“Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on my daughter’s indie channel on Pandora this evening and, as she was just going to hit the button for the next track, I tried to explain the significance of the song, how it changed so much in so little time. I was left saying that is was more or less one of the biggest single factors in her father’s extended Career in Rock. She let the song play.
The song didn’t seem revolutionary to me the first time I heard it. On the contrary, it seemed like an okay, kinda fun merging of classic rock, like the band Boston, and the Pixies. But the impact became clear to me in a few isolated instances from that year. The week the song was breaking big, I was at Cambridge Music, which was fairly hip by guitar store standards, but only because the place was one of the few not manned by guys who looked like they had failed auditions for Dio or Warrant cover bands. But these guitar store dudes were astounded, jaws agape, as the clerk hit repeat on “Teen Spirit” multiple times. They tittered at the little Cobain guitar bends during the post-chorus stops, the ones where Kurt vocalizes the guitar lines like a grunge George Benson. They laughed like giddy rock ‘n’ rollers must have laughed when they heard the Beatles for the first time. It just seemed so simple and obvious. But they laughed nervously because they enjoyed it. They loved something so dumbed down.
That sounds like hyperbole and I know others have compared Nirvana to the Beatles. Of course, they were nothing of the sort. But like the Beatles, Nirvana was in tune with what their respective era called for. The kids needed Nirvana, who represented just the top of a volcano of the various strains that had been bubbling under since the early eighties post-punk, indie, college rock, whatever you want to call what SST, Homestead, Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Slash, and many other indie labels were pumping out. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, maybe even the Moving Targets from right here in Boston, all from the early-mid-1980s, arguably should have been the ones to break through, all writing brilliant songs, better overall than Nirvana’s as far as I was concerned. It’s true. I enjoy Burning in Water more than Nevermind. This is just a taste thing, a subjective judgement. I liked Nirvana a lot. I was happy the good guys were winning. But I got more from the preceding bands that they were building on. Kurt, Krist, and Dave would be the first to tell you that they stood on the shoulders of giants. Like all artists, all of us were building on traditions that preceded us.
Nirvana had the right song at the right time. Guys like these guitar store guys had seemingly never heard anything quite like it. They had been listening to classic rock, likely some Pat Metheney, Leo Kotke, and prog rock, no doubt. They probably listened at one point or another to some Clash and Ramones. But this song represented something significantly different for them. It astonished them like a shiny object. They hit repeat again.
Months before the single broke through, we were at Fort Apache studio, probably working on finishing up Let Me Come Over. Tom Maginnis, his drum parts finished, ditched an overdub session early to go catch Nirvana down at Axis (previously Spit). Tommy, a taciturn man not prone to exaggeration, returned to the studio the next day and just could just barely refrain from making a Jon Landau-like proclamation about seeing the future of rock ‘n’ roll. But it was clear that he had been witness to a cultural shift. Around the same time, right before the release of the Nevermind, we were in Europe. And at some venue in Italy, the promoter (in general Italians are more excitable than Tom) went on endlessly about how Nirvana had way sold out the club weeks before, a line of people shut out in the streets turning into a near riot, while those who had made it into the club were whipped up into a frenzy, a cappuccino-like froth. This I could believe, as I saw what li’l ol’ Buffalo Tom did to the young Italians. One young man seemingly wanted to husband my Marshall half stack. As he fumbled for the right words in English, gesturing madly, he exclaimed “M-M-MMARshall!” spittle flying from his lips.
“Teen Spirit” broke big. Huge. All of a sudden, anything in flannel with a Big Muff was signed to major label deals and in MTV’s Buzz Bin with $200,000 videos. We were just one band of beneficiaries. The song alone didn’t make our career, but the success of that single and the album Nevermind certainly helped usher us out from the dank and dark basements of CBGB, the Rat, and Gabe’s Oasis to slightly bigger and cleaner joints with functional indoor plumbing. It was no longer just about touring 90% of the time in Europe. And it extended our lifespan from a forgettable artistic pastime, a post-college lark, to a viable career that could make such things as appearing on “My So Called Life,” the “Jon Stewart Show” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” seem like sensible next steps for a band that had only just formed in a Northampton basement a few years prior, two thirds of the members learning their instruments on the fly. And we were even more direct recipients of Nirvana’s charity. While on tour, we stayed at Krist’s Seattle house while he himself was on the road. Within a year, we played at the same Reading Festival as them, along with Pavement, Public Enemy, Mudhoney, and some insane list of killer bands.
It’s funny, I had not given Nirvana much thought in years. But I had only just listened to the Dave Grohl interview on the excellent WTF podcast with Marc Maron this very morning. Grohl was talking about how this one Neve mixing console from Sound City studio (the subject of a compelling looking documentary he has directed) had been largely responsible for the sound of Nevermind, and subsequently, his amazing life trajectory that followed. Everything on the record and In Utero followed through on the promise of “Teen Spirit” and “Love Buzz” before it.
One wonders if another song could again have such a seismic effect on music and culture at large. Of course, some had thought rock ‘n’ roll was dead more than once by then. It had been considered a played-out passing teenie bopper fad before the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan had revived it. It was written off for dead again before 1976, as disco and soft rock rose to prominence. But then punk rock, which had been bubbling under since the VUs and Stooges came roaring back with guys like Strummer and Jones kicking open the doors. And then again, before Nirvana, we looked up to bands like REM, the Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen for bringing great music to a mass audience. Most of us actually rooted for the Replacements to break through. But for the most part, mainstream radio was as much a wasteland as it is now. The farthest the Replacements got was an opening slot for Tom Petty. The most we could realistically hope for was to get as big as Sonic Youth. It’s no accident that the Sonics were featured in The Year Punk Broke (a movie I still have not seen). Seemingly overnight in 1992 everything was different. And for a number of years, almost seven, I reckon, it seemed the world had caught up and been in sync for many of us who had always felt out of step.
The next song on my daughter’s Pandora this evening was from a band named Voxtrot. Called “The Start of Something,” it sounded exactly like the Smiths. Not just like the Smiths but specifically “This Charming Man.” As we looked at the very Smiths-like artwork on the Kindle, and played the Smiths’ tune to my surprised daughter, my wife and I giggled and felt old.