I've got to confess that Nirvana was kind of lost on me when I first heard them. I had a declared affinity for Metallica and Guns n' Roses, I was still grieving over the death of Stevie Ray Vaughn, and I had just encountered Alice in Chains for the first time. The first of Nirvana that I heard was in Chicago (HUGE snowstorm) when this kid from Bellevue, Washington, put his headphones on me and told he had something that was going to mess with my head and I'd never be the same again. What happened was that I didn't get it. I loved punk, but this rage and passion felt unfocused and I was (maybe am) plenty unfocused without extra encouragement. So I kind of forgot about them, honestly.
About eight months later, October '91, when I was failing at teaching poetry to middle-schoolers, one of my students brought in Nevermind. She begged me to discuss it with the class. I told her that if she would transcribe the lyrics I would consider letting the class discuss one or two of the songs, but we had to leave the song titles off and we couldn't say where the "poems" came from. So the class took on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come as You Are." We read the lyrics out loud (truly weird) and ended up in small groups talking about what true friends are, what they wanted (I wanted) out of life, what it feels like to feel stupid and out of control, and so on. They got it, I bought the cassette tape, and I almost became a sort-of fan, until a friend from college gave me a copy of Pearl Jam's Ten. As if that wasn't enough, I picked up a copy of Badmotorfinger THAT SAME OCTOBER. It was sensory overload and Nirvana just barely landed a glancing blow on my early 20s brain, while Soundgarden and Pearl Jam pulverized my hippocamus (that's the part of the brain responsible for memory, emotions, and, interestingly, the sense of smell).
Two years later in graduate school, I had this roommate who drank Bourbon, smoked pot, dated an older woman, listened to Dan Fogelberg, and ate Cheerios for supper. We had a cool friendship, but I will never forget watching over and over again the Nirvana Unplugged concert that we taped (yes, taped...as in VHS) the night before we both left for Christmas break. Cobain played guitar with a quarter, wore that odd-fitting sweater, and looked out of sorts at times and so out of place in that room. He looked frail. Yet my roommate and I couldn't stop watching. We'd come home from class, watch Nirvana Unplugged, then go to work. It might not have inspired the best moods, but it worked for us.
That April Friday when Cobain's death was announced on the radio, my roommate and I brought how Thai for supper, drank too much beer, watched The Godfather, then drank too much bourbon. Our VHS that had Unplugged on it ended up on the bookcase behind the t.v., and never moved until we moved out the last of our things that summer. It was sad. It made everything feel sad for a while. I think it might have highlighted why I was unnerved by Kurt Cobain--he deconstructed me.
Cobain said he didn't want to be the spokesperson of a generation, but he couldn't help that he gave voice to the angst that so many of us were too scared to admit. The kicker is that for all of my trying to avoid him, he had something to say that mattered. So then I bought this special edition of Rolling Stone dedicated to Nirvana and in reading the articles and interviews, it occurs to me that Cobain said something that everybody who wasn't cool could relate to, something that everybody who'd been bullied could understand, something that everybody who kept the pain mashed down could give a knowing nod, and something that challenged everybody to talk about real stuff. His music makes so little sense in the world of starched collars and business suits that it almost makes too much sense.
So, this week, I'm going to give him some time. It seems like the least I can do for somebody who, without my even knowing it, changed my sense of smell.