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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana: The Ultimate Battle!

Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana: The Ultimate Battle!

Uma Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction has one scene in which she brilliantly assesses Beatles people and Elvis people. Yes, it’s quite possible for an Elvis person to love The Beatles and vice versa, but when asked, you define yourself by just one of those two and swear by them. You don’t get to be a Beatles person AND an Elvis person. The same little identification philosophy can also be applied to various other little walks of life: Are you a Super NES person or a Genesis person? Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Coke or Pepsi? There are times when it’s actually very easy to love both, but when it comes to direct comparisons between them, you play up the greatness of the first option and hate the second option’s guts. All comers who argue otherwise are just contrarian fools.

This line of thought can be applied to musical subgenres, too. Take grunge, the scratchy, underproduced music which gets credit for taking rock music off life support after it was put there by whiffing too much of the hairspray it wore in the 80’s. There were several good grunge bands, but the eternal grudge match between grunge giants begins and ends with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Those two are the faces of grunge, probably because they’re the two acts with the most longevity. Now, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, it’s important to note, are also two bands which are very different in many, many ways, something which Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain always seemed to get a kick out of mentioning. That didn’t keep everyone in the industrialized world from tossing the two bands into the same corner, though, and so we’ve come down to another one of those forevermore fights. And with this year being the 20th anniversary of a popular and acclaimed album from each band (Nirvana released In Utero in 1993, and Pearl Jam released Vs.) and next year being the 20-year mark of Cobain’s suicide, media followers everywhere decided now is the time to revisit one of the last great grunge years. And, being a glutton for punishment, I’m not going to stand above all as an exception to the rule. I WILL, however, stand above other typical cultural onlookers who play up the talents of both bands, praising them, and telling you to just go flip a coin when it’s time to decide to like one better than the other. That’s a cop out. I’m looking to define this sucker. So let’s do this! Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana. One day, I’ll learn.

Vocals
Kurt Cobain was a very competent vocalist whenever he decided to make the effort. One needs only listen to Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York album for infallible proof of this fact. After listening to Unplugged in New York, though, one also only needs to play one of the two Nirvana albums that aren’t Nevermind to hear that Cobain spent his time coasting through his vocal duties. Yeah, he could be a somber and emotional vocalist, but doing that regularly would have required him to have more settings on his voice switch than just mumble unintelligibly and scream at the top of his lungs, frequently in a stuttering form in the same song. Pearl Jam’s frontman, Eddie Vedder, couldn’t be called a first-tier singer. Hell, he screams too, and he tends to adopt a low growl for the points where Cobain would have screamed. However, when Vedder deploys his distinctive low baritone indoor voice, he can be solemn, sad (“Better Man”), haunting, and sardonic (“Rats”) with just the lightest touches. Cobain almost seemed like he was trying to hide behind his vocals. Vedder embraces his vocal weaknesses and maximizes them so they compliment his strengths.
Winner
Pearl Jam. Perhaps the most damning aspect of Kurt Cobain’s vocal work isn’t his own vocal work, but the fact that parodist Weird Al Yankovic recorded his own spin on Nirvana’s popular anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a song called “Smells Like Nirvana,” in which he made fun of Nirvana for the fact that nobody could understand what Kurt Cobain was mumbling and screaming. It’s one of Weird Al’s signature hits.

Musicianship
There’s an obvious handicap at play here because Nirvana, at most, had four active musicians if you decide to count Pat Smear, who may or may not have been an official member of the band. While Smear expanded Nirvana’s sound on In Utero, he never really received official credit, and he’s never included in the lineup of classic Nirvana members. Pearl Jam never had less than five active musicians; three alone on guitar: Vedder, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard. Since McCready is the lead guitarist, let’s briefly remove him from the equation and reduce Pearl Jam to four members. With Vedder and Gossard now set against Smear and Cobain, we’ve now got the defining sounds of the bands: A classic rock influence against a punk influence. There’s not much of a contest here because punk is the dregs of rock genres anyway. Punk is music for people who want to be in bands without taking the trouble to learn anything about music or instruments. Punk is a single note and a repetitive lyric being vocalized without being truly sung. Classic rock is performed by people who spent hours in practice, perfecting their musicianship. The bass contest is between Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, a contest I’ll cede to Novoselic because so much of Nirvana’s sound was carried through his bass. Although everyone remembers the hook of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s Novoselic who carried Nirvana through the verses of the song, as well as a lot of Nirvana’s other truly great songs like “In Bloom,” “Sliver,” and “Heart-Shaped Box,” and his booming lines were simple but powerful foundations that gave Nirvana’s songs a lot of their power. On drums, Nirvana had Dave Grohl, who – unbeknownst to the public at the time – turned out to be the band’s best musician. Unfortunately, this is about his drumming, so I have to write off everything he accomplished as the frontman of Foo Fighters. Pearl Jam employed a handful of drummers after their breakthrough, but current drummer Matt Cameron as been with them since 1998, and in my book that’s long enough to call him their definitive drummer. In the greatest drum class in history from the most drum-heavy rock genre, both Grohl and Cameron (whose pervious gigs included Soundgarden) are rightfully considered top tier gods who could hold their own among enduring legends like Keith Moon and Neil Peart, so I’ll call this a draw.
Winner
Pearl Jam. I handicapped in the previous paragraph for having an extra musician. Unfortunately for Nirvana, Pearl Jam played more complex music with a cast that was at least equal to their talent. Bringing McCready back into the equation, the contest is suddenly more one-sided, and Nirvana’s guitar weaknesses can’t hide behind maybe-member Smear forever. And let’s not kid ourselves; Nirvana did have weaknesses on guitar. Kurt Cobain’s greatest gift was in song construction, and his song construction managed to hide the fact that he wasn’t doing anything extraordinary as a guitarist. A large chunk of his work actually sounds downright amateur when Nirvana’s work is stripped down by piece.

Overall Sound
This is an area where these two bands seriously differ, and point A for why they really shouldn’t be categorized together. They’re both Seattle grunge bands, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Kurt Cobain’s whole object was to be a great punk god, and my description of punk in the last section completely sums up my attitude toward punk – if you want to be a musician, either learn to play the fucking music or don’t be a musician! Music is art, but punk is the manic, street artist revolutionary wannabe for whom “art for the people” is the defense commonly used to excuse the lack of talent, organization, and – a lot of the time – vision. Nirvana is one of two bands to perform the trick of making punk listenable (the other being Green Day, who added a second chord and a competent singer), but despite that, they were a band of punk extremes. They wandered too far in one or the other direction. When they made it too close to traditional rock, they would be in the position of a good mainstream band, if not exactly a pop band. That would be their cue to switch direction and move too far back toward punk, which would turn them into screaming instrument-whippers. (Listen: “Territorial Pissings,” “Scentless Apprentice,” “Milk It.”) Pearl Jam’s sound could be shoved back 20 years prior to the original release of Ten, and it wouldn’t sound very out-of-place. It’s more what people tend to think of when they think of rock music – reliance on guitar rhythm, six or eight vocal lines per verse excluding bridges and hooks, guitar solos. The risk of Pearl Jam’s style, though, is an accusation that I’m playing it safe by stating my preference of a decent, constant musical flow than constant stuttering, white noise, and undecided grinding broken guitar explosions.
Winner
Pearl Jam. For some reason, critics still have two problems: They’re either: 1 – confusing “original” for “good” or 2 – believing the two terms are synonyms. Well, I don’t buy that. It isn’t like Pearl Jam never took any musical risks, after all. It’s that Pearl Jam’s risks always seemed to get panned. Remember the whole No Code fiasco? Sure, everyone is acting all buddy/buddy with Pearl Jam’s fourth album now, but that’s convenient forgetfulness to make up for the fact that Pearl Jam turned out to have more longevity as a band than anyone expected. No Code was reviled as Pearl Jam’s greatest mistake for years after its release. All the hoopla over No Code, by the way, also happened to come immediately after the band’s sterling Vitalogy album, in which the band made a departure from the sound they had established on Ten and Vs. to give the world something with a slightly more punk flavor. In the meantime, about half of Nirvana’s work could have been penned by fifth-graders, including the more original stuff. The band in general was apparently fond of grinding, screeching guitars, and choppy album consistency.

Songs
Pearl Jam just released its tenth studio album. It’s called Lightning Bolt, and it’s setting alight music critics everywhere. They clearly have the advantage in the quantity department, but this is more about quality. And in this respect, Nirvana can give them a fight. Songwriting was Kurt Cobain’s greatest strength. He was never the most talented musician the world has ever seen, but his ability to write songs continually tricks people into believing he was because he always got the most mileage out of the few strengths he had. Pearl Jam could tell more storytelling and descriptive lyrics, and their music was a lot more complex. Nirvana’s musical model, though, has proven to give us more enduring songs. Everyone can automatically hum the explosive chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is basically the theme song of the 90’s. While “Jeremy” is another popular 90’s anthem, anyone asked to sing a bar or two of it will come up with a blank stare. Nirvana doesn’t have much greatness in the way of lyrics, though. “Aneurysm” is mostly repeated chorus. “School” has nine words repeated. Too much of the lyrical content in general is just plain juvenile. Pearl Jam’s lyrics could, like Eddie Vedder’s voice, take a large number of tones. “Daughter,” told through the eyes of a young girl, is a stellar example.
Winner
I take nothing away from either band in this category. Both have done outstanding work. When I began, I wanted – and was expecting – to give this to Nirvana. Well, I’m going to call this one a draw. Pearl Jam’s songs are better, but simply planting them with the victory would be depriving Kurt Cobain of his own abilities as a songwriter. And since his work was keeping Nirvana afloat, he deserves recognition. Pick your poison.

Longevity
I’m going to briefly use The Lazarus Machine on Kurt Cobain for a moment. Pearl Jam has had the longer career by a wide mile, despite no one thinking they were going to be around for very long. Eddie Vedder is a passionate activist, after all, and he’s never been afraid to stand up for what’s right. It reflects on a lot of Pearl Jam’s songs like “Even Flow” and “World Wide Suicide.” What this means is that Pearl Jam survived a handful of politically-based scares which would have destroyed a lot of other bands. They went to war against Ticketmaster, a corporate giant that sold most of the concert tickets at their big venues. On Nirvana’s end, the popular narrative is that Nirvana would have gone on to further their fame and fortune. I don’t doubt this. But fame and fortune only last in the music industry until you make a lousy album, and sometimes it only goes until the point where someone in the band flips out. There’s no real evidence that Nirvana would have lasted beyond In Utero. Dave Grohl had been trying his hand at songwriting for some time by then, and it took him just two years after the end of Nirvana to rise from the ashes as the frontman of a new band, the Foo Fighters, who have now been around for 17 years. Cobain carried around a bit of an attitude, though, and he complained constantly about things beyond his control. Fans weren’t getting him, the producer ruined Nevermind, the TV show lip-synchs, this or that band is a sellout. He also didn’t appear very bent on fixing things he could control – he hated Bleach, Nirvana’s debut album. He had also reached the point that he believed Nirvana had reached their creative peak, which he alluded to in his suicide note.
Winner
Pearl Jam. At Cobain’s rate, Nirvana might have been able to produce three more albums, and I’ll only give them that out of the greatest generosity my heart will allow. A more realistic estimate has them barely making it through one more before Cobain called quits to the entire band and, sickened of his fans and image, done the Axl Rose routine. Except that in Nirvana’s version, there’s no promise of the Chinese Democracy album at the end.

Image
The nutshell imagery has folks envisioning Nirvana as an angry, tortured band, making authentic and heartfelt music that speaks for the masses while Pearl Jam is a band of idiots obsessed with showing everyone that they’re not sellouts. Are you fucking kidding me?! Everything Pearl Jam did, especially early in their career, had no personal benefit to the band. They refused to make music videos, got into a war with the corporation that pretty much owned all the big concert halls because of what the band said was ticket gouging, and are legendary for their live performances. In other words, they refused to have their fans’ personal song interpretations compromised, stood up to a big corporation because they thought their fans were being screwed, and always run onstage and give 100 percent, gee, look, for their fans! Ya think this is a band that’s fond of its fans? On the other end, there’s Nirvana, a band which created a debut album which the frontman himself hated even though he wrote every song on it; wanted to call its second album Sheep because they thought it had too much of a pretty, mainstream sheen; and made their third album solely as an effort to alienate people. And while people hemmed and hawed about how Kurt Cobain was angsty and authentic and all that other stuff, Cobain was turning the stripped, fundamentals-heavy sound he helped create into a playland where only his own version of the cool kids could dance. And his version of the cool kids was pretty narrow. His feud with Axl Rose happened because Cobain created it and considered Rose a sellout. He took potshots at Pearl Jam too, calling the band out for using too many guitar solos and a shot reserved for Jeff Ament because Ament liked to play basketball. It was Vedder, by the way, who caught Cobain for the bully he had turned into. Sayeth the legend, Vedder called Cobain out of the blue and the battle ended, and the two of them were on much better terms by Cobain’s death.
Winner
Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam. It was summed up in one novel which described Pearl Jam as being the band of the people and Nirvana as the band that hated its people. While I have no doubt Cobain meant everything he sang, he is also the early prototype of the modern hipster: A man who tracked the mainstream and made business decisions accordingly, all carefully calculated to project the image of how much he didn’t care. Pearl Jam wins this battle or you’re a fucking moron who needs to trade in your tasteful music card right now and go buy the new album from Justin Bieber. You’re not ready to have a conversation about grownup music yet.

Breakthrough
Pearl Jam’s first album was Ten, and they busted into the mainstream right off the bat with it. Nirvana had to wait until their second album, Nevermind, to catch fire. Both of these albums are outstanding, and feature the bands at the top of their games. Nevermind, however, has a limit in its sounds. It’s either similar-sounding one-note guitar work or sardonic acoustic songs. They’re great songs, mind you, but Nevermind really doesn’t venture out to sound all that different from itself. Ten is a haunting album loaded with stories, anger, and pain. It tackles a variety of social ills as well as personal issues, trying to reach out and grab everyone surrounding it. Ten is situational and existential while Nevermind is merely existential.
Winner
You can’t go wrong with either, but my personal preference is for Ten.

Pearl Jam rolls over Nirvana in every way. Stripped of their air of authenticity, Nirvana is a band for people who think they’re authentic, but who are in truth just hipsters.

Bad Chemistry

Bad Chemistry

It’s an obvious fact of life at the University at Buffalo that the chemistry department is comprised of thieves, highway robbers, and extortionists. I have a short list of theories which could explain this:

1 – They concocted a bad mix and got a permanent high off the chemical fumes.

2 – They lost a bet with a badass loanshark and are using college as an extortion plot to pay him back.

3 – It’s secretly a religion.

How bad is the UB chemistry department? It’s one of the factors which is motivating me to consider changing my major to psychology. This isn’t exactly the fault of the subject material or the faculty, but the bureaucracy. My financial aid took forever to get diverted into my textbooks, so I’m weeks behind on the material, and UB chemistry is way ahead of me and doesn’t care. Right now, I’m not nearly as afraid of my math course as I am my chemistry course, which is terrible because when my catch-up finally began, I realized pretty quickly that it isn’t as hard as my math. And I’m currently passing my math!

By all means, chemistry is a fascinating subject. It explores the ways in which the smallest known particles in the universe react to each other, and how everything can be so different despite being made up of these particles. It’s humbling to think that, for all the differences in creation, me and the computer I’m typing this up on are the same thing. So I have healthy subject interest and a very understanding and sympathetic lab instructor on my side, but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, UB chemistry wants money. My course, which is the rudimentary foundation of chemistry, has made such a sickening demand on my wallet that the textbooks and equipment for it alone have turned all my scholarship money into kitty chow. The lab equipment I need is ludicrously overpriced. The textbook rental cost over $100 and was by far the cheapest option – somehow the department gets away with photocopying pages, tossing them into ring binders, and charging upwards of $200 for a package which isn’t an official textbook, so it can’t be sold back to the bookstore for even a fraction of the money dished out for it. The most outrageous aspect of the course, however, is the fact that the department actually charges an insane amount of money for a goddamn code.

Think about that: A code. A thing you input into a computer – in this case, which can only be used once, so don’t dare think about fucking messing it up – to access the webpage that lets you know what the homework assignments are. What the hell ever happened to just giving them out on paper, in class? This is a long list of loopholes students are being forced to jump through, and really, it’s inexcusable. God forbid you should be having financial difficulty, because UB chemistry will literally prevent you from doing any reading or work if you’re not able to pay for a little code on a piece of paper that fucking takes 30 seconds to write down.

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered a genuine fascination with psychology, and switching my major to psychology would mean never having to deal with the chemistry department again. I realize I would have to work my way up to a doctorate for it to be of any use, and it’s something I’m quite willing to do. If I stick with my current major, well, this is just more motivation for me to excel at chemistry: A good student would probably have an easier time catching peoples’ ears about the department’s behavior than a student who is barely getting by.

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

Anyone who has ever lived in Buffalo, New York knows the city has a notoriously overzealous preservation committee – they’ll fight tooth and nail to rescue tool sheds that have been converted into crack houses. If you know anything about Main Place Mall, though, that not only may provide an explanation for their behavior, but a damn good explanation.

Main Place Mall is plopped right smack in the middle of downtown Buffalo as part of a complex nicknamed Buffalo Place. It has a covered walkway leading into the next-door Liberty Building, and it takes up most of the block from Church Street to Lafayette Square, sitting conveniently on Main Street’s lightrail line. To understand the preservation committee’s eternal worrywarting, you have to understand what that part of the city contained until Main Place Mall was built in 1969. The Erie County Saving Bank Building was there, a magnificent architectural piece which drew influences of European-style castles. There were several other beautiful buildings sitting on the block too, the traditional architectural styles of which can still be seen on certain blocks of Main Street today.

The history of Buffalo is similar to that of most other Rust Belt cities. The city exploded thanks to its ideal situation right at the tail end of the Erie Canal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the United States, and one of the richest. The place was an industrial giant with an enormous steel base, and over 70 percent of the grain that got shipped anywhere in the world ended up passing through Buffalo at some point because of Buffalo’s collection of grain elevators – the world’s largest, many of which still exist. Buffalo got hit hard when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and many of the traders who had to go through the Erie Canal were able to bypass the city completely. There was also the whole suburban White Flight trend that started hitting in the 50’s and 60’s. Everything started deteriorating, and the city officials, in their everlasting brilliance (note: that’s written with the highest possible level of venomous sarcasm), started wiping out everything in their paths in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the prettiest buildings in the entire country got the axe, and were replaced by structures which I suppose might have fit some definition of “modern” at the time. The newer buildings on the Buffalo skyline are ass-ugly. Brutalist architecture became a way of life to the 60’s developers, and it’s all punctuated by the 40-floor One HSBC Center, which is the tallest building on the city’s skyline, the most prominent, and the most likely to be mistaken for a giant refrigerator box. It might be the ugliest building on Earth. PS: It’s also largely abandoned these days. Most of the major tenants have run off – including HSBC itself, which occupied 75 percent of the available space in the building. 97 percent of the building will be vacant by the end of this year. There’s a reformation and renewal project in the works for the place which might spring it back to life, but it will unfortunately not involve razing the place, so hopefully the aesthetic remake will at least make it blend better with the rest of the city, or at least not make glancers want to gouge their eyes out.

Main Place Mall was one of those attempts at renewal. It’s a shopping mall which was intended to bring everyone from the suburbs back into the city for their weekend cash-throwing contests. It failed. Man, did it EVER fail.

Main Place Mall looks like the Death Star. I think it’s technically defined as a piece of late-century modernist architecture, but it really doesn’t look like it contains any of the standard giveaways of modernist style. In other words, if you’re looking for something Wright might have designed – Wright being one of the headmasters of architectural modernism as well as a guy who designed a couple of houses in Buffalo – Main Place Mall ain’t the place to start. This place looks much more like a brutalist building made out of metal: It looks heavy and angular, the side beams look like exposed steel beams, and the assembly could easily be mistaken for large slabs. Fitting, because Main Place Mall basically IS a large black slab. Main Place Tower, which is attached to the mall, looks like a giant version of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you’re a first-timer in the Buffalo city limits, Main Place Tower is the only part of the building where the entrances are marked. So it’s the only way you’ll know you’ve found Main Place Mall if you’ve never seen the place before and somehow missed any online descriptions or directions: “If you’re walking along the lightrail line and you reach an ugly black slab, you’ve found it!”

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s pizzeria both have direct entrances from the outside of the mall, which is good, because that means you can visit them both without having to actually set foot in the mall itself. Buffalo Coffee Roastery makes delicious coffee and baked goods. Its main function is just to serve as a coffee joint – instead of a full-time cafe, like a lot of other coffeehouses today – especially if you don’t plan on staying, because the only seats there are along the walls – there are no proper tables. The coffee is quite delicious, though, so it’s very convenient to grab an order as you wait for the lightrail to stop by the Church Street station. Gino and Joe’s is an oddball pizzeria by merit of the fact that it serves New York City-style slices instead of the Buffalo-style which is made by absolutely every other place in the city, save Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It’s damn good pizza, though, and at under $3 per slice, quite reasonably priced.

You now know of the only two places in Main Place Mall worth checking out. There are two floors in Main Place Mall, but no place else worth visiting unless you:

a – Have an unchecked fetish for footwear. I’m not talking about the unique stuff, either; I mean plain, old, average, everyday, ludicrously overpriced footwear. There are a few footwear stores in Main Place Mall, including a Foot Locker and a Payless.

b – Are in dire need of an emergency newsstand or dollar store. There’s one of each.

c – Work downtown and want a conveniently located Key Bank or food court. Let’s face it though, Buffalo is a strict Bank of America city now, despite once being the official capitol of North America for HSBC. And Bank of America is accessible in the next-door Liberty Building.

There are a couple of other stores, but basically there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting. Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s a shopping mall, Nicholas! Even if the retailers are bland, it would still be easy to visit the place and grab a new suit shirt should something happen to the one I’m wearing! Just go into the JC Penny’s or Macy’s or…. Hold it. Shut up. Let me stop you right there. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But when I said there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting, you were probably thinking the emphasis was on the “worth visiting” part, like a lot of other people would. That’s not the case. My emphasis was actually on the “nothing.” My little bullet listing up there wasn’t an emphasis; it was a summary of stores that are open in the entire place. I think there’s also one clothing store, and I know there’s a place for Buffalo-unique collectibles and T-shirts and a place to buy chocolates. Those are all on the first floor. However, it’s very easy to get to similar places all throughout the city – Buffalo collectibles are easily located on nearby Elmwood Avenue, sweets can be found anywhere within the nearby Elmwood Village and Allentown neighborhoods, and as far as the clothing store goes, even people in the suburbs probably live within easy distance of a strip mall with clothes stores in bunches.

Yes, the majority of the first floor is empty space. There are a large number of closed storefronts, most of which have been that way for a long time. The really depressing part, though, is how much of that space is NOT actual storefront. Anyone who frequents shopping malls is aware of the fact that malls have a habit of placing plain whitewall over spaces that haven’t been rented out to tenants in a long time. A good chunk of the first floor consists of that if it’s not closed storefront.

The second floor, however, is even worse. Outside the food court, there are no stores whatsoever. Just a hulking balcony. In the worse old days, there was a walkway to the building across the lightrail line, but that building has somehow managed to become even more useless than Main Place Mall, and so it’s now completely close – which means the entrance to the walkway is also boarded up. The eastern side of the second floor has closed storefronts. The western side? Entirely whitewall.

The one part of Main Place Mall which would make Main Place Mall worth a visit – besides Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s – would be the food court, but only if you happen to work downtown, and even then it’s pretty inessential. About half of the food court is whitewall. One of the food court restaurants is Gino and Joe’s – the very same place on the first floor, serving the very same food at the very same prices. Everything else is there just to satisfy hunger pangs. The food there does the job. It’s not exceptional, but it’s probably the only reason Main Place mall is still open.

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s need to be given their own spots. Once that happens, Main Place Mall needs to be demolished. Aside from those two places, the only halfway decent thing I can say about Main Place Mall is that, with One HSBC Center just a couple of blocks down the street, it doesn’t look quite as ugly as it is. Some Buffalo tourism sites advertise Main Place Mall as one of the city’s premier shopping centers. That’s a bigger lie than any of our local politicians is even capable of telling.

Authenticity, Angst, and Nirvana

Authenticity, Angst, and Nirvana

The act grew old a long time ago, and let’s face it; its always been pretty pathetic. In case you don’t know – and on the off chance that you really don’t, lord knows you will soon enough if you pay attention to current events – 2013 marks the 20th Anniversary year of the release of In Utero, the final album from Nirvana. Kids, go ask your parents about them. That means there are a billion fawning odes to In Utero, Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana, and we’re likely to be suffocated in the overwhelming avalanche of pithy remembrances next year, which is the 20th Anniversary year of Cobain’s suicide.

I like Nirvana a lot, but I think I must have missed something somewhere. I didn’t become acquainted with their work until after Cobain’s death, so that perhaps puts a slight handicap on my understanding of the Nirvana cultural phenomenon, despite the fact that I was twelve years old when he put that shotgun into his stomach and therefore more than old enough to have had a fully formed flashbulb of it. It was still a little too early in my life to be serious about musical tastes, though, so I missed all the original vigils. When I finally started to come around about two or three years after the fact, it was the radiant power of Nirvana that first struck me. The angst had nothing to do with it, but as Cobain was canonized and deified by the march of time, it was the angst which appeared to come out and take center stage.

That’s something I can’t live with. My viewpoints on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are politically incorrect, but they’re correct. My personal distaste for Kurt Cobain the person grew as time revealed more facts about him to me. On my most recent visit to Chicago, I lamented this to a friend. “The more I learn about Kurt Cobain,” I said, “the more I hate his guts.”

Much as I like Nirvana, I do find them overrated; and Kurt Cobain, doubly so. Cobain’s talents are given far more attention than they actually warrant. Throw in any Nirvana record and take a real close listen, breaking the songs down to their individual components and it will reveal a serviceable musician and decent singer. The one major talent Cobain really had going for him was his ability to construct songs – he wrote songs in such a way that they were able to consistently highlight the strengths he had. In every other way, time managed to prove that he wasn’t even the most talented guy in his own band. That would be Dave Grohl, the drummer who did the whole phoenix rise routine when he stepped up as the frontman of his own band, the Foo Fighters, after Nirvana didn’t exist anymore. Time also somehow managed to put a muzzle on Nirvana’s Seattle competition. When Nirvana busted loose out of the early Seattle grunge scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they were still just one of a handful of wave-riders. In a course of all of three proper albums, an MTV Unplugged album, and a B-side collection, Nirvana decided it wanted to eschew musical growth. Meanwhile, superior bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains – all of whom did take legitimate musical risks – are somehow considered Cobain’s tailcoaters. (For my money, Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, is the classic album of the era.)

Seriously, did Nirvana ever really grow in a musical sense? Like, at all? It’s easy to scour all the words written about Nirvana, be they online or in print, and see all authors print the word “authentic” as their reason for bowing down at the altar of Cobain. After giving that a little thought, I don’t buy it. Nirvana did change their sound more than once, but that wasn’t a natural growth from a band that wanted to expand and challenge itself. Every gear shift happened because of Cobain’s outright contempt toward his fans and his apparent need to show them how many shits he didn’t give about them. In Utero was an admitted fight to alienate people. Cobain threw a hissy about the production of Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, because he thought the sound was too mainstream, and he went as far as to try to call it Sheep as a stealth insult to those who liked it. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album is a beautiful piece which features a bunch of covers and the taming of their primal rage. Everything about Cobain’s so-called authenticity comes off as a change carefully calculated to project middle fingers and an attitude that he didn’t care what anyone thought. If that’s authenticity, then I’m the Lizard King.

What about the idea that he brought a stripped-down form of rock music into vogue? One that was rougher and rawer than anything released in the musically shimmered-up 80’s? The counter-argument about this rabbit hole starts in 1987 and a convenient blackout by rock critics who believe Guns ‘n’ Roses and their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, went the way of Axl Rose by spacing out somewhere. Now, Appetite for Destruction wasn’t some insignificant little speck. As of date, Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind have both topped sales marks of 30 million, but what people are forgetting is that relative to their release dates, Appetite for Destruction totally dwarfed Nevermind and it remains the highest-selling debut album ever. Nevermind’s release was low-key and virtually ignored. The albums are similar in the fact that they both captured a less synthesized, darker, more guitar-driven, and more personal feel than anything released in the 80’s. Appetite beat Nevermind to the punch for four years, though, and if you’re smart and courageous enough to try to bring Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, into it, it’s still a nice two-year start. Whether or not Guns ‘n’ Roses wrote better songs than Nirvana is perfectly debatable, but the musical quality just isn’t. Kurt Cobain was decent at best as a musician, and he carried the bulk of Nirvana playing guitarist and singer double duty. Guns ‘n’ Roses – at least for that single album – had one of the great underrated drummers in rock music with Steven Adler; with Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin came the driving forces behind Appetite for Destruction; Slash is one of the top-tier guitar gods; and Axl Rose is favorably comparable to Robert Plant in every way when he decides he actually wants to show up. Everything Nirvana did on Nevermind was done better by Guns ‘n’ Roses on Appetite for Destruction.

Cobain’s anger over his fame holds an echo similar to that of John Lennon, who hated the fact that his band was given a boy toy makeover in order to give them over to a mainstream following. Lennon was fed up to the point that he changed his lyrics in live shows because he knew fans wouldn’t be able to hear the difference. There’s a difference between Lennon’s anger and Cobain’s though; Lennon’s anger seemed more rooted in his image. Before the British Invasion days which came to define The Beatles, The Beatles were a more badass band than Ed Sullivan would have anyone see. Onstage in their German club days, The Beatles swore, chowed down on fried chicken, and nailed condoms to the wall and set them on fire. Their mainstream audience makeover removed the wildness of their shows, and that didn’t sit well with John because audiences weren’t getting to see the real John. When real John finally attained enough power to drop in on the world, he seemed pretty comfortable with his spot in the world, and he was happy to be spreading peace/love messages to anyone who would listen – and man, a lot of people wanted to listen.

Cobain was pissed at his image too, but in a different way. Nevermind hit it big because producer Butch Vig gave a slight little sheen to songs which were a lot rougher, and Cobain hated that people weren’t hearing the real Nirvana. Yeah, he got angry at his producer, but he got even more pissed off at the fans for having the gall to listen to his music. It had something to do with them not being the right kind of fans. Not being the right kind of fan is one thing if your listening contingent is mostly Nazis, but in Nirvana’s case it meant his music was resonating with more people than a very narrow demographic he apparently had in mind. I would think that being authentic would mean being appreciative of the fact that there were more people finding the authenticity in your music than you ever thought possible, not trying to shut out all your fans. By all means, his so-called authenticity appears more to be a certain brand of elitism worthy of fundamentalist religion; fuck you, you’re not worthy, you can only come in if you follow my ridiculously specific guidelines.

It seems a harsh thing to say, but Cobain’s death may be the best thing that ever could have happened to Nirvana and its legacy. What would have happened if Cobain managed to reach a peak of absolute power in the music industry with his attitude? You’re almost certainly looking at a gradual degradation of sounds until Nirvana started splicing random sounds together and calling it music. Cobain’s attitude toward his fandom would have gotten out and made him a pariah; provided, of course, that he didn’t just willingly lock himself away and become the ironic soul buddy of Axl Rose, who Cobain famously hated (for absolutely no reason, if the account of rock journalist Mick Wall is to be believed).

I’ll continue to be a Nirvana fan. Don’t expect me to revere Kurt Cobain as my angst voice, though; U2 and Rush have that spot filled nicely, and Cobain probably wouldn’t have appreciated me anyway. Nirvana is becoming more of a corporation, an irony which Cobain probably would have despised; and yet, one which the afterlife’s ironic punishment division would almost certainly see fit to suit a person like him.

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

It isn’t as easy as everyone makes it look in the movies, but damn if it ain’t fun!

Deep in the superconscious parts we don’t talk about, we all have these destructive fantasies of joyfully taking a sledgehammer and smashing some object of our ire until it’s smashed good. The University of Buffalo is having a Spirit Week, complete with all kinds of fun things to do. Today’s fun thing to do? Take a sledgehammer and smash a car! Anyone who thinks I would let this happen without my own participation just doesn’t know me very well.

The demolition was controlled. Everyone who wanted to take sledge to chrome had to sign a waiver and wear goggles, just in case a ricocheting piece of car backlashed the other way and hit us across the brow.

I arrived late for the festivities, but all that meant to me was that I didn’t have to wait very long, even though the car was already smashed in pretty good. Yeah, of course my great plan was to just take the hammer and go to town. As I watched some of the others in front of me in line, I tried to create a plan of attack: Number one, the back hubcap looked a little bit too pretty and un-smashed for some reason. Step two: Find the smaller, looser parts of the car and practice my long-dormant home run swing. Step three: Time to perform a little bit of body work! (I wonder if The Hulk ever pre-planned any of his smashing sprees.) My plan was quickly revised, though, after I decided to go with the crowd bandwagon and take my shot at finishing off the windshield frame, which was just a few good hits away from collapsing. Even the guard sign-in guy for the event seemed to be encouraging it.

My turn came. I made a beeline toward the pretty hubcap, wound up my golf swing, and took a hard, clean shot which hit the hubcap smack in the outer rim! There was a loud, muffled-sounding clang, and my sledgehammer vibrated, and after that…. Nothing. The damned hubcap wasn’t even dented! I figured my shot might have been a bit too far off the sweet spot, wound up, and socked the cap in the center. Still no damage.

Okay. I got the message and decided it was now my time to start gunning at the windshield frame. I move up to the front of the vehicle, taking a couple of good, hard cursory shots at the roof along the way. The whole time, the crowd watching had been encouraging everyone who partook in the beating to get angry. Now it was my turn to get angry, and lord knows it wasn’t difficult to come across my motivation. I was fucking standing right in front of it. Go back to my acting lessons and think of something that pisses me off: Bicycling in the Buffalo suburbs and getting assaulted by motorists! I got into a nice rhythm as I started regularly winding up and hitting away and, for the first time since I started, doing a little bit of visible damage. I got a few very nice shots at the frame, and I think the crowd was impressed that such a little guy could wield such power with a sizable sledgehammer.

The problem with window frames, though, is that they’re small targets. Sledgehammers are heavy, and they’re not going to be aimed the right way the entire time. So after a few good strokes, I missed a couple of times, hitting the little cross section at the frame and the roof. Then I missed with the hammerhead completely, and hit the neck of the hammer. The force behind that drive was so strong that I thought I saw a very slight bend in the hammer’s neck. There’s the waiver sense. I tried to point it out, but no one thought anything of it, so I finished up my turn.

It was fun, and I can now say I smashed both a car AND a house with a sledgehammer!