April 10th: April Joan Jett nails “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Nirvana at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I proceed to write about how it made me cry.
Weeks later: I revisit my blog after weeks of not posting anything.
I replay the video of Joan Jett and Nirvana’s performance at said ceremony.
I still get chills watching that video.
Then, I bring up iTunes and listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the original recorded version from Nevermind.
I revel in the greatness that is the original song, disregarding with every ounce of my being any diminishing effects wrought by over-saturation of the song on radio and everywhere else.
The final chorus starts. I nudge the volume level – which is already high – a little higher.
The chorus resolves to the song’s finale – “A denial!…”
I slam my hands to my headphone-covered ears, as if I am trying to drive the song even more emphatically into my brain and my soul.
As a result, the highs are somewhat muted. Some of the lower mids are somewhat muted. I let up on the phones a bit, and – in doing so – reach as perfect a balance as I can muster with such an impromptu, primitive mixing endeavor (and such crappy headphones).
The mantra repeats.
The guitar and bass move in concert.
The drums have effectively doubled their urgency. I live by the beat of the drums, while I ride the repeating vocal…
It can never be like the first time… or, for that matter, like hearing it the first time after Kurt died. But it is still a heavy, powerful song.
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Thursday night (April 10th), Nirvana* was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by Michael Stipe, who is one of my favorite singers, and they played four songs with four different vocalists:
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Joan Jett)
- “Aneurysm” (Kim Gordon)
- “Lithium” (Annie Clark)
- “All Apologies” (Lorde)
Of course, the induction ceremony was not televised live; rather, HBO subscribers (not me) will be able to watch it when it premieres on May 31st. Which is more than seven weeks after the ceremony. Which is annoying, because I would have loved to have watched the whole thing.
Fortunately, I did get a chance to watch the band’s performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I came across an article on HuffPost on Friday that included** audience recordings of “All Apologies” and “Teen Spirit.” While the title, Lorde Covers Nirvana with Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and Annie Clark, was obvious click-bait (and the post itself barely mentioned the other three singers), it did include a video of Jett’s performance.
I watched the video twice.
The first time, during the second chorus, I found myself welling up. For the first time in years, a Nirvana song had moved me in some way other than simply making me want to move my head/hands/body with the music.
A few minutes later, I watched it again, and I cried almost the whole way through.
I loved Nirvana as a teenager. The first time I remember hearing “Teen Spirit” (etc.) was in the early spring of 1992, in my friend Mike’s car one afternoon after track practice. Mike went on to the Naval Academy and eventually became a commander in the Navy Seals, and he died in 2005 in Afghanistan when his chopper was shot down during a search and rescue mission.
I went on to different things. I grieved, like so many did, when I heard about Cobain’s death in 1994, and watched MTV Unplugged all day. I listened to, and devoured, whatever Nirvana music I could get my hands on until it dried up. And I eventually moved on to other music.
Nirvana’s music is awesome, but I saturated myself in it to a point where it ultimately didn’t move me like it had before, and I decided to give it a rest. I rarely purposely listen to Nirvana anymore – although “Drain You” (live, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah) is a more-than-occasional favorite – but the love and appreciation of their music is still here within me.
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Watching Joan Jett with Nirvana on Friday was a catharsis of sorts.
Joan, well, she nailed it – she was the perfect choice. Her voice fit the song so well, and she was in complete command.
Krist Novoselic was the rock, the steady rumble beneath Nirvana’s howl. He bobbed and bounced and rocked out in his Krist-like way, and it was wonderful.
And Dave Grohl absolutely killed it on the drums, as always. One of my life’s great pleasures is watching him play drums, because he gets such obvious pleasure from it. Seeing his huge grin always brings me joy.
And as I watched that performance, I lost control. Kurt died 20 years ago, and he took his future with him. Many have speculated about what he might have done, had he lived: would Nirvana have continued? If so, what would their future albums have sounded like? Michael Stipe invited Kurt to work with him; how would that have turned out?
Those things will never be definitively answered, because sadly, he died before they could come to pass. But here I was – 20 years later – watching Dave with his big grin, and Krist rocking out, and Joan kicking ass… Suddenly, I was grieving again, for Kurt and his band and the people who knew and loved him. And for my friend Mike, and probably for other things. And the tears ran down my face, and my chest shook, and it felt like a relief.
In some small way, Joan Jett fronting Nirvana was the most perfect coda to Nirvana’s career.
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* Along with Kiss, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, The E Street Band, Hall & Oates, and others.
** I say “included” because I very much expect audience recordings to be removed for copyright infringement sooner than later. I fully expect to have to remove the video at the top of this post at some point soon for that reason…
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My introduction to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was via the song’s video, which I first saw during the early summer of 1994:
This video was both awesome and, at the time, quite possibly the most fucked-up thing I had ever seen. As a result, the song creeped me out a bit whenever I heard it, because I always associated it with all of the bizarre, psychedelic stuff going on in the video. To this day, if I watch the video, my hair invariably stands on end at points, especially when the black hole sun starts making things turn even more chaotic and weird than they were during the first couple of minutes…
Eventually, I bought Superunknown – which was released 20 years ago this month, and is being re-released as a Super Deluxe edition on April 19th (Record Store Day) – and I got to know the song and its companions a whole lot better.
This was back when the Walkman and its ilk were beginning to approach their death throes, but to a college student with little in the way of pocket money, the Walkman was great. I bought blank cassettes, dubbed my favorite music onto them, and listened to them through headphones at high volume as I fulfilled my work-study obligations. I worked a job that required virtually zero personal interaction, which made it a perfect opportunity to shut off the world and listen to rock and metal without bothering anyone. I became good friends with the likes of Machine Head, Testament, Alice In Chains, Metallica, and Soundgarden during those (many, many) sessions.
As I made my way through my college years, I developed some pretty specific memories of “Black Hole Sun.” The details of what I was doing while listening are both fuzzy and irrelevant by this time; what I remember vividly is the small epiphanies I would have while listening to Superunknown (which is an album that, if you’re in the right mood, will blow your mind in many very pleasant ways the first several times you listen to it).
“Black Hole Sun” has several interesting elements, some of which are:
- It’s a slow, steady, heavy rock song, but is well-polished and multi-layered, both vocally and instrumentally.
- The lead guitar melody has a somewhat haunting, yet beautiful and ethereal quality that contrasts nicely with the heavy parts of the song.
- The “black hole sun!” screams in the last chorus are pretty awesome.
- The hard alternate-panned “black hole sun!” vocals during the “won’t you come?” part at the end of the song are pretty remarkable to listen to on headphones… especially the first time you hear them.
- The John Lennon-inspired vocal harmonies in the choruses sound great.
And there are others – those are just off the top of my head. I didn’t discover each of them on the first listen. When you hear the song come at you from directly in front – as with a music video on TV – you don’t necessarily hear everything. But on headphones, the stereo space revealed nuggets such as the ones I listed above, and from a musical perspective, it was heaven.
Superunknown has several gems. I’m not usually partial to the big hits by an artist – and “Black Hole Sun” was probably Soundgarden’s biggest – but in this case, the song stands on its merits. But there are other great songs on the album. “Like Suicide,” for instance, is not only a great song, but has one of my favorite Soundgarden treats: Chris Cornell singing/screaming at the beginning of Kim Thayil’s guitar solo… and the solo itself is, in my opinion, one of the most emotionally powerful solos I’ve ever heard. He does a smiliar thing at the beginning of the solo in the album’s opener, “Let Me Drown,” which I also love. Other favorites abound… “Head Down” has a great intro; “Fell On Black Days” is just a great song; “Spoonman” needs no explanation; “Fresh Tendrils” (the “shame! shame! throw yourself away” chorus-y part is incredible); and “4th of July” with its down-tuned sludginess that I struggled to comprehend at the time.
From front to back, it’s one of the strongest albums I own. In my humble opinion, there isn’t another Soundgarden album that’s as dynamic and well-written as Superunknown, and 20 years later, it’s still an album that I can enjoy from start to finish.
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