Nirvana is easily the most mythologized rock band of the last 30 years. Even casual music fans can recite the CliffsNotes version of why Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl are important. From igniting a mainstream rock scene that had been awash in hairspray and hokum for the better part of a decade and influencing virtually every major rock band that followed them in the ’90s, to Cobain’s emergence as the ballyhooed “Voice of a Generation”—we all know why Nirvana is Nirvana. And we all know that Nirvana became Nirvana in 1991, with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that summer and, on Sept. 24, the release of their sophomore album, Nevermind.
Of course, Nirvana had made their debut years before.
But in hindsight, it’s not hard to see why Nevermind and “Teen Spirit” caught hold the way they did. The polish of Butch Vig’s production deserves much of the credit for the commercial appeal of Nevermind, as does Dave Grohl’s powerful drumming. On Bleach, not only was Cobain’s writing not quite fully-formed, but it lacked the punch that Grohl’s fury provided the band—the perfect complement to Novoselic’s deceptively fluid bass-playing. But it was Cobain at the center of the band’s orbit, the Pixies and Riot grrl-loving outsider who wrote songs with Germs dirt married to Beatles melodies; who had teen idol looks that were ready-made for MTV, but also who carried enough alienated angst to be believable as a social misfit. It all came crashing together during those sessions for Nirvana’s second album.
Dave Grohl’s addition gave the band a musical cohesion that Bleach had lacked, serving as the spark for the band going forward. He’d replaced Chad Channing after Kurt heard him play in the hardcore band Scream in 1990.
“Kurt was kind of a drummer himself,” Grohl said during a Q&A with Rolling Stone in 2001. “When he would play guitar or write songs, if you ever looked at his jaw, he would be moving his jaw back and forth, like he was playing the drums with his teeth. He heard in his head what he wanted from a rhythm, and that’s a hard thing to articulate. I think one of the reasons they wanted me was that I sang backup vocals. I don’t remember them saying, ‘You’re in the band.’ We just continued.”
The new sessions were initially for an album that was expected to be released on the legendary Sub Pop label, as Bleach had been. With a working title of Sheep, Cobain, Novoselic, and new drummer Grohl journeyed to Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, to record with Vig—who’d been suggested by Sub Pop as an ideal producer for the band’s follow-up. They recorded several songs at Smart Studios with Vig, but the band was going through a transition. The finished recordings became a demo that Nirvana used to get off of Sub Pop. They eventually landed a major label deal with David Geffen’s DGC imprint. Despite DGC seeking a new producer for the album, Nirvana insisted on Vig; and they resumed recordings for what would become Nevermind at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California.
“It’s OK to eat fish—’cuz they don’t have any feelings…”
Cobain’s writing is the obvious star of Nevermind. The tortured rocker was an unrepentant melodist in a scene that didn’t really worship the Beatles or any kind of pop music. But Cobain was a pop lover in a punk context.
“Kurt used to say that music comes first and lyrics come second,” said Grohl during an appearance on VH1’s Classic Albums back in 2004. “I think Kurt’s main focus was melody.”
Cobain’s famously abstract approach to lyricism never seemed too tossed-off or incidental. His words throughout Nevermind are piercing and evocative—even when they are anything but on the nose. Reflecting on “Come As You Are,” Novoselic admired the way Cobain was able to paint pictures without being literal.
“The way that the lyrics blend with the vocal and the aesthetic of the song, it just creates a world of it’s own,” said Novoselic. “And when you’re in that world, I guess, ‘come as you are.’ I’m not commenting on what those lyrics are about—that’s the way I see those lyrics. It’s really beautiful and flows really nice and it draws you in. And that’s the mark of any great art.”
This was a band focused on mood and sound—and they were economical.
“We wanted them to be almost like children’s songs,” explained Grohl. “We would always make that analogy. We would always tell people that the songs were intended to be as a simple as possible.”
Of course, that all melded masterfully on Nevermind. And it proved to be a potent combination: Lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit MTV in early September of 1991 to little fanfare initially. With its cryptic lyrics, power-drenched hook, and undeniable, timeless guitar riff, “Teen Spirit” became sort of the “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” of the 1990s; an urgent declaration of youthful angst set against some undeniably catchy songwriting. The classic Samuel Bayer-directed video seemed to be a shot in the arm for viewers who’d been soaking up Nelson and Mr. Big just months earlier. It was an announcement for alternative music, Seattle’s rock scene, and whatever you consider “grunge.” But most significantly, it was affirmation that Nirvana had arrived. But no one knew that yet.
“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you…”
“We didn’t have any business experience or knowledge of anything like that. Sub Pop was going to sign a deal with [Warner Bros.],” Novoselic explained to Billboard in 2011. “So by proxy, we were going to be on a major through Sub Pop. Kurt and I talked about it and we also looked at the environment around us. Every week there was news of another independent band signing with a major label. Then you had Kurt, who said, ‘I want to get on a label and get promoted and be huge.’ But he didn’t want to. You know what I mean? So there was this conflict. And I just said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s get an advance. They’re going to pay us money.’ I thought we were going to have all this cash in shopping bags. But it didn’t work out that way when you do your taxes and professional fees. Then you have to pay for your own record out of the advance. I don’t even remember; it was like $250,000. But we spent it. Half of it goes right out the door with income taxes and other obligations.”
Nirvana’s anti-fame, anti-corporate stance can sometimes be overstated. Novoselic was savvy enough to pitch them to major labels when Sub Pop was in a state of flux, Kurt obviously knew how to write great songs for the radio, and Butch Vig’s production on Nevermind borders on slick. But the band—particularly Kurt—clearly bristled at the idea of being anyone’s pin-up star or a moneymaking vehicle for giant, faceless companies. And he wasn’t all that keen on being a “leader” for a “disaffected generation.”
“I’m a spokesman for myself,” Cobain said in a 1992 Rolling Stone interview. “It just so happens that there’s a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I’m just as confused as most people. I don’t have the answers for anything.”
“I wanted to have the adoration of John Lennon but have the anonymity of Ringo Starr,” he would tell MTV News in 1993. “I didn’t want to be a frontman. I just wanted to be back there and still be a rock and roll star at the same time.”
That conflict is what drove Nirvana’s music and what tore Nirvana apart and devastated Cobain. His pain had deep roots; Kurt’s troubled youth in Aberdeen, Washington, has been well-documented—from family abandonment to bad relationships and homelessness and eventual drug addiction. The urgency in the music on Nevermind is so visceral—it sounds so pained, so angry, so wounded—that it’s impossible to divorce it from his own very real problems, both emotional, psychological and physical.
“My body is damaged from music in two ways,” Cobain would explain later in 1993. “I have a red irritation in my stomach. It’s psychosomatic, caused by all the anger and the screaming. I have scoliosis, where the curvature of your spine is bent, and the weight of my guitar has made it worse. I’m always in pain, and that adds to the anger in our music.”
That anger and pain permeates deeply throughout the album. From the snide dismissal of fans who “don’t get it” on the hit single “In Bloom,” to the the cynical and disillusioned ode to medically-induced peace of mind, “Lithium.” And Cobain’s hooks didn’t hide the darkness in songs like “Something In the Way,” which directly referenced his experiences while homeless, or the chilling “Polly.” Described as “very spare and very haunting” by producer Butch Vig, “Polly” was inspired by a news story Cobain and Novoselic had seen about a woman who was kidnapped and tortured after a show at the Community World Theater in Tacoma, Washington. She would befriend the kidnapper, he eventually let his guard down, and she escaped. Cobain wrote the song from the perspective of the kidnapper; another telltale sign of how he related to outsiders and vagrants—even when they weren’t in any way redeemable.
“Load up all guns, bring your friends…”
Nirvana becoming the biggest band in the world couldn’t have been expected by anyone involved, but indicators that a change was coming abounded in the early ‘90s. Metallica was a major heavy metal album that had crossed over, while Guns N’ Roses may not have been in the same vein as more “indie” bands like the Pixies, but they definitely held more weight and credibility than Poison or Cinderella. Bands like Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More had broken through to the mainstream in the late ’80s, offering an antidote to the Motley Crues of the world. And just months before Nevermind, R.E.M. had released Out of Time, their biggest album to date—one that was sparked by a massive “alternative” hit in “Losing My Religion.” Pearl Jam’s Ten predated Nevermind by a few weeks, and Soundgarden had already been on a major label since 1989’s Louder Than Love.
But cock rock still ruled the land, and despite the success of R.E.M., that reign hadn’t been vanquished—until Nevermind. Less than 50,000 copies of the album were released originally, and the label expected “Come As You Are” to be the band’s biggest crossover single. But as “Teen Spirit” began to receive consistent airplay on MTV, sales of the album surged. By November, the album was in the Top 40 and Nirvana shows were being overbooked. By January of 1992, it would knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Albums Chart.
Vig told The Daily Beast earlier this year that he took a special joy in being part of the album that buried hair metal. He’d been in a jangle-pop band that had been ignored by Warner Bros.—because the label was having more success with big hair acts like Skid Row: “I hated hair metal. So when Nirvana came in and drove the nail in the coffin of hair metal, there was a bit of satisfaction and payback there.”
There’s a sense that Nevermind gave birth to the ’90s—and it’s hard not to give it some credit for a seismic shift that would define the decade. At the dawn of the ’90s, hair bands like Nelson, teen pop acts like New Kids on the Block, and cheesy pop rap like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were all among the biggest sellers in music. By 1992, they’d been usurped by more hardcore rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, while boy bands gave way to edgier R&B acts like Jodeci and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains were among the biggest-selling rock bands in music.
“Yeah, it was the end of Ronald Reagan,” Vig said back in March. “We were really lucky in a sense that we just caught on a scene that happened to be blowing up… on a local level, which then turned into a regional thing. It was really good timing. Timing in art is so important because it’s a reflection of the culture, and you can’t predict it.”
Novoselic and Grohl have both reflected at length on Nevermind, Nirvana, and working with Cobain. For Novoselic, it all represents a unique period right before the internet changed so much about how we consume music.
“What’s different from 1991 to right now is that we have all this information at our fingertips and we can find things,” wrote Novoselic in an editorial for Rolling Stone back in April. “There’s still new music to discover. We don’t have to get music from the radio or television; MTV really broke Nevermind, because they put ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in heavy rotation. So now it’s a different world, because they were basically pushing it. But now, artists want to pull people in. And it seems like Nirvana’s still pulling people in, which is interesting.”
“Some people say that we were the last pre-internet band. We got into the corporate sphere and we got pushed on people, and then changed everything. But there was this climate for change. People were ready for something different, and I think this is what we need in our political system: something different. Maybe something will catch on that’s positive.”
Grohl, of course, would go on to international superstardom as frontman of the Foo Fighters after Cobain’s suicide in 1994. He admits that his time in Nirvana was bittersweet but significant.
“There would be times when we would really connect—smile and laugh and feel like a band,” Grohl reflected in that 2001 Rolling Stone interview. “And there were times when you felt lost and questioned what you were doing there. There were times when I had to back off completely and think, ‘I’m just the drummer in this band.’ And there were other times when we’d all share something really beautiful, like a show or recording or just a vocal harmony. That’s when you really felt like you were part of something great.”