Saturday, September 24, 2011

Essay: Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)

[Caveat: This feels terribly undercooked to me — to be honest, if this isn't about Nevermind, I don't really know what this essay is about yet. But it relates to this specific moment, so it'd just feel stale if it wasn't pinned to the calendar on this date.]

[Addendum: Having thought on it further, maybe it's about this: the younger we are, the more we live in a perpetual now; the older we become, the more we live in a perpetual then. Those few moments where one could be fully subsumed in either of those are possibly the most sublime parts of life — it's being at an indeterminate midpoint that causes anxiety. This still doesn't feel worthy to serve that point, though.]

Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)

Alternate title: It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Twenty years ago today — September 24, 1991 — Nirvana's Nevermind was released.


This is not really about that album. Although Nevermind would, eventually, go a long way toward changing the kind of music I listened to, when it came out it was nowhere on my radar.

Not because I wasn't paying attention to music. In fact, I was rather consumed by it — just not all this stuff with guys playing guitars. "Rock" music, almost as a whole, was quite foreign to me — distant, uninteresting. Why would anyone pay attention to that stuff when we were living in a Golden Age?

I finished highschool to the sounds of De La Soul is Dead and the Dream Warriors' And Now the Legacy Begins. And to the first Cypress Hill album1 and Ice-T's O.G.2 I started university with "Mama Said Knock You Out" in my walkman. The music was a big part of our lives — I remember how my friend T. deliberately scheduled a lab that first semester so he'd be able to get home in time for Rap City. That was how we rolled.3

September '91 is pretty vivid in my mind given I was starting university — a launching pad in a lot of ways into a bigger world. Looking back, I picture myself as a fresh-faced keener, assiduously going to classes and spending hours in the library4 broken up by bursts of exploring and getting lost in the three-dimensional maze that was the University of Winnipeg.5

Even without the internet, or even much media coverage otherwise, in the culturally-peripheral white hole of Winnipeg we were relatively on top of things. And if there was any album that I was excited for on September 24, 1991, it would quite certainly have been A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory.6 Later that week, a new season of SNL started, which I remember anxiously anticipating because Public Enemy was the musical guest.

It was on SNL that PE first dropped "Can't Truss It", which was a mighty single and left me droolingly eager for the album to come out.7 And when it did, I remember heading over to Musiplexx — the best music store in town at the time — with T. where we each got our copies on cassette, and headed back to the university to unwrap them. And I'd begin the process of obsessively consuming the album and grafting it onto my DNA. Listening to it over and over, yes, but also pouring over the liner notes and teasing out hidden meanings, dispatches from a world that was ours but that we by no means really understood. Absorbing every second of it, on the bus, or in Magicland, or even while in the library to study Latin vocabulary again.

That fall would also have a run of albums that kept me more than busy: Sons of the P by the Digital Underground (itself a gateway into all things Clintonesque, once I did the research to figure of what the "P" was), Ice Cube's Death Certificate, Black Sheep's A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Del tha Funkee Homosapien's I Wish My Brother George Was Here, Big Daddy Kane's Prince of Darkness. Only that last one was a bit of a letdown, and there was more, more, more. We were in the middle of a Golden Age.


And yet, quite unexpectedly, there was a whole bunch of other stuff moving into my consciousness. It's probably inevitable — no matter how focused you are, it's rather difficult not to run into other kinds of music, especially when it's carried in on a tsunami.

It would have been around the time that I started university that on a whim, while at a mall bookstore, I bought a copy of the September '91 issue of Spin magazine8 — which I'm sure I'd never previously heard of — because the cover promised an interview with N.W.A. I dunno what else rubbed off on me9, but as a diligent nerd, I read it from cover to cover. And it sparked something, for from that point I'd buy every issue for the next six years or so.

There were further inroads on my consciousness: campus radio station CKUW was then mostly a couple rooms in the basement of Manitoba Hall where a clique of too-cool hipsters hung out. The station "broadcasted" to speakers that were located in the Centennial Hall Buffeteria and the Lockhart Hall Smoketeria10 — and, for some unfathomable reason, to the dank basement space where my locker ended up being. They played the weirdest shit — in that first year, the biggest thing in their rotation seemed to be the U2 EP by Negativland. There was also one deejay who had a vintage interview with John Lydon that he played over and over — in fact, I remember hearing that interview more than any actual music by PiL. At first, this was just some sort of strange assault on my senses, but eventually all of this would impact me deeply.

Given all that, in retrospect it's mildly strange that I didn't encounter Nevermind, which was spending that whole fall rising up from the underground and becoming a phenomenon. You'd think I woulda heard of the album by the time of that December issue of Spin where — now rather infamously — Nevermind was rated behind Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque in their year-end album list.11 But so far as I can recall, the first I heard of it came when I asked my sister what I should get her xmas that year, and she said the album with the naked baby on the cover. And so I dutifully went down to Musiplexx and got that for her.

I know at some point in the next few months I basically ended up stealing the cassette back from her, but in a strong counterpoint to all those razor-sharp memories above I can't really say when. Or even recall precisely the order of event whereby it all became so ubiquitous — that video was suddenly omnipresent, and as if stone tablets with new commandments had dropped from the sky, suddenly there was this whole new pantheon of bands to learn about. Although it seems like a sudden explosion, I suppose it was a fairly-long accretion of information — and, remember, information moved a lot more slowly back then — that probably culminated the following summer with the release of the Singles soundtrack.

And meanwhile, my musical universe would expand outward at an incredible velocity, a whole new world unleashed on me mediated by what were very big, suddenly mainstream albums like Blood Sugar Sex Magik (also, interestingly, released on September 24, 1991 — though it didn't explode so quickly, either) and Ten and Badmotorfinger. But there was a tremendous momentary wobble, and for each band that was tamed by a major-label contract, and each legion of second-rate imitators and one-hit wonders that were pushed on the likes of me, there was also a light shined on amazing bands that I'd have never otherwise heard of. Not only "grunge"12, but an entire new mini-canon that would be brought to the public consciousness. There's no way I could pretend to be cool enough to claim that I had any knowledge of, say, Meat Puppets or Beat Happening or Shonen Knife or The Raincoats before they were given Kurt Cobain's blessing.

And learning of all this stuff pointed backward, to a whole hidden history where the greatest-ever bands weren't the Beatles/Stones and lesser gods of classic rock radio, but a whole other chain that stretched backwards — Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, MC5, The Velvet Underground, each of those creating their own set of expanding concentric rings. And it pointed to the city around me, where suddenly I realized that there were local bands making music on their own terms, and it could be good even if if weren't given the blessing of some far-off magazine or music station. And the same thing coming from all across the country, found in intermittent dispatches from Brave New Waves or Exclaim.

All that would, in some manner, lead me down a wayward path where rock'n'roll has stayed pretty important to me. Though I never would have suspected it in September of 1991, the ripples of Nevermind would ultimately affect me more than the ripples of all the music I loved most dearly at that moment.13


I was thirteen on June 1, 1987 — the twentieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember the day well.14 It was a big media event — the "It Was Twenty Years Ago Today" headlines wrote themselves, after all.

And I knew the album well — had known it my entire life. It was one of a pile of platters that as a small child I had mixed freely in along with nursury rhymes and other "children's" albums. It had never seemed particularly out of place amongst those.

Even at thirteen, I had a decent grasp of "the sixties" as a clear cultural category. But at the time of that anniversary, it was unquestioned that that album, and that era were something wholly foreign, discontinuous from my own existence, separated by a massive gap of time and style and technology.

How strange to reflect on that now. It still feels shocking to think that 1967 was only seven years before my birth. Seven years? Seven years is nothing to me these days. That show I went to or that girl I had a crush on seven years ago, it's like something that happened last week.

And these albums that I bought twenty years ago, and music that I discovered (and classes that I went to and essays I wrote and hours I spent cloistered in the library memorizing declensions of Latin words) seem like something not so far from me. The flow of time from 1991 to 2011 is a smooth line, a continuous flow, those days just a vibration away.

It shocks me to think that someone born in 1998 and seeing stories about Nevermind would therefore be in the same situation as I was then. No, "shocks" isn't the right word at all ——— it crushes me inside somehow, makes me feel like a pre-emptive ghost, part of history.

So then what? If there's any comfort to be drawn from all of this looking back, it's not from the warm shelter of nostalgia. Not yet, dammit. Not yet.

Maybe it's the idea that the things that turn out to be important — the things that are going to change us, transform us, give us new skins and new hearts — are, indeed, all around, even if they're not the things one suspects are important.

1 At the blooming of my first era of band t-shirt wearing, I had one that read THE PHUNKY CYPRESS HILL SHIT in block letters on the back. In a particularly tragic episode, someone stole it when it was drying on the laundry line. The older couple who lived next door took pity on me, and kept giving me shirts to make up for it, though none of them had swear words.

2 Plus, I shall not lie, there was also a lot of stuff that would now be considered monumentally uncool, like 3rd Bass' Derelicts of Dialect.

3 If there'd have been any foreshadowing of a sea change that summer, it might've been the Anthrax Attack of the Killer B's comp, which I bought because for several months it was the only way to get my hands on their collaborative remake of Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise". And though it wasn't my usual fare, in a time where I listened to stuff like this it didn't seem like too much of a step. Plus, metal was always something in the cultural background — it wasn't strange, it just wasn't my thing.

Tangentially, this is probably worthy of its own study, but that collaboration would be a launching point on a vector that would extend to the Judgment Night soundtrack a couple years later, precursor to a decade of terrible rap-metal hybrids. Thank goodness that I had enough time to refine my musical palate before that happened — if I were a couple years younger there'd almost certainly be some more — or, I should say, different — regretful stuff in my musical biography.

4 Many of those hours in the library were spent memorizing Latin vocabulary — I had a whimsical (if not mildly eccentric) streak in picking my classes in those days. And sadly, pretty much all my conjugal visits that fall were with Latin verbs.

5 Or, less productively, going to Magicland. Located on Portage Avenue, just a couple blocks west of the university, Magicland was one of our main reasons for heading downtown during high school days. It was, like, the best arcade ever. Not because of the quality of the video games particularly, but because you paid by the hour to play the games, and never had to pump quarters in. Three bucks an hour was a pretty sweet deal, and we took advantage of it a certain amount, by which I mean a lot. An exclusively guy-ish sort of ritual, it was a good reason to skip class in high school, and perhaps more of a dangerous temptation once I was just minutes away from it for most of the day — time spent in Jupiter to get more stupider. For a while, there was some danger that I was going to major in Galaga.

6 This remains a pretty fine album, and should be loudly celebrated on this, the twentieth anniversary of its release. Very much a game-changer in its own way, it still stands up as a helluva good listen.

7 In the pantheon of that year's releases, Apocalypse '91 needs to be acknowledged for its fierce excellentness, the last of a trio of back-to-back-to-back masterpieces. It was also the last flare of undiluted greatness from what was, for a very long time, my favourite band ever, which makes it slightly bittersweet.

8 If you want a first-hand look back at the era, Google books has the whole run online.

9 At the time, the story therein on Fugazi, say, certainly didn't immediately impact me, even if in looking back it feels way more like something out of my world than N.W.A. was.

10 The latter was an informal name, but it serves to reinforce how much some things have changed — when I entered university, there was still a designated, unventilated indoor smoking area. In fact, older students were still grousing at the fact you couldn't smoke in classrooms anymore. And while it's crossing my mind, I'll pause to savour the wonderfully sixties nomenclature of the Centennial Hall Buffeteria — a name now re-branded into history, if my browsing of the university's website is correct. Oh, also — universities have websites now. That was totally not a thing when I was an undergrad.

11 In fact, Nevermind was third on that list, though fewer people seem to recall that REM's Out of Time beat it, too. I suppose fewer people have an axe to grind with REM.

12 Though I certainly took in a whole lotta that — enough that eventually, in more pedantic moments, I could argue things like, "the only real grunge band is TAD".

13 As the amount of attention I paid to "alternative" music blossomed, my ardour for hip-hop slowly waned. It wasn't helped of course, that that Golden Age couldn't sustain itself, and the quality of the music as a whole dropped off. As far as I was concerned back then, after, say, Enter the Wu-Tang the landscape was pretty barren, with materialistic gangsta rap in the ascendant. In retrospect, I have no doubt that I simply missed a lot of stuff because I wasn't playing such close attention — I never picked up Illmatic when it came out, for example. But to this day, I feel a disdain for most contemporary hip-hop music — the most-praised rappers of this age seem tepid and third-rate compared to the stuff I loved. So if you happen to be looking for it, there's one point where my nostalgia has turned to an ossified "back in my day..." sort of grumbling.

14 Specifically, I remember being in the kitchen of my friend C.'s house, sitting at the counter having lunch and watching a story about it on the news. His father — a stern, distant sort of man in my eyes — was there too, and I think that reinforced the distance of twenty years, if it could be a marker of a grown-up's youth. Again, it shocks me how different the past we were there for is from the past that came before us. They should actually have different names.


  1. Really cool blog. very well written posts.

  2. The footnotes make it all worthwhile, it really brings back the grimness of post-agricultural Winnipeg in the early nineties Dark Age, with its cheap and abundant drugs, maze of tunnels leading from building to building, and leather jacket-thieving scum. I'm guessing that "My Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me" was coming out of every boombox when you walked around.