Rob O’Hara beat me to the punch with his excellent analysis of Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind, and I find myself not disagreeing with a word of it. So rather than duplicate his work, I’ll talk about how I came to learn of Nevermind and its reception in St. Louis.
It was in September 1991 that I started listening to 89.7 KYMC, a small, very low-power radio station run by a YMCA in suburban St. Louis. I could get it in my car if I was lucky, and at home if I was careful how I positioned my boombox. I heard about it from a bunch of guys who dialed into the same bulletin board systems I did. I was interested, because I was thoroughly sick of the two Top-35 stations in St. Louis. Yes, I said Top 35, because neither played the entire Top 40, so they basically played the same 35 songs over and over. In retrospect, I wonder mainly why it took me so long to get sick of that.
I don’t remember exactly when KYMC started playing it, but it wasn’t long before they were playing Smells Like Teen Spirit once an hour, because they were getting so many requests for it. It was loud and raw and different from anything I’d heard on the radio before. I called it punk rock, for lack of anything else to call it. But while it was as unrefined as bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols, it was different. Louder, certainly, but something else was different too.
I didn’t know what I was hearing, but I knew it wasn’t going to be the last of it.
Nobody else knew what to make of it either. I remember listening to it in my car at work while I was on break, and people walked past and looked at me like I’d lost my mind. As for my coworkers, most of whom were close to my age, they either loved it or hated it. Most hated it. Until it got popular, that is.
When KYMC did its weekly countdown of its most requested songs, Smells Like Teen Spirit was #1 for weeks. It wasn’t until U2 released its first single off Achtung Baby, The Fly, that something could knock Teen Spirit off the top spot. But I think after the newness wore off The Fly, Teen Spirit climbed back up to the top spot again for a while.
I didn’t buy Nevermind right away, but one night in November, probably the week of Thanksgiving, I drove to Streetside Records and bought a copy on CD.
One morning, I was listening to one of the Top-35 stations, WKBQ, on my way to school because KYMC wouldn’t come in. WKBQ did a Battle of the New Tunes every night, where new songs would get played, and listeners would call in and vote on which song should win and get played the next night. Due up that night was none other than Smells Like Teen Spirit. The notorious Steve and D.C. couldn’t stop talking about it. What’s “Nirvana” mean? Why did they make a song about deodorant? How do you make a song about deodorant, anyway? They predicted it would flop, as I recall.
It didn’t flop. In fact, both of the Top-35 stations ended up playing it quite a bit. So did KSHE-95, the local hard rock station.
Nirvana didn’t invent alternative music, not by a long shot. They weren’t the first alternative band to cross over into mainstream popular music, either. Arguably it was the Velvet Underground that did the former, and former Velvet Underground singer/guitarist Lou Reed who did the latter, about 20 years before Nevermind came along.
But it busted through a door nobody else had managed to get through. Prior to Nevermind, alternative music was something you heard on low-power stations on the far left side of the dial, like 89.7 or its competitor, 89.5, which you could hear in some of the other parts of St. Louis County that 89.7 couldn’t reach. After Nevermind, you started to hear a lot more alternative music on Top-40 and hard rock stations. And it was about a year and a half after Nevermind appeared that an adult contemporary station in St. Louis decided to change formats to alternative, which is how St. Louis got KPNT at 105.7. It wasn’t an especially adventurous station–certainly not as adventurous at 89.7 or 89.5–but people who couldn’t pick up those stations got to hear They Might Be Giants, 10,000 Maniacs, Sugar, Cracker, The Lemonheads, and Juliana Hatfield for the first time. Plus a whole lot of Peter Gabriel and R.E.M. and U2 and Depeche Mode and The Cure. And, of course, Nirvana and fellow Seattle-ites Pearl Jam were in heavy rotation too. But oddly, Soundgarden didn’t get nearly as much play on 105.7 until a couple of years later, when they released Superunknown. So the guys who were too cool to listen to Nirvana and Pearl Jam after they got popular could still listen to Soundgarden for a while.
After a couple of years, arguably alternative music wasn’t alternative anymore. It got popular and displaced the stuff that came before it. And after a few years, it stopped being the trendy thing to listen to. Just like every other trend that’s come and gone.
Maybe if Nirvana hadn’t been there with Smells Like Teen Spirit, something else would have triggered that trend. But maybe not. I’m thinking not.
Like Rob said in his analysis, linked above, prior to Nirvana, rock stars were guys we wanted to be like. The guys in Nirvana were just like us.
And then, three and a half years later, Cobain was dead. In retrospect, it was no surprise. Rumors floated around for months prior to the release of In Utero that Cobain wanted to title the record I Hate Myself and Want to Die. But it was still a shock. I was in a car with a bunch of my Maneater staff-mates, headed to a newspaper convention in Cape Girardeau when the DJ came on in between songs and announced Cobain had committed suicide, and they’d be doing a tribute to him at the top of the hour.
The next morning, I read his obituary in one newspaper or another. “Grunge is what happens when children of divorce get guitars,” it read.
Whether he liked it or not–probably not–Cobain was one of the big spokesmen of a generation. It’s really easy to forget he and his band only recorded three studio albums, and as hard as it was to escape him in life, in death, his legend has only grown. And Nevermind was the work that made us look up and pay attention.