“Nevermind will forever be remembered as a vehicle for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and its subversive effect on mainstream culture. It’s periodically brilliant, but half of the material on Nevermind is filler.”

-Chuck Klosterman

Okay. So. Part III.

One rule I set out for myself on my quest to vindicate Cobain from the evil clutches of Klosterman: I will not use the “you had to be there” argument to justify any of my feelings for Nevermind. Yes, much of the greatness of Nevermind lies in its social context, and especially its relationship to music that came before it like The Youngbloods, Aerosmith, Husker Du and so many more. But there is enough musical greatness within its contents not to need to resort to arguments relating to Nevermind’s “subversive effect on mainstream culture.” This is not a post about culture. It’s a reassessment of a great album 20 years later to see–with all of that other stuff out of the way–how great it really is, especially in relation to Appetite for Destruction, which I examined at length in Part II.

The Production

It’s hard to deny the jet propulsion of Nevermind. The production values producer Butch Vig employs on the record are so wonderfully saturated, like the colors in that giant red flower picture outside your local camera store. It gives these songs about anger, sadness, ambivalence and confusion a throbbingly romantic sheen, making the record almost a celebration of its own malaise. If Nevermind is about one thing, it’s about the romance we have with our anger. It’s about the cathartic and attention-getting aspects of it, before it becomes self-defeating, as it did for the band’s singer-songwriter. And the production, as much as any other aspect of the record, conveys that sentiment perfectly.

The Band

At some point in this post I’m going to have to admit that GnR are indeed better, more innovative musicians than any of the three Nirvanas–with the possible exception of Dave Grohl, who can play rock drums with anyone–so let’s just get it out of the way right now. There is definitely less going on musically on Nevermind than on Appetite. An easy explanation might be the fact that Nirvana is merely a three-piece to GnR’s five, but I think that lets Nirvana off the hook too easily. In the modern–hell, even the not-so-modern–recording arena, it doesn’t matter how many people are in your band; producers can put hundreds of tracks down for a single song, making any tune as big and complicated as they want it to be. No, Nirvana is more staid and by-the-book musically than Guns ‘n’ Roses, and we’re just going to have to live with that.

But in their defense, Nirvana’s raison d’etre is to cut against the barroom aesthetic Guns ‘n’ Roses so proudly espouses. It’s unfair to expect musical complexity from a band that never wanted it. We don’t blame Bob Dylan for not being Steely Dan, or vice versa. It’s simply not what they do. Working within a pop-punk aesthetic–simple progressions, hooky melodies, relying on intensity over technical skill–Nirvana’s musical purpose is to be as different from Guns ‘n’ Roses as possible, while still occupying the heavy-rock format. You’d think such an attitude would only get you so far, but then a record like Nevermind comes along.

**Geeky Observation Warning**-The Chord Changes in the Verses of “In Bloom”

You all know “In Bloom” (“He’s the one who likes/All our pretty songs…”). Well, I’ve always wondered about the chord changes in its verse sections (“Sell the kids for food/Weather changes moods…”). On the front end, it’s a fairly standard, kind of bleak hard rock progression (For those of you in the know: B flat to F sharp to E flat). Then it does something strange. It goes to B, then to A, before it goes back to the B flat that started the progression.

Big deal, right? Well, it kind of is. Going to these two chords (to be technical, a diminished first and a major seventh) before going back to the B flat (first) is actually really strange. I’ve never heard, or at least noticed, it in any other song.

I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor that best explains this feat to non-theory people, and this is the closest I can come: Say you’re standing in a barrel and you want to get out of it. How would you go about it? You’d probably boost yourself out with your hands and then hop down. You might swing one leg over, then the other. You might even push the barrel over and crawl out. What you wouldn’t do is spring flat-footed straight up and land with both of your feet on the barrel’s lip. If you did that, you’d probably fall, or you wouldn’t get both of your feet down at the same time, sending the barrel toppling over. That’s a bit what going to B, then A before going back to the B flat is like, a weird kind of balancing act that probably only works because the two chords are played in succession, the weirdness of one balancing out the weirdness of the other and keeping the song from toppling over.

Anyway, hardly earth-shattering, but it is ground-breaking as heavy rock goes. Nevermind, with its competent if underwhelming axeslingers operating from a simple, anti-metal aesthetic, doesn’t offer much in the way of musical surprises, but the band manages to come up with a unique element here.

The Solos

Okay, we all know Nevermind is not the Holy Grail of solo guitar playing, and I’ll spare you (and me) any in-depth analysis of Cobain’s solo chops. Once again, Cobain is working within a punk/anti-metal aesthetic that shuns all that crap, favoring solos that mimic the melody of the lyrics, or going with something chaotic, noise-ridden or purposefully dissonant. It’s a guitar style I happen to like, but I can’t claim the guitar solos on Nevermind are “better” than those on Appetite. They’re different, and they serve the songs’ melodies and themes, and that’s all I dare ask of them.

The Voice

I believe that the sound of a singer’s voice, that undefinable way a singer evokes one mood from one person and another from another, is vital. If a singer’s voice doesn’t speak to you, nothing else–not even a great song–is going to save it. I feel this way about so many singers. Stevie Wonders could sing the fine print from my car insurance policy and I’d love it. Celine Dion could sing Bob Dylan’s greatest hits and I’d turn it off somewhere between “Once upon a time” and “You dressed so fine.”

Central to the exchange is the feeling that we believe the singer. There’s something about the timbre of the voice, or the way he phrases his words, or shapes his melodies, that we inherently trust, or don’t. He charms us, and once this contract of good faith is signed with the listener, the singer gets a lot of leeway. He can sing nonsensical words, or just scream, and that’s all okay. Hell, sometimes it’s preferable. You’d have a beer with this singer, loan your car to this singer, even let him marry your daughter…okay, maybe your niece.

Cobain’s voice is one I believe and trust. It’s a young but genuinely world-weary voice. It suggests someone who’s tough, in his way, and who isn’t going to let someone bigger and more narcissistic than him–like, say, Axl Rose–push him around. He’s clearly in pain, as all of us are at times, and we trust him for evoking that pain so clearly and lucidly, giving both his and ours dignity. He’s brave, putting it all out there where someone could easily take shots at him for it. Despite the elusiveness of explaining the appeal of Cobain’s–or anyone’s–voice, I give him a thumbs-up in this department, which is really more like giving a thumbs-up to his soul.

Lyrics, Phrasing and Melody

There is no reason why a songwriter should have to stand by his words as separate entities from his singing of them–we listen to songs, we don’t read them. Cobain, as evidenced in his less evolved work on other albums, was clearly focused first and foremost on the way his words sounded, and often seemed only secondarily concerned with what they meant. The real truth, for a songwriter like Cobain, lies in the feelings his singing evokes in an instinctual, non-literary way. Cobain didn’t stress about lyrics in much of his work, and considering the wonder of Nevermind, I don’t know why we should either.

I’ve always pictured Cobain grunting and groaning his way through the melodies of his songs until he comes up with lyrics he likes. (I have to believe Axl is more deliberate with his songs’ thematic choices. “Let’s write a song about my daughter,” or “I think I’ll write a song about when I first came to L.A.” Nothing wrong with that, but it engages Axl’s literal mind too much, making his lyrics–when they miss–forced and trite.) This style of “grunt until it means something” might sound like I’m paying Cobain short shrift, but I really believe it’s the best course for the writer of heavy rock. Cobain instinctually knows the importance of the way his voice sounds, especially when his words mean little. It makes those times when he hits on genuine insight all the more impactful.

What might best illustrate this point are the first lines of the chorus of “Smells like Teen Spirit”: “With the lights out/It’s less dangerous.” Does anybody out there want to take a guess at what Cobain means by those lines? I could take stab at it: something to do with it being easier to take a chance or to get away with something when the “lights are out,” or when nobody’s looking. It’s not a bad sentiment, but nothing compared to the earth-shattering next one: “Here we are now/Entertain us.” That is what Cobain’s writing style allows him to do. He can get by with something vague, almost nonsensical, letting his voice and melody do the heavy lifting, and then drop the lyrical bomb on you when he happens upon it. His songs fluctuate, sometimes from line to line, between meaning nothing and meaning everything. Such a style lends itself perfectly to hard rock, where the lyrics aren’t the most important thing going on, and also conveys the relationship between anger and ambivalence that is Nevermind’s hallmark.

Having said all that, below are some examples on Nevermind where I think Cobain separates himself as a songwriter from the rest of the pack.

“Smells like Teen Spirit”-No line better nails my generation than “Here we are now/Entertain us.” Blunt, demandingly funny, self-indicting, I always imagine it’s Kurt’s take on the people staring at him from the front row, their arms crossed, watching him play. As with seemingly all of Cobain’s lyrics, there’s a dual sense of both sympathizing with and making fun of those he writes about and, often, himself.

“In Bloom”-I’ve heard it implied that Kurt is looking down on the character he sings about in this song (“He’s the one/Who likes all our pretty songs/and he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he don’t know what it means”). I’ve always heard that “Don’t know what it means” as more sympathetic toward the one who can’t understand the song. It both is and isn’t, of course, and that duality is where Cobain’s lyrics derive much of their strength. But I think Cobain has more pathos for his subject here than others, and maybe Cobain himself, realize.

“Come as you Are”-First of all, what a melody. John Lennon would’ve heard this one and said, “Blimey, that’s good.”

I’ve always loved the lyrical series “As a trend/As a friend/As an old memory.” Cobain was so good at grouping seemingly disparate thing together in a way that evoked patterns that feel genuine, mimicking the way one feels emotion or experiences reality. Trends and friends and memories are all right next to each other, almost like they’re coming to narrator’s mind in succession, like we’re taking a tour of his thoughts. For me, the only other songwriter in the world who can so subtly create these patterns of meaning is Brent Babb, who is the songwriter in the Tempe, Arizona band Dead Hot Workshop. I think Babb is the best, most complex and rich, hard rock songwriter of his generation, but Cobain ranks right behind him, particularly with these types of associations.

“Breed”-The “I don’t care” song. Listen to the way Cobain phrases this tune, in particular the way he hits that fifth “care” in this series. It’s sort of this dramatic pause that almost negates the demanding “I don’t care”s that come before it. Looked at this way, the verse goes from a snotty declaration (“I don’t care”) to the more general, thoughtful and ruminative “care,” and that combination seems to perfectly reflect the pattern of emotions we associate with anger. When we get angry, we shout things like “I don’t care.” Then as the anger melts away, we get more contemplative; we might start to regret the anger, or think more contemplatively about it. Either consciously or unconsciously, Cobain combines these related emotions in a seamless way that makes the listener recognize, maybe for the first time, the relationship between them.

“Lithium”-The “I’m so happy” song. My favorite part is the wonderful series of lines in the bridge (“I like it/I’m not gonna crack”). Again, Cobain is expertly putting together things that ostensibly don’t go together, combining declarations of the simple and positive (“I like it,” “I love it,” etc.) with a repeating statement of mental stability, or lack thereof (“I’m not gonna crack”). This is one Axl should give a listen if he’d like to learn how to render “craziness.” Cobain isn’t telling us how crazy is; he’s showing us how a crazy mind works, going straight from benign and generally positive declarations to a seemingly wishful declaration of his own sanity. That lithium sure came in handy, eh?

“Polly”-The “Polly wants a cracker/Think I should get off her first” song. Again with Cobain’s phrasing. The chorus has a series of three-syllable lines (“Isn’t me/Haven’t seen/Let me clip/Dirty wings”), which are followed by the five-syllable “Let me take a ride.” It’s a subtle shifting of phrasing–just like that fifth “care” in “Breed”–that really strikes me as effective. It reminds me of the way a poet would alter his rhyming scheme in one line to shake up a poem that had gotten too sing-song-y. Imagine this chorus without the line “Let me take a ride.” Still pretty, but by the eighth time Cobain hits a three-syllable line, you’re ready to hit the skip button.

“Territorial Pissings”-The “Gotta find a way” song. I admit that Cobain’s lyrics and melodies in this song aren’t his most distinguished, but the tune is hardly “filler,” as Klosterman would surely like to brand it. The most significant part of the song comes at the end, when Cobain repeats the chorus (“Gotta find a way, a better way, a better way”) until his voice gives out, singing the entire last series of lines in a struggling, squeaky falsetto. Leaving this damaged, desperate portion of singing in the final mix is a wonderful decision by Cobain and/or producer Butch Vig. How could Cobain better render someone at the end of his rope, someone who desperately needs to “find a better way”? This is an instance where Cobain uses every tool at his disposal to render the content of his lyrics. (Imagine what Axl would’ve done if, late one night in the studio, he’d cut a similar take. I’m guessing the assistant engineer had better find the delete button pretty quick.) This moment is a disarming look at Cobain, who isn’t afraid of being seen at his most vulnerable, a quality we associate with great songwriters like, for example, John Lennon.

“Drain You”-The “One baby to another said/I’m lucky to meet you” song. For me, the melody alone saves this tune from Klosterman’s filler status. I admit to never having given the lyrics a second thought before writing this piece, but the theme of what I’ll call “medical procedures as a way of sharing intimacy” are pretty striking. Medical procedures are quite intimate (and if you don’t know what I mean, I hope you never do).

“Lounge Act”-Again, melody rules. And Cobain never pulls us out of the spell with a single over-reaching lyric.

“Stay Away”-The “monkey see, monkey do” song. I’ve always loved the “I don’t know why” in the verses, mimicked by squealing the guitar, and to me the song is relevant for that alone. Admittedly, “Stay Away” is probably not a hard rock classic, but after tracks 1 through 9, does it really need to be?

“On a Plain”-The “I’m on a plain/I can’t complain” song. Again, lovely melody, and I’ve always thought the background vocals on the line “Love myself better than you” sounded like Steven Tyler. It’s Nevermind‘s most pop-metal song. Thank goodness Geffen Records didn’t make it a single–sort of a follow-up to “Hate Everything about You” by Ugly Kid Joe–or rock history might have gotten sorely fucked up.

“Something in the Way”-This droopy closer was never one of my favs, but I admit a fondness for that “Yeah” in the chorus.

So, what have we learned?

We’ve learned that, despite Klosterman’s assertion that Nevermind is loaded with filler, I sure as hell can’t find it.

We’ve learned that, despite Almond’s offense at having Cobain mentioned in the same sentence as John Lennon, the two share, at minimum, a penchant for the irresistibly hooky melody and a willingness to do whatever it takes vocally to make a song go.

We’ve learned how weird chord changes can be like jumping flat-footed out of a barrel and balancing on its lip.

We’ve learned that GnR as a band is probably more innovative than Nirvana, but Nevermind through its production is probably more innovative than Appetite.

We’ve learned that Axl almost can’t help but allow his vocals to get in the way of the song, and that Cobain almost can’t make his vocals get in the way of the song.

We’ve learned that Axl’s voice is as noteworthy as Cobain’s soul.

And we’ve learned that, once and for all, Nevermind trumps Appetite for Destruction. Come on, it just does.

For those of you who made it through all 6,500 words of this three-part series, thank you for coming along. I hope it was as fun to read as it was to write. Up next, Nothing’s Shocking versus Shout at the Devil! (Just kidding.)

P.S. Is anyone interested in learning to write like this? Here’s your chance. I’m teaching the never-before-ventured online Rock and Roll Writing course at the Basement Writing Workshop. Get your butt-less chaps ready. Class starts on October 4th.

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ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

87 responses to “Cobain is to Rose as Van Gogh is to Rockwell-Part III-Nevermind”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    I love “In Bloom.” Far and away my favorite on that album, save the first 20 seconds of “Come As You Are,” which, in the right context, can make the hair on the back of my neck stand up in a way that no other grunge-era song can, except maybe certain offerings from Alice in Chains

    Anyway.

    I was never the HUGEST Nirvana fan. I liked them a great deal, but in my mind the competition was always between Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and Pearl Jam usually won.

    Nirvana has a powerfully nostalgic effect on me, but I wear out on Nevermind nowadays. I rarely make it all the way through the album. Maybe I wear out in the way you get tired of hearing someone’s voice if you spend or have spent too much time with them. I used to sympathize with Cobain more than his music. I used to love his meandering interviews, filthy hair, gorgeous face, etc. Teenage girl stuff.

    Regardless of my feelings, though, anyone who denies the singularity or influence or spartan genius of that album is just being an impossible pain in the ass. The kind of person who gets pissy and starts talking about different wavelengths of light when you tell them the sky is blue.

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    Oh. And I love Dave Grohl. He may be the greatest ambassador Rock-n-roll has ever seen.

    • Art Edwards says:

      To really appreciate Dave Grohl’s contribution to Nevermind, one need only listen to Bleach.

      Thanks for hanging in there with me, Becky.

      Art

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Dave Grohl is great. One of the greatest drummers of all time, all-round rock god and general nice guy.

      I prefer the Foo Fighters to Nirvana. I’m not saying they’re the better band or anything, but I could listen to them for hours quite happily.

      I like Nirvana but only in small doses because it’s like listening to a depressed kid whining about every like, everything, totally, like sucks, man. It gets boring after a while. I’m too happy and well adjusted to take it.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Maybe that’s it. Maybe Grohl is Cobain for grown-ups.

        Like, maybe when you graduate from angry teen to snarky, punchy adult, your preferred rock idol persona has to change too.

        I would happily sit and drink beer with Dave Grohl any day.

        And then go watch his concert.

        And then ask him to babysit my kids. If I had any.

        He’s that kind of dude. Nary a fault to be found.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I love the video of the Foo Fighters gig at Wembley when they were joined by Jimmy Page and JPJ and Grohl starts weeping with emotion. Like, he wanted to be John Bonham as a kid, and taught himself to drum with pillows and Led Zep records and his boyhood dream is pretty much coming true.

          And he’s so overcome with emotion that he wells up.

          It always seems to be that he’s ‘one of us.’ A music fan who just happens to have a pretty successful rock band, rather than someone above mere fans. If that makes sense.

        • Art Edwards says:

          I’m not much of a follower of Grohl’s career. I do know he once kept Steve Almond waiting 56 hours to do an interview with him, which I’ll never quite forgive him for. But to read the piece, Grohl recovered nicely and had Almond eating out of his hand by the end.

          So, the legend of his charm precedes him.

          Oi!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Irwin’s got it pretty spot-on.

          Grohl is a big kid, in the most endearing way. He’s playing. Like, I mean, while he’s playing. I suspect he may actually really just love his job. Perhaps more than any musician on earth. And what’s more endearing than that in a music world full of multi-millionaire pissers and moaners?

          Increasing the charm factor: His tendency to cover all kinds of strange songs just for his own amusement. He did Band on the Run both with and without McCartney, Tiny Dancer…the list just goes on and on.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I love his version of Tiny Dancer where he just keeps doing the chorus.

          He also did Stairway to Heaven, including the solo, without playing a guitar.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Wow, this guy does everything.

          He sounds like a rookie who just made the big league team, only he’s been in the big leagues for 20 years! Very endearing.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          He’s got a guitar…on the Kilbourne show? But he can’t remember the words. So he’s got the audience prompting him.

          Interactive rock-n-roll.

          Then he plays the rhythm part and sings the solo. Goof.

          Here, for Art’s benefit, is the infamous Tiny Dancer performance. If it doesn’t endear him to you immediately, Art, your soul is broken.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fjX5tf3cAk

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Art, he seems to be as popular with other musicians as he is with the hoi polloi, which leads me to suspect the nice-guy thing isn’t an act.

        • Gloria says:

          Grohl is totally a big kid.

          Just a few minutes ago, my friend Jake referred me to this:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8eTfaEErDw

          That’s too much fun contained in one space.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I didn’t know about that one.

          And I just found this one. As a huge CCR fan, I am now more in love with Grohl than ever before. Poor Art. His Cobain post has now become the Dave Grohl show.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kh7P3gmm_cM

          And what’s he playing it for?

          Hurricane relief.

          Coolest boy scout ever.

      • Art Edwards says:

        James, It is shocking how droopy Nevermind is compared to the rock of today, Foo Fighters included.

        Art

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Good defense of the music. Very poignant of you to front and dismiss the whole argument that its merit lies in the place it occupied in its cultural context.

    The best discussion of this album’s production that I’ve ever heard comes from the producer himself. “Classic Albums” is a music lover’s wet dream and the album devoted to “Nevermind” is among the best. In this clip here Butch Vig sits behind the soundboard and walks you through “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

    The discussion of “Something in the Way” is my favorite. He says it was the most difficult track on the album to record. Check it out.

    Good luck with your course, as well!

  4. Matt says:

    Fucken’-a.

    I’ve always been more inclined to listen to Nevermind than I am Appetite, both then and now. As an adult, Nevermind is one of those records that has the previously-discussed nostalgia effect: the moment I put it on, I am once again the 12 year-old who just shelled out $10 of his allowance money (about a month’s worth of earnings) for a cassette copy. Appetite, for all its value as a rock album, has simply never had this effect on me.

    Very excellent work here, Art. Well worth the three trips to the well. And it made me realize that it’s been a while since I listened to Nevermind in its entirety. I mean to rectify that shortly.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Thanks for coming back a third time, Matt. What pleasure it is to write these things knowing someone will read them.

      The nostalgia is hard to cut through, and that’s almost too bad, because the record can stand on its own.

      Art

  5. Gloria says:

    Woot!

    There goes my Wednesday.

  6. Gloria says:

    I believe that the sound of a singer’s voice, that undefinable way a singer evokes one mood from one person and another from another, is vital. I think this is 100% true and is proven again and again. It’s discussed in depth in Becky’s piece on Rufus Wainwright. That said, I love Cobain’s voice. (And that said, I can’t stand Wainwright’s. There’s no accounting for taste. But also, I’d like to point out that it’s really hard to totally agree with your assessment that “There is no reason why a songwriter should have to stand by his words as separate entities from his singing of them.” In fact, because I hate Dylan’s voice so much or because Black Flag and The Dead Kennedy’s are so unpleasant to me aesthetically, I would never have known the beauty of “All Along The Watchtower” or Rollins’s or Biafra’s spoken words if I’d never read them.)

    I can’t speak to any of the assessments you give of the musical arrangements; but I can say that your barrell metaphor is delightful.

    However, everything you say about Cobain’s minimalist yet sometimes dizzyingly profound lyric writing is dead on.

  7. Art Edwards says:

    “In fact, because I hate Dylan’s voice so much or because Black Flag and The Dead Kennedy’s are so unpleasant to me aesthetically, I would never have known the beauty of “All Along The Watchtower” or Rollins’s or Biafra’s spoken words if I’d never read them.”

    Great point, Gloria. I hit that point a little too hard. There’s no reason lyrics *can’t* stand on their own, as they do in the cases you mention. I just don’t think a singer should have to defend her words. I’m thinking of the scat signing of Ella, Sarah Vaughan, et al, where there are no words, and we love the effect.

    • Gloria says:

      Yes, but Fitzgerald and Vaughn could sing the shit out of some scat. The quality of their voice was never in question. As a matter of fact, scat was a way to celebrate the fine-tuning of a voice as an instrument.

      • Art Edwards says:

        So true.

        But the same principle applies to pop, doesn’t it? Pop is melody, and the voice–even if it’s not particularly fine-tuned–can be an effective instrument to deliver melody, with little to no consideration for what the words say. I’m thinking of the myriad pop songs that have some version of “la, la, la” or “la-de-da” as the chorus. Say, “The Boxer,” for example.

        • Gloria says:

          Or this one.

          The lyrics have always cracked me up. Yet, no one questions it because it’s The Chili Peppers.

          “Doo doo doo doo dingle zing a dong bone
          Ba-di ba-da ba-zumba crunga cong gone bad”

        • Art Edwards says:

          Exactly! That’s all fine in my book.

        • Gloria says:

          Yes, but I think that you have to establish yourself and get some street cred first before you can strike out in such a direction. Justin Bieber, for example, is already enough of a laughing stock. He couldn’t get away with this. Only people who have proved their chops can get away with such displays.

        • Dana says:

          Holy time machine! I haven’t listened to the Dummies’ in a hundred years. And I loved them! I contend they get away with mmmm mmmm mmm mmm because they were such literate writers in most of their other songs. I also remember an interview where they pretty much said they threw that lyric in simply to fuck with the dj’s who’d have to announce the songs.

          I saw them once at small club. My boss and his then wife came with us. I will never forget what she said about Brad Roberts’. “His hair is long, but it sure is clean!” Perhaps the least helpful commentary, ever, about a pop/rock singer.

        • Gloria says:

          @Dana – that’s twice this week that I’ve travled back to the early 90s with you. If you start using Aquanet again, you can blame me. 😀

        • Dana says:

          hahah Gloria – I’ll have to find a picture of me from the early 90’s. There’s a 95% chance that I’ll be wearing flannel and docs. 🙂

  8. Dana says:

    I appreciate your passion for this, Art. I too prefer Nevermind to Appetite*. Personally though, I find them to be so dissimilar that choosing between them feels like a comparison of apples to onions.

    *Although, shit – doesn’t everyone love Welcome to the Jungle? C’mon – how can you not love that song?

  9. Zara Potts says:

    Is it okay just to say: ‘I like the songs.’ ?

  10. Aaron Talwar says:

    Art,

    I think this is a good article. I would have liked for you to have brought up the image of the two. Axl was the epitome of a Rock star and that is the life he wanted and needed. Cocaine/Heroin, Arenas, fake woman, etc. That is Axl and the music played behind him speaks to that.

    Kurt made such an impact because he was a kid, like everyone else. Hard life, he hated his fame, wore flannel and he was pissed the fuck off. He changed what is what like to be a rock star because he was the first to go on record saying that he hated being famous.

    Either way, good points brought up in both.

    AT

    • Art Edwards says:

      They are quite different that way. I think Cobain gets kind of a free pass on this subject, but you don’t wind up at the top of the heap without some desire to see yourself there. Sure, he would’ve changed some things, but John Lennon, etc had been on the cover of Rolling Stone. You know there was a part of him that wanted to scale that mountain.

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    Your opening quote reminds me yet again of just intensely I dislike Chuck Klosterman. I can’t even stand to look at him. He literally makes me sick to my stomach.

  12. Axl Rules:

    DUBLIN — Axl Rose, it seems, needs a little more patience — and a much louder alarm clock.

    The 48-year-old singer of U.S. hard-rock band Guns N’ Roses irritated thousands of his Dublin fans at the 02 Arena on Wednesday night by showing up nearly an hour late — a recurring problem on his band’s European tour — and then walking off after an unruly minority in the crowd hurled water bottles on the stage.

    Most of the fans left, but Irish concert promoters MCD wouldn’t let Rose leave until he finished the gig. The band went back on stage an hour later to a mostly empty venue and didn’t stop playing until nearly 1 a.m.

    MCD and the 02 issued a joint statement criticizing Rose for having “a long history for being late on stage,” but emphasized that “no artist should be subjected to missiles and unknown substances being thrown at them.”

    Rose’s patience snapped after he warned the crowd to stop throwing things on stage.

    “Here is the deal. One more bottle up here and we go. We don’t want to go. Your choice,” he told the crowd during an abrupt break to the band’s second song, “Welcome to the Jungle.”

    But when introducing his other band members before a following number, up came another bottle — and off Rose went to a chorus of boos. “OK, that’s it. Good night. Have a nice evening,” he said.

    Politicians called on the promoters to refund tickets that cost an average of euro72 ($92). MCD declined to say whether anyone would get their money back.

    “Reports say that the lights came on and the security people told concertgoers to go home. Confusion reigned and thousands of fans had left by the time the band came back again on stage to complete their set,” Irish senator Michael McCarthy said. At the first stop Aug. 27, an open-air festival in Reading, west of London, Guns N’ Roses arrived an hour late and had their microphones and amplifiers cut off by organizers during their encore. Two nights later in the northern English city of Leeds, Guns N’ Roses again was ordered to cut its performance concert a half-hour short because of an hour-late start. The tour has 22 cities in 13 more countries to go.

    • Art edwards says:

      Surprise, surprise.

      From here on out, I think I’m out of cranium space for Axl. I’ll substitute a real entertainer.

      Like Yngwie Malmsteen.

      • dwoz says:

        Art, that was uncalled for.

        Even though it probably felt good, very good, very very VERY good, cathartically good, exticulantly good, it’s like picking on the trisomy 21 kid.

  13. sheree says:

    Excellent series of posts. I enjoyed them all. Beers to ya!

  14. zoe zolbrod says:

    Art, you are a great rock writer.

  15. zoe zolbrod says:

    Also, mulling an argument for eight years is something I would do.

  16. Daniel says:

    Art

    That was a great series of articles, and a fabulously close study of both albums. But I’ve always thought Klosterman always viewed Nirvana from a place of hurt – and that Almond is too dismissive to take seriously – and it makes me wonder it you couldn’t have blown them out of the literary water roundly in another way.

    Klosterman seems to think that because these two bands represent two distinct eras of music and form a continuum – where Gn’Fn’R are the apex of glam metal and Nevermind is its death knell/Big Bang of grunge but more specifically fuzzed-out punk – it makes sense to compare them directly and justifiably, but think about it: would we compare Open Up and Say…Ahhh! or Slippery When Wet with Badmotorfinger? Are there articles being published on these two bands merit relative to each other? I seriously doubt it. Two wildly different albums, different in tone, heaviness, production, attitude; they certainly don’t remind me of one another. I’m a hell of a lot more comfortable comparing Poison with GnR and NOFX or Social Distortion with Nirvana than a mix of the two. It’s mostly their weight in our minds and the following shift caused in our lives that place them side by side. Klosterman said Nevermind was brilliant politically, but half filler. In fact it’s brilliant culturally, but also brilliantly fully formed work.

    Klosterman’s problem and reason for the denigrating comparisons was (and still is if you know of his search for GnR’s next torchbearers) is that Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, etc al made GnR look sort of ridiculous (and it’s not like Axel needed a lot of outside help at that time). And for that matter, made all of GnR glam metal comparables. Nirvana, at the very least, reminded us that we could dress a fucking bum and rock out just as hard, take as many drugs and be as selfcentred – but minus all the theatrics, the solos, the sheen. You remove the polish, the LA hometown, the aviators and are reminded that rock is easy and dirty and ugly. That more power is also raw power.

    It’s easy to level the argument that Nirvana as a band indulged in the same sorts of self-important, image conscious behaviour as GnR and that it undermined the authenticity of Nevermind in the same way it did to most of 80s glam metal. That isn’t entirely wrong or unfounded. But in the end Nirvana is just punk music – really fucking good punk music. And nothing since ‘race music’ in the 50s has pulled the rug out from mainstream pop like punk did, like Nirvana and Nevermind did to GnR’s metal. Klosterman knows this and he’s hurt from it. It clearly still smarts. He’s spent tens of thousands of words justifying and clinging to a genre of music that most of us can only listen to with a sort of wry grin. It’s an inescapable feeling of being witness to the brilliance but eventual dissipation of an artist in the world’s pursuit of more pressing, immediate music. In retrospect Appetite for Destruction seems both beautiful and ridiculous in the innovation/retrovation of Nevermind.

    I’ll sign out with two images – one is at then of the Ed Sullivan show on the video for In Bloom, Nirvana smiling while wildly smashing their instruments like strung out Beach Boys. The second is, unfortunately, Slash as viewed from a helicopter, in front of a purpose-built church soloing in the evening wind.

    My condolences Chuck.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Yes! The video for “In Bloom” is one of my favorites. Really love how happy they look making that one. You can tell the idea really appealed to them.

      I may have been heavier on K than I intended. In *Fargo Rock City*, I respect that he’s trying to do the impossible: vindicate hair metal. I love that he tried–and there are moments that shine in that book–but in the end it’s important that real greatness (Nevermind) doesn’t get lost in the effort. I feel like he could’ve just left out his few sentences about Nirvana and had a better book. I admit that word “filler” lodged itself in my brain for years–“Filler? How dare he!”–when it was clear to me which record was a masterpiece and which had filler.

      Anyway, one sentence should not damn a book or a writer. I’d hate it if someone did that to me.

  17. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Alas we’ve reached the conclusion. More match-ups in your future? And also, if I ever need someone to argue a case for me in the future, I’d choose you. Nicely done, Art! “And we’ve learned that, once and for all, Nevermind trumps Appetite for Destruction. Come on, it just does” — dusts hands off, slides sunglasses back on, end scene.

  18. Chris Kennett says:

    Thankyou SO MUCH for being the first person in 20 years (that I am aware of) to put down in words what is amazing about the chord progression on In Bloom. It was precisely this that first hooked me into Nevermind all those years ago.

  19. dwoz says:

    Chord progression for “In Bloom” verse is:

    Gbmaj/Bb : Dmaj/F# : Cbmaj/Eb : Gbmaj/Bb : Dmaj/F# : Cbmaj/Eb :

    then

    Gbmaj/Bb : Cbmin : Cdim : Gbmaj/Bb : Cbmin : Cdim

    The song IS in the key of Eb harmonic minor. That’s why I’m saying “Cb”, which is a “tough” note to consider, most feeling that the enharmonic B natural is the same. But if you’re talking about the VI note, you’re talking some kind of C (in Eb).

    The analysis of the second section is actually pretty straightforward. The Cb minor is probably best called out as a subdominant ii to the Cdim, spelled C, Eb, Gb, which acts as a substitute dominant to the Eb or Gb….diminished chords are cool, they can function in many different ways and resolve all over the place. The key feature there is the chromatic stepwise motion of the bass (and melody), which is a powerful way to move around.

    People who think this music is trivial, harmonically speaking, are not listening.

    When you said “first diminished” what you really meant was “bII-7(b5)” which is also called the “Neapolitan chord”. It’s actually quite common, it’s anachronistic, as a matter of fact. Also, being in a harmonic minor key, the majors being shifted around the diatonic scale are pretty standard. You get a “major” seventh step (NOT a “major7”) in order to get the dominant quality where it needs to be. Again, pretty standard (though not simple) harmony going on here.

    • dwoz says:

      I’ve since gone out and looked at all the guitar tab sites out there, and they’re ALL spectacularly wrong. If you got your original chords from there, I can understand and sympathize with you. We’re of course referring to the studio version, all the live versions I’ve heard are being played a half-step up, in the key of E harmonic minor instead of Eb.

      It’s very difficult to navigate this stuff on the internet, because SO MANY guitarists out there just assume that whatever note the bassist is playing, is the root note of the chord. Not a good assumption to make, particularly with a band like Nirvana.

      • Art Edwards says:

        I didn’t go by anything online. I just plucked it out on my bass.

        I tried to follow your theory–and don’t doubt it’s veracity–but it sure seems a lot easier to just call Bb tonic, considering both verse and chorus start with Bb. For meatheads like me, it will always be Bb.

        It looks like Kurt is playing power chords in the video, mimicking the bass line.

        • dwoz says:

          It’s entirely likely that Kurt doesn’t actually play those full chords, he probably doesn’t include all the chord tones, but those are the chords that the ensemble is playing on the studio recording. Most of them are in first inversion (meaning that the 3rd is at the bottom of the chord.) Which supplies the answer for why so many guitarists don’t name the right chords.

          Enharmonic spellings and “more convenient” ways of describing the notes work fine, from a vocational standpoint. Nothing at all wrong with that, at all. It’s a trainwreck though if you want to do a relevant harmonic analysis.

          Try soloing over it in Eb harmonic minor, and you’ll see what I mean. It works. All the notes fall in.

          Videos are always suspect, from the standpoint of using them to figure out what a player is actually doing…it may even be a view of the player from an entirely different part of the song, and they’re just doing pantomime. Often they actually play screwy chords in the video just to mess up the tab site guys.

          However, the real point is not this pedantic enharmonic note spelling shit, it’s that the analysis of a Nirvana tune is not pathetic nor trivial. There are complex harmonic concepts being intentionally explored, and the guys in the band are NOT just tossing simple shit out there, they are adept and aware of exactly what they’re doing. They’re playing predominantly major chords in a song that is irrefutably in a minor key. They’re using extended dominants just like John Coltrane did. They’re putting the third of the chord in the root, consistently, tossing the whole notion of tonal center and modal harmony on it’s ear.

          Calling this stuff more simplistic than GnR is ridiculous, and simply a mistake.

        • dwoz says:

          If it was in Bb, they wouldn’t be POUNDING on the Gb (F#) all the time. F# in the key of Bb gives the tune a lydian characteristic, which is distinctly major and uplifting, when the song is clearly in a minor tonality.

        • Art Edwards says:

          So Cobain is more theoretically refined than I imply in this post. I can live with that.

          I can’t write an essay about it, but I can live with it.

        • dwoz says:

          Now, just to make a distinction…I DON’T think he was the “professorial, cherry-tobacco-pipe-in-the-leather-chair” type of music theorist. Remember that harmonic theory is ultimately emipricism, and for me to spout some idea that Cobain was thinking of theory as he wrote is not tenable, so what I’m rather spouting is that while writing, he was employing a far more sophisticated ear than he’s often given credit for.

          Charlie Parker was the same way. While he was certainly a trained musician, the consensus is that he didn’t think much about theory, just played. Or Coltrane…his exploration of extended dominants and shifting key centers is STILL being teased apart by the sideburns-and-pipes crowd.

          I’m sure some Nirvana folklorist will pop up and say that he didn’t know how to read musical notation, received no formal training, etc.

          Harmonic function in all western music can be boiled down to a few basic goal-concepts, one of which is to create tension, and then resolve it. We’ve been pounding away at this since the ancient greeks, and after about 3000 years are beginning to understand it a little. What Cobain accomplishes, is very effective tension, and very effective resolution, without resorting to “standard” rock formulas. His formulas are not brand-spanking new, we’ve been hearing diminished chords as dominants for a long time now…but he had a sophisticated ear to be able to employ them, even if he didn’t necessarily name them.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Agreed. Whatever refinement he had was all in his ear.

          And that’s the best kind of refinement to have.

  20. Chris Kennett says:

    Also, In Bloom features Cobain’s best guitar solo, particularly the ending where it ‘falls’ back into the chorus in a dizzying stupor.

  21. Reuben says:

    Argh, I’m so late to the party, but I’m really glad I caught the third part of this series.

    There’s plenty of room on my iPod for both Nirvana and GnR, but it was Nirvana that opened my eyes first. I’m not sure what to, but there was definitely a connection on an emotional level. I think GnR, specifically Use Your Illusion, I & II, taught me to listen to metal, and listening to both CDs, back to back, was a great accompanist to my university assignments or playing Ultima VII at some stupid hour of the morning. However, Nevermind just fulfilled on a different scale.

    I loved Something in the way. It always struck me as a song about mental illness. These days, after listening to the album, that last track leaves me on a low that I want to wallow in for a little longer. That means no playing Nevermind again for a little while, possibly turning the music off, or reaching for R.E.M.s Low from Out of Time, being very careful not to play Shiny Happy People. Country Feedback does it for me next.

    Thank you very much for the articles, Art. You’ve sparked an interest in reading rock novels.

  22. […] comparisons between it and Appetite. Which mighty rock album will win the day (Nevermind)? Read Part III to find […]

  23. John says:

    I realize I’m a little late to the party with this comment, but I just found this site via a link (to a different articles) from Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Good stuff here. Kudos!

    I think the main difference in perspective we get btwn Axl & Cobain is that…how to say this delicately…Cobain had the good sense to die while he was at the top of his game. If Rose had died after Appetite, we’d think of him the way we think of Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix…or Cobain for that matter. All the oddities of Rose would be remembered romantically, b/c we would have never seen the death spiral that came afterwards. Perhaps Cobain was a genius who just died to young. Or maybe he would have turned out 20 years of angst-ridden anthems until he became a parody of himself. We just don’t know. We give Cobain a break, b/c that’s what we do with the dead, particularly those who die young.

  24. […] Springsteen’s voice does his songs a disservice. It always strikes me as over-earnest (and as I’ve written before, not liking the singer’s voice is pretty much akin to not liking the song). His singing reminds me […]

  25. Frank says:

    I like both both albums, but would rather listen to ‘Nevermind’ nowadays just because I listened to AFD so much as a kid and have a little GN’R fatigue. That said, there is no way that ‘Nevermind’ “trumps” AFD. BTW, the idea that it’s popular opinion that AFD has four good songs and a bunch of filler just isn’t true. AFD is almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, front to back. I have heard each of the album’s 12 tracks on the radio at least once, even lesser songs like “Anything Goes.”

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