Like many teenagers growing up in Washington State, I was obsessed with Nirvana. They were my first experience with music. I was late to the game though. Kurt Cobain had already killed himself, the band was two or three years gone, and yet it felt so close. I learned about when the band was formed, when Kurt Cobain’s birthday was (I still remember), when Cobain killed himself, when each album came out, etc. Now it’s all information that I keep stored without even realizing it. If only my memory held other things that well.
Years later, Nirvana still seems to encapsulate those confusing and painful years of puberty that I remember (unfortunately) so vividly. The angsty-teenage years. I still think it’s funny that I stole my first copy of Nevermind from a Fred Meyer while skipping school. I couldn’t wait to get home and listen to the whole album, as opposed to the handful of songs I’d hear on the radio from time to time. I couldn’t get enough. I listened to their albums over and over again on a leftover Discman that either my brother or sister had left when they moved out. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music at home, so I was limited to a pair of dorky headphones. It was great. It may have been that I was in love with doing something that I knew I wasn’t supposed to do, but I was having a great time regardless. The music was loud and rebellious. The guitar wasn’t that advanced, the songs were easy to learn how to play on guitar, and there seemed to be nothing fake about it. It was just loud, raw, pure aggression that I wasn’t able to express myself, at least not at home. It felt good to listen to someone else express it freely.
Eventually I stole yet another Nirvana album, this one was a live album, MTV Unplugged in New York. I didn’t know what to expect from it. I’d never seen it on TV, and didn’t remember hearing it on the radio. They may have played a few songs on the radio from it, but Seattle radio stations were more about playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on repeat at the time. It was a song that I’d gotten sicker of after I learned that the band didn’t like it that much, so I had to pretend that I also didn’t like it. Anyway, I put Unplugged on expecting acoustic versions of maybe “Lithium” or “Heart-shaped Box.” But what I got was a live performance that was mostly covers of songs I’d never heard before. I’m still embarrassed at how long it took me to learn what a cover was. The album was soft. It wasn’t loud. They didn’t smash their instruments together. They didn’t really play their big hits at all. It had this weird, almost Western, sound to it. It was not what I was expecting. It sounded so mature, like someone who has just found his place in the world. Finally accepting who they are. It felt like some weird way of receiving valuable life advice from a close friend.
Sadly, I don’t much listen to Nirvana anymore. At least not Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide, or In Utero. I’m just not that angsty anymore. I’m happy to say that I no longer relate to them. But I still find myself listening to Unplugged every few months or so. It reminds me that I’ve matured and come into my own. I’ve broken free of adolescence and have established myself in a world that actually is as scary and hostile as I thought it would be when I was a kid.
Today marks twenty years since Kurt Cobain ended his own life and subsequently ended Nirvana.
There’s probably some significance in the fact that my favorite Nirvana song isn’t a Nirvana song at all, but I don’t know what it is.