This year – 2011, if you forgot – marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. As with all such moments, reissues, tributes, and all kinds of analysis and discussion will spring from the well. I don’t recall this much fuss when The White Album turned 20.
I am not here to fellate Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, or their legacy, nor am I here to kick them in the balls. Let me say for the record that I do like Nirvana. I was just never one of those kids who obsessed over them. I was almost 21 when the band released its second album, so I was very much aware of the state of music and the effect that Nirvana had – much more so than say when punk broke. (I was only six.) I don’t even own a copy of Nevermind. I never needed to. Almost every person I have lived with since the album dropped has owned a copy. I believed in 1991 and am still convinced that if it wasn’t Nirvana, it would have been the Pixies.
Yes, Nirvana was a good band, and there is no denying the impact the band had on the medium and the industry. Cobain’s principle strength was not in his guitar playing but his songwriting, exposing his soul to his audience in ways few rock stars (or any celebrity) would feel comfortable doing. His rawness and honesty were embraced by fans who in turn trusted him. Cobain’s celebrity, commercial success as an artist, and perhaps even a genuine likability enabled him to champion other artists, often lost to time, overlooked by the industry, or as with the Jesus Lizard or William Burroughs, perhaps just a bit too far off the familiar path. In my opinion, this is one of Cobain’s greatest contributions to music.
His promotion of artists like The Raincoats and The Vaselines not only revived the careers of these bands but also exposed them to a far greater audience than they ever would have reached on their own. He managed to get The Vaselines to briefly re-form and open for Nirvana when the band came through Edinburgh in 1990 – before Nevermind. In 1992, Cobain managed to convince his former label Sub Pop to release The Vaselines’ entire catalog on The Way of the Vaselines. Nirvana would eventually cover three Vaselines songs: “Son of a Gun”, “Molly’s Lips”, and “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”, which Cobain retitled “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam” for the famed Unplugged performance.
In late 1993, he did the same thing for one of his personal favorite bands, The Raincoats, getting DGC and Rough Trade to release The Raincoats’ first three albums – complete with Cobain and Kim Gordon-penned liner notes. Cobain’s love of The Raincoats and an encounter with band founder Ana da Silva in a London antique shop were documented in his liner notes for the Incesticide album. The success of the reissues prompted The Raincoats to re-form in celebration. After recording a session for John Peel on BBC1, Cobain asked them to play on tour with Nirvana as the band toured the UK in April of 1994. A week before the tour was to begin, Cobain died.
William S. Burroughs
Between Nevermind and the release of its follow-up, In Utero, Cobain collaborated with poet and author William S. Burroughs on the author’s piece “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”. Recorded separately in two sessions in the fall of ’92, Cobain played dissonant guitar overdubbed on Burroughs reading. Not only does the collaboration lead one to pause, but upon researching what Cobain is playing, a whole new appreciation for the artist may be warranted. His music is based off elements of “Silent Night” and a theme called “To Anacreon in Heaven”, parts of which were used to write the “Star-Spangled Banner” – a far cry from smelling of teen spirit.