inessential by Brent Simmons

It was morning in America

The late ’80s and early ’90s—it was morning in America still. It was the era of Reagan and Bush the father, the era of Just Say No and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” There was a New World Order and a “kinder, gentler” America.

Worse—REM was starting their slide into a Phil Collins tribute band. (“Everybody hurts sometimes.”) And worse still: the Clash, the only band that mattered, were done.

Punk rock itself was pretty much done: it was sub-genres of sub-genres, speed-thrash-this-and-that. The airwaves were dominated by Whitney Houston and boring hair bands.

Then, in the Northwest, some bands were mixing punk with Kiss, the Pixies with the Beatles, and coming up with some really cool songs. And they were not on board with the kinder-gentler-be-happy thing. While America was in love with kitsch, these guys and gals were grunge.

Nirvana was one of these bands, and the one most people probably think of when they think of this era. They were one of the first “alternative/college” bands to bust through that stupid label and get played like crazy on commercial rock radio.

I attribute this to a few things: they were charismatic performers, Kurt Cobain was undeniably magnetic, and—don’t underestimate this—those melodies were catchy. (If Lennon and McCartney had been born in 1967, this is what they would have sounded like.)

I actually lived in Olympia and then Seattle those days, even saw Nirvana play before they got good. (They were super-boring, I thought: I liked lots of other bands more.)

But there’s another reason they caught on: it was because teenagers are no strangers to angst and loathing.

Was there anyone writing about what it was really like to be a teenager, in this golden dawn of kindness and order? Well, sure, but Nirvana did it way better. Explosively better. These songs were phenomenal, with an assured-ness you rarely see from songwriters so young.

It’s easy to criticize Kurt Cobain—he killed himself, after all, and to a mature ear some of the stuff is so whiny it’s silly—but he didn’t invent teenage angst. I, and many of my friends, sure had their share of it long before we ever heard of Nirvana.

Kurt would have turned 40 a few months ago, and I’m still mad about not getting to hear those years of songs. But I’m glad that the old songs still get played, and teenagers learn that their feelings are not just theirs, and get the comfort and inspiration that they get from that.

Since I was born in 1968, I didn’t have Nirvana as a teenager. But I had plenty else. Here’s John Lennon, “Yer Blues”...

My mother was of the sky
My father was of the earth
But I am of the universe
And you know what it’s worth