Not too long ago, I heard about the new super deluxe 20th anniversary edition of Nirvana's Nevermind
, which includes "four CDs and one DVD, with previously unreleased tracks, rarities, B-sides, alternate mixes, rare live recordings, and BBC radio appearances." I do hope the record company paid a famous critic or aging punk rocker with pretentious literary aspirations to write some thickly arcane and occasionally revelatory liner notes, which by the way, were once one of my treasured literary genres. Unfortunately, real printed liner notes have gone nearly extinct. (Who downloads them? I don't even download.)
Supposing there are liner notes in the super deluxe edition, I would relish reading them, but I live in a rural area where record stores went extinct, too, and I hate buying music online. Actually, I have never bought music online. So I guess as far as liner notes go for one of the most important albums of my life, I'll just write my own:
Cut to 1989: Portland was cheap. I was a high school social studies teacher living in a spacious $350-a-month, two bedroom apartment (with balcony and a yard!) in the Belmont neighborhood. It was the good gray time in Portland, before the invasion of irony and long conversations about beer in dive taverns. I could afford to drink cheap Pacific Northwest lagers then still brewed in the Pacific Northwest by union men, and watch band after band and contract hangover after hangover in the exquisitely seedy rock club Satyricon, (don't go there, it's not there anymore) waiting for a sonic Red Sea to wash away all the leather-clad hair metalers. I remember seeing Nirvana at least a half-dozen times and thinking, well... nothing. I never once had any interaction with the band or their various hangers on, or with anything connected to the burgeoning scene at the time. I just went there to get drunk, listen to loud rock and roll, and throw glasses against the wall.
That is until I borrowed Nirvana's first album, Bleach, from a student. After a few plays I felt struck by the lyrics. I could never discern the band's words live but on record they seared. There was something there after all.
Cut to late 1991: I turned on MTV and there was Nirvana and the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video with the strung out cheerleaders and the kids definitely not all right. I immediately bought the album. When I heard "Lithium" for the first time, with its golden line, "I'm so horny, that's okay, my will is good," I knew Deliverance had come ? hair metal had been slain, and it was never coming back unless in the form of extreme irony.
Cut to six months later: Nirvana was huge. I was chaperoning the 1992 Beaverton High School prom, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came on at an airport tarmac decibel level. The Beavers started crowd surfing and slam dancing. I did nothing but stand back and watch while other, braver teachers tried to break up the melee. They partially succeeded. Damage to the Masonic Temple totaled several thousand dollars.
Cut to 1993: I was teaching English in Turkey and walked into an Istanbul club with my Turkish girlfriend. A Nirvana cover band was tearing through "Breed." It seemed every Turk in the club that night knew every word to every Nirvana song. My girlfriend ripped off her Oxford, revealed a black bra, brawled her way down into the pit, proceeded to lose all alleged Muslim inhibition, and demonstrated exactly why Al Qaeda will never win in that part of the world.
Cut to spring 1994: I was teaching at Hillsboro High School and walking to class when suddenly the news hit that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. A pall quickly formed in the hallway like a low-hanging fog. Several students wept on the ground and some just walked right off campus. Cobain was 27, and I had just turned 30.
Cut to winter 1994: I was drinking wine at a suburban Portland Christmas party. Women wore sweaters with reindeer embroidered on them. Nirvana's newly released Unplugged in New York CD played in the background. The wine sucked, so did the banal talk about UO football. They were making a run to the roses and I didn't give a shit. I asked a few of the reindeer and discovered ? none of them had ever seen the band live. And they thought Kurt was such a pig for leaving behind a baby daughter.
Cut to May 2002: I hadn't listened to Nirvana for eight years. I had long since sold my vinyl copy of Nevermind. In a concourse at the Portland airport I noticed a pencil drawing titled "Teen Spirit" in a show called "Art in Oregon Schools." The artist was a student from Enterprise named Chase Nebel. His piece of art ? a portrait of Kurt Cobain.
Back home, I immediately bought Nevermind on CD, used, and loaded it into my truck's disc changer. Track one came on very loud. It nearly blew me out of the cab.
Nirvana, the black firstperson narratives, the lilting verses, the distorted choruses, the superb melodies. The sheer primal nature of everything in every song. Nothing ruins this music. Not Courtney's gold-digging publishing of Kurt's journals. Not Gus Van Zandt's terrible Last Days. Not the dubious strip mining of Nirvana for more lost tracks. Not even Dave Grohl's recent, odd attempt to come to terms (musically?) with Kurt's destruction right in front of him. This is simply a great rock and roll album, born in the rain and pain of the Pacific Northwest.
And finally, cut to June 2011, Newport High School: For the past two years, I've hosted an open mic event called the Friday Lunch Jam every Friday at noon in my classroom. Students play all manner of rock, metal, pop, techno, country, and solo, in duets, as full fledged bands, whatever. One never knows what to expect, and sometimes I even get to act out my rock and roll fantasies. Typically, over 100 kids pack a room with a maximum occupancy of 54 and the temperature often pushes 90 degrees. On the very last Jam of the year, a band called Erica Redman and the Flakes of Freshmen tore into their interpretation of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and shocked me with their passion for the song. I hadn't heard the track live in over two decades and the band nearly detonated the room with the performance. As I screamed encouragement during the song, I sort of think Kurt would have loved seeing his anthem shake the walls of a grimy high school classroom in a rainy Pacific Northwest town not unlike Aberdeen, where he grew up marginalized and disaffected. (See the Flakes' stellar show for yourself here)
To this day, Cobain's lyrics, to quote "Aneurysm," help, "beat me out of me." I especially connect to that song, which is my favorite Nirvana track, and it appears on about a fifth of the 500 mix tapes I've made since 1984 (still making them too). "Beat me out of me" isn't the same as "hide your love away" or "can't get no satisfaction" or "welcome to the jungle" or rapping about fine Cognac and silky bitches. But for me, and I suspect many others, "beat me out of me" is much more relevant. I think I might even engrave that immortal line on my headstone.