Missing Nirvana

Thanks to my sister’s friend, I finally got hold of a copy of Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape – Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the book is a memoir about meeting the girl of his dreams, of watching her die, and a lot of mix tapes through their years together.

While another friend of my sister recommended it (we were at Borders in Bangkok and he got the last copy, damnit!), the “Mix tape” in the title did it for me. On the book: “Mix tapes: We all have our favorites. Stick one into a deck, press play, and you’re instantly transported to another time in your life.” Never a truer statement made. Like any kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I had my share of mix tapes (eventually mixed CDs), some I made, others given. Almost all I can no longer find, probably buried in some shoebox.

Sheffield’s book is so much like a mix tape. Some references to a song or an artist make me remember. Childhood in the late 1980s spent listening to  Top 40 hits (Casey Kasem! Rick Dees!) and recording my favorites on a cassette tape, and getting shocked and seduced by grunge in the early 1990s, particularly by Nirvana.

In the chapter of August 1994,  Sheffield writes about the summer “when Kurt was dead but the promise of rock was raging on.” He writes about his fears as a husband, he writes about the MTV Unplugged special of Nirvana that kept airing over and over; Kurt singing “all through Unplugged, about the kind of love you can’t leave until you die… The married guy was a lot more disturbing to me than the dead junkie.”

I didn’t hear this back then when I was 13. All I saw and heard was this blonde guy and his band, with his guitar and scratchy voice, singing about feeling stupid and contagious, about being so lonely (and that’s okay), about a girl…so much angst, misery, love and being able to sing/shout all about it through the guitar riffs. My teenage heart was happy.

By the end of the chapter–and Sheffield writes it brilliantly, hitting the nail on the head when it comes to listening to Cobain–I was asking my husband for the iPod and shuffling through my closet for those shoeboxes. I wanted to listen to Kurt again. Maybe this time, decades older and married, I’ll hear through some of his songs about the kind of love you can’t leave until you die. Or just be transported back to that time when you felt nobody would understand what you’re feeling, besides some band from another part of the world.

“But when I listen to Kurt, he’s not ready to die, at least not in his music–the boy on Unplugged doesn’t sound the same as the man who gave up on him.A boy is what he sounds like, turning his private pain into teenage news… I hear a scruffy sloppy guitar boy trying to sing his life. I hear a teenage Jesus superstar on the radio with a song about a sunbeam, a song about a girl, flushed with the romance of punk rock. I hear the noise in his voice, and I hear the boy trying to scare the darkness away. I wish I could hear what happened next, but nothing did.” Thank you Rob Sheffield.

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4 thoughts on “Missing Nirvana

  1. Kurt was a legend and icon. He died too early and too young. Lets face it though, if he had of lived and kept making music the status of Nirvana would still not be this big.
    I am sad that I never got to see him live but I have enough live footage from around the world that I can see/listen when ever I want.

  2. Hi bookofwen. Yes, there’s a chance that if Kurt had lived longer, Nirvana might not be as legendary as they are now…but they could have also ended up making more amazing music. We will never find out.
    Will just have to go listen to their albums and watch their live footage when I start missing their music. 🙂

  3. You might enjoy this 10-part series by Steven Hyden called “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation,” a great read. Here’s an excerpt from the first part of the series.

    “The music I was listening to in 1990 had its pleasures, but ultimately, it went straight to your ears and slipped past your heart. They were just songs you eventually got sick of, nothing more. I certainly couldn’t relate to them on any kind of personal level. I couldn’t turn to them, like a friend, when I needed to smile or bawl my eyes out. If you tried to hold this music too close, you’d wind up feeling alienated. Pop music at the time was for winners, and I had the sneaking suspicion that socially awkward adolescents from Wisconsin were the opposite of winners. …

    Nevermind probably would not have impacted me in quite the same way had I been aware of the context it came out of; had I been a little older and a fan of college radio, I’m sure it would’ve just been another record that I liked about as much as Bandwagonesque or Green Mind. But Nirvana was not a band I had to discover; it came right into my world, and discovered me. …

    “It’s hard to convey today how revelatory it was hearing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ come out of your parents’ car stereo for the first time, but this was a bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle, head-slapping pop-culture surprise of the highest order. By the time I started 7th grade, I had already absorbed enough bad TV and cut-rate pop music to get a sense that culture unfolded in a predictable series of fads and trends; nothing ever came along to upset the applecart. But Nirvana clearly was not part of that. It didn’t matter that the band was on a major label; that was just underground-rock semantics and I didn’t speak that language yet. These guys were not supposed to be here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Nirvana finding you was like being sucked into a whole new reality tucked inside the simpler, grayer world you’d always known. All of a sudden it was just there. If something this incredible could exist in the world right under your nose until it streaked in seemingly out of nowhere and smacked you repeatedly across the face, what in the hell else was out there?”

    Here’s his piece on Nirvana:
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/part-2-1991-whats-so-civil-about-war-anyway,46507/

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