As the story goes, no one guessed that Nirvana’s Nevermind would become one of the defining rock records of the ’90s, let alone top the charts at number one.
Actually, scratch all that. Considering that Nevermind sold more than 30 million copies, it’s one of the top-selling albums of all time (that’s double-platinum 12 times over, aka a “diamond” selling record), which puts Nirvana up there in some pretty stratospheric company: Michael Jackson (Thriller), Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon), The Beatles (1). That’s not only a good indication that Courtney Love’s drug dealer is rich as shit, but it means that Nevermind has transcended the album and become something much more complicated– shared experience, a universal language, even a kind of philosophy on life (albeit a pretty angsty-teenager one that doesn’t look so great post-college).
But holy crap that’s a lot of heavy baggage to carry around. When was the last time you could listen to Nevermind or anything Nirvana recorded at all without feeling kind of weird about it?
Last week an unassuming concert series called Brookladelphia that “started as an idea of creating a bridge between the Philadelphia and Brooklyn music scene[s]” brought together 13 bands at Sunnyvale to play Nevermind straight through, giving each act the opportunity to play some of their own material in between. The show, mirrored the following evening in Philly with a different set of bands, was just one of many album- and artist-homage shows that Brookladelphia has spawned. In the past, they’ve put together Fiona Fest, “Crazy” featuring the music of Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline, and a 50th-anniversary Revolver redux gathering.
Still, there was a feeling that this particular show was somewhat special. Either that, or people were just really excited to be there.
Allan D., one half of the Brooklyn “dance-pop-meets-glam-rock” duo Jen Urban and the Box, told me that he’d done a couple of these tribute shows before. “But this one was a no-brainer,” he said. “I was like, ‘Of course, Nirvana! 25 years!’ I’m lucky to be able to do this once.”
I asked him what sort of impact Nirvana’s had on him as a musician. “Every single day that I wake up,” Allan explained wide-eyed. “This came out when I was 12, 13 years old and I remember it. It was such an incredible record that we all grew up with.”
Superfandom was predictably a major impetus for the show. And Allan and Jen had a fuck-all way of showing how much Nirvana meant to them. Just before they broke out into their synthed-out dance-punk tribute to “Breed” complete with choreographed hair flips, Allan, rocking a finely-groomed mustache and an “actual ’90s” sleeveless band t-shirt, took a moment to dedicate their song to Frances Bean Cobain and a certain special someone.
Actually, hardly any of the bands at Sunnyvale attempted to imitate Nirvana exactly, save for the occasional flannel shirt and ratty jeans that looked suspiciously pre-torn. There were a couple of acts that were pushing it with the badass act. “Fuck Trump!” one guy yelled. No one could argue with that, but it seemed like his attempt to embody a version of Cobain that the Nirvana frontman himself insisted was a mythology. “I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked–out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time,” he told Rolling Stone in a 1994 interview.
The cover of “Stay Away” that followed was a little cringe-worthy in its further attempt to imitate Cobain’s butt-rock imitators with roary Nickelback-style vocals, and I’d just about had it with one of their guitars and its blinking LED fret board. Until something about the familiar quiet/loud routine and nasty, lingering feedback won me over. I mean, I still enjoy listening to Nirvana, so really I couldn’t help myself.
But for the most part, the musicians seemed like they were staying true to their own creative impulses. Even a fairly true rendition of “Polly”– the album’s acoustic detour– by Single Girl/Married Girl had the added charm of a banjo and the twee harmonies of two female vocalists who remained their folk-freak selves throughout. “Let’s play a game called hug your neighbor,” they suggested warmly. Thankfully, no one budged.
There was a reason why everyone’s take on the tracks seemed to fit, no matter how disparate from the original.
The Times did a good job of capturing the mainstream surprise and general bewilderment as to how a band playing what was essentially “adventurous college rock” had beat out some of the biggest names across the pop-rock continuum including Michael Jackson and Metallica. Even Nirvana’s own record label was floored, a record executive at Geffen admitted: “If you told me last year it would outsell U2 I’d probably die laughing.”
Combine that underground-ish appeal with everyman approachability and straight-up catchy songwriting, and you’ve got Nevermind, a perfect pop album. And you know what’s great about pop? It’s not any one thing. In fact, it’s super malleable, about as much as it is widely appealing. Even Cobain admitted that’s what he was aiming for with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band’s biggest hit and most iconic music video set inside a spooky, fogged-out high school auditorium with ornery cheerleaders. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”
Much like the Pixies, however, Nirvana has become deeply cliche over the years. “Lithium” still regularly plays on corporate radio stations and people are so inured to Nirvana’s scratchy, raucous rock that their appeal criss-crosses the music market and fans can be found in the most unlikely of places. “I told my parents on the phone before the show and they were like, ‘Oh, Nirvana!” Allan D. recalled. “And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, really?’ My Jewish parents in the suburbs were very excited about it.”
Much like orthopedic clogs, Nirvana has been so commonplace for so long, so dull and suburban that– in some circles, at least– the band has made a full revolution back to being hip again. That’s why I’d cynically assumed that the Nevermind show was going to be an ironic ’90s throwback affair. Because, let’s be real, it’s not exactly cool to blast Nirvana at a party these days unless everyone knows that you’re trolling.
“Have you guys ever heard of this band called Nirvana?”
“Never! Have you ever tried beer?”
Pulling a stunt like that would be pretty useful for calling out the Brooklyn music scene’s tendency to be insular and pretentious. But then again, organizing an ironic Nirvana tribute show is a dangerous game that could end with some seriously bad juju for dancing on a dead man’s grave to the tune of the album that actually drove him to said grave.
Thankfully, Brookladelphia’s tribute shows are anything but ironic affairs. Toward the end of the evening, one of the organizers stepped up to the mic and encouraged people to attend some of their future events. “Billy Breeze is coming up,” he said. “Obviously you all like Phish.” Dead silence followed and somewhere a cricket family died from chirping so frantically.
That sincerity, no matter how occasionally awkward, is what made the show. It’s too often the case that discussions of Nirvana get bogged down by other considerations that are totally extraneous to simply just listening to their music.
By the time Nevermind was released, people were publicly denouncing the term “grunge,” charging that, far from being an actual cultural phenomenon, it was simple a way for multi-million dollar record companies to exploit angst-raddled youth who were trapped inside bland suburban landscapes and therefore desperate for something, anything that felt authentic. Back in 1992, Jonathan Ponemon, the co-founder of Sub Pop, was quoted in a Times story titled Grunge: a Success Story: “The whole thing is a fabricated movement and always has been.” In a forthcoming documentary about Nevermind producer Butch Vig, Poneman recalls the “gold rush” that happened in the album’s wake.
Many artists and musicians themselves were annoyed and felt that “grunge” was a wanton exploitation of their vaguely punk, DIY counterculture that was being superficially translated, packaged, and sold to anyone who wanted to pay for it, as opposed to actually understand, pursue, or embody, the spoils of their hard work and realness.
This feeling of closely guarded authenticity is as potent as ever. In the back at Sunnyvale, where the bands were sorting out their gear between sets, bumping into other bands exiting the stage, I overheard someone say, “It’s a heavy pop album, but there’s still some Bleach left in there.”
Even the sincerest Nevermind tribute show ever wasn’t safe from the pop-versus-punk, commercial-versus-authentic debate. But the kid was on to something– I get the feeling that a tribute to In Utero would not have worked as well. There would be too much competition amongst bands battling it out for the distinction of Most Punk, too much imitation in a race to the gutter. Nevermind, on the other hand, allowed these bands to unabashedly embrace Nirvana’s pop appeal, and pursue their own pop projects in the process. It felt like each one of them were playing Nevermind just for the fun of it, not to prove their punk chops.
But you can’t completely scrub Nirvana-related anything of rock god reverence.
Allan D. was the biggest fan I spoke to all night. “This has been a deeply emotionally affecting situation,” he explained, feign sobbing to make up for how scary serious he was. “[My bandmate] Jen and I have moved so far beyond who we were when Nevermind was released, but we were trying to think about, What would Kurt say if he knew what we were doing?” Allan made a pained expression and cried out. “Ugh! I guess that’s because we both were in love with him at some point.”
If this was said in any other situation, I might have gagged just thinking about all the necrophilic star-fucking and Jim Morrison-style rock-n’-roll god anointing that Allan’s statement implied. But I realized Allan was just being real, and it was actually sort of endearing. Then I thought about how none of the bands seemed to care about imitating Nirvana’s sound or replicating Nevermind exactly as it sounds– the show, on the whole, was just a sincere homage to the actual music. Without even making a big deal about doing it, these 13 bands had plucked the album down from record executive heaven– the same place where Frank Sinatra commemorative plateware is made, also where the Graceland Museum was conceived– and kicked Nevermind off the pedestal where it landed. For the first time in a long time, I could actually hear the music.