Tuesday, October 4, 2011
ruminations: '1991: the year punk broke'
With the big 20th anniversary of 'Nevermind' the sharp contrast of how differently the record industry functions now as opposed to then has never seemed so readily apparent. The catapult-like rise of Nirvana has left one of the most indelible marks on my music-listening life, as I'm sure it has nearly everyone in my age group. Thinking about it now it seems so much more serious than it did at the time. I suppose that's the case with witnessing a cultural shift- you can never be sure that one's even happened until much later after it's gone, but it is beyond a doubt to me at this point that Nirvana was at the epicenter of the biggest cultural shift of probably the last 40 years. I was 12 years old when 'Nevermind' came out and there really was nothing like it. Like most popular things amongst a vast majority of people, I found its quality suspect but it was always undeniable how great the record and the band actually were when I would sit in my room listening to music while doing my homework. It was unlike any other record I'd ever heard both stylistically and in its construction- the trajectory of quality spread across the tracklist is nothing short of masterful. Radiohead are famous for getting into band-breakup causing arguments over the tracklistings for their records. 'Nevermind' is a good example why- it is probably the platonic example of a perfectly constructed tracklist. My version of the CD was an early pressing that didn't have 'Endless, Nameless' after 20 minutes of silence, so what I had was a 12 song album that clocked in at just over 42 minutes. The album does have two distinct sides as well (as any Nirvana enthusiast will tell you, this was deliberate- during the planning stages of the album Kurt Cobain had seperated the album into two distinct sides: a boy side and a girl side). I was always partial to the second side (which I suppose was the girl side, maybe)- it was 'Drain You' that made me fall in love with the band- such a beautiful and strange song. That said the quality of the first side was unquestionable- 'In Bloom,' 'Breed,' 'Come as You Are,' 'Lithium,' etc.- all great songs. The second side had all of the darker, less run-of-the-mill songs- 'Drain You,' 'Lounge Act,' 'On a Plain' and 'Something in the Way.' Those were the songs that would blow me away every time when I would listen to the record alone in my room- the way that 'Stay Away' collapses and crashes to death in the whir of a dying tape machine, the disquieting 'did I just hear that?' guttural moaning sounds at the end of 'Lounge Act,' the rubber ducky noises that manage to have such an air of menace during tense middle section of 'Drain You,' the a cappella harmonies that end 'On a Plain' giving way to the rather harrowing, stark beauty of 'Something in the Way.' This is the kind of stuff that really drew me in in a way that I had never experienced before. All of the things I describe do much to bely the whole 'tossed-off, right-place right-time' kind of talk that surrounds this album. These are textural additions that were borne out of spontaneous moments that the band were smart enough to recognize as adding something to the overall proceedings and therefore purposely left them in. There's a reason that the songs are so great- because the person writing them was a great songwriter. There's a reason that the record connected with people- because the people making the record figured out ways to do so. To write it all off as dumb luck does so much to cheapen what makes the record and the phenomenon so special.
Now that I've set the scene I'm going to talk about '1991: The Year Punk Broke,' which finally came out on DVD (a prospect that has been talked about since 2004). It is a documentary that simultaneously pays homage to and makes fun of 60s concert documentaries. The subject in this case is a two week tour of European festivals that Sonic Youth invited Nirvana on with them just before the release and explosion of 'Nevermind.' This would be what Nirvana did instead of accepting stadium tour opening act invitations from Guns 'n Roses and U2. The film plays so matter-of-factly and seems tossed-off and unable to take anything seriously except for the music- which constitutes a wealth of fantastic live performances from Sonic Youth and Nirvana as well as Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, the Ramones and Gumball. Ironically the tossed-off nature has been rendered unbelievably poignant and beautiful in the aftermath of Cobain's suicide, which is to say nothing of how unbelievably different the music world is now. The performances are ragged, raw, noisy and incredibly passionate. Nirvana actually sound like they are ENJOYING performing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' To put things into perspective further, Nirvana's performance at the 1991 Reading Festival is documented here- it is more than a bit curious to consider it next to the DVD of their headlining performance at the next year's festival. Their offstage antics show them in such a wide-eyed and innocent phase that irrevocably shattered once they became platinum-selling artists, which is incredibly poignant in its own way. It's almost heart-breaking to see them this way. This documentary also sold me hook, line and sinker on Sonic Youth when I watched it in 1994 on loan from my best friend in high school. I remember watching videos for 'Kool Thing' and 'Dirty Boots' when they were still new and not being impressed until I saw the video for 'Daydream Nation's 'Teenage Riot' on an episode of '120 minutes' hosted by Thurston Moore on which Beck was the special guest (it was when they smashed a telephone with baseball bats during the interview) in 1993. Then there were these versions from 'The Year Punk Broke' which made me a convert. I still pine for this era in Sonic Youth's history- fresh off their best run of records- 'EVOL' on through 'Goo.'
What ended up happening for me with Nirvana was I ended up liking Pearl Jam more until the release of 'In Utero' and then the 'Unplugged' set (the DVD of which is one of the best of many great gifts given to me by my sister). I do, indeed, remember the details of the day when Kurt Cobain's body was found. My sister was home sick and had been watching TV all day and told me the second I walked in the front door. I spent the rest of the day (and the next two or three days probably) watching the endless loop of MTV coverage and when that finally stopped I watched my taped copy of 'Unplugged' over and over again. Ask anyone in my age group and they have a similar story.
Had I never heard of Nirvana there are so many of my favourite bands that I never would've heard of (this would definitely include Sonic Youth, for instance). They brought indie music to suburban kids everywhere- I grew up in Kansas and listened to Sebadoh and My Bloody Valentine. Without hearing of Nirvana I see no way that this would've been possible. I'll close with an appropriate anecdote: in 1995 the band I was in with my two closest friends were playing a punk show at the Harmon Park Pavilion that we had set up ourselves. We did a really heartfelt cover of 'Territorial Pissings' which elicited some wiseass comments from some of our high school-aged peers at this show, some of whom went on to play some truly by-the-numbers pop punk in their respective bands. My best friend and I were talking about it after we played and he said, "What the fuck ever. None of these kids would even know what punk was if it hadn't been for Nirvana."