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Category Archives: Sounds of the City

The Real Ones: An Anthem for Buffalo

The Real Ones: An Anthem for Buffalo

You may have noticed that a lot of cities get contemporary songs written about them. Buffalo, sadly, has been lacking, which is funny for a city which spent the first half of the 20th Century being so prominent. So I decided to write the lyrics for a song about Buffalo’s old guard. This is my first attempt at songwriting ever. Now, I tend to write a lot of dark stuff, and this song is set from the point of view of an older resident of Buffalo who believes that trying to make everything the way it was before the march of progress destroyed the city will restore it to greatness.

No one’s bothered by the cold                                                                                                   We’re a guard that’s fighty and old                                                                                      Shoving heads into frozen white sand                                                                                Though we were once a promised land                                                                                    Kids file out with degrees underarm                                                                                    They’re not as real as us

Everyone is wrong                                                                                                                            We know what we are                                                                                                                We’re the tough ones                                                                                                                       We know our past was right

Corporate steel killed our jobs                                                                                                       Made us into mindless pack mobs                                                                                              Back in the day, everything was right                                                                                            In our past, the city basked in light                                                                                    Progress must be pretty bad because                                                                                   Breaks don’t come for us

We know we’re strong                                                                                                                That’s just how we are                                                                                                                    We’re the hard ones                                                                                                                        The future can’t be bright

Now our home can’t clean its slate                                                                                              Our football team lost four straight                                                                                              Hot bird wings helped bring us fame                                                                                     Other places just think we’re lame

Being tough is all we’ve got                                                                                                         With our once-big city left to rot                                                                                             Being modern won’t cross our mind                                                                                        Being great means we must be blind                                                                                               It’s a price we pay                                                                                                                             For being real

We’re the old guard                                                                                                                         The old ways were best                                                                                                              We’re the real ones                                                                                                                          We don’t care for the rest


The Nashville Sound

The Nashville Sound

Johnny Cash became a superstar in Nashville. He’s technically considered a country singer, which means music aficionados are likely to file him under the “YEE-HAW!!!” compartments of their brains right along with John Wayne’s dead brand of American patriotism and Terry Bradshaw. Cash, though, had a powerful flair for lyrics. He spoke to the darkest corners of the soul; the areas we’re forced to deny the existence of whenever we put on our brave faces because social protocol demands we suck it up and move on. He made a career of expressing in music and lyric form the ways we’ve all felt at our loneliest and most helpless, and in doing so he turned into a transcendent singer whose work was felt by everyone, whether or not they hated country music.

Nashville itself, of course, has a long and storied history in music. Elvis Presley is such a popular figure there that his favorite sandwich can be bought at Johnny Cash’s museum. It’s even nicknamed The Music City! With a nick and a reputation like that, you would expect an explosive variety of music to be available on the local radio stations, with a load of country stations leading the charge. But when I turned on my small shortwave radio in my first morning in Nashville and started channel surfing, it was very surprising and a little disturbing to find station after station of those great dregs of music: Christian music. Constant clicking of that whacked-out, balls-to-the-wall, fire and brimstone variety of preaching. God is good; heaven will be awesome; you’re all going to hell; the end times are here and the atheists are all going to have the planet to themselves after we all get raptured.

No wonder everyone makes fun of country music. There are so many Christian radio stations in Nashville that some bigshot travel writer probably listened to all the Christian stations, mistook the music for country, and launched a satirical stereotype worthy of Mencken or Twain. Staying as a guest in the home of my good friend Christi, the first thing I asked her that morning – besides “How the hell does this coffee machine work?” – was about whether or not there were any radio stations in Nashville that weren’t screaming about the holy light and the greatness of Jay-zuz! in orgasmic overtones. She told me that she noticed that too, and that a lot of those Christian stations were going to either tread on eggshells or scare the fear of the Christian God into you.

Mindboggling is the word for this. To listen to radio in Nashville is to conclude that residents are either all crackers or religious fanatics and that no one in the city could possibly be a fan of jazz, blues, hip hop, or classic rock. The Law of Averages alone means the demographics of Nashville probably include people who like all those things. And don’t misread me here – they’ll definitely include people who love Christian music and country music too, but probably not 12 goddamned stations of it.

It’s weird to think there are 12 different demographics of people who would listen to Christian music at all. We like to toss things into broadly generalized categories and lament about how they’re all the same. This sentiment, however, doesn’t actually hold true. All those similar products are specifically made to appeal to that general audience in a different way. But, little obedient Christian as I once was, I really have never detected a difference in Christian-based mass media. All of the Christian music I’ve heard boils down to the same watered-down message: God loves you so much that he killed his own kid in order to undo a nefarious plan enacted by his arch-foe centuries in the past. They all emphasize the same Bible stories and the fact that this God character loves us and wants us to be happy without the use of beer. It’s a very straightforward message, always told in an equally straightforward manner. So how are 12 Christian music stations able to divvy up a fanbase in a city as large and diverse as Nashville and still be in business? Especially when they have to compete against all the real country music stations?

This is just… Odd. I had heard all the stories about what things were like in the South, along the Bible Belt, of course. Hell, this isn’t even my first time traveling through the South. I had traveled to St. Louis – and I am, in fact, in St. Louis again, writing this post from the Illinois side – and been to the very tip of the South, New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast. But there are people who could build a case against me ever visiting the South at all with a travel itinerary that looks like that – St. Louis is only arguably a Southern city, and New Orleans is an odd little hotbed of hedonism which is also the headquarters of New France and a dominantly Catholic city in Southern Baptist Jesusland. While Nashville fits all possible descriptions of a large city, it also fits all possible descriptions of being a Southern city. Right down to a glorification of Nathan Bedford Forest, the Confederate General who also just happened to be the founder of the Ku Klux Klan once the Civil War was over. And yes, that oh-so-slight little blotch on Forest’s resume is under gloss so thick that it gets buried altogether.

So there I was, having rejected Christianity in nearly as complete a way as can be done, being told by weird voices in my radio that I can go to hell. And there I also was, thinking the same thing about that as I’ve now been thinking for the last ten years. I don’t know whether to laugh at the absurdity of this whole situation or cry about being in it. I don’t know if I should be bemused or disturbed. I can, however, say this: Nashville was otherwise such a fun place to be that it wasn’t able to get into my head.

Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero

My fingers are short and stubby. They don’t seem quite right for a first time learner holding a classical-variety acoustic guitar. The classical acoustic guitar, as per its name, produces a very beautiful sound, but it doesn’t leave a ton of room for error. In order to eliminate unwanted twang and feedback, I have to press the strings and hold them completely against the fretboard, and classic acoustic guitars make that very difficult. The fretboard on a classical acoustic is flat instead of arched; the strings are wider apart than on most other guitars; the depth is greater than most other guitars (that means the distance between the strings and fretboard). My kingdom for a nice telecaster. I can perform a halfway decent version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” though, so at least my guitar can play the kind of music it got named after.

I’ve officially gone from being obsessed with playing video games to being obsessed with playing music. When I started to sit down and really learn to play guitar, I did it in part to improve my concentration and ability to linearize more analytical subject matter. You would think video games would be great for that, and to a point, they are. Playing video games isn’t like reading music, though. A video game level usually offers a number of subtle options which allow the gamer to adjust and strategize, tackling the level in a handful of different ways which all serve different purposes. There’s a way to run through a level which will be easiest for the gamer, and a way to do it which might be a lot tougher, but looks really cool to onlookers. Music notes, in contrast, are pretty linear. Certain aspects of a song can differ, but there’s generally one way to play it.

At a cursory glance, you would think 30 years of experience playing one would be a halfway decent start to trying to learn the other, but most video games require the use of maybe four or five different fingers at once, tops. If I decide to apply my experience as a writer to learning an instrument, well, the problem with that is that I use even less fingers on my computer keyboard than I do on my video game controllers. I know how to type properly, but I find it easier and far less painful – especially on my right hand – to just peck out everything on my two acting forefingers. A musical instrument will pretty much require nothing short of two extra fingers, and that’s just on my good hand. Herein lies the problem: My little stubs of fingers don’t like this weird new dance I’m busily forcing them to perform.

I can’t decide whether learning music is about analysis or good old-fashioned instinct, or even whether I’m ramping up the difficulty even further by wondering a question like that. It would seem like the kind of thing you have to be able to turn your brain on and off for. You know the drill – pick up the instrument, flick the off switch, and let your fingers ride like the wind into the sunset while everyone in the immediate vicinity starts comparing you to Jimi Hendrix. Of course, the problem with that is that you’re not actually learning very much by doing that, and you’d probably be booed out of some two-bit nightclub without 10000 practice hours and a very exacting idea of what to do. When I try to be analytical about reading music, I only end up playing like an honorary member of the Keystone Cops Accidental Musical Comedy Tribute Band: See note, dig through my mental archives in a desperate attempt to remember just which note on which string between which two frets I’m supposed to be plucking, pluck note, repeat process until I’ve been trying to play a minute-and-a-half-long song for about eleven minutes. And that’s provided it’s one of the easier songs I practice on. On a particularly difficult measure, I alternate glances between the page, my fingers, and the fretboard, trying to figure out exactly how to decode the weird alien language written down there until I inevitably sink into a default how-to-do-it mode of playing every note I know until I guess the one which sounds right.

Then, of course, instead of practicing until I know exactly what the hell I’m supposed to be doing, I go sit down at my computer and punch out a thousand words about just how much I suck at playing guitar. It’s my natural instinct, being a writer and all, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Like learning how to do anything else well, starting out as an amateur guitar player gave me a real respect for what the people who are already good at playing guitar can do. One of the first images that comes to mind is the music video for the classic AC/DC song “Thunderstruck,” which opens with a nice close-up of Angus Young’s fretboard as he plays the lightning-fast riffs. It gives me a sense of envy, watching Young as his fret hand glides all over, fingers moving nimbly with the grace and knowing order and purpose of spider legs. How the hell does he do that? One day, I hope to be that good. I also like to imagine there are great guitar players out there, somewhere, who once saw a smooth video gamer playing his best game and thought the same thing to themselves. The difference is that I’m not yet able to name any video gamer who managed to parlay his video game talents into worldwide fame and well-known status as a millionaire boozehound and sex god.

My Offbeat Love for Alternative Hip Hop

My Offbeat Love for Alternative Hip Hop

I like rap music a lot, and I don’t see the term “rap music” as an oxymoron. It was one of my signatures back in the 90’s, when I started following it, even though the late 90’s were a materialist dark age for the genre. A lot of my memories regarding music back then come from lyrics bragging about money, women, and stuff; and the industry – not the music itself, but the industry – turning into a soap opera which, were it going on today, would make a fine reality TV show. Snoop Dogg’s label switch from Death Row to No Limit was a bigger story than any CD he released, and it didn’t even get him the better producers he desperately needed. There was a popular skit character on Bad Boy records called The Mad Rapper (“We’re here today with The Mad Rapper, and, well, he’s pretty mad.”) whose real identity was a secret for years, until there was a drama about an insider threatening to reveal it. Rappers came together often to form rap supergroups, which never seemed to last (Westside Connection, The Firm). I don’t even want to write about the East/West feud, given the consequences that thing came to.

Of course, most of the rappers I listened to were the mainstream rappers. That was both a blessing and a curse. Some of the great landmark albums of rap music were among the most popular: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic; Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle; The Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die; and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted – all giant hits, all critical successes. Like everyone who listened to mainstream rap, though, I also made my share of mistakes. Master P has to be one of the most overrated rappers alive, and going crazy for Ghetto D – his supposed magnum opus – back then makes a strong case for my being a lot dumber than I think I am. Tupac was in his Death Row phase when he finally entered my consciousness, which meant my first exposure to him was All Eyez on Me, a double album populated with the sparse personal song or social comment but swimming in so much violence and decadence that it was almost cartoonish.

What a knock it was when I finally came to the realization that mainstream rap artists – good or bad – were writing those anthems to glorified, stylized violence and hedonism strictly for teenagers like me to shock their parents. Although most listeners in my situation would have been disillusioned and gone strictly back to their white suburban classic rock roots after learning that, I continued my journey into the world of rap music. I can’t take all the credit for my good taste; back when I hit the no-turning-back phase of rap fandom, I began to look a little deeper into the music world. Being an aficionado for local indie artists was a real advantage, because I knew where to find rarer records and information. When the beat trail finally led me past the rap mainstream, what I started to hear floored me: There was A Tribe Called Quest, pioneering the alternative rap movement; De La Soul giving us the concept of psychedelic hip hop; and The Roots, with the Philadelphia sound. The fact that I developed a taste for alternative hip hop made me weird even among rap fans, when guys like Talib Kweli found recognition in the last decade, I knew I had been on to something back them. It was shocking to hear The Roots become Jimmy Fallon’s backups because I still consider Illadelph Halflife the greatest rap record ever made.

Let’s be clear about that: Illadelph Halflife is a record the rich, scared suburbs still haven’t even heard of, unless someone happened to mention it in passing on Fallon once. I don’t care how weird my taste makes me look, either; Illadelph is going in the desert island chest long before anything Kanye West ever recorded. I’ll be taking along my Tribe Called Quest collection, too.

The amazing thing about alternative hip hop, to me, is the fact that the artists who create it aren’t vying to be MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice, guys who hit it big by making rap more palatable to the parents of the kids who begged for the records. None of the alternative rappers I like will pull punches when the necessity of dropping swear words comes up. But they don’t use curses as substitutes for the messages they’re trying to get across, either, and they recognize that hip hop has a meaning beyond just scaring white suburban parents to death. One of the things I noticed early on about alternative hip hop is that the artists place an enormous amount of emphasis on the artistry of rap itself, and tend to take roles as both creators and observers. A lot of the songs I heard from the first alternative rap groups I listened to regularly actually seemed to be bemoaning the mainstream and accusing it of losing sight of the real message of hip hop.

There’s no blaming the artists who believed that. Hip hop in the late 90’s seemed to have lost everything that made it such a force in the 80’s. Public Enemy sort of disappeared after their sterling, socially conscious works, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. Gangsta Rap – or as I’ve come to referring to it, shock rap – took the things Public Enemy spoke about to an extreme, and suddenly rap was about who could create the most outrageous character. While the cartoonish extremes of violence and materialism seem to have been kicked back a little bit, rappers today have also transcended the music world to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine them being the raw, young talents they broke musical ground as. They’re entrepreneurs now, and while entrepreneurship in itself doesn’t bother me, many of them have also become the stalwart pillars of the very system they previously ranted against. Jay-Z can be held up as the most egregious example: He’s known more as the businessman who married Beyonce and owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets now than as the flying lyricist responsible for Reasonable Doubt, the influential, intense debut album that put him on the map as a rap force comparable to Rakim.

If a rapper releases a strong debut that also happens to sell well, there’s pressure on him to live up to the former sales figure. Not necessarily the music, but the sales, so it’s understandable that he might try to outdo himself on a follow-up by taking everything people loved about the debut, ramping it up to Mark McGwire steroid levels, and bloating it so he doesn’t miss anything. Since alternative rappers frequently aren’t superstars, they tend to be a bit looser and revel in creative freedom because, why not? They’re not the ones trying to appeal to the middle class, so they can afford to experiment, show musical growth as opposed to bloating, and write gradually maturing lyrics.

It’s in alternative hip hop where the real appeal of the genre lies, at least for me. Every expert on the planet says hip hop is not about graphic violence, swearing, and how many nice things the rapper can buy or the women he can get. Unfortunately, with the mainstream having placed a massive emphasis on all those things during the 90’s, that’s the image hip hop is still trying to shake. Alternative hip hop displays rap at its most creative and versatile, and it therefore best makes the argument that rap is an art form, here to stay, and totally worth preserving.

An Objective Look at In Utero, by Nirvana

An Objective Look at In Utero, by Nirvana

“Teenage angst has paid off well; now I’m bored and old.”

We know, Kurt Cobain, believe you me, we KNOW. Over the years of Nirvana’s dominance, you’ve made that abundantly fucking clear.

That little snippet is the opening line of “Serve the Servants,” the first song from Nirvana’s final album, In Utero. It really sums up a lot of Cobain’s attitude. Nirvana’s success got him a lot of nice things, but he thought the band had reached its creative peak, and the adulation he got was coming from an enormous audience he didn’t particularly like. He made music all angsty on Nevermind, which sold a lot and made him a ton of money, but what next?

Well, if several songs on In Utero are any indication, apparently what came next was laying his anguished screaming in many layers of computer noise. Of course, it was the early 90’s, when we were all fascinated by these cool little magic boxes, so this shouldn’t be some kind of great shock. We used them a lot in movies, after all, and hell, every movie in the 90’s had a tech-savvy computer wizard – morals optional – who could solve every problem from war to hunger by hacking into the right computer. So why not engage in a little sonic experimentation with com-poo-tohrs? This electronic screaming flat out destroys “Scentless Apprentice,” which is a shame because the live version of “Scentless Apprentice” is so awesome. It can be heard on From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah.

Cobain doesn’t waste any time presenting us with the screaming broken guitar routine either. That sucker is dominant throughout In Utero, and it never has any twists or turns that are able to suddenly make it listenable. Well, In Utero was an album that Nirvana said was going to weed out the true fans from the posers or some such. In other words, it was made to alienate listeners. The Screaming Broken Guitar is definitely a step in the proper direction if that was the point. The first two songs ought to weed out plenty of listeners expecting a Nevermind rerun. “Serve the Servants” is a fairly decent song, but not what fans of Nevermind had come to expect from Nirvana. “Scentless Apprentice” is the perfect storm of awful, and includes all the hallmarks of the things that suck about Nirvana: High, screaming, broken guitars, electronically layered screaming, and many moments of quick off-noting. I think it’s meant to give In Utero a rough feel, but it doesn’t work, and it in fact feeds into my impression of Kurt Cobain being the world’s earliest hipster; he paid attention to whatever was mainstream for the sole purpose of doing the opposite. The random breaks in “Scentless Apprentice” come off as a little too convenient to not be strategically placed.

“Heart-Shaped Box” is the first sign of competency and coherency on In Utero. If Nirvana were a hair band from the 80’s, “Heart-Shaped Box” would be the power ballad they would have released in the second act of their flashpan superstardom. It’s darker than the ballads of the 80’s and more stripped down to bare basics, of course, and I have trouble believing it’s even a love song. I can’t figure out what it’s about. What it is, though, is the first sign that there’s going to be some real audial highs to come off the album. “Rape Me” follows through on the promise of “Heart-Shaped Box” and also brings back the Nevermind sound buyers of In Utero were presumably hoping to hear more of.

For all the prettiness delivered by In Utero, however, consistency is something Nirvana can never seem to get a real grasp of. Take “Pennyroyal Tea” for example. This is one of the most underrated songs Nirvana ever recorded, and one which earned a slot in the band’s famous Unplugged in New York set. It’s a great song, but it seems almost at war with itself, giving us acoustic verses and electric hooks. The extremes don’t mesh well, and the band never really seems to settle on a direction it wants to take the song.

That describes the very contrasting experience of trying to listen to In Utero. There’s a lot of amazing music on the album, but also a lot of unlistenable shit. Cobain complained that Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, was choppy, but that album is at least streamlined in some odd way by its blandness. One minute you’re listening to “All Apologies,” arguably the very culmination of everything Nirvana was capable of doing. The next, you’re listening to “tourette’s,” the longest 95 seconds of rhythmic screaming and electronic noises you could ever be subjected to. In Utero doesn’t start trying to forge any real identity for itself until “Rape Me,” which is the fourth song on the album, and even when it does, it seems to periodically jump and hiccup. “Milk It” is aggressively bad, for example, and it highlights everything bad I think about the band – incoherent mumbles, rhythmic screaming, no real musical chord. “Francis Farmer Wll Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” in spite of the occasional high-sqealing guitar, has a hard hook, memorable vocals, and a great bassline.

I wouldn’t have a problem with inconsistency if In Utero had more songs worth listening to. But a large chunk of In Utero sounds a little like it’s trying to rip itself off to some point. “Scentless Apprentice,” and “tourette’s” seem to suffer from that weird AC/DC syndrome where they have a suspicious amount in common and you start to think the band got stuck for ideas. “Very Ape” sounds like one of Nirvana’s older songs, “Breed.” “Dumb” has the same problem; it comes off as more than a passing version of “Polly” from Nevermind. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is endless drowned vocals, broken guitars (if you’re sensing my theme of hating the broken guitar, you’ve got me pegged), and general nonsensical and meandering instrumentals. While it does feature one of Dave Grohl’s more emotive drum performances, it isn’t nearly enough to rescue the song.

Nirvana wanted to go back to roots. They wanted to drive fans away and experiment. Musical experiments, however, don’t necessarily mean forgetting how to play the damned instruments. It Utero has some powerful and poignant pieces, but it’s not as streamlined as Bleach, the band’s notoriously weird first album. It’s certainly nowhere near the atmosphere Nevermind is lounging in. It constantly amazes me how rock critics are still lined up in an eternal contest to fawn the most over Nirvana and come up with the most creative justification for lionizing a band that gets more credit than it really deserves. It Utero gets a very reluctant recommendation for the sake of completing a Nirvana collection for its good moments. You won’t miss much by passing on it, unless the electric version of “Pennyroyal Tea” is that important to you.

The New Classic Rock

The New Classic Rock

I’ve written a lot in this blog about classic rock music, but that very term classic rock has actually been causing me a little bit of confusion for some time now. There’s a very definite sense of what I think of whenever the topic pops up in conversation. Everyone knows rock music attained its full-on classic status after hitting its scientifically verified peak in the late 1970’s, right? Well, okay, perhaps that idea is only applicable to those who are a part of my generation. Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, The Eagles…. No question! My peers and I grew up knowing those guys were decades in front of us, but they were the ones we spoke of in hushed tones when we stated our cases for the greatest classic rock band ever!

We’re still in that mindset; or I am, at least. Buffalo’s popular music station 97 Rock was where all the dinosaurs thunderously trudged in order to show us young whippersnappers how it was done. Every band they played on that station had already been around for decades, and so us young people were lulled into a false sense of security about just how much the popular culture landscape could change. To us, once a classic rock band, always a classic rock band. The 60’s and 70’s monsters stayed in the 60’s and 70’s and didn’t violate our young, cool turf in the 90’s. Until a couple of years ago, that is, when I casually flipped on 97 Rock to hear some of my favorite hard rock staples and was immediately immersed in “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.

97 Rock had expanded their playlist. No biggie – all the stations had to do that in order to survive, and I think the last time 97 Rock did something with theirs, it was still in the 60’s and 70’s. Besides, Metallica had been around a long time itself, so hearing them on 97 Rock shouldn’t have been the strangest feeling in the world. I let it go, but a few weeks later, I flipped on 97 Rock again and heard the distinctive chorus of Nirvana playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Every year, 97 Rock does some kind of charity event where it plays any song requested by anyone over a 24-hour period, and for a minute, I wrote off this freakish new Nirvana spotting as a song in that marathon. Then it ended, and the deejay gave us his usual rundown of the tunes he had just spun, naming the classic Nirvana song as if it were just another regular old song on their playlist. Of course, that was only because “Smells Like Teen Spirit” really was now a song in their playlist canon.

Just like that, my nice, safe way of defining what’s classic rock was destroyed like one of The Who’s stage sets. Life’s good misunderstood friend Time was now here chonking on the rock music of my own generation, and now there’s no way for me to define classic rock by using its passage anymore. Pearl Jam is now being lumped into the same (very broad) pile of bands as The Beatles, AC/DC, and Van Halen. Even though Pearl Jam is the 90’s band whose music most closely resembles that of the classic rockers I fell in love with, my head is still having trouble ringing it up. I grew up listening to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other grunge and post-grunge bands. Technically, they all got thrown under the rock section at the local CD store so…. Wait, you don’t know what a CD is? Er…. Go ask your parents. Okay, now that you’ve satisfied your curiosity, even though every band I’ve mentioned so far is a rock band, I’ve gotten used to placing them into two different mental compartments: The “Back Then” compartment and the “Here and Now” compartment, and now it seems like “Here and Now” evicted all its tenants and so they’re subletting in “Back Then.”

See, hearing grunge on 97 Rock was important. I’m not at the age where I can still be called a young man anymore, but hearing grunge on the local classic rock station was my first experience with the generational gap. People who were kids when I was in high school had now grown up, and the musical torch was passed down to newer bands like The Black Keys and Arcade Fire while the groups of my youth gracefully moved aside and accepted their new designations as elder statesmen. Therefore, grunge’s new home was a final signal that I wouldn’t be keeping up with what was new and hip anymore.

There’s no doubt in my mind that all those bands I loved in the 90’s will still go on to create millions of new fans. I did spend most of my childhood listening to 97 Rock, after all, and became a diehard fan of many of the bands who get played on the station. But it’s odd to think that if I get involved in an argument at school over who the best classic rock band is, I’ll have firsthand experience as I tell them about the glory days of REM and Weezer, the year when Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the greatest rock album ever produced and how Billy Corgan’s behavior in the ensuing aftermath pretty much fucked up The Smashing Pumpkins for good, more era-specific bands like Goo Goo Dolls and Oasis, and of course the real giants of classic rock – guys like Black Sabbath and Bruce Springsteen, who were the classic rock staples of my own childhood. Telling them about that last one will inevitably be their cue to give me quizzical looks and ask “Who?” And then refer to those guys as the moldy oldies when I tell them.

That will, in turn, be my own cue to mention that this is going to happen to the rock bands of their generation one day.

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.