Music

Grunge rock

Nirvana
Nirvana
Nirvana was an American rock band that was formed by singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987. Nirvana went through a succession of drummers, the longest-lasting being Dave Grohl, who joined the band in 1990. | Photo: | Kurt Cobain, Suicide, Nirvana, Grunge, Band,

Why it's scratching at the Coffin Lid

Plaid. Torn jeans. Torn plaid. Aged cardigans. Holey knit sweaters. Chucks. Bum gloves. Long hair. Bed hair. Shaved hair. Chopped hair. Hair gone asymmetrical. Hair dyed red, purple, pink, black. Doc Martins and cutoff denim.

If you're associating the above solely to the alternative rock/grunge era of the early '90s, then pay attention. Step outside and you'll eventually come across a young generation embracing the old and grungy tropes of a punk-rock-fueled cultural revolution. (If nothing else, Gen-X'ers gave us that.)

Whether we see it or not, grunge music still matters, and probably more than we know.

What's missing these days is alternative music. Yeah, alternative music. I'm not talking about alternative rock, because in 2012 there's nothing alternative about alternative rock. I'm just talking about alternative music, different music, raucous music; something disorderly and jarring and out of sync with what we're hearing on the radio over and over and over again (to the point where you're convinced they've put thirteen year olds in charge of radio playlists).

It's been 18 years since America's last iconic rock star put a shotgun in his mouth. Still, kids haven't forgotten him, while the rest of us just wish he was still around.

I'm not saying that grunge is coming back, or even that it should. I'm just seeing patterns. Our culture today has gone retrograde. Along with our exponential advancements in technology and digital inner-space, we're simultaneously regressing back to vintage habits. Having an iPhone, a Polaroid, a MacBook Air, and a Crosley turntable in the same room isn't anything strange. What's strange is that there isn't a trend, or shift, in today's music that would complement our fashion/gadget dichotomy of new and old.

We find ourselves in a new disco era, where the Billboard charts are at the mercy of kaleidoscope pop queens. During the old disco era of the '70s, if disco wasn't your thing, you had Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Ozzy and The Who to turn to. What can we turn to today if we wish to escape the glitzy, remixed electropop around us? Lana Del Rey's vintage sentiments are nice, but not nearly cathartic enough for me. Nirvana's 1992 garage band performance of "Territorial Pissings" on Saturday Night Live, for instance, isn't something that comes around too often. I'm sure I'm not the only one who misses rock bands thrashing their equipment on the MTV Video Music Awards.

I started asking around. The other day a friend and I were tooling along Melrose Avenue. "Polly" was playing when we went into Wasteland, one of the many (pricey) vintage stores in the area. So, I brought the subject up to a kid on the clock, who was restocking shelves with old leather shoes.

"Yeah, I think grunge is still completely relevant," he responded. "And so what if it's 2012? The '90s is just a concept, there is no reason we can't employ the same standards to indie rock now. We miss grunge now because nothing is being done to develop interesting rock music."

"Indie rock's dead, anyway'" my friend chimed. "Dead."

"No way," he replied. "What about The Entrance Band? Or Wolfmother?"

"Were you old enough to even remember Nirvana?" I asked him.

"It's not even about Nirvana so much. I'm 19 and have listened to Pavement, The 3Ds, The Breeders, St. Johnny, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and tons of other shit since I was a little kid. Believe me, decent, innovative, low-fi rock hasn't died. It's just waiting to be reborn and recreated."

It got me thinking. What would incite such a shift or revival? Where there is political and social unrest, you can always count on good old-fashioned chaos to show its face in popular culture. It's important to have an eye for hindsight, and put it all in perspective.

In the years before and after the two World Wars, bluegrass, jazz, blues, country, and folk music all slowly collided into the new genre of American rock. In the wake of the turbulence of the 1960s, politicians and social leaders were being killed in public. Bob Dylan turned his back on audiences. Jim Morrison was reviving the archaic institution of Shamanism. Jimi Hendrix set fire to his Fender Stratocaster. The Beatles released the audience-challenging "White Album." A man named Charles Manson brainwashed a group of young runaways to brutally butcher upper class socialites in the Hollywood hills, taking away America's innocence forever.

What was going on when grunge came around? In 1990, America was making its way out of a decade that was riddled with both hyper-consumerism and hyper-conservatism; the rich got richer while the poor were casualties in the war on drugs. Decadence leaked into everything. Musically, synthesizers and the outbreak of digital music coincided with the bitter implosion of Guns N' Roses. Rock was becoming a caricature of itself.

"1990 was just a year for change," Kurt Cobain tells MTV in a 1993 interview. "It was about time, y'know? It was the beginning of a new decade. It was just the right time. I mean, something did happen'." The coming of grunge seemed a subconscious answer to the youth's frustration over the expectations of modern America.

Just before a 1991 performance, the members of Nirvana sit on the floor against a wall, answering questions to an unseen interviewer. They are young and uninhibited, apologizing for nothing.

"We haven't worked for two years," bassist Krist Novoselic tells the camera, laughing. "And I encourage anybody not to work. I say slack off. Because you're only gonna be alive for 70 years, if you're lucky, right? And we just contribute to this sick, materialistic society. So, slack off. Big deal. Have fun."

"Smoke pot," chimes a young Dave Grohl.

"Smoke pot!" Krist adds. He then gives us a fun statistic to ponder, "Did you know that more people smoke marijuana in the United States than voted for George [H.W.] Bush? Think about it."

These sorts of apathetic politics, if you will, were common among the circles Nirvana ran with, a hint of their punk rock roots that hold a disdain for the system. In the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Thurston Moore more or less addresses to the camera the aims of the European tour on which Sonic Youth, Nirvana, the Ramones, Babes In Toyland, Dinosaur Jr., and Gumball have all embarked.

"This tour to me is like a dare. 'Cuz I know there are kids out there'and they have the same feelings. It's like us, and Nirvana, all the other bands that we're gonna be playing with'to us'it's like, a dare to our parents. It's a dare to'the Bush Administration. It's a dare to the KGB, who has overthrown Gorbachev just this morning, as we speak'God knows what it's going to be like in the future. And the future, to us, is a'is a dare. So, to us'fuck 'em. FUCK 'EM ALL!" he screams as he throws down the mic and proceeds with the backstage mischief that didn't seem to stop.

Today, with the economic, political, militaristic, educational and environmental facets of our society slowly putrefying before our eyes, it's surprising that mainstream music is as tame and bubblegum-poppy as it is: a new disco era rife with pop songs about clubbing and the pangs of redundant heartache. Rap used to address real issues, and even Madonna challenged the integrity of Conservative America. But today, major media conglomerates seem to have a lid on the music industry. Eminem's comeback was fine and all, but he wasn't the spitting, crude social commentator that we all loved. Even songs like "Government Hooker" and "Black Jesus" off of Lady Gaga's new album were snuffed under the less controversial singles. For good or ill, it should be mentioned that not many performers these days are messing with the status quo.

Between Occupy and Kony 2012, our protests today, whether misled or not, seem to take an over-zealous activist shape. Perhaps, though, it's a more spiritual revolution that we may be looking for. Like Tyler Durden said, on the eve of a new millennium, "Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives." Music was always a perfect catalyst for unification and direction. Maybe before changing the structure of our society, we need to begin within the abstract.

"Endless, Nameless" and "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip" are Nirvana songs that I feel serve as something like distorted, stream-of-consciousness masterpieces; more experiments in noise and sound than actual songs, and could be used as blueprint by today's guitar alchemists. Even the creation of a new instrument was birthed during Kurt Cobain's brief career. He was sentimental for the retro as well. He suggested to Fender the concept of combining the old Fender Jaguar and Mustang models. It was to be a hybrid guitar that he dubbed the Fender "Jag-Stang." He even specified a color, wanting it in aqua blue/green, "like old Mustangs." In an interview he explained that he visualized the Jag-Stang by taking polaroids of the Mustang and Jaguar, cutting them in half, and putting them together. The design resulted in two left-handed prototypes, only one of which was actually played by Cobain.

Nirvana didn't get as massive as they did because they gave us "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I mean, that was all a part of it, but it was more because they weren't some contrived studio creation. Early critics may have slammed them for selling out, but the difference is that they didn't yield to the mainstream. The mainstream actually adjusted itself to accommodate Nirvana, a rare celestial event. Thus the once-underground punk sentiments of purple hair, torn denim, and old flannel will forever be entrenched in the cool instincts of style-conscious youth.

I don't make a habit of making predictions. But something stirring in the back of my mind for the last several years has finally broken through to the surface, like one of the undead pulling itself from its grave, unleashing a forgotten hunger onto the world, onto an establishment that celebrates the trendy and conceals the dead.

Jim Morrison once said he saw music as cyclical as waves on a beach: crashing, receding, and then roaring back at us once we're convinced the waters are finally calm. Traditional folk music prefaced the 20th century folk revival that peaked in 1960s and that centered on an eccentric and skinny man named Bob Dylan. He brought folk out of the underground, added an electric sound, and helped shape the boundaries of American rock as we know it. Two decades later, through the membranes of heavy metal and punk, grunge shows up. Two decades from that, where do we find ourselves today? Why does the legacy of rock seem abandoned?

The world of rock is not all dreary, though. In the Los Angeles area alone I've noticed something among local bands, many of which play at the bar I work at. There's definitely a folk/psychedelic rock revival happening. Some of these bands look straight out of Woodstock. It's old, but fresh; it's passionate, and it's good. Who knows if it'll ever see the light of day? Outside of that, bands like Cults, Crystal Stilts, Warpaint, and The xx are getting more and more exposure by the day. Though it may or may not lead to something bigger, it points to the possibility of progression, and collision, with other sounds, hopefully making for a new rock movement in years very soon to come.

Although harsh, Nirvana's sound is universal and very much in the vein of the American tradition. You can hear the feel good pop of the Beatles in "Drain You," and you can draw parallels between "Breed" and Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop." Among other known grunge bands were Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Melvins, 7 Year Bitch, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Babes in Toyland, L7, and Alice in Chains. It seemed grunge was just getting started; then it was just as quickly aborted as the years ticked on and no one could fill the Cobain void. Did grunge die with Kurt Cobain, or did the wave just recede? And if the wave receded the day Kurt Cobain pulled that trigger 18 years ago, aren't we due for another swell? A crash that would jar us out of this digital trance?

Rock will awaken, and it will find itself in a strange future. I, for one, could use a breath of fresh air, a backlash to this digital soundscape of dubstep hypnotism and DJ demigods, a nostalgic throwback to the low-fi analogue. Maybe it's all just wishful thinking.

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Updated May 6, 2017 6:00 AM EDT | More details

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