come as you are

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photo of nirvana

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  It's April 9, 1993, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Eleven thousand people--grunge kids, jocks, metalheads, mainstreamers, punks, little kids with their parents, hippie-types--have come from as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle to see Nirvana's first American show in seven months, a benefit for Bosnian rape victims. Besides a seven-week club tour in late 1991, the closest most American fans had come to seeing the band in concert was their appearance on "Saturday Night Live'' over a year before. So much has happened in the meantime: drug rumors, breakup rumors, lawsuits, and about five million more copies of the Nevermind album sold worldwide. And much hasn't happened a U.S. arena tour, a new album. It's a crucial show.

The band walks out on stage. Kurt Cobain, sporting an aqua cardigan, an inside-out Captain America T-shirt and decomposing blue jeans, gives a nervous little wave to the crowd. He's dyed his hair blond for the occasion; a mop of it obscures his eyes and indeed the entire top half of his face.

From the opening chords of "Rape Me," the band plays with explosive force, salvos of sound catapulting off the stage and into the crowd--"Breed," "Blew," "Sliver," "Milk It," "Heart Shaped Box." Toward the end, they play "The Hit" and even though Kurt mangles the opening chords, the moshers on the floor go berserk. As matches and lighters are held aloft during "Lithium," everyone in this cavernous barn is reminded of exactly why they love Nirvana.

Although Chris Novoselic and Kurt are at least thirty feet apart, they move and react to each other as if they are much closer; the communication is effortless. Midway through the set, Kurt calls over to Chris, "I feel great! I could play another hour!" And they do, packing twenty-four songs in an hour and a half, including eight songs from the upcoming album. The crowd applauds the new stuff enthusiastically, especially the ferocious assault on "Scentless Apprentice" and the majestic "All Apologies," which dissolves in a haze of mantra-chant and feedback.

Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam watches from the side of the stage; not far away is the Melvins' Dale Crover. Frances Bean Cobain is upstairs in her dad's dressing room with her nanny; Courtney comes down just in time to dodge a plastic bottle of mineral water that Kurt has thrown without looking. She waves at him sarcastically.

At the end of the set, Kurt, Chris, and Dave Grohl disappear behind the drum riser and pass around a cigarette as they discuss what songs to play, then return for a seven-song, half-hour encore climaxing with "Endless, Nameless," the mystery track that closes Nevermind. As the band accelerates the song's main riff, it becomes a trance. Kurt walks across the top of his amp stack. It's not that high off the ground, but he's riveting anyway, like a potential suicide walking along the ledge of a building. The music speeds up even more. The guitars are squalling, Chris has unstrapped his bass and is waving it in front of his amp; Dave Grohl flails with precise abandon. As the music peaks, Kurt falls hard onto the drum set and drums and cymbal stands fall outward, like a carnivorous flower opening up and swallowing its prey. Show over.

People ask each other if he's all right. It's not showmanship. If it were, they'd put down padding first. Maybe it's a geek stunt, like the kid in grade school who would make his nose bleed and smear the blood on his face so the bully would leave him alone, a case of "I'll hurt myself before you can" from a guy who opened the set with a song called "Rape Me." Perhaps it's an homage to two of Kurt's favorite stuntmen, Evel Knievel and Iggy Pop. Or is it that he's so jazzed up from the music that he's impervious to all physical harm, like a psyched-up swami who can walk across hot coals? Judging by the audience, all agog and aglow, that last explanation seems to fit the best.

Afterward, the entire entourage celebrates the triumphant gig in the courtyard of the trendy Phoenix motel--except for Kurt and Courtney, who have retired to a fancy hotel across town. The Phoenix, Courtney says, holds some bad memories for them. And besides, the bath towels are too small. Even without them, the place has turned into a little Nirvana village. Dave and his mother and sister are there, Chris and Shelli are there, so is smiling Ernie Bailey the guitar tech and his wife Brenda, tour manager Alex Macleod, lighting designer Suzanne Sasic, folks from Gold Mountain Management, Mark Kates from Geffen/DGC, even members of Seattle's Love Battery who happen to be in town. Chris goes down to the grocery store and gets a couple of armloads of beer and the party lasts into the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, Chris makes a pilgrimage to the fabled Beat landmark, the City Lights Bookstore. He goes outside to a cash machine, where a homeless man announces, "Good news, people! We are pleased to accept twenty-dollar bills for Easter!" Chris gives him one.

The Cow Palace show was a victory. It seemed like a confirmation that a punk rock band that hit the mainstream jackpot wasn't a fluke after all. That victory had repercussions for the band, all the bands like them, and maybe even the culture at large. As Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon said recently, "When a band like Nirvana comes out of the underground, it really expresses something that's going on in the culture and it's not a commodity."

What was going on in the culture was reflected not only in the sound of the music, but just as importantly, how it became popular. The punk rock phenomenon started practically the moment Johnny Ramone first put pick to string, inspiring a decade and a half's worth of hard work by countless bands, independent record labels, radio stations, magazines and fanzines, and small record stores that struggled to create some sort of alternative to the bland, condescending corporate rock which was being foisted on the public by the cynical major labels, the impersonal arenas, the mega-sized record stores, the lowest-common-denominator radio stations and the star-struck national rock magazines.

Galvanized by the punk rock revolution, the music underground formed a worldwide network, a shadow music industry. It grew and grew until not even the best efforts of the baby boomer-controlled music industry could hold it back. R.E.M. was the first explosion, Jane's Addiction came later, and then came the Big Bang: Nevermind has sold over eight million copies worldwide to date. It defied the best efforts of the likes of Michael Jackson, U2, and Guns n' Roses, and hit #1 on the Billboard album chart.

After this, everything was either pre- or post-Nirvana. Radio and press started taking the "alternative" thing seriously. Suddenly, record labels were rethinking their strategy. Instead of heavily promoted lightweight pop that would sell well at first and never be heard from again, they decided to start signing acts with long-term potential. And they were promoting them from a more grass-roots level, instead of throwing money at them until they started selling. This was an imitation of the way Nirvana broke--a small core group of grassroots media and music fans whose valuable word of mouth expanded the group's base little by little at first, and then by leaps and bounds. Minimum hype, just good music.

The investigative zeal required in order to make one's way through the morass of independent music was in effect a rebuke of herd consumerism. It was a pesky development for the major labels, who had come to depend on promotional dollars to make the public see their way. Independent music required independent thinking, all the way from the artists who made the music to the entrepreneurs who sold it, to the people who bought it. It's a lot harder to track down that new Calamity Jane single than it is to pick up the latest C+C Music Factory CD.

In 1990, not one rock album hit the #1 spot, prompting some industry pundits to prophesy the end of rock. The audience for the music had been systematically fragmented by radio programmers looking for the perfect demographic, and it appeared unlikely that rock fans could unite around one record in large enough numbers to put it at the top of the charts. And while rock degenerated into a blow-dried, highly processed faux rebellion, genres such as country and rap more directly addressed the mood and concerns of the masses. Although several other rock albums hit #1 in 1991, Nevermind united an audience that had never been united before--the twentysomethings.

Tired of having old fogies such as Genesis and Eric Clapton or artificial creations such as Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli rammed down their throats, the twentysomethings wanted a music of their own. Something that expressed the feelings they felt. A staggering number are children of divorce. They had the certain knowledge that they were the first American generation to have little hope of doing better than their parents, the generation that would suffer for the fiscal excesses of the Reagan eighties, that spent their entire sexual prime in the shadow of AIDS, that spent their childhoods having nightmares about nuclear war. They felt powerless to rescue an embattled environment and spent most of their lives with either Reagan or Bush in the White House, enduring a repressive sexual and cultural climate. And they felt helpless and inarticulate in the face of it all.

Throughout the eighties, many musicians were protesting various political and social inequities, but most of them were boomers like Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting. And many fans saw this protest for what it essentially was: posturing, bandwagon-jumping, self-righteous self-promotion. Exactly why did Duran Duran appear on Live Aid, anyway? Kurt Cobain's reaction to bad times was as direct as can be, and a hell of a lot more honest. He screamed.

It's a mistake to call Kurt Cobain a spokesman for a generation, though. Bob Dylan was a spokesman for a generation. Kurt Cobain isn't supplying any answers and he's barely even asking the questions. He makes an anguished wail, reveling in negative ecstasy. And if that is the sound of teen spirit these days, so be it.

The songs on Nevermind might have been about alienation and apathy, but alienation and apathy about things that didn't mean much anyway. By contrast, the band has expressed strong feelings about feminism, racism, censorship, and especially homophobia. And any hint of passivity was blown away by the awesome force of the music (particularly Dave Grohl's explosive drumming) and the undeniable craft of the songwriting. This was passionate music that didn't pretend. Getting into Nirvana was empowering for a generation that had no power.

Although Kurt roundly rejected the "spokesperson for a generation" tag, he will admit that the album did crystallize something about his peers. "Oh definitely," he says. "We're a perfect example of the average uneducated twentysomething in America in the nineties, definitely.''

And the twentysomethings are the generation that's been led to believe that they missed out on all the best times. "That's pretty much the definition of what we are, is punk rockers who weren't into punk rock when it was thriving," Kurt says. "All my life, that's been the case, because when I got into the Beatles, the Beatles had been broken up for years and I didn't know it. I was real excited about going to see the Beatles and I found out they had broken up. Same thing with Led Zeppelin. They'd been broken up for years already."

But there's more to it than that. "I think there's a universal display of psychological damage that everyone my age has acquired," Kurt says. "I notice a lot of people a lot like me who are neurotic in certain social situations. I just notice that everyone in their early twenties have been damaged by their parents equally." Kurt describes a scenario in which his generation's parents grew up in the bland, conformist fifties and early sixties, then had kids just as the late sixties began. The onslaught of new ideas threw their old values into a tailspin and they reacted by drinking and doing drugs. And getting divorces.

"Every parent made the same mistake," Kurt says. "I don't know exactly what it is, but my story is exactly the same as 90 percent of everyone my age. Everyone's parents got divorced, their kids smoked pot all through high school, they grew up during the era when there was a massive Communist threat and everyone thought we were going to die from nuclear war, and more and more violence started to infuse into our society, and everyone's reaction is the same. And everyone's personalities are practically the same. There's just a handful of people my age, there's maybe five different personalities and they're all kind of intertwined with one another.

"I don't think our musical version of that is any different than any of the other bands that have come out at the same time we have," Kurt says. "I don't think we're more special as far as having that same kind of damage that our parents or our society gave us. It's the same. We got more attention because our songs have hooks and they kind of stick in people's minds. The majority of any bands you interview would have divorced parents. All these kids my age found themselves asking the same question at the same time--why the fuck are my parents getting divorced? What's going on? Something's not right. Something about the way our parents were brought up isn't the way it's supposed to be. They fucked up somewhere. They're living in a fantasy world. They must have done something wrong." Those are some tough thoughts to have, especially if, like Kurt, you were eight years old.

Analyzing his own songs at length reminded Kurt of something. "I'm just starting to realize why I had such a hard time with interviews when this record came out," he said. "People were going through the songs and trying to get me to explain them and I just don't even have any opinions on them. They are all basically saying the same thing: I have this conflict between good and evil and man and woman and that's about it."

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Excerpted from Come As You Are by Michael Azerrad. Copyright © 1994 by Michael Azerrad. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.