Nirvana has struck a chord. It may be out of tune, but it's universal. It is loud, sweaty and rings to the furthest reaches of the room.
By Katherine Turman
Itís been a while since a major-label debut has aurally stimulated so many diverse ears. And so quickly. For their part, the Seattle-based trio find it kinda funny. Like they do a lot of things.
"Itís becoming a bit exaggerated," says soft-spoken lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain of the bandís buzz. "Iím looking forward to some backlash, at least in criticism, because thereís so much anticipation, so much encouragement by our friends and label, that Iím afraid."
"People have called our record perfect," adds bassist Chris Novoselic. "Thatís bad."
Nirvana was born in 1987, when Cobain and Novoselic met through Cobainís older brother. They lived in Aberdeen, a Washington city with about 18,000 inhabitants, many of whom wear "logger-type attire - big, flared, high-water pants; suspenders; and Pendletons," according to Novoselic. (Itís not a fashion statement; itís a logging community.) Though Nirvanaís record-company biography claims they enjoy collaborating on burl clocks and other such woodsy enterprises, the bandmembers, like their music, are a mass of contradictions bound together with a laid-back, careless, yet thoughtful, politically correct vibe. Thereís a purity here, an innocence, a translation of raw emotion into music seemingly unhampered by record-label stipulations or concerns about airplay and image. Those seeds were sown on two of the bandís Sub Pop releases, 1987ís Bleach and the live EP, Blew.
Though the music is the beginning and the end for Nirvana, music for musicís sake still doesnít preclude serious thought. Sort of. "Kurt and I get down and have these philosophical discussions about society and peopleís behavior. Weíre like laymen philosophers. Pothead philosophers," explains Novoselic. "We dissect peopleís trips. I think it comes pretty natural to us."
And people have strange trips, if Nirvanaís songs speak the truth. Nirvana is kind of like a skewed garage version of Twin Peaks - one not cast by Hollywood. "Polly," for example, is written from the point of view of a sadomasochist. "If I say ĎIí in a song, it doesnít necessarily mean Kurt," clarifies the lyricist. "Itís definitely an anti-rape song, but I threw a few twists in. Actually, the story is about a rapist and a girl who is picked up by the rapist. The girl is a sadomasochist, so she played along with him while he was trying to rape her, and eventually escaped because of that."
Kurtís got a literary bent, and jokes that he likes "anything that starts with a B. I think I like Burroughs best, and Iím into Bukowski and Beckett." Heís a fan of William Burroughsí dense style, and admires the "cut-up" writing technique he pioneered in the Ď40s, calling it revolutionary.
Is anything Nirvana does revolutionary?
Heís quick with a response. "Absolutely not! Thatís not a goal."
"Just to keep writing good songs. Anything else that comes with it is secondary."
Typical of Nirvanaís musical approach, Cobain, 24, plowed headlong into rock Ďní roll. He started out as a punk fan, learning about its heyday via the old Creem magazine. "When Nirvana formed, I had been playing for about four years, by myself in my room. I was writing my version of what I thought punk rock was, because I hadnít heard it yet," he recalls. "When I first started, like in seventh grade, I was heavily into Led Zeppelin. It eventually turned into what I thought was my own style, but it turned out to be punk rock."
Though Nirvana's 12-song spew is certainly as punk in attitude as a major-label release has gotten lately, itís inevitable that MTV, commercialism and the like will affect Nirvana. Itís possible Cobain may become, gasp!, a role model. Would he make a good one? "Oh, definitely not. Musically maybe, but not as a person. No one deserves that title. I think what most people can get out of our lyrics is that Iím just as frustrated and confused as anyone else, so it helps break down the rock-star barriers."
Perhaps Novoselic would be a better one to emulate? Nah. "Iíve been targeted as the hippie of the band," says the 67", 26-year-old bassist. "Iím vegetarian, have Eastern-type decor in the house," and he "does stuff like going down to the quarry not wearing anything." Heís also, apparently, a fan of righteous buds. "An acre of hemp can make more paper than an acre of trees," he says, waxing rapturous. "Pot for fuel, food and fiber. You can run a diesel engine off hemp-seed fiber. It burns a lot cleaner. Even the word marijuana - in the Ď30s, when they were outlawing it, the Feds came up with the word marijuana, Ďcause itís such an evil, foreign, Spanish - sounding word, whereas before it was always called hemp here."
Nirvanaís sure to be topping all sorts of charts, but Novoselic is pretty jazzed by the fact that they were on High Timesí "Pot 100," along with folks like Mudhoney and Metallica. If Cobain and Novoselic are the pothead philosophers, the newest member, drummer Dave Grohl, is the outgoing, wacky one of the unholy trinity. A veteran of the Seattle-based band Scream, heís found the, well, chemistry, he likes in Nirvana. "Three-pieces are really cool," he enthuses. "Itís really simple. It leaves a lot of room for each of us to be as loud and obnoxious as possible. Thereís no lead breaks or drum solos or any of that shit."
At 22, heís the youngest member, but Grohl is as grounded as the others when it comes to the band and the music business. "Anyone who thinks they can be in a rock Ďní roll band forever is full of shit. Itís time to get their head straight and realize there is life after the Scorpions. Iím only 22, and Iím still planning on going back to school and possibly getting a life someday."
This is not a life?
"This is not a life; this is the life, man. People envy me," he says, laughing wickedly. "Nah," he continues, returning to what passes for normalcy. "Ifs really fun, but whatever."
Itís a sure bet he wonít be returning to his old job. ĎTower Records was hell on Earth. I might as well have just blown my head off and gone straight to hell," he rails. "Theyíre really bad to their employees. Really bad. Itís pretty much, ĎWell, I have this haircut; where can I get a job?í So everyone goes to Tower. We did an in-store there, and I told people I used to work there. They go, ĎIt sucked, didnít it?í"
Thereís always school. "I would like to go back and learn something. I dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to tour with a band, Scream. Itís been so long since I sat down and actually learned anything. Iím more of a shit-talker. Iíd rather run my mouth than read a book."
Like his bandmates, Grohl was initiated into punk somewhat circuitously, through a family visit to a cousin in Evanston, Illinois. "My cousin, Tracy, was two or three years older than me. We arrived, and my aunt Sherry says, ĎTracy, theyíre here. Come downstairs.í I hear this Ďchink, chink, chink,í coming down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs I see she has chains on and bondage pants and combat boots. I was like, ĎOh, sheís punk.í I was totally converted. I owe it all to Tracy; Tracy Bradford."
That sort of haphazard, back-door, mellow approach to life serves the band well. Nirvana is democratic, with decisions "usually made, ĎOkay, letís do this,í in under 15 minutes." The albumís title, Nevermind, and the cover, a naked baby boy floating underwater toward a hook with money on it, were fairly easy decisions for Nirvana. But donít ask whose baby is floating so serenely across their album. They donít know. "The whole thing started with Kurt and I watching TV. We saw a special on women giving birth underwater, and there were these images of babies floating by the camera, squirming by, and it was hilarious."
Kicked-back, yep; humorous, totally; but Nirvana does give more than a passing thought to important issues. "No one, especially people our age, wants to address important issues," Cobain says, explaining the discís title. "Theyíd rather say, ĎNever mind, forget it.í "The song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" addresses that subject, as does, in a way, "Territorial Pissings," which Cobain sees as "an homage to the female gender - not sexually, just as people hoping theyíll someday get the recognition they deserve. Theyíre obviously less violent and more compassionate, and they understand passion. In fact, Iím recording an album with my ex-girlfriend, whoís in a band called Bikini Kill. In different ways I get more out of this kind of collaboration than I do out of this band. Iím all for all-girl bands. The female revolution is on the way." Putting their money where their mouths are, Nirvana played a pro-choice benefit in Los Angeles, which sold out instantly.
So itís time for the inevitable question. What is nirvana to Nirvana? Is it heaven? For his part, Cobain believes in "total peace after death. I think heaven would have to be total peace. I think probably the closest thing on Earth we can find to life after death is a hit of nitrous oxide. I was working as a janitor a few years ago, and we cleaned dentistsí offices. Weíd clean the offices really fast, and then turn off the lights and sit down with the nitrous and have an experience." He may have lost a few brain cells, but in the music biz, he ainít alone. "You can almost hear them popping away," he relates, "like pouring a bowl of Rice Krispies."
Nirvana might actually be the little unexplainable, everyday things that we so often miss - like why certain music can take you to a different place, a place of freedom and bliss. For Grohl, a brief nirvanic experience occurred on their recent club tour, which was done with a van and trailer. "Itís the first van Iíve ever been in that had automatic window-roller-downer things," he says, semi-amazed. "Itís pretty crazy, rolling down an electric window and hearing your song on the radio. Life doesnít get much better."
Now, thatís Nirvana.