Melodies: That Old Teen Spirit

“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
here we are now, entertain us

I was stupid, and contagious

here we are now, entertain us.”

~Smells Like Teen Spirit

 

Anybody who doesn’t recognize these lines must either be too young for this, or they have simply lived under a rock for too long. Sounds judgmental? Oh well. Sets the tone for what’s to come so, why not.

Whenever people encounter me (it’s always them encountering, I try to stay away as much as possible), I never fail to let them know about my Nirvana addiction (that choice of words though). It’s not like I advertise it on my chest (well, not always, I need to put my shirts in the laundry, obviously), but it comes up in casual conversation. Such as:

“What kind of music do you like?”
“oh you know ~names a barrage of alternative and indie bands~, Nirvana…”
There is an abrupt pause when they hear Nirvana because it’s mainstream (HAH! You wish).
“Oh Nirvana, of course” (sudden enlightenment hits them).
Me: “Do you?”
Them: “oh yeah sure, Kurt Cobain, shot himself”
Me: “that’s not an answer”
Them:”no I like them, smells like teen spirit, yeah heard that one”
Now this is where the kicker comes in
Me: “and? Anything else? “
Them:” well I heard they have this song called ‘Rape me’, I don’t know how you can like that.”
This is when I proceed to slap myself with a dead fish because truthfully that is more pleasurable. Dead fish is not always at hand so I just walk away, trying to restrain my sanity in a strait jacket.

The problem with Nirvana is that a lot of people parade around saying they are true fans of the band or of Cobain’s suicide. Ask them the names of the other members and they stare at you like you were just speaking Finnish. The merchandise is easy to find on any corner shop or flea market. The symbol of the lop-sided smile with crosses for eyes in yellow on a black t-shirt is everywhere, sprouting up like apartments in empty plots.

 
 

Now that I’m done with the rant (almost), I’ll tell you about how I tumbled into this vortex. I won’t start with the usual “music is my life” crap, that’s overrated, a bit like the song I chose to quote. But I needed to let people know this was indeed about Nirvana and quoting any other song by them might lead many to scratch their heads wondering what those lines are. Also, prior warning: I will not harp on about Cobain’s addictions any more than will be required and nor will I dig out irrelevant pieces of debatable gossip and try to make this article “saucy”.
 
So, when I was young and naïve and hating monotonous, cast-in-a-mould, shows about people competing to sing and artfully cry on TV when they ran their back story during auditions and getting selected, I found this show called The Voice. Not going to lie, the concept seemed pretty damn interesting (look it up), in fact it still does. It’s overdone now of course like every good thing ever with more number of seasons of it than there are months in a calendar. Here I heard two people singing the same song, going head to head, interpreting it in their own ways. It was a much stripped down version of “Heart-shaped Box” being sung by a guy and a girl. The chorus hit me instantly:

“Hey!
Wait!
I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice.”
 
I was hooked, and no one could remove me from under the spell of this song, because the lines that followed are:

                                                           “Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet
Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath
Broken hymen of your Highness, I’m left back
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.”
 

Everything was cementing itself into place, along with me on my sofa. I was awed at such extraordinary phrasing and lyric writing and genuinely still am. Back in 2009 it didn’t make as much sense to me as it does now, but I cannot deny the breath-halting effect it had on me.

Truthfully I was a novice when it came to music outside of my very limited purview of navigating away on YouTube from the pop songs that would flood my home page to the quieter, more dated musical acts. Also I was fresh out of the Linkin Park and realized that Chester Bennington was not the end of the world but a very solid beginning, as many of you will relate to right here. I knew Poets of the Fall, Slipknot and the Cranberries and felt invincible, naturally. Nirvana, though, was there, in the back of mind with all the candy wrappers and homework woes and dismal Maths scores. This ex-friend of mine had give me a CD (yes they were a thing, I’m that old) of all the music that he liked and there I saw the usual two Nirvana songs, Rape me and Smells like Teen Spirit. I wasn’t particularly inclined to dip into it but I held onto them just in case. After hearing Heart shaped-box on TV I waited to know who it was by. Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera derided Blake Shelton for being ignorant about this “Nirvana classic” and something in my mind clicked back to the CD. I went crawling back to my computer and listened to the song in its original glory. The video was remarkable and utterly incomprehensible to my 15 year old self, not to mention Kurt Cobain staring into my soul, one eye hidden behind that mop of golden greasiness, and the other eye as blue as can be, Grohl and Novoselic chilling behind him in arm chairs, it was all a bit overwhelming, and freaky, and absolutely to my taste, not even mentioning the man role playing as Jesus in a Santa hat on a cross, and a tiny child dressed in Klu Klux Klan attire. Never thought you’d read all that in one sentence, did you? Well, you can see it for yourself.
    



 I was sold, completely. I read up on the lore, the usual fans being divided on whether it was for (rather against) his wife Courtney Love, or because genuinely, like he had said inspired by a report on cancer in children. My belief is that the song is whatever the fuck you want it to mean, because for Cobain music was the priority and not the lyrics and his lyrics came from a lot of different places. People who constantly try to dig into his married life do a great disservice to the songs he wrote not to mention his art.
 
Moving on, I decided to give Teen Spirit a try. I was presently surprised seeing as both styles were quite different. Cobain’s voice got to me, it was rough like gravel and so stretched out and calm but raw with feeling. I had not encountered it before and I adored it. In fact it made me connect to the songs even more and made me feel as if without the voice the songs would just fall apart. The reason why most covers I hear of Nirvana disappoint me is because while everyone can play the riffs and remember the lines, few can replicate that voice. Smells like Teen Spirit is the song for the angst ridden spirit, it spoke to me. The songs raised my curiosity for the band’s other work and so I put on Rape Me and waited for it to play. What I heard… well, why you don’t read it yourself:


“Hate me
Do it and do it again
Waste me
Rape me, my friend
I’m not the only one

My favorite inside source
I’ll kiss your open sores
Appreciate your concern
You’re gonna stink and burn

Rape me, rape me my friend
Rape me, rape me again
I’m not the only one

I don’t think this requires an explanation; the amount of sarcasm here is enough to fill the oceans of the world, twice. Absolutely hard hitting and minimalistic and to take such a violently firm stance without thinking about the inevitable backlash, Nirvana has been a favourite with me because it dared to venture out and get shit done basically. They were a no-nonsense, outrageous and meaningful band that did not care what the media said as long as they got to do things their way.

 

 

Naturally, all this made me dig into this past, and that was all it was now, the past.  The start of a whole generation, a musical act so influential in fighting the baby boomer bummers, the starched collar capitalists and the beacon of hope for the disillusioned teens, who couldn’t (rather, wouldn’t) climb the glam-metal bandwagon, was just a Wikipedia article now. Yet the curiosity never went; in fact it grew each day. And I did nothing to curb it, I fed it more music and kept relating to every word he spoke, growled, screamed, broke guitars with and whispered. Cobain wasn’t the greatest guitar player; he did his best, spent a long enough time looking for the perfect drummer and on the side dealt with his demons that lived in his stomach and in his head.


Amidst all this he managed to offend just about anyone he met, rolling incredible things off his tongue like “god is gay” or “wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”  His intense opposition to the stereotypical idea of the macho male, against which he has written songs like Mr Moustache:  


“Fill me in on your new vision
Wake me up with indecision
Help me trust your mind and wisdom
Yes I eat cow, I am not proud”

and Very Ape:

“If you ever need anything please don’t
Hesitate to ask someone else first
I’m too busy acting like I’m not naive
I’ve seen it all, I was here first”

was new and utterly shocking.
 


He also said, “I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male — or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be. Just watch a beer commercial and you’ll see what I mean.”

And of course, there is In Bloom, where he openly criticized anyone who bobbed their heads along with Nirvana songs, at their concerts without letting a word of it penetrate their skulls. 


 

“Come as you are” is a song that is has Cobain playing an unassisted guitar riff that is absolutely incredible, and the catchy chorus deliberately so, to make the song a parody of pop music, not to mention the lyrics containing the most quoted lines, “…as a known enemy.”

“Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

Take your time, hurry up
The choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend
As an old memory .”

The song, as Cobain very bluntly stated, was inspired by the Killing Joke’s song “Eighties.” Nirvana liked to pay tribute to its influences, the bands that made Cobain want to pick up a guitar in all his left-handed glory and carry on even after the fame had brought him nothing but pain and a sense of loss of identity by gaining a position he never craved. Nirvana’s cover of the classic Vaseline’s song “Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam” at the MTV Unplugged concert is a personal favourite. Apart from that they have played with the Meat Puppets, another act they were fond of and they also covered Lead Belly’s version of “Where did you sleep last night”, an old American folk song by an anonymous author, surprising everyone with the mellow rendition unexpected of Nirvana. “Negative Creep” is a huge nod to the band that gave Nirvana Dave Grohl, The Melvins.

“Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more
Fuck! Yeah!
Drone!
Stoned!”

The 1993 Unplugged show was one of the last ever live shows the band performed as a unit. Soon next year, the front man would remove himself with the help of a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head from the face of the earth. Yet he never failed to throw hints at this ultimate road his life would take, starting from setting the stage of the MTV concert with white lilies and incense to give it the funeral feeling. His song “On a plain” could subtly be his contemplations about death and suicide, which he indulged in quite openly and freely.

“It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don’t make sense
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?
And one more special message to go
And then I’m done, and I can go home
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?

I’m on a plain
I can’t complain
I’m on a plain…”

                                           
 Nirvana was in a way an “anthem for the doomed youth”, to borrow from Wilfred Owen. They talk about the society they were living in, the unnecessary boxing in of creative minds, reduction of them into clones fitting the mould and building fences around genders. They were pioneers of their time and in many ways they came in a bit too before their time. The world was not completely ready for them, but then Cobain would never be ready for the world, the broken family structure and the fame and the spotlight.


One of his more personal songs talk about a period of homelessness he experienced where he slept over at a few friends’ houses. He referred to this as sleeping under bridges, in the song “Something in the Way”:

“Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
But it’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings

Something in the way.”

This song is said to have taken the most effort to record since it runs on absolutely the most minimal amount of sound required. It is easily one of the most “non-Nirvana” songs to hit listeners.  But with life being reduced to a mere terms and social exercises, rightly, “All Apologies” should be the Nirvana classic:

“I wish I was like you
Easily amused
Find my nest of salt
Everything is my fault
I’ll take all the blame
Aqua sea foam shame
Sunburn with freeze burn
Choking on the ashes of her enemy

In the sun
In the sun I feel as one
In the sun
In the sun
Married, married, married!
Buried!”

Nirvana came to me when I was not in a very happy place in my life. This band, and Kurt Cobain himself, understood me. It helped me connect, telling me my feelings were not unique and, extraordinarily, were shared by generations of teenagers in much worse situations than I was; yet even thought I had it easy, I mattered as much they did, as much as I would let myself believe to be. I think it made me happy.

 
“Skin the sun
Fall asleep
Wish away
Soul is cheap
Lesson learned
Wish me luck
Soothe the burn
Wake me up
I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have a light
The day is done
And I’m having fun
I think I’m dumb
Maybe just happy”
~Dumb

 

 Kurt Cobain’s death, his suicide note, the speculations, everything did bring sleepless nights and a lot of tossing and turning. Silly as it may sound, it even brought to me poetry which I will not share for it is utter shit, significant to me but shit. His eyes still haunt me, his voice is something I am yet to encounter again from someone else, and it created a craving in me for rough unpolished tones. He was the spearhead of an entire generation and although you may or may not agree, one thing you cannot deny: this band was and still is one of the greatest bands in history and it will remain so, until you can’t smell that teen spirit no more.

“Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I’m bored and old
Self-appointed judges judge
More than they have sold”

-Serve the servants


SPECIAL MENTIONS:
Polly
Silver
Stay Away
Lithium
Pennyroyal Tea
Drain You
About a Girl
School
Francis Farmer will have her Revenge on Seattle
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
Sappy

(Listen to all of them.) 
 
x-x
 
 
That was Madhumati, my cuddly senior, with her appropriately sassy entry about Nirvana. You can practically hear the fingers-snapping-in-z-formation throughout that. Here’s the aint-got-no-time-fo’-yo-shit writer:
 
                                                         
   Aaaaaand here’s what she wrote for *enthusiastic drum roll*:
 
 

 The second week of Melodies is over and only two more are left! Unbelievable. For our penultimate week we go to meet the Queen and end up in Dire Straits.

That was bad. So bad. 

xoxo

2 Comments Add yours

  1. dipanjan d says:

    This was brilliant, Madhu. I am shocked that you mentioned that 'Something in the way' is one of the most unheard Nirvana songs. Considering how Nevermind is considered to be the only 'known' Nirvana album .

    Like

  2. Thanks so much
    i appreciate it 🙂

    i was just referring to the fact the people seem to overlook the song since it's very un-Nirvana like so to speak since mostly the idea is that the band is just Grunge 🙂

    Like

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