After my Foo Fighters obsession was in full bloom, I succumbed to Nirvana in the year 2000. I vowed I would never listen to them—I hated Kurt’s voice and everything about the group. But when I fell in love with Dave Grohl, head of the Foos and drummer for Nirvana, I found it harder and harder to avoid Nirvana. So I gave in, and first listened to their breakthrough album Nevermind. I bought a used cassette (that’s how long ago this was!) because there were pictures of Dave in it, and because I did not want to waste money in case I didn’t like the music. I listened to it once and tried to not like it, I mean, I really wanted to hate it! But I couldn’t. So I then bought used copies of Incesticide and In Utero and listened to them repeatedly for weeks. I eventually bought Bleach, their first album, even though Dave is not on it. I was a confirmed Nirvana fan.
I think this album is Nirvana’s most perfect work because it is their most personal, and that is what I needed to hear when I first picked it up. I heard it the summer I was 27, and I was in major debt to multiple credit card companies, I really had no friends, my job was completely unfulfilling. I needed a change, I needed to get away. I had been listening to a lot of music that was new to my ears at the time, trying to make some dents in my boredom and self-torment, trying to write and get the hell out of the pointless life I had been leading. Once I was fully consumed with Nirvana I read every book I could find about them, and I quickly became an authority. Reading about the creative process made me want to create. That is the best thing you can hope for as an artist.
“I miss the comfort in being sad.” That is a great line, so very me. It’s from “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” an awesome fucking song. It’s this kind of lyric that draws me to this album more than any of their others. I was depressed for many years, self-contained, self-effacing, and it was actually quite comfy. I really relished my unhappiness. It was my greatest creation, it was home, it was who I was. I really saw no reason to get out of it. I always wrote when I was depressed, and I always wanted to be a writer, so why would I want to be happy? But the thing that caused me to stop writing regularly was not some sudden, unexpected jubilation—a lot of it was just not being in college anymore. A lot of it was being dumped by my best friend. He had been my muse for many years. When I read the stuff I was writing at the time, I can see that, yes, I was writing constantly, but it was all the same bullshit, all about wanting to be with him but being denied. It was all about wanting to die because I couldn’t be with him the way I wanted to be. I was pathetic. After he stopped talking to me I had no choice but to become more self-reliant, which was one of the reasons, he later told me, that he did what he did. When I did find another best friend I could not let myself become so co-dependent. As I struggled to understand why he left me, as I wondered what the hell to do next, I stopped writing. I shopped like a crazy woman, I got more into debt, I whored around with my new best friend. I had a great time! And then my new BFF moved to New York. For the next year I really didn’t do much but work and watch TV. I wrote him long letters, but I wrote little else. Still, I really wasn’t all that sad. I was not suicidal, and I was not feeling sorry for myself. I had my moments, off course, but it was not the drama that it used to be. But I still wasn’t writing.
Listening to Foo Fighters and Nirvana, reading about them, made me start writing about why I wasn’t writing. I used to listen to In Utero every night before I went to sleep. It made me think of the years I spent being ridiculous and weak and sad—yet comfortable. I’m more comfortable with myself these days, I’m happier, but I’m not as satisfied with things as I wish. I do love this album, I do love Nirvana, and I do love the potential I see in myself. But it’s scary to hear this album and know what happened the year after it came out. Kurt was always writing, and he was always torturing himself. He had people who loved him, but it was not enough. There was a time when I knew how it felt to want to end it all. I understand what it’s like to wonder, every goddamn day and night, every waking fucking moment, “What is wrong with me/What is what I need/What do I think I think?” Kurt was a highly intelligent person, but he saw no use for life, even with a wife and child. I never want to go back to the place where I lived that same struggle, but every time I hear anything from this album, I know just how easy it would be to slide back to that warm, comforting depression.
The best song on this album is “All Apologies.” It’s the second to last song Nirvana performed on the Unplugged special, and it always makes me cry. It’s fascinating that this is the last song on the album, their last studio album. I always felt it was Kurt’s apology for what he was about to do to himself. It’s just awful and heartbreaking. He’s wishing he could be happier, more satisfied with things. He doesn’t want to blame anyone for his problems. It just really makes sense that he was going to kill himself—this whole album is a musical suicide note. There is really nothing cryptic here. But what can you do? If someone is determined to kill themselves, they will do it no matter what. He sure left enough signs.
Obviously I feel that this is an extraordinarily depressing album, but therein lies its perfection. I do not believe it is healthy or normal to be happy all the time, to not allow yourself to grieve or be sad or whatever. It is certainly not healthy to be as fucked up as Kurt or I were, but there is a balance between happy and sad that one needs to be a well-rounded human being. One must experience the highs and lows of every emotion in life. I remember watching a documentary about the Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas, and she said that as a Greek she felt that she needed to experience every single emotion every single day. I understand the feeling! But that is clearly a heavy burden that will destroy a person. For some reason it seems like many creative people feel things more deeply and more dangerously than others. Even though the story of Kurt’s life ended tragically, this album is a testament to the fact that music can heal a lot of wounds. I learned a lot from it, and I am not alone in that. Kurt probably would have died long before had he not had the music to keep him going. It’s too bad he couldn’t see how much he affected people, how much he could have helped people had he lived. The worst tragedy is that his daughter had to grow up without him. She will never have the beautiful and talented Kurt around to guide her and encourage her.
Nevertheless, Nirvana gave us a lot of great music. I am grateful that I came upon this album when I did. I was not ready for it in 1993. I was not prepared to like this kind of thing when I was 20. I appreciate it now much more than I could have back then. This is all for a reason.
Forever in debt to your priceless advice