Memory Lane: Nevermind

A co-worker walked up to my desk.

“Kurt Cobain killed himself,” she said.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Right.” She looked uncertain.

This was a rumor that had been circulating for a couple of years at this point. That Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, who struggled so publicly with heroin addiction, fame, his wife and fellow addict Courtney Love, and Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, had committed suicide.

My co-worker looked doubtful. “They’re saying they found his body. He shot himself.”

“‘They’ve’ been saying that for, like, the past two years,” I responded.

It was April 8, 2004.

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I came late to Nirvana. Like, say, summer of 1992 late.

After my Pearl Jam revelation, I made my way through Seattle-area grunge: Screaming Trees (lead singer of which, Mark Lanegan, was clearly Vedder’s voice coach), Soundgarden, Alice and Chains, and so on.

Why yes, I was a sunny, happy post college graduate. (Not.) Why do you ask?

Although Nirvana’s single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had caught my ear, it wasn’t until I saw the video with the tattooed cheerleaders that I decided to pick up the CD. I distinctly remember hoping that it wasn’t just that one song.

To this day, Nevermind resides in my top five albums of all time.

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I know Pearl Jam and Nirvana were lumped together in the “grunge” music category. Out of the necessity that we have for labeling and categorization. I tend toward seeing their differences, though, especially these many years later.

Pearl Jam had a dark romance to them. Nirvana were nihilists.

Pearl Jam’s music was tightly focused, driven, while Nirvana’s hovered at the near edge of chaos.

Both bands knew their music history — they truly sensed their roots. PJ were rooted in Neil Young and other ’70s-era bands, plus the Ramones; for Nirvana, it was classic rock, and punk and alternative rock forerunners (The Stooges, Pixies). While both groups seemingly struggled with their sudden fame, where Pearl Jam and especially Vedder learned to channel and use the spotlight, Cobain simply turned into a deer in the headlights. Then imploded.

Pearl Jam went from angst to activism; Nirvana, although they made an amazing third album (In Utero) (counting Bleach as their first) and an amazing MTV Unplugged episode, didn’t go farther than 1994.

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Once upon a time, WYEP had a Friday night show that focused on very new music, a lot less Joni Mitchell and a lot more… well, at that time, Nirvana. An acquaintance of mine, Don, was the DJ.

And when, that evening on the air, Don announced Kurt Cobain’s body was found, I believed him. Don’s voice was hushed, serious, that of a fan already mourning a dead star.

I called him.

“Are you okay?” I blurted.

We talked for a while before he had to get back to DJ’ing. I told him about what my co-worker had said earlier in the day. “I didn’t believe her,” I said.

“I don’t blame you for not believing her. Cobain would be dead a hundred times over if every rumor of his death were true.” He went back to his shift.

I went to the bar.

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I’m not proud of this, but when Don announced Cobain’s death, the first thought that went through my head was, “Now I’ll never get to see Nirvana live!”

My second thought was for his baby girl.

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Although I never bought into the idea of Kurt Cobain as “the voice of a generation”, it’s not as if he didn’t have anything to say. He was an artist of his era trying to capture, if nothing else, his own intense experience. He was troubled, plagued by chronic pain, tortured by his fame, and, ultimately, not strong enough to take on the weight of his own world. But Nevermind — along with Ten — launched a thousand alternative rock ships.

And if I can be nothing else, I can be grateful for that.

Memory Lane: 1991, the Grunge Era

I met Pearl Jam.

Live, in person!

I actually hung out with Jeff Ament and Mike McCready for part of a day when they were in Pittsburgh. I have the clip from my college newspaper to prove it.

Of course, this all took place 20 years ago — 20 YEARS AGO — and I’m sure none of the Pearl Jam boys recall spending time with a college newspaper writer chickie from Pittsburgh when they were first starting out.

But I remember it.

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In 1991 I was bored with college music. I had eschewed Top 40 radio for years already, and I was never a huge “classic rock” fan — I mean, I like me some Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, but in Pittsburgh? You hear — still, to this day — the same classic rock songs over and over and over again.

*yawn*

I was continually looking for something new to listen to (a trait I clearly still have), and I hadn’t heard anything that had turned me on in a couple of years. I was faithful to the B-52s and Depeche Mode and The Cure (gosh remember when those bands were college alternative bands? No? Get off my lawn!), but I was bored.

Then a friend of mine, Ro, became the Sony record label college rep, and started receiving all kinds of swag. I was writing for The Duquesne Duke, eventually becoming Features editor, and, in 1991, editor in chief.

One day Ro handed me a cassette tape (remember cassette tapes?). “Check this out,” she said. “You might like these guys.”

So began my love affair with grunge music in general, and Pearl Jam (and not too much later, Nirvana) specifically.

Ten, Pearl Jam’s debut album, lit me on fire. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Something about the driving guitars combined with Eddie Vedder’s vocal growl immediately and viscerally captivated me. See also: the bass line on “Why Go”.

And just like that, I was excited by music again.

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Ament, McCready, and I kind of wandered around downtown Pittsburgh and Duquesne’s campus talking about Pearl Jam (original name, anyone? Without looking it up?), Seattle, Pittsburgh, music in general, and basketball (the Pearl Jam guys were basketball FREAKS). I told them how much I was really liking Ten, and they told me some about making the album, meeting Vedder, and how much they were enjoying being out on the road playing live.

Later that night, I saw Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert.

God, remember Smashing Pumpkins?

Pearl Jam opened the concert, and, as Ro and Sony’s guest, and as a writer for the college paper, I got to go backstage afterward and meet the rest of the band (Stone Gossard — HAWT — and Dave Abbruzzese). I got their autographs — er, on the jean shorts I was wearing at the time — but I didn’t get to meet Eddie Vedder. He was busy harassing Billy Corgan by dancing on stage during the Pumpkins’ set. I believe either Flea or Anthony Kiedis was out there with him. They were wearing tutus if memory serves. (And, no, Corgan was not a good sport.)

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And here we are — here they are — 20 years later, with a Cameron Crowe documentary about to screen, re-releases and live albums dropping, and the same line up of guys (except for the revolving door drummer thing).

I have been listening for 20 years, but it’s been awhile since I got to see them live. Gonna have to fix that soon. Lollapalooza at Starlake (circa 1993?) is still one of my favorite concerts of all time. Each of their albums (with the exception of Binaural; I never really got into that one) was better than the last.

They are, and their music is, still exciting me.

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What have you been listening to for 20 years? What do you think you’ll be listening to the next 20?