In Utero

Band: Nirvana
Album: In Utero
Best song: “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”
Worst song: Probably “Milk It”

There’s a saying that any single person’s favorite Saturday Night Live cast is the one from when that single person was in high school. I tend to think that fits with music, as well. We’re 14 years out of the intensely formative second decade of my life, but I continue to fall down into the comfort of music from the 1990s. I started playing the drums in 1992 and the guitar in 1995. I became someone who lived and breathed music around this time and that falls almost entirely on Nirvana. 

I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Nirvana will enter the rock and roll Hall of Fame*  next month and rightfully. Nirvana shifted music — no, culture — so much and moved the rock world toward a place it resides today. In being anti-rock stars, Nirvana became the template for rock stardom. In bringing independent music to the forefront, Nirvana showed the world the bugs on the bottom of the rotting log that is rock and roll. Those bugs are now on the same level as the apex predators in the forest.

It’s easy to forget now, but the year before Nirvana broke had some pretty crappy music occupying the top of the charts. The bestselling album of 1990 was Sinead O’Connor’s em>I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (I actually like that album). The year Nirvana broke, the top single was “(Everything I Do) I Do it For You,” followed by “I Wanna Sex You Up” and “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”

Popular music-wise, punk rock had come and gone in the 1980s and sorta vaguely morphed into some shitty hair metal. Metal itself was on the sidelines. The sheen of the 1980s wasn’t completely off; Genesis’ We Can’t Dance was very popular in 1991. Michael Bolton was churning out hits. Nirvana was a welcome respite, if only because it spoke, once again, to teenage rebellion.

During college, I remember talking to a friend about grunge and he mentioned that Nirvana was more a symbol than anything else.

The Nirvana mystique (much like, I dunno, the Velvet Underground mystique) deserves to be cut down to size, and barring any future Spin Magazine cover stories and “I *Still* Love the ’90s” specials, they’ll be seen in much greater context as years go on. A band among many, instead of a band leading or creating many. The box set proves that there was a lot of chaff amongst the wheat, and in the end, that makes their story a lot cooler than any sort of “they changed the face of music” bullshit.

There’s truth to this notion, certainly. Nirvana was not the purest distillation of Sub Pop’s Black Sabbath/Black Flag hybrid; Soundgarden and Tad were better at that. Nirvana is one of a few great bands from that era and place that get lumped together largely because of geography. Nirvana was the best of the bunch, though. As with all great hook-writers, Kurt Cobain had a wonderful grasp of song structure and pop choruses. Save for “Heart-Shaped Box,” Nirvana never really fucked around with the classic rock song construction, down to the bridges. Shit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has a guitar solo that simply apes the melody, a la Elvis’ early hits.

I didn’t see Nirvana live because I was too young to really do so. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to; I would’ve given a leg to have seen the band on any of their tours that went through Chicago. But, it’s probably best that I didn’t and that my knowledge of the band’s live shows exist only through albums like Live at Reading or the famed Unplugged show or Live & Loud. Kurt Cobain was, famously, a troubled man and I worry that some of those shows were probably like the ones on Elliott Smith’s most drugged-out shows (I attended one of these shows. It was… not great.).

In short, Nirvana is my John F. Kennedy. While the other bands from that period turned into jokes (Pearl Jam), stop-and-start jobs mixed with solo careers (Soundgarden) or “new singer” things (Alice in Chains), Nirvana exists only in legend. Like Kennedy, Nirvana never got to a time when we all hated them or shit on the terrible records they produced in trying to regain the legacy of their brilliant records.

I know you’ve heard this before. When I was in high school, I thought 27 was tremendously adult and I thought so very highly of the “27 Club” was somewhat romantic to me (I was a troubled teen), but moreso, it was so very old. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be 27. Shit, when I was in college, I marveled at the notion of “peak years” in sports, specifically in baseball and the age-27 peak season theory.

But, nearly six years after I turned 27, I cannot think of anything sadder than Cobain’s death at that age. Forgetting his music career, Cobain left a toddler and a, presumably, very happy marriage. People die at that age (my close friend died at 27) and younger all the time and that’s part of the proverbial circle of life. Nevertheless, as a 32-year-old, it seems strange. He, presuming he didn’t succumb to drugs or mental health disorders, might’ve lived another 40 or 50 years.

To some degree, we all want to think our best years are in front of us and we want to think that of others. We want to think that Cobain was going to make greater records in his 30s, but the Beatles broke up when John Lennon was all of 30 years old in December of 1970. Paranoid was released when Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi were 22.

And maybe Cobain had another In Utero in him. We all like to think that, don’t we?

I remember watching Live & Loud when it came out in September of 1993. The band had added Pat Smear for touring purposes and I — my memory could be completely wrong, by the way — remember this being the first I’d really seen Smear. MTV mattered in the 1990s and the channel’s broadcast of such an event was huge to me. It was the first I’d seen of the In Utero songs performed live and it transfixed me.

I talk a lot about Chelsea Wolfe in this space because I don’t really believe in anything — whatever it says on my birth certificate is wrong. I am a Gen-Xer at heart. — but Wolfe’s music has made me an evangelist. Consider this my recitation of the same for Nirvana.

This is the first time I’ve written something twice (not counting the best of the decade list), but I guess I feel like this is important enough for me to dive deep. I first wrote about In Utero on my 500 albums project because the Baby Boomer editors at Rolling Stone didn’t have their heads completely up their asses in 2003 (though, putting it at 439 is damning with faint praise). The record got a re-release this fall for the 20th anniversary (again, I feel old), and it includes the Live & Loud, some demos and a remixed — no Albini! — version of the record.

In Utero really matters to me. I caught the second wave of Nevermind. For one, the record came out when I was 10, which is definitely too young — especially in the nacent Internet days of 1991 — to be plugged into the music scene. Twelve is a completely different animal. Being a tween who’d experienced the way of Nirvana wash over MTV meant I fell in love with the band and its punk ethos, leading me to eagerly anticipate the follow up record.

And I did. I bought In Utero — my dad had to drive me to two different records stores to get it — on its release day after junior high. Naturally, I put it in the CD player and went straight for the single, “Heart-Shaped Box.” Like my beloved Dark Side of the Moon, it boggles my mind that “Heart-Shaped Box” was a hit; it’s got angular moves and a decidedly non-melodic chorus (this was where Cobain fucked with song structure a bit). And it is, by the way, one of the weakest songs on the record.

I listen to the record now and it still feels very modern. A lot of the 1990s — especially after Cobain died — “alternative” records have a certain sheen and a certain sound that leaves me cold. Nina Gordon’s solo record, for example, has a couple of good songs that were produced so poorly that I’m desperate to hear them love. It might because of Albini’s influence or it’s more likely because of Cobain’s songwriting, but In Utero sounds like it would be the best album of 2013 (note: it probably would’ve been in the running) had it been released 20 years later than it was.

Nevermind is shinier, but goddamn if In Utero isn’t harder. “Very Ape” could’ve been found on a Pegboy album (if Pegboy was a better band), while the Grohl-written “Scentless Apprentice” is a harder ape of Zeppelin. “Rape Me” showed Cobain’s ability to plagiarize himself — lyrical thematically from “Polly,” riff from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — and several songs could easily fit on Nevermind (“Serve the Servants,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” etc.).

“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is my favorite song on the album, though it’s hard to really enumerate why. I think it simply hits the pleasure centers for the “teenage angst” Cobain mentions in the first lyric of the album; the lyrics are almost spit-sung, though said lyrics are hugely veiled. Ot could be the feedback that starts the song. It could be the frenetic ending of the song and it could be the chorus:

What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with me?
What do I think? I think

I truly don’t know. It’s a song full of audio tricks and short bursts of guitar. But, it’s fast-paced and desperate and no one did desperate quite like Cobain did.

Presumably, there will be a 20th anniversary next month when April 8 comes around and we’ll mark Cobain’s suicide. Maybe Geffen will want to put out a new version Unplugged. I’m not angry at Geffen for wanting to make money off Nirvana and I certainly wish more teenagers pick up Cobain’s work and enjoy it.

But, it does make me feel old. I was a pup when I got into Nirvana, certainly. My 13-year-old self was crushed when Cobain’s body was found and I wore black for a week. I was at the perfect age to blow it out of proportion (my reaction to Elliott Smith’s death 10 years later? “Can’t say I’m surprised.”) and subsequent years found me identifying with his music more and more. I didn’t graduate to Green Day and Linkin Park or whatever the fuck happened in the mid-late decade, but rather dove deeper into underground music (post-rock, mostly) and music history (boy, did I love progressive rock).

There are certainly things that I should not get because I’m 33. SnapChat is not a thing for me because I’m not a teenager, ditto Tumblr. My generation is on Facebook, posting images of our pets and children. If that means I’m old, that’s fine. But, I am getting the pangs of frustration when there are people — lots of them — who conclude that the Foo Fighters are a better band than Nirvana. Or people who know the Foo Fighters and don’t know Nirvana. It’s rough.

I worry that Nirvana’s legacy will be forgotten as we go deeper into time. Maybe Nirvana’s legacy isn’t all that great, after all. I meet more and more people who think Pearl Jam was a great band, much to my dismay. As I go deeper into metal, I find a lot of people love Soundgarden with such emotion.

Nirvana was also the best. Simple as that. Nirvana was a band that mixed extreme sadness with furious riffs. It was a band that popularized the Pixies’ dynamics by adding hooks and a grasp on the zeitgeist of my generation.

* It should be noted that I stopped caring about the RnR HoF a long time ago. Black Sabbath took years to get in there while terrible derivative bands skate in. I’d argue that Sabbath is among the five most-influential (also best) bands that have ever existed and the band’s influence remains today.

More importantly, rock and roll is a concept that is decidedly anti-establishment. It’s something for young people to enjoy and for old people to hate (this explains why I don’t get Chief Keef. I’m not supposed to.). To set up an artifice to it is silly.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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