On August 27, 1991, Pearl Jam released “Ten,” their first album. A month later, on September 24, 1991, Nirvana released their second album, “Nevermind,” so for the last month there has been a ton of media coverage about the 20th anniversary of each of these landmark records. I don’t need to say anything about how transformative they were — that’s what the media coverage and the “Alternative” section in the few remaining record stores are for. What strikes me most about these anniversaries is the vast, heartbreaking chasm between how each is being celebrated.
“Ten” came out first, but didn’t find success until the entire Seattle scene was borne up on the wings of “Nevermind.” I can’t remember which album I got first, but I got each within just a few weeks of their release, and have loads of memories about each band, each album, and that particular time of being a music fan. It was invigorating, and I admittedly owe much of my life to those two albums, since as a 13-year-old kid who had just gotten his first drum set, they inspired me to play music. “In Bloom” was one of the first songs I ever figured out how to play on the kit. Here I am 20 years later and still churning out music of my own.
Pearl Jam turned 20 and celebrated with a big book, a bunch of live and unreleased recordings being issued, and a retrospective documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe. I’ll go see that this weekend. For the “Nevermind” anniversary, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have done a couple of interviews with Butch Vig, the album’s producer, standing in the big hole left by Kurt Cobain’s absence.
Listening to an interview with Vig this morning, it just made me incredibly sad. I know how the story will end three years later, and all of these articles and stories about “Nevermind” don’t feel to me so much like a celebration, but a requiem for a guy who desperately wanted the one thing in the world that was sure to destroy him.
Kurt Cobain was so shy of performing that in early Nirvana appearances chronicled on the “With the Lights Out” boxed set he had to sing facing the wall. A couple of years later he was maybe the world’s biggest musical celebrity, and a couple of years after that he couldn’t sustain it anymore and he died. Three years after the excitement he had walking into a Los Angeles studio to record his first album on a major label, he led off the band’s next (and last) album with:
“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old.”
Even in his time, Kurt Cobain was assigned iconic status, and when you look at an icon it’s hard to recognize the human stuff going on with them, and I can’t fathom how awful it must have been to achieve everything you’d dreamed of and worked for and find out that it left you empty. This guy going through this stuff, though, with a such a muddy view of his own life, gave people like me a vision of their own, saving lives, shaping them, and giving people hope where he felt none.
I can’t do the cosmic math to figure out how this all balances on the books, but more than anything, this week of looking back has made me glad that I have the albums and the memories, and sad that they cost so much.