Thursday, March 5, 2009

26 Greatest Albums: Nirvana - 'Nevermind'

This has been posted here as 'Quelle Chanson, Non?' already. But since I went back in time to France yesterday, I thought I'd stay there for another day.

Quelle Chanson, Non?

My fifth year of college (!) was spent abroad in Orleans, France at L’Universite d’Orleans. Up until that point, I’d lived in Rhode Island all my life. From the time I was 15 until that year my main contact with the world outside of Little Rhody was through various punk rock bands.

This is what ’83 to ’91 looked like for me…

7Seconds were from out West and toured relentlessly, singing melodic breakneck hardcore punk that thematically took on ‘important’ issues like racism, sexism, and ‘the-world-doesn’t-understand-our-mohawks-ism’.

Minor Threat were from D.C. and not as upbeat as 7Seconds. They were more attuned to the forces that lay behind the ills of society and therefore less inclined to sing passionately about being able to change it. They later morphed into Fugazi, another of my all-time favs.
The Midwest was represented by a two-headed hydra of searing punk rock, The Replacements and Husker Du. The Replacements were the ill-advised Thursday night booze-off before a big test and Husker Du was the all-night study session for a political science exam that devolves into a meth-fueled rage against some machine.

All these bands were connected to other lesser lights. Before the internet, there was DIY (Do It Yourself) punk rock. They started their own record labels, they printed their own LP’s, they drew their own posters. They toured the country in vans sleeping on the couches of their biggest fans.

Rolling Stone didn’t write about them, radio wouldn’t touch them with an any length foot pole, MTV was already in the business of creating megastars, and the majority of the public winced at anything that was LOUD. I vividly remember playing a Replacements song for a friend of mine in high school. This guy was a musician, a guitar player who liked heavy metal for Pete’s sake, but he simply COULD NOT HEAR THE SONG. All he heard was noise.

This scene would be replayed throughout the late ‘80’s for me, both in high school and in my first few years in college. I had my circle of like-minded friends. There were four of us. Tom, Justin, Joe, moi. We were occasionally a band, but more often than not we were intense spectators. To be a fan of this music meant a certain level of danger. Concerts were rag-tag affairs in which the crowd threw itself against itself as ferociously as possible. There were violent elements who were attracted to this kind of freedom and we often found ourselves rescuing punk maidens from slam-dance circles and avenging uncalled for elbows with punches. Skinheads, completely missing the point, weren’t dancing so much as they were trolling for conflict. Depending on our mood, we either gave it to them or didn’t.

Outside the shows this underground element would collide with ‘normal’ American life. The leeriness of capitalism was astounding. The feeling of ‘us vs. them’ was overwhelming. Restaurants would refuse to serve you. Store owners would deny you their products. Business owners would REFUSE YOUR MONEY. I could romanticize that whole aspect as having added some level of enjoyment, but to be honest, it just sucked. I had thousands of ‘what is the deal with THAT’ conversations with my co-conspirators. The justifications we concocted on behalf of our oppressors could never quite be pinned down into any certain set of criteria. Suffice it to say, we were, by definition, outsiders.

Did this status affect my view of said mainstream? In other words, was I as much of a douchebag to the world as the world was a douchebag to me? Of course not. I bought ‘Thriller’ like everyone else. I rocked out to Van Halen’s ‘Runnin’ With The Devil’. I lusted over Sade. I never cared for Madonna, but I didn’t SPIT at people who did. I even had some classic rock in the collection. My tastes ran towards punk rock but I could appreciate Duran Duran, perhaps the weirdest boy band ever. And Prince was from Minneapolis like my other two favorite bands. What wasn’t there to like about Prince?

But my open-mindedness was definitely not reciprocated. For some reason the music that meant the most to me was not just disliked, it was seen as a threat.

So, college happened in there somewhere. In between punk rock concerts, I did a ton of plays at the wonderful University of Rhode Island theater department. I had a series of disastrous relationships and abused alcohol. I HAD A BLAST.

I kept three majors. Theater, English, and French. My youthful enjoyment of Inspector Clouseau had improbably turned into a major. Thus everything about my French studies seemed vaguely comedic to me. The opportunity to live in France for a year was going to be a laugh riot. I’d completed 4 full years of college and only needed 9 credits to graduate. 5 classes per semester equals 15 credits, so you do the math. Over the course of my two semesters in France, I only needed to do less than one semester of work. France was in trouble, people.

That summer wasn’t exactly a victory lap of an exit. I got Lyme’s Disease and went through a horrific breakup. I left the country an emotional wreck and very unhealthy. In fact, I took the last of my antibiotics right before I got on the plane, hoping they’d done their work. I invested in an expensive CD Walkman and a small set of speakers. I brought two notebooks of CD’s with me, perhaps 20 of my favorites.

My first couple of months in France were primarily recuperative. I went to classes with my other Foreign Exchange students, I ate pleasant dinners with my host family, I went to every movie in town to get used to listening to French when I didn’t have to respond. I read in my little dorm room. I ate the same meal twice a day at the cafeteria. Slowly the language unfurled itself to me and social situations became bearable.

Two of my American friends had joined a local American football team and made some French friends. This was what I was after. Instead of hanging out with my classmates, other non-French speaking foreigners, I began hanging out primarily with French people. But America was about to reach out to me.

The campus of L’Universite d’Orleans is a 20 minute bus ride outside of the city of Orleans. We all began to spend far more time in the city and very little on campus. On one of these excursions, we stopped in at FNAC. FNAC (said as one word by the French, hilarious) was the French version of Tower Records. In a ‘holy shit I feel old’ side note, Tower recently disappeared off of the face of the planet.

I’d been in France a couple of months and I’d yet to buy any music, preferring instead to start smoking. So I wasn’t all that into going to FNAC, to be honest. I loitered, looking at French chicks. A song came on over the in-store stereo system. I AM NOT EXAGGERATING ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWS.

My memory of this moment is like one of those long unbroken movie shots…the camera starts up in the very highest corner of the store. The song begins and slowly the camera begins to swoop, capturing the silly French fashions, the funny haircuts, the multi colored crazily buttoned jackets, the pointy shoes, late ‘80’s American culture re-appropriated back to Europe and funneled inappropriately into Mass Appeal. The focus of the shot narrows in on the face of an obviously American post-teen. As the music builds, the camera nears his face as his mouth opens, his toes tap, his head bounces. He is obviously AMAZED at this sound. The sound obliterates everything else.

The camera stays in close up. The song ends. The next voice you hear you have to try to imagine a little bit. Do you remember the morning rock DJ in your town? Do you remember the inherent utter hyperbole in their speech? Now cross that with Inspector Clouseau…

‘Eh, mes amis, quelle chanson, non? C’etait le Number One des Etats Unis, la nouvelle son de…”

Interjection: Did I just hear him say that was the Number One song in the United States? When I flew out of Logan Airport, the number one song was ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ by Bryan Adams. It had just replaced ‘Rush Rush’ by Paula Abdul. Those were the big hits of the summer. Think about that for a second.
Cut back to gape-mouthed post-teen…

“…la nouvelle son de Nirvana! Smells Like Teen Spirit de l’album Nevermind.”

Dropping the camera metaphor, I could barely believe what I’d been hearing. I tore over to the Rock section and found Nirvana. Sold out. I had heard of them after they put out their ‘Bleach’ album in 1989 but I hadn’t bought the album and knew very little about them. I was almost angry. That song was Number One??? What the hell was going on back there???? I turn my back for one second and all of a sudden everyone can handle loud music??? Not only can they handle it, but it is THE MOST POPULAR SONG IN THE COUNTRY????

I seriously thought about getting on a plane and flying back to the States.

Imagine you work for a political candidate, Mr. So-and-so. You’ve been tirelessly campaigning for years. You’ve poured your heart and soul into a race that people seem ambivalent about at best. By some fluke, you are on a deserted island when the actual voting takes place. Your isolation makes you wonder what ever compelled you to get involved in politics in the first place. A plane flies overhead. Instead of rescuing you, it drops a newspaper on your head. The headline says, “So-and-So Elected in a Landslide!”

I’d spent the better part of ten years catching flak for how loud and out of control my tastes were, how what I liked was actually an affront to decent American consumerism, and that such a horrific assault on art and sound was everything that was wrong with the youth of today.

Bryan Adams was considered a ROCK STAR. Huey Lewis (god love ‘im) was a ROCK STAR. Now, I have nothing against either of these guys, but…come on. ROCK STARS? I don’t think so. Rock stars scare people. David Bowie is a ROCK STAR. Mick Jagger is a ROCK STAR. They scared people! They might even have slept together just to show the world they could do whatever they wanted! ROCK STARS change how people view the world.

I have never felt such a sensation of vertigo as I did that day in that French record store. One listen of that song and I knew that NOTHING would be the same when I got back to America. Name another song that could truthfully make such a claim.

One final note. I only got 8 credits and had to take another class when I got back Stateside. C’est la vie!


Anonymous said...

You do realize how that all happened, right? Think of how many of us there were in high school were into punk rock. You may think, "Not many," but I'd say it was at least 10-20% of us, and we were growing. Multiply that around the country, and you have a lot of kids -- and more every year -- who were sick of the major record labels and were buying indie-produced music. Eventually it had to happen; some group would click with this growing market and sell as many records as the big labels, and that band was Nirvana.

Then the big labels finally took notice, co-opted it, and grunge became mainstream within a few years. C'est la vie, indeed!

Question: Do you know of any new-ish genres of music that could be doing something similar today?

--- Tom H.

Brendan O'Malley said...

I think 10-20% is WAY high. Figure our school had 800 kids, 200 in our graduating class. Were there really 20 kids in the Senior class who liked punk rock the way we did? I don't think so. There was us and a few others.

And I think that there is no way anything could garner such an undivided amount of attention now. There is too much fragmentation built into the system. Rap and grunge were the last major movements we'll see like that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I was in Canada when this event took place and they "got it" too. Again, great piece.

Brendan O'Malley said...

hey anonymous...

glad you liked it!

Anonymous said...

OK Brendan, I'll bite:

You, me, Tom D., Justin B., John B., Sean R., Suzie G., Anna N., Chris C., Jessica (?? forgetting last names!).

Yeah, that's only 10, but I know there were more. I mean, to be honest, I had no clue **you** were into punk rock or Hüsker Dü back then. No clue! And how many people knew that a massive geek like me was into Minor Threat? I'm betting there are easy 10 or more other kids in our class who either I'm forgetting or who we simply didn't know were into this kind of music back then.

I agree, though, with your point about fragmentation now. That and the internet has just changed (and is changing) the game completely.

Brendan O'Malley said...

point well taken, anonymous. that puts the number closer to 20%, which is considerable. who is this by the way? i regret not being able to connect on minor threat as they were pretty much all i listened to in high school...

Anonymous said...

Hey Brendan,

It's Tom Hull. I've RSSed you, so I get alerted when you post something new. (Which means I might read it within a few days, if I'm not drowning in math at the time.)

Brendan O'Malley said...

ah, i saw the TH on the first anonymous and thought the second one was a different anonymous.

that makes 19.5 % instead of 19.7 because i was counting two anonymouses. anonymi?