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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.

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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.

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.

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.