Friday, September 23, 2011

Because you know I had to do it... My Tribute to Nevermind

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. It’s making me quite nostalgic (though who are we kidding, nostalgia could be my middle name) and it’s also making feel a little bit old. (20 years, really? TWENTY years?) Those of you who read my blog regularly know that Nirvana is my favorite band. In fact, seeing as I have the super deluxe 4 disc edition of Nevermind on pre-order as well as the 4-LP vinyl version, you might even call me an obsessed superfan. What can I say? Nirvana had the single biggest influence on my life besides my mom. And that’s why I have to pay tribute to Nevermind, too. I know that all of the big music magazines and that TV channel that actually played music videos twenty years ago have already covered it pretty well. They’ve divulged any long-lost photos, videos, and trivia factoids related to Nevermind and had a lot of people who are way more famous and important than me talk about how it changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll, shaped an entire generation, etc. I’m no music critic, historian or musician, so I want to take a different perspective and talk about how Nevermind and Nirvana in general changed a twelve year-old girl from Oak Park, Illinois, and went on to shape her life.

I didn’t buy Nevermind the first day it came out. I actually heard Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, first. Not because I was the coolest twelve year-old ever… I just happened to be friends with a really cool twelve year-old. My friend Kendra watched a lot of MTV. She introduced me to the glories of MTV when we met during the summer between fourth and fifth grade while our brothers were playing on the same tee-ball team. We’d watch their ballgame for a while and then go down the block to her house and turn on the TV. Between all the fabulous movies I saw on HBO and all the bands I discovered on MTV that summer, I bugged my parents until they finally broke down and got cable. Still, unlike Kendra, it was rare that I got to stay up late and watch 120 Minutes. She also just seemed to know about stuff first. That’s why she was the cool friend.

I was in her room one day when she told me she’d heard about this band Nirvana and they were supposed to have a new album out, but all she could find was this other album. I’m not the best at remembering exact time periods from before high school (I really don’t know why my memory from before the age of fourteen is so hazy), so I’m not sure if this was actually before Nevermind came out hence she could only find Bleach or if Nevermind was out, but our record store, like many in the country, didn’t have it because DGC hadn’t expected it to launch into the stratosphere and had only made so many copies. All I know is that Kendra seemed a bit uncertain about the band she was about to play for me, but she put on side B of the Bleach cassette, I heard “Negative Creep” for the first time and my mind was totally fucking blown. I describe that experience in more detail in an essay I wrote after another anniversary—the ten-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. You can read that here if you wish.

Kendra wasn’t as impressed as I was with Nirvana. As I recall, she much preferred the Living Colour tape she’d just gotten, but I adored that Nirvana tape. I got my own as soon as I could. I also started seeing the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” shortly thereafter. I can’t remember my first viewing of it because I’d already had my mind blown by the band, so I wasn’t shocked out of my skull by that killer riff or anything. The thing that really caught my eye was the foot tapping along to the killer riff at beginning of the video. That foot was encased in a black hightop Converse sneaker. I was delighted by this because I also wore black Converse hightops, but since the footwear of choice among girls at my junior high was those little white (and, in my opinion, extremely boring) Keds, I got mocked constantly for wearing them. You see 1991 would have been Converse salesman Chuck Taylor’s 90th birthday, so there was an ad campaign with the slogan, “Happy Birthday, Chuck!” which is what douchey popular crowd at school would scream at me every time we passed in the hall. I’m not sure why it was supposed to be an insult, but the laughter that always followed made it clear that it was. So seeing *my* shoe in the Nirvana video made me feel less alone. I watched the audience in the video more than the band. I picked out a girl who had her head shaved except for her bangs and hoped that one day, maybe when I got to high school, I’d find people like her. Wearing Converse and clothes I liked as opposed to what was considered normal was a new thing for me and Nirvana gave me the strength to continue expressing myself.

Since I was a broke-ass twelve year-old, I didn’t actually buy Nevermind until after their Saturday Night Live appearance in January of 1992. My best friend Juliet and I were housesitting for her former kindergarten teacher, who was a close friend of Juliet’s grandmother. It seems astounding that we got permission to spend the night alone in a house, but I guess at that age our idea of living on the edge was eating a lot of sugar and staying up all night, so it was okay. Also we’d recently gotten news that earth-shattering news: Juliet’s grandmother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and soon would no longer be able to care for Juliet, so over she was going to be sent to live with her aunt in Rockford before eighth grade started. I’d known Juliet since I’d moved to Oak Park in third grade. We’d spent much of elementary school trying and failing to fit in with those Keds-sneaker-wearing popular girls, but somehow they innately sensed that we weren’t cool enough. We’d given up toward the end of sixth grade and embraced our inner weirdo—literally, we even started the “weirdo religion.” We dressed how we wanted and spent hours watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and not caring if it was cool. We were constantly at each other’s houses. Juliet was like my sister and her grandmother was like my grandmother. It was bad enough that when we got to junior high, we were put on two different “teams” meaning our classes would never overlap, but for Juliet to move nearly two hours away meaning that we couldn’t watch Star Trek together every night…. It was the end of the world for us and Juliet’s grandmother and my mom knew it, so we were granted permission to stay the weekend alone in this house that reeked of the kindergarten teacher’s husband’s cologne. I swear someone must have spilled it down the heating ducts because it was so strong that twenty years later I still gag when I catch a whiff of Old Spice.

If we’d been given free reign of an empty house for a weekend two years after this, there would have boys and drugs involved for sure, but we simply popped some microwave popcorn (which briefly covered up the Old Spice stink) and settled in to watch SNL. Kurt Cobain had dyed his hair with KoolAid so it looked reddish-pink, which was pretty cool, and they played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which I liked but had heard a few too many times. And then they came back the second time and Krist Novoselic, their giant of a bass player, howled the opening of this old hippie song that I’d heard via my parents and my own obsession with the Billboard sixties collections before the band burned their way through “Territorial Pissings,” a song I immediately loved as much as everything off of Bleach. When they finished, they smashed up their instruments and the Saturday Night Live stage. I watched, my mouth hanging open. Nothing had ever expressed what I felt on the inside more than that moment. But then as I turned to Juliet to tell her how fucking awesome I thought that was, she spat in disgust, “What are they doing? That’s so stupid! Why are they breaking everything? All that stuff is probably really expensive.”

And it probably was. And it was a little wasteful and dumb in that regard, but clearly they did it because they had some pent-up rage and we had some pent-up rage and I wasn’t sure why Juliet didn’t get that. I didn’t like disagreeing with her though. Ever since finding out she was moving, Juliet had been getting especially upset about it when I disagreed with her or did things like choosing stage crew over gymnastics ever and I got why: we were changing and once there was physical distance between us, we might completely grow apart, which was completely fucking terrifying.

So I bought Nevermind secretly. On cassette tape because I didn’t have a CD player yet. I listened to it on my Walkman obsessively throughout the following summer and eighth grade whenever I was feeling alienated or stupid and contagious or whatever. In Rockford, Juliet discovered that other Seattle band, Pearl Jam and I forced myself to like them too, but deep down though I thought Eddie Vedder was cute, I didn’t like his voice at all and the music behind him didn’t impress me at all. But Nirvana, something about those angry riffs reflected me perfectly and Kurt Cobain’s lyrics which I figured out in pieces spoke directly to my heart.

“It amazes me, the will of instinct,” he sang on “Polly” and I repeated to myself every time I felt trapped or beaten down by my nasty junior high world.

“Love myself better than you,” he sang on “On A Plain” and I was trying, oh god was I trying. To love myself, to be myself, to be as brave as that scrawny, scruffy blond guy who danced around in a dress in my favorite Nevermind video, “In Bloom.” No doubt, he’d taken a lot of shit in junior high and I could, too.

I finally got a new stereo with a CD player for 8th grade graduation, and in addition to albums by Fishbone and a Metallica, Nevermind rounded out my very first CD purchase. My Nevermind tape had completely worn out. Nirvana was officially my favorite band as I started high school, but I was almost resentful of the way “grunge” and “alternative” had exploded because suddenly the same people who’d made fun of my Converse sneakers and thrift store clothing were wearing them (though usually their clothes just had at thrift-store look, but came from the mall). I continued to dig deeper into the indie and punk scenes, discovering bands like Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and Bikini Kill because Nirvana mentioned them in interviews. I did buy In Utero on the very day it was released and I begged my parents for permission to see Nirvana on their 1993 tour at the Aragon in Chicago, but they didn’t want me going out on a school night. “You can see them next time,” they promised me and since it was rumored that they’d be headline Lollapalooza in the summer, I took comfort in that. Of course as it turned out, I would never see my favorite band live.

I’m teaching a Young Adult Fiction class at Columbia College Chicago this fall. I took the class myself at the age of twenty-two as a student there and since it was such a great class I’ve been using a lot of my former teacher’s activities. In one of these, I asked my students to write a piece about the moment that knew they were no longer a child. I’d written this myself and chose to write about the time someone shot heroin in front of me for the first time. That was definitely a big moment, but looking back I think I went to it because it was dramatic and it was not something that would brand me as a geeky fangirl. But if I’m being honest, the moment that I was no longer a child came on Friday, April 8, 1994, during the spring of my freshman year of high school when at fourteen years-old, I found out that the man I’d come to believe understood me better than my parents and most of my friends had committed suicide.

Juliet broke the news to me in a very mocking, condescending way. They were the band that I liked and she didn’t. We had grown apart the way we both secretly feared. Also her grandmother had died almost exactly a year before then so she viewed this successful rock star who’d blown his brains out in a different light than I did. I get it now, but at the time it was devastating. Not only had this man I looked up to thrown in the towel, the girl who’d defined and made my childhood bearable was someone different now and so was I. Once again I looked at Nirvana’s audience, at the throngs of mourners who gathered in the fountain at the Seattle Center and at Viretta Park to pay tribute. I needed to find my people, my “little group” that Kurt sings about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (or “little tribe” as he sometimes sings live, a phrase which I like even better.) So even though I was naturally shy and had always had a really hard time making friends, I screwed up my courage and went looking. That’s how I found the boy who would shoot heroin in front of me. That’s how I found the group of friends (and sometimes frenemies) at Scoville Park that would shape the rest of my teenage years. That’s how I found the boyfriend who emulated Kurt Cobain in many ways, but not in his respect for women, the boyfriend who emotionally abused me and broke me into a million little pieces. The next three years of high school were often hellish, but I did find the people who would become lifelong friends that know me better than anyone else, even myself sometimes. I could (and have and will probably continue to for Rookie!) write several essays/blogs about the ways I fucked up during those years, but I don’t regret any of it because it brought me to the place where I discovered the stories I needed to tell and once again, Nirvana was there to give me the strength to tell them.

Ten years after Kurt Cobain’s death, I went to Seattle. Again, my journey is detailed here, but it took me a few more years to figure out why I needed that journey so badly. I went off the rails after that abusive relationship. I threw myself into drugs, then in to booze and along with it a codependent unhealthy relationship that last from the end of high school into my early twenties. Then I started listening to Nirvana again. Obsessively. This is when all the vinyl and bootleg collecting started. I listened to those songs hundreds and thousands of time and I slowly rebuilt myself.

“It amazes me the will of instinct.” The instinct to break the cycle, to write instead of cut or get drunk.

“Love myself better than you.” I finally did. In Viretta Park, the place I wanted to be at fourteen, but didn’t find my way to until twenty-four. But there I was, able to make sense of my past, to take it all in, to love myself, to survive. Kurt may not have had the strength to do so himself, but I found it in his music. And that to me is what makes Nirvana and Nevermind so great.


Liviania said...

Have you read this fabulous article (

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

That was a fabulous article! Thanks so much for sharing!

Bryan B. said...

Hi Stephanie -

Love your books and, now, your blog. I remember the first time I heard Nirvana - it was after football practice and some guys were making fun of it (before switching the tape to Metallica...) And I thought: "Holy SHIT." But, like most high school things, I also thought, "Wait... is it wrong to like them? Should I just listen to Snow or Naughty By Nature like everyone else?"

Anyway - great post. It really brought back that time for me. And not to rub it in: but I got to see Nirvana at the Aragon. I grew up in Plainfield (of all places) and it was a major coup to go to the city on a school night, especially to see a band that every one of my friends hated.


Ashley McRae said...

I just read this and I love this to pieces. <3
I wasn't around when Kurt was still alive, but when I was young, I listened to "In Bloom" a lot. Then when I started into my early teens, I met friends who were hardcore Nirvana fans, and, I picked up your books and slowly got more involved into Nirvana, The Ramones, and Nine Inch Nails. I must thank you for that, by the way.
Nirvana is one of the three bands that every song, I can really feel an emotion in it, and relate to every one. Doesn't matter if it was about something completely different from my life. I loved the simplicity, yet complicated ways of Kurt's lyrics.
I've written essays on their music, Kurt's death, etc, and luckily my English teacher was a hardcore Nirvana fan. I've expressed so many times on my blog, in class, to my friends, to my parents, how important it is for me to one day go to Seattle and see all the memorials - the bench, the bridge, etc.
It's also kind of neat how I was born on the anniversary of Nevermind. :) Ever since I found that out, I wear my Nirvana shirt on my birthday.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Bryan, thanks for the compliments on my books and blog. And thanks for sharing your Nirvana story. That is totally the honest high school experience, isn't it? Cool of you to love them even though your friends hated them. Also I am incredibly jealous that you saw them at the Aragon!

Ashley, that is so awesome that you were born on the anniversary of Nevermind! I love hearing that their legacy lives on in very serious younger fans like yourself, too. I hope you get to Seattle. YOu will absolutely love it, I know!