Sunday, September 24, 2017


It was one of the most memorable music-related experiences of my life. I don't remember the first time I heard, say, Revolver or Who's Next or London Calling. But I surely recall the first time I heard Nirvana. A co-worker had the "hello hello hello how low" section of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as his outgoing voicemail message, and even over the obviously extremely low-fi telephone system, it was absolutely mesmerizing. I called back until I got him in person.

"What is that?" I needed to know.

"It's Nirvana," he said, his tone of voice ever so slightly duh.

I wasn't listening to music at that point—not only was my stereo (and CDs and LPs) several hundred miles south of me, I didn't even have a boombox or Walkman, so for the first time since well before my teenage years, I was entirely out of the loop, when it came to new music. "Who...wha..." I said, charmingly.

He took pity on me, and dropped off the cassette a short while later. My officemate, who had very good but very snooty taste in music, was highly skeptical, as always, but popped it in his office boombox anyway, and cranked the volume knob.

That opening captivated me instantaneously...although I was a bit confused. They were opening with a cover of "Louie Louie"? That's weird.

And then those drums. My god those drums. Sounding bigger than Everest, deeper than the Mariana Trench, louder and faster and punchier—if such a thing were possible—than even the mighty Bonzo himself.

And then the distorted guitars and then the dramatic drop in volume and that bassline and those two chiming notes, mysterious and commanding and incisive...and that voice. A voice that sounded brand new and older than a giant sequoia. Words which were largely understandable and yet collectively incomprehensible and yet somehow ultimately all the sense in the world.

And that chorus. Even the first time, it was instantly familiar while being utterly fresh.

I remember looking over at my officemate at one point, and his eyes were wide in a "yeah, I'm hearing this too—holy shit, am I really hearing this? You're hearing this, right?" kinda expression.

Most watershed moments are only clear in retrospect. But it's not rose-colored glasses when people say they remember how Nirvana changed everything, and it was so obvious and immediate and most of us knew it was happening in real time. It was that powerful and undeniable. And (good god) 26 years down the line, the thing that kicked it all off has lost none of its power. The greatest works of art rarely do.

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