Nirvana’s Legacy

Posted: February 9, 2013 in Other Bands and Nirvana, Unreleased n' Posthumous Nirvana

The website name had stuck in the head in the couple days before I got round to having to pick one. There was something punchy about it and I can admit it might be a steal from the title of Mick Wall and Malcolm Dome’s book Nirvana: The Legacy. I found the idea of that book inspiring but the content barely moved me being little more than a rehash of band bios of the time, an insipid quick dash over the top of the musical landscape of 1994-1997. The question remains valid, however; what has been the legacy of Nirvana?

Many people argue that nothing changed, that many of the old names stuck around, that the indie revolution never happened as expected and the charts remained flooded with manufactured product. Certainly grunge was the last gasp of rock as simultaneously a mass market phenomenon and a vital creative force — just as jazz ceded its position to pop and rock, rock was succeeded by hip hop fuelled R n’ B. That doesn’t mean that there was no legacy for Nirvana, it simply means that the market and industry changed fundamentally and that legacy wasn’t the multi-million selling multi-band phenomenon/movement they were looking for.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the hype around ‘alternative’ music was a gamble made by major label record companies who, deceived by the success of a small coterie of bands, were under the mistaken impression that a substantial market existed for punk-inspired or derived bands and therefore plunged energy into promoting the idea of the ‘alternative nation’. What they’d overlooked was that the triumph of Nirvana, Hole, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam was a victory for the bands possessing a sound close enough to existing mainstream rock to sell well. Most of the bands that made it onto majors simply weren’t even close to pop of the stadium-filling U2 et al. variety.

On the other hand, while acknowledging the points around the ‘death’ of rock, hype and compromise, I’d argue that the quest to find direct musical heirs has led to the tangible evidence of Nirvana’s influence being overlooked. Direct musical heirs are an exceedingly rare phenomenon; popular culture may echo but it rarely repeats. The greatest artists are so inimitable that those who do follow their template precisely are never anything more than pale copies; that’s the category into which the saleable but critically distained bands that followed the grunge ROCK template in the late nineties (i.e., Creed) fell into. The zeitgeist had moved on.

Usually what happens is a degree of inspiration, an element of the sound is taken. As an example, the successors to Jimi Hendrix were arguably the axe-worshipping legends Steve Vai and Joe Satriani — the fact that each of those artists moved in very different circles to Hendrix’s increasingly funk influenced last recordings and were more enamoured of his soloing side than his abilities with the brief quality pop mode, obscured the link. Guns n’ Roses meanwhile owed much to both the Rolling Stones and to Led Zeppelin while also tacking on aspects of punk. There are plenty of arguable relationships but in bands of top quality the relationship doesn’t mean cloning; even Oasis were never identical to their worn-on-sleeve influences.

So, when looking for the legacy of Nirvana, simply demanding a carbon copy is a quest bound only for disappointment. The influence of Nirvana is of a different quality. Firstly, the wave of which Nirvana was the foremost exponent, hard-wired punk into the DNA of every key rock band that has come since. The solo-worshipping, high-note-busting style of rock that dominated the Seventies and Eighties was wiped from the mainstream map. Instead the high-achieving rock bands have spanned from Green Day, to My Chemical Romance, through Limp Bizkit (yes), to Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead and even Muse. Unless you want to try and argue the case of novelty band The Darkness, there hasn’t been a truly successful band mimicking the hard rock sound in over two decades. What died altogether was hard rock, that combination of pop production and slickness with the metal-edged volume and bombast.
Secondly, Nirvana ushered in a new emotionally detailed vocabulary for mainstream rock stars; Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins certainly showed that there was a trend toward focused depression at the time of which Nirvana, arguably, was a part. Now, in the form of (oft-maligned) Emo, and with significant credit going to Weezer and The Descendants, there’s a greater openness to expressions of male emotional pain, a broadening of expression. Again, it’s not that Nirvana deserve the sole-credit for this but they showed it had arrived.

Thirdly, the sexism departed from the guitar-led musical world. The leather trousers, groupies and uber-mensch look shuffled from centre stage — it’s now such an oddity it even receives a defined sub-genre label, Sleaze Rock, when in the Eighties the rock world was dominated by this form. While the punk world in general had an openness to counter-cultural currents — hence queercore, Riot Grrl, straightedge, outright Marxism and even Bad Brains’ spirituality could all coexist — it was Nirvana who stated openly, over and over again, how ridiculous and retarded the sexism of rock had become. Again, the alternative nation did birth something.

Fourth and finally, Nirvana showed that there was finally an infrastructure that could give underground bands a sustainable means of living. The much vaunted Eighties underground scene had died a death — a bare handful of bands lived through it intact simply because there weren’t enough venues, enough music sales, enough fans, enough coverage to sustain them. Sonic Youth have stated that one of the best things about Daydream Nation as an album was that it meant they could finally give up having day jobs.
The four shifts in rock music that occurred in the early-to-mid-nineties are underrated because they’re impossible to pin to a single instigator alone; it’s hard to say Nirvana were wholly responsible, of course they weren’t, they were simply a defining part and the most important figurehead signalling the shift. So, if one is looking for a musical legacy, one that isn’t a parody, or that wasn’t a broad social force, what’s left?

The answer struck me most forcibly over the past three months as I’ve corresponded with numerous individuals worldwide about the book, the blog, Nirvana, life in general. Kurt Cobain was pure punk in that he wasn’t a guitar-worshipper, the music was a way of channelling emotion, spirit, fire, energy — whatever you want to call it. Krist Novoselic said in his eulogy on April 10, 1994 “…if you’ve got a guitar and a lot of soul just bang something out and mean it. You’re the superstar. Plugged in the tones and rhythms that are uniquely and universally human: music. Heck… use your guitar as a drum, just catch the groove and let it flow out of your heart.” This could serve as a rallying cry for any part of the diversified rock-influenced world from the indie end of the spectrum out to the wildest noise or drone. There are a vast number of musicians working today, rarely the famous, who were simply inspired by Nirvana to try something new, different. They may not sound too much like Nirvana but how are they not the heirs to Nirvana when there’s such a joyful racket being made as a consequence of that band’s short fire?

Below is my copy of the Fuck Brett birthday LP courtesy of Feeding Tube Records — the eponymous Brett is a huge Nirvana fanatic and musical creator. On the shelf behind me is Nerd Table’s Chasing the Bronco CD, Adam Casto, leading light of the band, told me specifically that his way of creating something personally positive from the demise of Nirvana was to seek out every former member of Nirvana he could and try to collaborate with them; again, beautiful. A fellow called Adam Harding has shared a demo — you’ll have to wait and see — that wears his early Nineties alternative nation vibe loud and proud while taking it a step forward. There’s an artist I’m in touch with in Scotland, hi Marcus(!), with an intriguing Cobain-related project. I even heard from a member of Trampled by Turtles (http://trampledbyturtles.com/) the other day — so many Nirvana fans doing creative stuff, that’s the legacy. Heck, ever since Nirvana, and despite a complete lack of ability, I’ve always held up creative action as the highest form of human activity and life.

There’s a lot going on out there even if the media would prefer straight lines, clear quotes and family ties. Will there be another Nirvana? It’s hard to find likely candidates given the most crucial elements of Nirvana were unpredictability and a soul-deep amount of damage residing inside…But keep looking.

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