ALL IN ALL IS ALL WE ARE: Ten years ago today, I was sitting around in the Green Lounge at The University of Chicago Law School on my Admitted Students Weekend visit.
And then the news came in. He's dead.
No one was surprised. I remember explaining to one guy (then a stranger) what I thought it all meant, but the thing I remember most about that day was the utter inevitability of how it all felt. Kurt Cobain lived a junkie's life, and died a junkie's death, and there was nothing glamorous about it, then or now.
What I remember about his life isn't the sadness, but the excitement. Throughout my college years, the big musical arguments were over "indie cred" -- was a band being true to its musical tastes, or was it just trying to make money.
Well, with Nirvana, they got both. I remember the first time I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Dave Jarman's WAMH radio show. And then I heard it again two hours later, when the next DJ knew he had to play it. And over, and over, and over. You could not get away from that goddamned upside-down take on Boston's "More Than A Feeling", and it it just felt liberating. The mumbled verse-chorus-verse made you want to, need to, rock out loud.
Did Nirvana change anything culturally? Only for a few years, during which other underground bands finally got paid, finally got airplay, until "alternative" and "counterculture" just became hipper marketing labels, but that's a tale Thomas Frank tells better than I do.
What we still have are the songs, whether it's the unplugged "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" with Kurt in that old ratty sweater, the fury of "Territorial Pissings", the sadness of "All Apologies" and the way my hairs still stand on end from excitement every time I hear the chorus of "Lithium". I remember moshing, and feeling liberated in the pits. I remember the live concert at MTV in 1992 when they trashed the stage. I remember Kurt's anger at those assholes who ruined "Polly" for the rest of us.
None of it feels long ago at all.
That summer, after Cobain's death, I was working again as a counselor at a summer program for gifted kids (12-16) at Johns Hopkins. Among my responsibilities was deejaying the Friday night dances. Every week, some of them would demand that I play something off of Nevermind, and I'd always think, "How could these kids get Nirvana?"
But then I'd play the disc, and they moshed their little hearts off. There was something so primal, so basic in what Nirvana was doing that they felt it too. Maybe it's that desire we all have, sometimes, to declare our independence and individuality. Maybe it's just that it was loud, and loud = cool.
We've all got our Nirvana memories. What's yours?
(Also worth reading.)