Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Whatever, Nevermind

I dragged my ass writing this piece.

Each attempt ended in some cynical bit that tried to wash over how vital Nevermind was or it ended in some finger-pointing accusation, like it was the album’s fault that modern rock music doesn’t feel like it’s moved much from the record’s birth two decades ago.

And twenty-years ago feels like forever ago-you twenty-something will know this quicker than you think.

Everything seemed so black and white back then. You had those songs that you and your friends liked and then there were those songs that everyone else liked. The two never seemed to cross each other very much.

You heard songs on the radio and you understood that they were designed this way. The “design” was that there had to be some kind of pay-to-play provision to even get these songs on the radio. What else could be the reason why a song like Timmy T’s “One More Try” ended up at the top of the charts.

Surely, no one really bought these singles, did they?

For anyone who was noticing back then, you could see these “rules” change in the weeks following the release of Nevermind, and it’s an even that will probably never happen again in today’s fragmented and insolated musical platforms.

But I remember a time-perhaps naively-when it seemed like we won.

I don’t trust anyone who claims that they knew Nirvana would be huge after hearing Bleach. From what I remember after hearing it was how much more I liked Mudhoney.

I didn’t necessarily hate Bleach when it arrived at our university’s radio station, I just liked a bunch more records instead of it and my playlist during my evening shift at the station reflected it.

A couple of years later, the liberal playlist of the university station was traded for my first real full time job in the industry: a small-market top 40 station A half-year into the gig, I was promoted to the position of Music Director and given a raise of a dime an hour. I was told to mirror the charts of Radio & Records magazine, a trade publication and mirror our playlist of it. The guideline was that 10 of the songs should be from the top 10 of the A.O.R. charts, another 10 should be from the Top 40 charts, and the remaining 10 should come from the adult contemporary charts.

Since I was the station’s Music Director for only a few months, I followed the instructions pretty religiously I was more concerned with keeping that extra dime an hour than trying to lobby for up-and-coming hits that I personally liked.

Besides, there wasn’t a lot of appeal in my choices anyway.

One of the best parts of the position was that I was able to take a bunch of the promotional albums that we didn’t use and I’d trade them in for stuff that I wanted for myself.

About once a month, I’d take a bunch of stuff from the station and drive up to Iowa City to trade them in. I’d buy one disc for the station’s library to make it look legitimate, but make no mistake about it: these trips were designed primarily to fill out my own collection.

“Have you heard the new Nirvana album?” asked the record storeowner during a visit in September 1991.

Thanks to my experience with Bleach, I gave an ambivalent response.

That mood changed he put Nevermind into the store’s cd player. The opening chords-F.B.A.D.-a clever lift of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.”

By the end of “In Bloom,” my copy had already been secured.

In my excitement, I immediately played Nevermind for my girlfriend. I was disappointed that she didn’t see the brilliance of it immediately out of the shrink-wrap. Instead, her first reaction was to comment on the album artwork.

“That’s not very nice to his fans!” she declared after staring at one of the sleeve photographs.

It was the picture of the band, out of focus, with Kurt giving the lenses a middle finger.

She felt that his pose was a slight to potential fans, an additional “Fuck you!” to the demand “Here we are now, entertain us.”

Personally, I thought it was awesomely appropriate.

I played it for a friend at work and within days he brought his copy to work.

“That hidden track at the end is awesome!” he told me.

“What hidden track?” I asked.

My friend instructed me to wait a few minutes after “Something In The Way” and a hidden track would begin playing.

I did as instructed, but after the last song on my copy played, my cd player stopped.

There was no “secret track” on my disc.

I used a contact in my Rolodex at work to make a quick call to Geffen Records. My promotional representative revealed that about 50,000 copies of Nevermind were initially shipped without the “secret“ song, “Endless, Nameless.”

That meant my copy was one of the initial pressings while my co-worker’s copy was the one released after the first pressing ran out.

Sure, my copy was a little rarer, but I was bummed that I didn’t get “Endless, Nameless.”

My friend was right: it was awesome.

The Geffen contact also advised that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be released to Top 40 the following week.

By this time, MTV had some videos under a “Buzz Bin” distinction. Essentially, it was a select few videos that they began airing outside of their regular rotation, a spotlight of bands and songs starting to gain traction with the mainstream. It seemed that my little discovery was everyone’s little discovery, and most of those listeners who were quite content with what the mainstream was providing them were suddenly getting hip to this awesome anthem for the disenfranchised underground.

It transcended those early supporters, not so much because of the glossy Andy Wallace mix, but on the merits of the song’s power itself. Yet beyond this, I still didn’t think that it would be enough to pull the same audience that our own radio station catered to.

“Wouldn’t it be crazy if we added “Teen Spirit” to our playlist?” my friend suggested one day at work. I’d just gotten the “radio edit” of the song as my promotional guy warned me about.

For whatever reason, I never imagined that “Teen Spirit” would go beyond a Buzz Bin distinction, with a few daring rock stations adding it to their playlist. I thought that the song would be well received in larger markets, and I was envious that we couldn’t be a bit looser with our playlist.

At my station, the question “Will it play in Peoria?” was a legitimate one. And the last time I checked, Warrant just had a sold out show at an arena in Peoria.

The song leaped up the charts with the full-length not far behind in its trajectory.

I now had plenty of ammunition to add “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in case my Program Director questioned my decision. To be safe, I rigged it so that the song only played after 5:00 p.m.

In radio, they called this trick “lunar rotation.”

But we began receiving requests for “Teen Spirit” even during the waking hours, proving once again that the song was speaking more to just kids and young adults. It was turning into one of those generational touchstones, the kind that I’d read about in old Baby Boomer reviews and testimonials.

I was witnessing our generation’s own “Like A Rolling Stone,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand, and “Satisfaction.” There were moments before this when I considered such a modern equivalent existed, but nothing a definitive as Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” and Nevermind.

Cobain, through one selfish act managed to call that assuredness into question somewhat, but I think now that it merely rattled my faith in rock music than diminished the power that Nevermind has. By questioning the merit of that album, I was-in some weird passive/aggressive manner-trying to distract the admission that I related so much to Nevermind, as did a bunch of people who I probably not share much else in common with.

And by pretending to ignore this record’s importance was in itself a defense mechanism that tried to somehow erase the fact that Cobain’s death profoundly impacted me.

That’s a discussion for another time.

I will admit that, prior to his death, I attempted to collect as much as I could Nirvana related. My faith presented every import and rarity as something I needed to collect.

After his death, those purchases stopped-as did listening to Nirvana’s music. Aside from the occasional radio moments, I haven’t listened to Nirvana in quite some time. If it’s the 20th Anniversary of Nevermind, my guess is that it’s probably been at least 15 years since I listened to the album in its entirety.

I have no plans to acquire the newly minted deluxe editions that are being released in the same manner of major label greed that I’m certain Cobain detested. But that’s my decision, and I have no beef with anyone who wants to pursue this new packaging.

For many years, I wondered about the band’s Madison sessions. I wondered if there was anything to Andy Wallace’s extra sugar, or if it was all some kind of half-hearted attempt by Cobain to shift the blame on why all of those mainstream carpetbaggers suddenly found a connection with mantras like “I swear that I don’t have a gun.”

Yeah, I was curious. But not to the point where I felt that I needed to re-purchase Nevermind to get a glimpse behind the scenes. The was the end result-the same record that I bought twenty years ago this month-that changed my life back then.

I can’t expect that anything in addition to that record will change my mind, and I doubt if a re-issue, or any record for that matter, will be able to replace those original feelings.

Such a task is impossible today. And judging by the gamut of emotions that Nevermind has given me over the past two decades, I’m not so sure that I want a record to impact me in the same way ever again.

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