Happy Birthday Nevermind
At some point in 1994 a friend returned from a European holiday bearing a gift: a C90 tape onto which he had copied a pair of albums that he’d somehow discovered on the continent and thought I should hear. The way I like to remember it is with that hand-labelled tape being handed over along with the promise that the contents would change my life; if that actually happened then my friend was spot on. A couple of years prior to that I’d driven my family to distraction on a European holiday of our own, with my insistence on the repeated play of a tape I’d made with Michael Jackson’s Bad on one side, and Thriller on the other. That was pretty indicative of my listening at the time: pop-rock and straight pop, my first self-purchased tape was The Spin Doctors’ Pocketful of Kryptonite, and my first CD would soon be REM’s Monster. I liked music - I was interested in it; I recorded the Top 40 on a Sunday, trying to cut out as much of the presenter’s commentary as possible - but it wasn’t a huge part of my life in any meaningful way.
That tape my friend handed me changed that. Nevermind on one side; In Utero on the other - it is the most magical piece of plastic I’ve ever owned.
The argument has been made countless times that Nevermind is the most influential album of the last 20 years. I find that pretty convincing, but regardless of its impact on the music ecosystem as a whole it is undoubtedly at the centre of my own musical universe. I can trace pretty much everything I listen to on a regular basis back to it, even if it’s by relatively extended degrees of separation. In the first instance Nirvana led me to Pixies, Black Flag, and Pearl Jam among others, which in turn led me to Fugazi, Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees and countless other bands. The diagram, if I set my mind to drawing it, would be colossal, and Nevermind would be right there in the middle.
I remember Cobain’s voice took some time to get used to. If you take into account the records that had occupied my Walkman up to that point it becomes obvious that he wasn’t playing by the same rules as the singers in those bands. His delivery is raw, un-self-conscious and powerfully emotive, and though it didn’t fit with my idea of “good” singing at the time, I was drawn magnetically to something about it. And the same went for other aspects of the album: the (relative) grittiness of the production (exhibited to a far greater degree on the other side of the tape); the huge drum sound; the ringing, shrieking distortion that somehow managed to remain tuneful…
Nevermind put me under its spell quickly. I fell in love with it not by increments but in one swoop, and deeply. Infatuated with every note of it I began digging around for more: Bleach of course, and Incesticide I found pretty quickly; the same friend who had brought the enchanted object into my life was able to supply me with bootlegged concert tapes and recorded interviews. I had quite the haul of these holy trinkets before I found out that they were all I’d ever have - that the man behind the distortion and that voice had taken his own life.
Kurt Cobain’s suicide has its place as one of the founding legends of my youth, just as it does for many of my generation, and just as Kennedy’s assassination had for our parents’. At times I embraced it morbidly, explored the shadowy depths of its martyr symbolism and wallowing in its beautiful, unimpeachable sadness. I see that now as a natural part of coming to terms with the concept of death - something which forms a part of adolesence equal in both importance and messiness to the period’s bodily changes. It is impossible to calculate to what extent the tragedy of that death, and the extent to which its legend has been canonised, has coloured the legacy of the music. Nevermind’s massive popularity is often spoken of as being some curious mix of owing to and having caused its author’s suicide.
It only takes the simple act of listening to it, even 20 years after its release, to render the conversation meaningless. None of its magic has been depleted, and it still holds firmly that quixotic middle ground between belonging to its era and being truly timeless. Nevermind’s cultural impact is colossal, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is comprised of millions of tiny revolutions the album has inspired in countless hearts the world over in the last two decades.