by Jason McBeth
When LUNO’S Dan and Jen asked me if I’d be interested in contributing to their ‘Vinyl of the Month’ blog pieces, I knew right away what the first record I reviewed would be. “I wanna do ‘Nevermind’ first”, I said to Jen.
Having just marked its 25th anniversary, the release of Nirvana’s sophomore album “Nevermind” is now looked back upon as an unexpected culturally seismic event; almost singlehandedly credited with not only ushering in the grunge era but also smothering the excesses of the hair metal age under Kurt Cobain’s anguished wails. Filled with cynicism, angst, and a tense dichotomy of pop sensibility and punk anarchy, ‘Nevermind’ turned Nirvana into almost overnight superstars. And as I approach my 38th birthday, my introduction to the album remains the single most profound introductory experience with a band I’ve ever had.
In January of 1992, I was a precociously intelligent, emotionally raw, twelve-year old kid living in a ‘group home’ in Redlands, CA. Not only was I small for my age, I was also a year ahead grade-wise of my age group, which made me the smallest 8th grader at Moore Jr. High. I had recently run away from an extremely abusive foster home and was placed in this special home for boys with behavioral problems and was having considerable difficulty navigating both the institutional rigors of the home and the increasingly chaotic psychic waters of my burgeoning adolescence. Fights and violent outbursts were a regular occurrence. I was administered a seemingly endless cocktail of pharmaceuticals to help me keep my emotions in check. I was bewildered by what I saw as a surefire exercise in futility on the part of the adults charged with my care: that they’d taken a bunch of kids from extremely volatile backgrounds and lumped them together under one roof with underpaid and unqualified staff members to tend to them and then when the inevitable behavioral conflicts emerged, treated those kids as though there were something intrinsically wrong with them for behaving that way and responding by stuffing them psychoactive drugs, largely against their will. Looking back now, I see a correlation between my 12-year old self’s condemnation of the powers that were in charge of my upbringing and the kind of ‘I’m not crazy, the world is’ mindset that it fostered, and the society-at-large shunning cynicism of Nirvana.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” had been released late the previous year and was quickly accumulating a critical mass of both artistic and commercial success. Walking to school one day, a friend of mine approached me on the street excitedly and said I just had to listen to this new band. He threw his headphones over my head and pulled out an ‘L.A. Guns’ cassette tape. I knew of L.A. Guns and didn’t like them at all. I started to protest but he quickly re-assured me. “I taped over it,” he said, “this is a new band, they’re called ‘Nirvana.’. What I heard immediately astounded me. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt before from music. I had grown up on Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and Kool and the Gang from my foster parents, and from the older boys in my neighborhoods I’d been fed a steady diet of N.W.A., Too Short, and 2 Live Crew. My only real introduction to rock of any kind had been Guns ‘n Roses and I felt no connection to it at all. My connection to the music on ‘Nevermind’ was immediate and beyond a comprehension I could elucidate at the time. Long before I would understand most of the underlying social themes of the arrangement choices and Kurt’s lyrics, I simply FELT connected. The scratching guitar, violently pulsating drums, and Kurt’s feral wail were sonic representations of my psyche’s confusion and angst. It was like after years of being unable to explain to anyone the turbulent rhythms that were torturing your brainwaves, some stranger came along and not only validated your complaints but gave your symptoms names.
Listening to “Nevermind” all these years later on the LUNO console–two whiskey’s deep and a third swirling in my glass–several things stand out to me about the album. First, the ferocity, vitality, and immediacy is not dimmed after all these years (and the LUNO console delivers that shit in spades) yet it still also retains a good deal of unexpected enigma, both in the arrangements and the bleak opacity of some of Cobain’s lyricism.
The second thing was just how much Dave Grohl’s drumming shapes this album. Much has been written over the years about Cobain’s artful vacillations between hard/soft/hard tones in both his writing and delivery, but Grohl’s drumming proved equally adept at maneuvering between those lines and he structured his approach to suit each song, alternately unleashing hell or pulling back when necessary. The wild brutality of the percussion on songs like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Breed’ makes it easy to overlook the appropriate restraint on songs like ‘Something in the Way’ and especially ‘Come As You Are’, in which the drums allow that incredibly catchy bass line to serve as the emotional core for most of the song before really coming alive just before the bridge. Then there are moments when the drums dominate and propel the whole song, as in ‘Territorial Pissings’, in which Grohl enters with machine gun ferocity and provides a violent, psychic surge for two thirds of the song’s run time before pulling back a little to provide a deceptively soft cradle for Cobain’s dire, ironic warning: ‘Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.’ It’s pulse quickening in a way that is almost cinematic in its build and payoff, like a Hitchockian thriller. I remember reading a review somewhere years ago that said that Grohl ‘beat the drums like they owed him money’. It’s a vivid and memorable description but it doesn’t capture the artistry veiled beneath the rage. To me his drumming conjures up images of the shy, quietly sturdy kid who gets picked on by the school bully and proceeds to knock him out with a series of expertly delivered combo punches. Only afterwards do you find out he’s been training to box for year and years.
But back to that bass line on ‘Come As You Are’. The third thing that dawned on me from my LUNO experience with ‘Nevermind’ is that I cannot think of a single more instantly recognizable-and completely isolated- bass line intro in all of popular music than Novoselic’s on ‘Come As You Are’. Think about it. When one thinks of the most instantly recognizable bass line intros, there’s a handful of true standouts: The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’, Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and their Bowie collab ‘Under Pressure’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’, the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’, and Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ all come to mind but every one of those has some other musical accompaniment to its bass line intro. ‘Come As You Are’ opens with bass and bass only, and it is unmistakable and instantly recognizable. The only song I can think of that comes close is the Pixies’ ‘Debaser’ (which also seems like a spiritual forbear and probably influence on Novoselic’s bass line) but the Pixies song simply doesn’t have the cultural cache or reach of ‘Come As You Are.’ Recently, not long after I’d begun working on this article, Dave Grohl came into the restaurant where I was bartending and I shared that realization with him. He also couldn’t think of another isolated bass intro that matched ‘Come As You Are’ but did offer the interesting tidbit that on their previous album ‘Bleach’. Nirvana actually began the entire album with an isolated bass intro, on the track ‘Blew’. He was then quick to praise Novoselic, saying that he felt that Krist’s work was probably often overlooked because his great ability was to take the sometimes difficult trajectories of what Kurt had written and be able fit the bass line inside them in a way that helped give them structure but didn’t necessarily stand out, much like Ringo’s drum work for the Beatles.
That got me to thinking about Novoselic. If it’s possible to be unheralded when you’re one-third of a group that created a certified twice diamond album which came to define a generation’s angst and which Rolling Stone named the 17th greatest album of all time, then Krist Novoselic is pretty unheralded. While Cobain entered the tragic pantheon of rock gods too soon gone and Grohl went on to become one of the most successful and richest musicians of the last two decades, Novoselic, though continuing to continue various musical endeavors, became more entrenched in political activism and faded from the spotlight.
Cobain’s suicide in 1994 ensured that the trio of himself, Grohl, and Novoselic, would release only two full studio albums, “Nevermind” and its follow up “In Utero”.
25 years after its release, “Nevermind” is still the moving, maddening, sometimes infuriating and sometimes rapturous experience it was to that twelve year old kid walking down the sidewalk with wounded eyes and a storm throbbing in his head, wondering if there was anyone out there who could give a name to that aching.