On September 24, 1991, a scruffy rock trio from Seattle released its second album, Nevermind, to a largely unsuspecting public.
By the next day, everything had changed.
The story is etched in stone. Fall 1991: top 10 radio is littered with Color Me Badd and Boyz II Men; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” takes hold of MTV and the college airwaves; the grassroots Indie Rock Revolution goes public; and Nirvana becomes unwilling superstars—generational torch bearers.
The world is forever changed.
In fact, the next day the band was in the middle of a short Nevermind promo tour, playing rock dive Club Babyhead in Providence, RI. I was there with some like-minded rockers because somebody had Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, which rocked totally, and still does.
Kurt Cobain took the stage smoking a joint, the others drinking from green bottles. The set opened with three covers; “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” by Scotland’s The Vaselines, “Here She Comes Now” by The Velvet Underground and “D-7” by the Northwest punk pioneers Wipers. A pretty good cross section of Nirvana’s varied influences.
Passionate, chaotic versions of “Drain You,” “School,” “Floyd The Barber” and “Sliver” followed.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the eighth song of the set—fast, furious and faithful to the recorded version. Nirvana had been playing the song live for only five months.
“We are Guns N’ Roses!” snarled bassist Krist Novoselic before “Come As You Are.” Kurt’s amp blew up during “Vendetagainst,” sending Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl into an improvised jam that became “Dirt” by The Stooges. Kurt stage dived into a support column.
A friend of mine offered the band Mardi Gras beads, and Novoselic lowered his head in acceptance.
The show ended with “Blew” and the brutal anthem “Negative Creep.”
I’m a negative creep, I’m a negative creep
I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned
Four months later, the transformation was complete—Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the top spot on the Billboard 200 on January 11, 1992.
“The hit single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has become an anthem for apathetic kids.”
–Time, January 6, 1992
Everyone knows where they were when they first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The impact, significance, the role it played in their musical life story. What happened in that moment? Were we conscious of any true meaning, a sense of the Important Historical Moment?
I first heard the song that September night at Club Babyhead. It didn’t stand out as much as the songs I knew from Bleach. Several days later I heard Nevermind, in its entirety, for the first time. “Listen to this,” a friend told me as we sat drinking beers in his cluttered bedroom. It was well-produced, polished hard rock. It almost didn’t seem like the same band I had seen just a few days earlier. Nirvana live circa 1991 was a raw power trio with a frenetic stage presence. The band seemed on edge all night, and the busted amp fiasco felt almost normal. The album was catchy in a way that seemed foreign for such heavy music.
And then that was it. The song was everywhere. Mission accomplished. The underground went overground. The Indie Rock Revolution realized, for better or worse.
Before Nevermind. After Nevermind. This is how we map our time.
Of course, Nirvana and the movement they crystallized became co-opted by the same forces they tried to destroy. Their reign was short, sharp, intense. They burned hot and bright. By the spring of 1994, Kurt was gone and the band was, too.
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
Nirvana’s second album was a moment, a movement. An attitude adjustment, a changing of the guards. A symbolic “Fuck You” to the pop charts of 1992, even though it sat atop them for a brief spell.
How utterly ironic, in a nineteen ninety-two sort of way.
Nevermind has turned 20. Happy birthday, old friend. Nice to have been there from the beginning.
Corporate rock still sucks.
Original Nevermind release flyer, 1991.
Collection of the Rock File