(WORDS BY ELIZABETH BARKER, PICTURES BY JEN MAY)
It's also got to do with how, the older I get, the more thankful I am to have Nirvana be a part of my history. They were the first band to ever break my heart and also the hearts of at least a few people around me, including some of the first exceptionally cool boys I was ever friends with. Like this boy Mike whom I met when I was 16 -- in high school I worked at an Italian bakery in Mike's neighborhood, and some afternoons Mike would come in after school and sit at the bar to eat cake and smoke cigarettes. He went to Catholic school and was two years younger than me but I thought he was about 25, on account of the fact that he was eight-feet-tall (6'4") and had wild hair and intense facial hair and generally appeared more experienced and dangerous than I could ever be. Mike's the only person I've ever known who possibly loved Nirvana even more than I did. I tend to admire anyone who can outshine me when it comes to loving a band, and so I admired Mike and still do.
There was also Dave, who went to Catholic school too. Dave and I were the same age and I knew him first but eventually he and Mike got to be deep pals and play in a band together. Of the two of them, Dave had the more Kurt Cobain-y vibe, both personality-wise (he was often sardonic and/or sullen) and physically (he was slightly waifish and frequently wore cardigans). My favorite story about Mike and Dave is the time they went to play bingo at some church and Dave had grown his hair long and a nice little old lady gave Mike a dollar and told him to buy his girlfriend a Pepsi, the girlfriend being Dave.
You go through life trying to find people who love the shit out of the same shit you love and the three of us loved Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. That connection was intensified by what happened to Kurt, so there's something a little tragic about it -- but I also remember having so much fun, sitting on basement floors and drinking gross beer and watching the boys play Nirvana songs and Bad Company songs and their own songs. We ate a lot of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese straight out of the pan late at the night and they smoked a shitload of cigarettes and we drove around a lot with the radio on and sometimes went up to the airport to watch the planes take off -- normal shit teenagers do. Life was just medium-cool but it was usually exciting enough, and in a lot of ways I think that's the ideal.
So these are the 13 Nirvana songs that make me happiest, largely because of the memories tied to them. Incesticide's the most heavily represented here because that's the party/fun-times record. Play it during your Thanksgiving dinner.
i. "HAIRSPRAY QUEEN"
Mike had this great coat. My memory of it is all mixed up with a coat I had around the same time, plus the coat Mary Lou Lord wears on the cover to her EP with "He'd Be a Diamond" and "Lights are Changing," and also Jordan Catalano's coat on the Christmas episode of My So-Called Life and Penny Lane's coat in Almost Famous -- but I'm pretty sure Mike's was brown suede, hip-length, with cream-colored wool cuffs and collar. It's a winter coat but one night we were at Denny's in the middle of the hot hot summer and Mike was wearing it with shorts -- it was a cool move and I ripped it off for my book and I'm really proud of that part. Anyway, Mike was wearing a winter coat in July and we were at Denny's and the boys were arguing over what Kurt's saying at 3:35 of "Hairspray Queen." Mike's point was that Kurt's singing "At night, her mouth full of omelets" and everyone poked fun but listening today, that really does sound like what he's saying.
Nowadays I still love "Hairspray Queen" mainly for being this big weird song that sounds exactly the sort of thing I assumed degenerate teenagers always listened to, back when I was a little kid. It's screechy and scrapey and it gets all pukey and death-metal-y at the end, and I guess it made me proud to finally be a degenerate teenager too.
ii. "RADIO FRIENDLY UNIT SHIFTER." On their last tour Nirvana always opened with "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter." Or at least they did when I saw them, which was 19 years and eight days ago today. Last week I found a YouTube clip with the complete recording of the Nirvana show that I went to when I was 15 and had braces and wore purple floral tights with jean shorts and an off-white thermal and used combat boots bought at an army/navy store on Martha's Vineyard -- but I started to listen and it was too spooky; I bugged out and shut it off. I'll probably listen at some point but for now I'm down with watching this video of the Nirvana show that played on MTV on New Year's Eve in 1993:
That night I was babysitting my brother and sister and I called Gina (who went to the Nirvana show with me -- the whole reason I saw Nirvana in the first place was I ran into Gina in the library one morning before school sophomore year and she said to me, super-seriously, "LIZ WE ARE GOING TO SEE NIRVANA," and then her dad got his tickets at the mall that Saturday while we were taking the PSATs) and we talked on the phone for like three hours and watched the concert together.
It was a good and fulfilling new year's. The lyrics "Hate your enemies, save your friends, find your place, speak the truth" are so empowering and sincere.
iii. "ENDLESS, NAMELESS." The secret song! There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe the inclusion of "Endless, Nameless" as a hidden track on Nevermind to be superfluous, and those who are good at life.
Here is another clip from the Nirvana show that played on MTV on New Year's 1993:
There's hardly even any "Endless, Nameless" to it but I wanted to share it anyway because it's beautiful. Look at all those kids! They're so excited and there's totally some purity to it. I love when Kurt tries to help that one boy over the barrier but he's not strong enough. I love his "C'mon!" face, when he's waving all the kids onto the stage. And I love when he spits in the camera, smiles, and then erases the smile just as quickly: it's saying he hates us, but he also doesn't hate us. I think at this point in loving Nirvana I could accept that Kurt hated us sometimes, but I also really basked in the moments when he didn't hate us at all.
iv. "SCENTLESS APPRENTICE (REHEARSAL)." This version, I mean. The first time I heard it was a rough November night about seven years ago when I was "in a bad place" and visiting home for Thanksgiving and I went to Best Buy and bought With The Lights Out and got to this song and it destroyed me right away. It was really encouraging to know that I could still be destroyed by a Nirvana song, despite the fact that Nirvana didn't exist anymore and hadn't existed in a very long time. There are times when getting destroyed is the best thing, like when you're in the ocean and a big monster wave knocks you down and it takes so long to get back up and for a second or two you're not sure if you're gonna make it but then you do and you feel all adrenaliney and alive and at one with the ocean -- and also like when you're listening to a Nirvana song that's transcendentally scary.
BTW in researching this post I found this awesome YouTube clip titled "Kurt Cobain goes Crazy (Interesting video)":
The video truly is interesting; I'd even go so far as to say it's fascinating. It's basically this ten-minute-long version of "Scentless Apprentice" in which Kurt bullshits his way through the actual verses and chorus, then spends a long time sort of wandering around the stage and doing weird shit with his guitar and spitting in the camera and humping the camera and dancing with the camera -- it seems like he's just doing whatever the hell he wants for a little while, in a very childlike way that's serene and dangerous at the same time. I like how he's totally under a spell, but you can also see he's really enjoying all the power he has for those few moments. It's hypnotic and arrogant and I'm into it.
Originally this post was going to be titled something like "The Top 10 Funnest Nirvana Songs," which most likely would have put "Beeswax" at number one. "Beeswax" is so fun, so boneheaded and bouncy. My favorite memory of it is from a summer night when I was in college and some people came over my house -- I remember wanting everyone to eat cherries (fresh cherries, the kind with stems and pits) and play cards on the back deck, but instead we all just sat around the living room and ate no cherries and didn't play cards. Anyway, Dave stopped by and asked for some orange juice and I gave it to him, in a pint glass, and maybe we also ate potato chips. "Beeswax" came on the stereo and we were sitting next to each other and sort of chair-dancing ("Beeswax" is a perfect song to chair-dance to, lots of opportunities for shoulder-shaking and head-bopping) and at the part that starts at 1:36 Dave sort of pointed at me or at the air and sang along and it looked really good. I was really impressed with him for knowing the words. I still don't really understand the words today, but apparently there's some sort of line about fiberglass insulation disguised as cotton candy, according to my friend Dave in 1996.
vi. "AERO ZEPPELIN." I love "Aero Zeppelin" primarily for being called "Aero Zeppelin," and for being everything that a song called "Aero Zeppelin" written by a complaint-rock band in 1988 should be. I love Kurt Cobain for loving Aerosmith; it's something I appreciate about him more and more over the years. I love him for loving Led Zeppelin too, but Aerosmith is slightly more dear to me, because of home/Boston and because one of the best nights of my life was when my family and I went to see Aerosmith at Fenway Park and I figured out my purpose in the universe (it has to do with rock-and-roll) and I got all teary-eyed and euphoric when they played "Dream On." Aerosmith made really great records semi-consistently for about a 15-year span and I think that's impressive and I think Steven Tyler's a poet, or used to be anyway, and two of their songs ("No More No More" and "You See Me Crying") mean everything to me in the context of the romantic book I'm writing. I'm the type who gets wicked defensive whenever anyone talks trash about a band that's part of my heart, and although the trash-talking generally only makes me feel superior to its source's draggy negativity, I'm still so thankful to Kurt for validating my Aerosmith love.
Also this video of Nirvana playing part of "Sweet Emotion" is so cool. I do not love Dave's bra, but his smoking-while-drumming shtick is kinda hot:
vii. "TURNAROUND." God I wish Nirvana had covered so many more Devo songs. And I know Kurt was being disingenuous anytime he ever said Nirvana was just some cheesy new wave band, but "Turnaround" almost makes me wish they'd stayed at the level of Devo covers forever and ever. Would Kurt really have been happy at that level? Was Kurt Cobain truly anti-ambition? I don't know. We'll never know. But "Go for that crazy-sounding restaurant" is a way fun lyric for Kurt Cobain to sing. And whenever I hate someone I like to sing along to the last part of the song ("Take a look at what you are, it's pretty scary") and it gives me so much energy.
viii. "PAPER CUTS." One of the first times I came home to visit during my freshman year of college, Mike and Dave's band was playing a show at the coffeehouse at the back of the indoor mini golf course, which is a place I wrote into my short story that Storychord published in August. They played "Paper Cuts" and it was so heavy and sludgy and sloppy in the best way. Whenever I hear "Paper Cuts," instead of seeing Nirvana I see Mike and Dave's band playing at that stupid coffeehouse; I think my hair was dyed magenta at the time.
Another thing I love about "Paper Cuts" is how Kurt says the word "Nirvana" over and over. It's so hip-hop of him.
ix. "HEARTBREAKER." Once upon a time I had a killer first-time makeout sesh to Nirvana's cover of "Heartbreaker" by Led Zeppelin. It was this boy I had a thing with when I was 27; I met him at the back of a bar when he was standing with one leg bent and his knee drawn up so that his foot was flat against the wall behind him. One of the first things he said to me was "Wouldn't it be neat if I could bend my other leg like that and then somehow stay with both my knees up and both my feet against the wall at the same time?" And I was like "Oh my god, YES" and instantly adored him. He was this lanky cutie-pie from Louisiana and he loved Nirvana; "Heartbreaker" was such a smart call for our makeout debut. I feel like I've said this on the Internet a thousand times but another great thing about that boy was that anytime I ever offered him a pillow he'd shout "Huey Long never used a pillow!" So now whenever I hear Nirvana's cover of "Heartbreaker" I think of Huey Long and his distaste for pillows that's kind of a fun association to have.
x. "SCOFF." This is one of my favorite Nirvana moments, or one of my top 25 at least:
Grohl is so cool, I'm so into his snakey head-bop. Kurt looks rough and bad but the "With a twista lemon!" thing is pretty cute. The "riff" or whatever-the-fuck to "Scoff" is so hot and fun, such hot fun; "Gimme back my alcohol" is such a rad lyric. One time in college my then-boyfriend and I were watching TV and a commercial for that movie Ransom came on, and at the part where Mel Gibson shout/barks "GIVE ME BACK MY SON!", my boyfriend immediately shout/barked "GIVE ME BACK MY ALCOHOL!" in a perfect Mel Gibson shouty voice and it was so hilarious, I died laughing. Every kid loves a good "Scoff" reference.
xi. "AIN'T IT A SHAME." Last weekend I woke up thinking "Why can't everyone on Earth be as great a feminist as Kurt Cobain???" It's true. Why indeed. And maybe there's eight zillion male pop stars today who could pull this song off and I'm just somehow completely unaware of their existence, but I'm guessing that's not the case. Kurt makes the song exhilarating and terrifying and the most grotesque kind of funny all at once, and that's so genius and I'm still so impressed. I'll always be impressed by Feminist Kurt.
xii. "ANEURYSM." I always forget "Aneurysm" exists, which is dumb of me. Why aren't there more totally fun and perfect pop songs about obsessive love and throwing up and self-obliteration? In addition to being a great feminist, Kurt was a beautiful romantic.
xiii. "OH, ME." I almost quoted "Oh, Me" for the caption to my high school yearbook photo but instead I quoted "Three Days" by Jane's Addiction, the part about shadows and light becoming one. That quote's ultimately more true to my overall vibe, but "Oh, Me" is absolutely a worthy runner-up. Kurt sings it so sweetly, so earnestly, like singing someone else's song gives him the freedom to be completely earnest. That's sort of sad but it's also endearing.
When I was 16 and watched Nirvana Unplugged all the time to intensify the heartsickness of Kurt Cobain killing himself, the lyrics at this song's chorus ("I can't see the end of me/My whole expanse, I cannot see") felt brutally ironic. But now they're just lovely and I like to think of "Oh, Me" as Kurt's death song. I like to think that he's being truthful when he sings "Formulate infinity/Store it deep inside of me," and I like to think he found some sort of peace in dying. Maybe that sounds corny and naive but I don't care: it seems like living was genuinely very hard for Kurt, and I entirely agree with anyone who's ever made the point that we were lucky to have him for as long as we did.