My brother just posted a video of Nirvana playing ‘Lithium’ live at Reading on Facebook. I stopped what I was doing and listened. When he posted it, he said that despite so much changing for him since he first started listening to Nevermind and trying to learn Dave Grohl’s drum parts, the songs and the feelings they evoked were the same now as they were four years ago.
For me, it’s been almost 10 years since I first heard Nirvana, after picking up their Greatest Hits CD in a shop (I believe it was Tesco) when I was with my mother, mainly because I liked the look of the ripped jeans on the back and because I think I’d heard my friend’s older brother mention them once or twice. I got that CD for Christmas a couple of weeks later and pretty much everything changed. I threw the disc into the CD player in the kitchen that morning, not having my own at that point as far as I know, and the opening notes of ‘You Know You’re Right’ came out. Those brittle little pickings above the nut, at once new and mysterious. Then a dour, white-groove verse before the distortion kicked in. “Never say a word again, I will crawl away for good”. It was different to anything I’d heard up to that point, different to anything I’ve heard since too I guess. Over the next three and half minutes or so, the noise must have had some effect on my mind. I don’t remember it all that well, like much of my childhood, but I’ve spent the past eight or nine years coming back to this feeling. Kurt’s voice breaks up all the time, there’s noise everywhere, words come at you from all sides for a while before it all cuts out and the half-dead, horribly extended “Pain” is left to scratch itself out over a bare drum beat. I played that CD over and over again for months. I can recall the track listing, in order, even though it’s probably been five or six years since I’ve looked at the CD. I remember walking into the sitting room on that night, exclaiming in surprise that Kurt wrote all the songs himself. This was new to me too. At this point, I had no idea who he was. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even find out he was dead (or how he died) until a couple of days later.
I’ve been thinking about this feeling a lot lately as I’ve been re-watching old videos and leaving the Live At Reading performance on a loop for hours at a time. Why exactly does Nirvana’s music resonate so much with me, both back then and today? Why has it meant so much, to so many people, for 20 years or more? I can’t really get too far with the second question, but I can go some way into exploring the first. I think it comes down to a couple of factors, the first being timing. Nirvana were the first cut for me, the first expression of the knowledge that everything wasn’t right with the world. I was 12 years old, beginning to feel those teenage sensations of displacement and disconnectedness that would colour the next decade or so of my life. It was noise in a quiet world I was beginning to feel ever more unhappy within. It was anger, channeled into something positive. I’d never really seen this before, never felt the anger that made it necessary before. As I grew up over the next few years, the ever-growing gap between myself and the people I found around me was, on one level, exacerbated by this anger but, on another, that terrifying solitude was soothed by knowing that someone, somewhere else, was raging against the same walls as I was.
Things, as my brother pointed out, are different now. Still, there is that feeling somewhere in the back of my head that I’m probably never going to shake. It’s this feeling that keeps me coming back to these same songs. I think what makes Nirvana’s music such an important facet of my life now is the mixture of comfort and rage that I now find in it. It’s comfortable because of how familiar each note is, every snare-roll and pedal-stomp is perfectly in the place it’s always been, exactly where I need it. There’s still that anger that hasn’t really dissipated in the intervening years, rather deepened and solidified somewhere inside me. It’s now a driving force for me, something that keeps me going when I feel disconnected or disaffected or powerless. Listening to a Nirvana song brings back that energy that I so desire to be filled with, all of the time. It’s that energy that will make my life better, maybe even make other people’s lives better. It’s positive energy. Even at its darkest, Nirvana’s music is a place to scream and get everything out of you. At its noisiest and filthiest and most fucked up, it is a place to hold nothing back, just bare everything and push that until something happens. Whatever it is, at least it’s not this, it’s not now. At its brightest, its most uplifting, their music is enough to propel you through a day or a week or a month, something to sing along to and while not caring about anything outside of the sound.
I live a life where music is pretty much everything; it takes up all my time, I earn my living from it, I make my friends through it, I see the world through it. Now, more than ever, I need that ability to see through the bullshit and the manipulation and the cannibalism that is so prescient in the music scene. This is where Nirvana’s music is the epitome of honesty to me, where even the most careerist of decisions can be balanced by the weight of sheer drive and personal investment in your art, whatever it is. Finding that drive in someone, finding it in myself, is what keeps me centered and keeps me going forward. The music that came out of those three men, for that brief time, showed me a way out when I was a kid and it’s showing me a way to live as an adult. That is something no other band will ever be able to do for me.