Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I’m bored and old
“Serve the Servants” – Nirvana (In Utero)
I’ve been on a nostalgia kick lately and I’ve dragged my kids along thanks to a curated Nirvana station on Pandora. My oldest, Sammy, routinely requests “Peaches” by Presidents of the United States of America, though it’s usually because he wants to fight like the ninjas at the end of the music video. But that was 1995.
NPR has a series of articles they run every few months asking “XX Years Later: Was YEAR The Greatest Year In Music?” Last month it was 1993’s turn, and the answer is: Yes, 1993 was the greatest year in music.
Was 1993 the greatest year in music? Ask that question to someone who was in high school or college that year, and the answer might be yes. To those of you now in your late 30s and early 40s, grunge is your classic rock, and Snoop Dogg’s Doggstyle and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), are your go-to hip-hop classics. That year also saw the release of some watershed debuts including Exile In Guyville by Liz Phair, Tuesday Night Music Club by Sheryl Crow, August and Everything After by Counting Crows, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, and Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) from Digable Planets. Alt-rock was still hanging on as the flavor of the moment with The Breeders’ Last Splash, In Utero by Nirvana, Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and U2’s Zooropa.
For my tastes at the time it was the alternative rock and grunge music that stood out. Not that I was angsty. Not really. Just in the “I’m such a moody 14 year old” kinda way that makes adults roll their eyes.
The Fall of 1993 was peak grunge with the release of Nirvana’s “In Utero” and Pearl Jam’s “Vs.” within weeks of each other and the chart just chock full Seattle based and derivative acts. Washington Post has a fascinating oral history of the time, including the probably overblown “rivalry” between Nirvana and Pearl Jam:
Thayil: There’s definitely different ways that a band like Pearl Jam managed their success compared to how Nirvana did. What came out of that was our understanding of how well Pearl Jam managed their situation, to keep it within the bounds of where they would like to be in their career, to not let things get ahead of them, or let the situation become unmanageable.
Steve Turner (guitarist, Mudhoney): [Nirvana was] already kind of struggling when we toured with them. There didn’t seem to be anybody in charge. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of communication between management, band and the important people involved. It just seemed like it was kind of happening, regardless of what the guys wanted.
When we went on tour with Pearl Jam, it was kind of night and day. Pearl Jam was really organized and really friendly and fun, and they were really stoked with what was going on, and they surrounded themselves with good people. It made me look at the Nirvana thing even more like, “Man, it’s a shame they can’t get their [act] together like Pearl Jam.”
Billig Rich: Everybody thought they were like, against each other, and there was negativity, and that’s so not the case at all. They were all cut from the same cloth.
Novoselic: I don’t know if there was a rivalry. We just kind of did our own things.
Cobain subtly subverted the format, which usually featured acts playing stripped-down versions of their hits, by filling the set list with cover songs. He also invited two of his musical heroes, Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the little-known Meat Puppets. The lead singer even helped design the set, asking for it to be decorated with stargazer lilies and black candles.
The room’s haunting vibe later led the event to be described as sorrowful, but despite Cobain’s well-documented struggles at the time, the evening was far from dour. As the show progressed, those in attendance began to realize that what they were watching would become legendary.
“You knew for sure that history was being made,” said former MTV executive Amy Finnerty, who worked closely with Nirvana. “No doubt about it. You’re lucky if you get to be at something like that once in your lifetime.”
The whole The Ringer piece is worth a read: how the show came together, the anxiousness, and the moments where Kurt Cobain opened up in ways not typically seen in his performances, the emotion throughout, especially in the close with their cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” by Lead Belly.
In the words of Amy Finnerty, a former MTV Executive, on the pause in the end: “The breath in between the breath. He made time stop. Time just stopped.”
Novoselic: 1991 to 1994, for me personally, what was that, three years, but it seems like a 10-year span, because there was so much going on, and then it ended in a disaster. I think of 1993, and I was in this bubble.
Six months after recording Unplugged Kurt Cobain would commit suicide at the age of 27.
One last Nirvana related read, Thomas Beller chronicled his 2 year old’s introduction to Nirvana in The New Yorker and how he got his kid through what can be some scary music:
Nirvana’s music, in its anguish and energy, is scary. “Nevermind” is scary. But the break in “Drain You” is especially scary. I either had to turn it off or find a way to make this work. I didn’t want to turn it off. Instead, I turned it down an infinitesimal amount and addressed my son’s concerns.
“Alexander,” I said, bending over to talk near his face. “This is the part where they are in the swamp. The water is dark and murky, and the trees are low. They’re walking through the wet mud in the dark underbrush of the swamp.”
He looked at me with wide eyes. The colored lights added to the discotheque-meets-haunted-house mood. I worried that he would have nightmares, and that I would rue the night I played “Drain You.” People would shake their heads and say, “What were you thinking?”
My four-year-old Sammy loves music. Whether dancing, banging on instruments, or just listening in the car, this kiddo will sit and focus and imitate and ask questions about new words or sayings or even the emotions of the singer, a level of depth that continues to fascinate me.
When he first heard “Serve the Servants,” the opener on In Utero, he started with the close listen and about half way through started with the questions:
Sammy: “Who is that?”
Nirvana, buddy. That’s Kurt Cobain singing.
Sammy: “He doesn’t sound angry, he sounds sad.”
You have no idea, kiddo.