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Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Artist Overview: Nirvana
This week marks the 11th anniversary of the passing of Kurt Cobain. It seems as good a time as any for an Artist Overview for Nirvana, easily the singular most important alternative rock group in history.
There really is nothing to compare their sudden ascendancy to. Prior to Nevermind breaking, what we now call "alternative rock" was limited to independant record labels, and erratically distributed. While many indie bands of the 1980's found audiences, they remained, with few exceptions, cult phenomena. Nirvana exceeded all expectations, and seemingly overnight managed to raise the profile and commercial potential of alternative rock in general.
It was no overnight success story, though; Nirvana toiled in relative obscurity for years before they became the world's most reluctant superstars.
Nirvana's story began when guitarist/singer Kurt Cobain got together with bassist Chris Novoselic in 1985. Their home was Aberdeen, WA; a semi-rural nowhereville 100 miles from Seattle. Cobain in some respects was typical of a lot of kids his age; he came from a broken home, shuttled between relatives, finding his comfort and solace in rock music. His tastes were relatively eclectic despite his isolated surroundings; he developed a love of the indie rock of his teen years; the Meat Puppets, the Melvins (from Olympia, WA), heavy metal, punk. These influences were absorbed deeply and informed his developing guitar and vocal approaches. It also alienated him from the redneck logging community in Aberdeen.
The young Cobain started hanging out with the Melvins, and began playing in local punk bands with Dale Crover, the Melvin's bass player. Melvins leader Buzz Osborne introduced him to Novoselic; in Novoselic he found a partner with similar musical tastes. They formed a band called the Stiff Woodies, among many other names, with Cobain playing drums, Novoselic on bass, and a constantly changing lineup of guitarists and vocalists. Eventually, they evolved into Skid Row; Cobain moving to guitar and vocals, and Aaron Burkhart joining on drums. This lineup attained fleeting stability until late 1986 when Chad Channing replaced Burkhart on drums. The trio renamed itself Nirvana in early 1987.
Nirvana played gigs mainly around the Olympia area, and word-of-mouth spread. Producer Jack Endino took the band into the studio to cut some demos which he shopped over at Sub Pop records, a small but growing indie label in Seattle, which would eventually become the umbrella under which nearly every grunge band converged. Sub Pop liked what they heard, and signed the band. Their first single, "Love Buzz" (originally by Shocking Blue) was released in late 1988. Sub Pop marketed the band as hillbilly punks from redneck land, an image that infuriated Cobain, but nontheless proved an effective lure. The single generated some local buzz and paved the way for the band's first album.
Bleach, their debut, is famously the smartest $600 ever spent; that was the cost of the entire recording. The album came out in Spring, 1989, and was supported by extensive touring, often with the support of Jason Everman on guitar. Everman would later join Soundgarden.
Bleach is a murky album ($600 can only buy just so much) and it cannot be considered a true classic. But its best moments are great indeed; Cobain was still developing as a songwriter and vocalist, but songs like "About A Girl" and "Negative Creep" are major entries to the Nirvana songbook, and "Blew" is dense and aggressive. The band's sound, however murky the recording, is the real story here; it's post-punk alternarock with shades of powerpop and the backwater charm Sup Pop exploited, and it really was a sound all their own. Eventually, Nirvana would be labeled "grunge" but the term diminishes them; Nirvana never really set out to break new ground musically; they did by simply being who they were.
Sales of Bleach were slow but steady, and Nirvana began to gain a number of influential champions, among them Sonic Youth and Mudhoney. They were discovered by college radio, which latched on to the album, and the British music press began to tout them in England. In the end, Bleach sold tens of thousands of copies, which qualified it as a major hit in the indie world.
This was enough for the major labels to take notice; during the summer of 1989 the band was scouted by A&R reps, as it played some of the finest shows of its career. A new single was recorded with producer Butch Vig, "Sliver", featuring Dan Peters of Mudhoney behind the drums. As competition heated up among the labels courting Nirvana, a permanent drummer was finally found in Dave Grohl (ex-Scream). This trio clicked well, and ultimately signed with David Geffen's DGC label, which had been following the indie scene with interest, having just signed Sonic Youth.
Nevermind broke out beyond anyone's, including DGC and the band's, wildest expectations. An initial pressing of 50,000 was sold out quickly, and a European tour with Sonic Youth solidified their following overseas. The album's leadoff single "Sounds Like Teen Spirit" was one of the most aggressive songs to reach the top-10 in many a moon; it went into heavy rotation on MTV. Nevermind ultimately reached #1 in America and sold over 3,000,000 copies and reached the British top-10; never before had a former indie band come even close to such across-the-board numbers.
If Bleach was muddy, Nevermind is its polar opposite; Vig gets a crystalline sound from the band; every nuance is audible. While there are those who dislike this clarity (apparantly including the band themselves), in retrospect it's a good thing it exists, given the short body of work available. The titles need no introduction to anyone reading this; the now prophetic "Come As You Are", the paranoid "Lithium", the morose "Polly", and the resigned "On A Plain" showcase excellent songwriting from Cobain, and equally impressive playing from the entire trio. Their power is undeniable; even with the clean production, this is as heavy as any music released in the early 90's. It's also very tuneful.
This should have turned into a success story at this point. Newsweek covered the band; Kurt Cobain, against his very vocal wishes, was being promoted in the media as a new John Lennon, the voice of Generation X. Cobain, in particular, appeared ill-equipped to deal with stardom right from the start, and made no bones about it. He was an uncomfortable interview, he and the band would resort to self-sabotaging behavior on TV-- dressing in drag, refusing to lip-synch, they went for shock value as a subconscious or conscious effort to rid themselves of the enormous and growing audience they were suddenly confronted with.
The story took a complex turn in February 1992 when Cobain and Courtney Love, leader of indie band Hole, married. The couple were expecting their first child in the autumn; their erratic behavior during most of 1992 became fodder for the gossip press. Rumors started to circulate about heavy heroin usage by the couple; Nirvana cancelled a number of shows during the summer and did not launch a major tour. Cobain was briefly hospitalized in Belfast in June 1992, complaining of chronic stomach ailments, but the heroin rumors persisted. Vanity Fair magazine implied that Love was on heroin during her pregnancey, a charge she and Cobain vigorously denied. Upon the birth of their daughter, the couple was investigated by the Children's Services agency of Los Angeles, but were ultimately granted custody of the child in 1993.
By that point, nearly two years had passed since Nevermind was recorded, and the lack of any new recordings from the band started instigating breakup rumors. As a stopgap, DGC released a collection of singles and B-sides and assorted arcana, Insecticide at the end of 1992. Despite the lack of new material, it reached #14 in England, although in America it barely entered the top-40.
The band finally recorded their true followup to Nevermind in the spring of 1993. In what appeared to be both a conscious attempt to shed their audience, and a return to their indie roots, the band chose Steve Albini as producer. Albini had previously worked with the Pixies, Jesus Lizard (with whom Nirvana released a split-single in 1993 called "Oh The Guilt"), the Breeders, and others. In Utero was recorded in a hurry, over a two week period.
Cobain's behavior began to take even a more dramatic turn for the worse after the In Utero sessions. He apparantly suffered a heroin overdose in May, but the incident was kept from the press. Love called 911 after Cobain threatened suicide from behind a locked bathroom door. Meanwhile, Newsweek reported that DGC was unhappy with the In Utero tapes. Calling the band's bluff, the label accused them of deliberate sabotage by recording purposefully uncommercial music.
Nirvana didn't re-record the album, but did bring in R.E.M.'s producer Scott Litt for a remaster. Remarkably, both DGC's fears were unfounded and Nirvana's plans foiled, depending how you look at it. The album topped the U.S. and U.K. charts despite the dark, uncompromising sounds it contained, and garnered a fair share of praise from the music press, who are usually quick to shoot down bands that have grown so big so fast. While it ultimately fell short of the sales standard Nevermind had set, by all measures, the album was a success.
In Utero is indeed the polar opposite of Nevermind; the opposite side of the same coin. Cobain's lyrics take on a frightening, nightmarish quality, and are vivid in their wordplay. The sound is a return to the murkier aspects of their debut, but avoids sinking into sludge; the murk here serves to amplify the songs and starkness of lyric. "Heart Shaped Box" is a fever dream gone gangrenous; "All Apologies" is a stark, sad, apologetic surrender that serves as Cobain's epitaph. It never was an easy listen, and Cobain's death makes it even more painful to hear now, but despite any intentions the band might have had to lose the teenyboppers, they didn't do it by slacking on the material. The songs are dense, and reward close listening.
A tour with Pat Smear (ex-Germs) in support went on, without major incident, although sales were a little sluggish compared with earlier tours. An appearance on MTV Unplugged aired in December 1993, which gave In Utero an additional boost at the cash register.
MTV Unplugged now stands as a really heartbreaking record. Spare and simple, with Cobain sticking mainly to acoustic guitar, it is both the easiest listen of the band's career and the hardest. The song selection is great, featuring the best moments of their three albums (minus "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Heart Shaped Box") plus some Meat Puppets and Melvins covers, and even (perhaps revealingly) a Leadbelly song. What the arrangements lack in power they gain in the sophistication of the arrangements; even as Cobain's obsessions were turning towards ending it all, he was still developing as a performer. In fact, the album sounds like the band on the verge of discovering a new style; one that displayed some hints of the rural background Cobain didn't like to admit, one displaying new inticacies and subtleties their noisefests couldn't convey. Where they would have gone from here, if anywhere, is anyone's guess.
The band played a few American dates in early 1994, and then embarked on a European tour in February. On March 4, 1994, Cobain, who was travelling with Love, attempted to end his life by washing down a handful of tranquilizers with champagne. The attempt failed; Cobain regained consciousness in the hospital. The incident was reported as an accident, but serious fears were aroused that Cobain's problems were far deeper rooted than anyone had previously realized.
The remaining concert dates were cancelled, and Cobain and Love returned to Seattle. The last month of Cobain's life was a harrowing one; he had become unreachable and bent on self-destruction. On March 18, 1994, police had to talk Cobain out of suicide once again. Love and Nirvana attempted to intervene, and Cobain was sent to a rehab clinic in Los Angeles. He escaped from the clinic 2 days later and returned to Seattle.
Sometime during April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain, who had found himself thrust in a spotlight he never really wanted or liked, settled the issue once and for all by firing a shotgun into his head. His body was found three days later by an electrician who was installing a burglar alarm.
He left behind his daughter, 4-year old Francis Bean, and his wife, Courtney Love (whose best album, Live Through This, was released the same week, and had the unintended ghostly presence of Cobain hovering all over it).
Dave Grohl went on to continued success with his new band, Foo Fighters. Novoselic has kept busy on a number of projects, forming his own band Sweet 75, and working with Jello Biafra, among other work. MTV Unplugged, which was never slated to be an album, was released as such just before Christmas 1994 and topped the American and British charts. It stands now as a very sad epitaph, as Cobain's self-effacing humor takes on profound dimensions in the wake of what transpired 4 months later.
In 1996, a live testament to the electric Nirvana, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was released and also sold briskly. These six albums, three studio ones, two live, and the odds and sods collection are the bulk of Nirvana's work; they all remain indispensibile in their own way. The loss to the music world was profound when Cobain died; what's remarkable is how much he and the band achieved in their short span. Without Nirvana, the musical landscape today might very well be unrecognizable.
Watch Nirvana: Oh Me [MTV Unplugged] (1993)