A strange thing happened yesterday. I woke up and proceeded to blare Nirvana’s Nevermind as I went through my morning rituals. After Nevermind ended I listened to In Utero, then I learned “Polly” on guitar. When my hands were too sore to keep playing I got online and read Cobain and Nirvana’s Wikipedia entries while streaming Bleach, then I watched live performances of Nirvana on YouTube. Still not satisfied, I watched the documentary Kurt & Courtney.
Finally, my obsession with Nirvana was washed out of my system. I looked at the clock. It was midnight, and I was tired. I lay in bed, but I couldn’t drift off to sleep. A single thought kept nagging at my mind: Nevermind is the most critically acclaimed album of the past two decades, and at twenty years old it’s officially considered “Classic Rock”. How does it stack up compared to other critically acclaimed “Classic Rock” albums?
Think about it. Rolling Stone named Kurt Cobain the “12th Greatest Guitarist Of All Time”, but can he hold a candle to Hendrix or Jimmy Page? Is Nevermind even in the same league as Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Highway 61 Revisited? As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not trying to imply that today’s music is worse then the music of years past, but how do the greatest albums of my generation compare to the greatest albums of generations past?
I described yesterday’s events as “strange” because I’ve never been a huge fan of Nirvana. Sure, I like them, but I never worshiped them with the devoutness of my peers. I was never in awe of Kurt’s songwriting skills, nor did I find any of Nirvana’s members virtuosic instrumentalists. Nirvana was important to me only because they were important the people I made music with. Virtually every musician I knew growing up went through a “Nirvana phase”. I may not have been Kurt’s biggest fan, but like it or not his influence could be felt everywhere around me. Hell, when I was in high school I only listened to Nevermind and In Utero so I wouldn’t look like a fool for not being familiar with them. After all, I had a reputation as an elitist hipster to uphold.
My musical idols were the poets who just happened to be musicians: Bob Dylan, John Darnielle, and Will Sheff to name a few. Kurt was careless with his words. He make up lyrics minutes before recording a song. He constantly mumbled when he sang, and even when you could understand him rarely did his words make any sense. How could I respect someone who treated what I loved more than anything with such contempt?
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “But Clay, that’s the whole point! Kurt proved that the lyrics didn’t matter. It’s all about the emotion and melody, man”.
While I’ll admit that Nirvana did write some of the catchiest pop songs ever recorded, does “Lithium” manipulate and explore the power of a melody the same way as The Beatles “A Day In The Life”? Does the guitar solo on “Breed” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captivate and impress you like the guitar solo on Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” or Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”? Is the passion in Kurt’s voice on “Scentless Apprentice” and “Serve The Servants” more moving then Iggy Pop on “Search and Destroy” or Freddie Mercury during “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
I’m not trying to hate on Nirvana here. I’m just trying to understand what those classic albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Blonde On Blonde, and Revolver have that even the most critically acclaimed modern artists can’t seem to replicate. There isn’t a shadow of doubt in my mind that life in 2011 is better then life forty or fifty years ago. The draft isn’t in place, medicine is better, racism and homophobia don’t have a death grip on society, etc. But it’s hard to deny that something special happened in the world of music between 1965 and 1973. Maybe it’s because the LSD was more potent or the Internet and satellite TV hadn’t brainwashed the creativity out of everyone. Maybe it’s because Rock ‘n Roll was still in it’s adolescence and hadn’t yet matured into the bitter, conservative 30 something exactly like the parents it swore it would never become. Who knows?
What I do know is ever since that fateful day in April ‘94 when Cobain took his own life the world hasn’t had a rock star of his status rise up and replace him. Sure, those are some pretty big shoes to fill, but so were Hendrix’s and Lennon’s.
Where the hell is the rock star to speak the voice of my generation? For my peers that star was Cobain, but we were still learning to potty train and speak full sentences when he was writing music. I was three when Kurt killed himself. The kids who were actually old enough and really had the chance to be inspired by Nirvana, the ones who saw him in the flesh and got hyped for In Utero, those kids are in their mid-30s and 40s now. Those were the kids who were supposed to carry the torch he left behind and inspire us, but instead my generation has been abandoned.
Thanks to the Internet, instead of watching our inspirations in concert we watch them on computer screens, picking and choosing whomever fits us best. Love it or hate it, Grunge was the last music scene to have an impact on our culture. Ever since then we’ve been left with “Alt Rock” and “Indie”.
What the hell does “Indie” even mean now? It used to be shorthand slang for “Independent”. Bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat and Mudhoney started their own labels and starved while touring in shitty vans and slept on strangers floors so they could make their art “Independent” of outside support. Record stores didn’t carry their records. Venues didn’t book them to play, and when they did get gigs they were paid pennies and poorly attended. Extreme sacrifices were made so they could follow their dreams.
You know what my generation does? We record a few songs at home, upload them to bandcamp, YouTube, Facebook, and iTunes, play a few local gigs and call ourselves “artists”. It’s fucking embarrassing. No wonder nobody has stepped up to take Kurt’s place. Cobain was homeless for several years because he followed his heart. Before Dylan became a household name he used to busk on the street and hop trains. Just because you can play an instrument in time with your friends while singing your shitty Livejournal poetry doesn’t mean shit. If you don’t risk your health and sanity to have your voice heard, then you don’t deserve to be listened to.