Monday, January 9, 2012

A Nirvana for dystopians

I knew little about Nirvana's live history, in person, on TV, or otherwise. Much of what I knew of the band I gathered from the tabloid-ized media mythology, where artistry was overshadowed by emotional handicaps. So, seeing this video for the first time recently I wasn't expecting a band that was, well, so tight.

Kobain's head might merit a pedestal for the achievement of selling 50 million records alone. But for the art of popular culture, he did something far more impressive than entering the Michael Jackson sales stratosphere: He took the abstract, inchoate doodles of a teenager's journals and infused them with a poetry of near uncomfortable honesty and produced something close to profound. 

During Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ascendancy, Billboard made this unctuous proclamation:
"Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base."
They had the elusive brass ring trifecta in their teeth: Cred, respect, and Benjamins. Rock-and-Roll may be overrepresented in the Untrained-Savant-Turned-Unlikely-Hero category, though, for folk art, which much of pop music surely is, Kobain may've been the category's ne plus ultra. Even among his historical peers like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and even The 13th Floor Elevators, Nirvana's song-craft is crude. But Cobain's songs reveled in their technophobia and rudimentariness, inelegant even by the standards of the likes of Green Day. But in that unrefined crude, magic was often revealed. He accomplished what only few artists can do, he infused the simple with an unpretentious profundity.

Ultimately, Nirvana was more mainstream than innovative. Cobain's
ear for raw magic was as undeniable as it was unsustainable. While the band wasn't quite as transcendent as we might've hoped, they did do the sound justice: Dave Grohl was one of the stand out drummers of his era, Novoselic's bass was skeletally simple and nearly invisible, and although Cobain's skill as a guitarist was probably limited to his inherent slackerness, he did have prodigious instincts at his disposal. With this sound he was the twisted dark pixie whose music could reach the antennae of millions. It was his gift and his incurable affliction. 

Through the character of its figurehead, this band contained all of the components to make for a good legend; and for better and worse, they delivered.

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