Sometimes classic rock is so deeply embedded into our consciousness, we forget what it actually sounds like. We all know ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ but when was the last time anyone actually listened to the song. It’s hard to do this with something we’ve heard 456,091,149,885 times, and that was just last week. It gets worse, of course, when you can actually remember when the classic track was new and fresh and mind-blowing. But we can never return to the first time we heard it.
So last week, I was at the gym and was sick of whatever I was listening to, and, it turns out, the easiest aggressive music I could access on Apple Music was Nirvana’s Nevermind. And the first song of that album is ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ of course.
I remember the first time I heard this track very well. It was September 1991, and me and the woman I was dating at the time, along with my roommates Eugene and John Paul (they were brothers) were in the grimy, dark basement living room of our house. Anna and I were on the futon-couch, kicked back with our feet on the coffee table. Eugene was on the floor, he was a brave man, and his girlfriend, Gabrielle, was with him. John Paul was sitting in the desk chair. There were beer bottles all around us. And we were watching ‘City Limits,’ which was MuchMusic’s ‘alternative’ show, every Friday night at some stupid hour, like when we should’ve been out clubbing, but there were only so many times you could try to dance to C&C Music Factory in Ottawa-Hull in the early autumn of 1991. So there we were, and this video played. Holy fuck, we thought, as we both jolted upright. This was something brilliant.
That opening riff is buried in our collective consciousness today, but it wasn’t in 1991. And the thundering drums and pulsating bass weren’t either. Nor was Kurt Cobain’s howling yelp of a voice. Nirvana weren’t unknown to me, I went to high school in Vancouver and snuck into a couple of clubs underage and, combined with the University of British Columbia’s CiTR radio station, I was introduced to the Seattle sound in the late 1980s: The Screaming Trees, Mother Love Bone, Green River, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Flop, the Melvins (not technically a Seattle band, of course), and Nirvana. I knew all of these by that night in September 1991. But Nirvana didn’t sound like this. In the two years since their début Sub Pop album, Bleach, Kobain and bassist Krist Novoselic had got a new drummer, Dave Grohl, who came out of the D.C. hard core scene. And Grohl, he made the difference. A fiercesome drummer he was (even if he turned into a goofy, cheesy mainstream rocker with the Foo Fighters, I prefer to remember him as a god of the skins). And Butch Vig turned the swampy, nasty sound of Nirvana into fierce, snarling hard rock/punk. And so we got perhaps the greatest opening track in the history of music with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’
I can’t remember the last time I heard the song, let alone actually listened to it. And when that familiar riff began in my ears, I couldn’t help but smile. And as Novoselic and Grohl came crashing in, it felt almost new, it had been so long. And then the song calms down to let Kobain snarl and sneer and yelp before we hit the greatest chorus in grunge history:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid, and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
An mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,
It’s non-sensical and brilliant. And in my head, I could see the video, the band in a high school assembly, the stoned students uninterested in much, and then the chorus, and they start head-banging and moshing, and the anarchist cheerleaders, and even the janitor dancing with his mop.
For a second there, I was 18 again. And then reality kicked back in, as it does in the gym, and I felt middle aged again.