been long coveted by Nirvana fans. It was a triumphant homecoming for the reluctant hometown heroes, as Seattle’s music and scenester communities turned out en masse to welcome back the band who had so recently (and inexplicably) conquered the world. On Live at the Paramount you can feel this electricity in the air. It is both powerful and palpable.

I’ve seen Nirvana in concert just twice. Once at this show, and the other about a year later at the MTV Video Music Awards telecast in Los Angeles. But I most distinctly remember being at the Paramount in Seattle on October 31, 1991 — right along with the rest of the local record industry.

For guys like us, attendance at Nirvana’s triumphant return show was mandatory, like a bizarre combination of the social event of the year and some kind of industry wide meeting. Your presence was not an option. It was required. Nirvana’s big homecoming show is probably the last event of this type I can recall before the record industry eventually imploded.

What I also remember, though, is feeling like the only guy in the room who still didn’t quite get it yet. I mean, great punk rock band? Absolutely. But it just didn’t feel like the second coming in the same way it seemed to be to everyone else there. I’d already seen the saviors like Springsteen, and the “only bands that matter” like the Clash before. While Nirvana certainly combined some of the better elements of both, they just didn’t feel quite that “special” to me. At least not on the level they were being made out to be by everyone and their mother back then.

Of course, I didn’t dare voice this opinion out loud. Privately, I rationalized my mild indifference towards Nirvana by wondering to myself if I had become musically out of touch. Perhaps two years working with Sir Mix-A-Lot and the music coming from the “other Seattle” had insulated me too much from what was happening in the rest of town. Looking back on it now, at the time I think I just thought homegrown bands like Soundgarden and Mudhoney sounded better, and maybe even deserved it more. What I also know now, however, is that I was dead wrong.

Watching that same concert today on the Live at the Paramount DVD, I now see just what I missed, even though I was right there when it happened. As seen here, the electricity in the building for this show is pretty much off the charts. And although one still senses some reluctance to all this newfound attention from the band themselves, Nirvana rise to the occasion like the heirs to the rock and roll throne they had just become.

In terms of pure, over-the-top energy, the closest thing I could compare the performance on this DVD to is something like vintage Who, as heard on The Who Live at Leeds and seen on the Live at Isle of Wight 1970 DVD. Drummer Dave Grohl in particular turns in a frenzied show of Keith Moon-like drumming, all flailing hair and sweat as he pounds away at the skins like a man possessed on songs like “Lithium,” “Territorial Pissings” and “Aneurysm.”

Cobain mostly just stands there, with his now classic pose of low-slung axe and dirty blond hair covering his face. But the sounds he gets out of his guitar, though mostly cast in simple chord sequences transformed into thundering riffs, are astonishing to hear even now. Combined with Krist Novoselic’s pounding bass riffage, the prototype of punk rock power trio becomes an afterthought as Nirvana creates a racket that sounds like the product of a band with twice as many musicians. It’s one hell of a beautiful sounding noise.

The sound mix on Live at the Paramount also deserves singling out for praise though. Although most of this performance has previously surfaced on various bootlegs and now rare official releases like Nirvana Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, it has just never sounded this good.

The mix is as bright, edgy, and loud as the show itself. Cobain’s raspy, emotional vocals are balanced perfectly with his razor-like guitar shredding. Novoselic’s bass riffing rumbles the speakers just as it should, and Grohl’s chaotic wildman drumming is wisely mixed way out front. It can’t be stressed enough, this DVD should be played at the maximum level allowed by your TV speakers.

The video is not quite as good — you don’t get enough clear shots of Cobain for one thing (although there are ample opportunities for drummers of both the professional and air varieties to be hypnotized by Grohl here). But it does do an admirable job of capturing the electric atmosphere of what proved to be an unforgettable, historic night.

In my own case, it just took me a few decades to realize it.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Jordan Richardson

    Nice job, Glen. I appreciated reading your view from the inside of the movement. Well done.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Jordan…and it finally got wrote a day after our BC music scribe summit last night on facebook.

    -Glen

  • http://the-dirty-lowdown.blogspot.com/ The Dirty Lowdown

    Nice review and retrospective. I remember feeling the same way when it came out, at least at first. To me it was just another hard rock band, and I had pretty much given up on hard rock. Dungeons and Dragons and Warrior Kings, and fantasy to screaming guitars. then it hit me, they were singing and playing about “serious” things and no other hard rock bands were doing that then. then I gave “never Mind’ another listen and it grew on me. I think the fact that they wrote and sang serious topics in a hard rock way was more important than any individual song, and I also think that’s where the beatle comparisons came in. The Beatles had migrated to doing the same thing when rock n roll was ruled by hotrods, surfers, and puppy love the Beatles came out singing about The Taxman, etc…

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice work Glen. It was an amazing night, and I distincly remember wondering “Who are these rabid Nirvana fans?” It took me a minute to fully “get” the band also, but we had a wealth of great bands around here to choose from back then didn’t we?

    What really convinces me today is how I still go back and listen to Nevermind fairly regularly. It remains an essential album, and the cultural impact of it was unbelievable. Great article my friend.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Greg and Dirty. I knew they rocked and all that … itr just took me a minute, well, okay a decade or so, to fully get the impact thing. Thanx guys!

    -Glen

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Nice remembrance but…

    Why should old Beatles fans be annoyed that Generation X found their voice in music somewhere else? Boo hoo, Boomers. It’s not always about you.

    And it was more than street buzz that caused the album to rise up the charts. It was the non-stop playing on radio and MTV of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and even then, it took four months to unseat Michael Jackson.

    btw, if people think Coldplay is rock and roll, that might explain why the genre is on life support.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    As fan of both groups (the Beatles and Nirvana), I certainly don’t begrudge one over the other, nor the fanbases of each. That said, if some fans choose to insert Lennon’s name into any discussion about Cobain (which many do), then Beatles fans have every right to respond. The generation gap you take such pains to emphasize isn’t really the most relevant factor in that argument. Not by a long shot…

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    Glen – I agree with Bicho on the “Boo hoo Boomers” statement. Their sense of entitlement to the cultural stage is nauseating. In my mind it is what the “Conan vs Leno” brouhaha really boiled down to. But I digress.

    And never forget what Tom Leykis said about Coldplay. What was the word he used? Oh yeah, “p***ies”.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    That Leykis episode about Coldplay is a classic. That one and the one about going to a U2 concert and interviewing the only black guy there…never laughed so hard in my life.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I wonder what ever happened to Leykis…

  • Greg Barbrick

    Reduced to showing up at Gene Simmons’ wedding last I heard

  • http://cinemasentries.com El Bicho

    How does the generation gap not factor into it? I am guessing most of your folks and their friends didn’t get your music, did they?

    Don’t get me started on that Conan vs Leno mess. That was so ridiculous on all fronts, from NBC execs to hypocritical members of Team Coco.

    Would love to hear that Leykis bit. He’s got a weekend syndicated show about drinking and is supposed to be coming back in April when his CBS contract ends. He also seems to be invloved in some type of internet radio/podcasts on his blowmeuptom website

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Perhaps I’m to blame for bringing it up in the first place, but for me its a tired argument. That said, I’ll bite (at least part way).

    Both artists meant everything to their respective, and yes largely generational fan bases, and one shouldn’t be taken away from the other. But when Cobain’s fans keep bringing up Lennon (and it is usually them that do so), they miss a few really relevant points in my view. Lennon’s activism (along with other similarly engaged artists of his time) had repercussions that went far beyond music — including altering the political landscape of the time, and arguably contributing to the end of a very unpopular war.

    The battles he fought were real ones — including deportation and being placed on an “enemies list” by both the U.S. president and the director of the FBI. Cobain, on the other hand, seemed to want nothing to do with the position he was given, and eventually chose to check out altogether as a result.

    That’s not necessarily a slam on him as an artist (although you will never see me condoning suicide). But it does represent the difference between the two men in my view. Like it or not, Cobain’s suicide is as big a part of his legacy as his music, and all of the carping in the world about a “generation gap” doesn’t change that.

    Cobain’s cultural impact is undeniable though, and if you don’t think I addressed that in the article, you simply didn’t read it carefully enough.

    As for Coldplay, I cited them simply as one example of a band currently playing “rock” (as opposed to the disposable Bieber, Britney, Black Eyed Peas crap that sells the most records these days). I didn’t really state an opinion one way or the other because the article wasn’t really about them.

    But for the record, I do admit they are a bit of a guilty pleasure…which I guess makes me a P***y in the Tom Leykis universe. So be it.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I wouldn’t know squat about Conan and Leno. I’m a Kimmel guy.

    -Glen