“Nowadays, no matter how ardently I may desire
a spiral-spell into semi-oblivion,
it’s tricksy when all you have is a packet of some shaman’s stale tea
and an old Tramadol pill from 2008.”
When you lie awake worrying that the person you’re sleeping next to is rolling over in the middle of the night to get the bottle opener on the bedside table, so that he can hit you over the head with it, and then bury you under the tiles of the communal toilet with the horror film flickering lightbulb – you’re probably sleeping with the wrong person.
This is something I would have told my teen spirit. That and avoid men with pretentious literary tattoos they refuse to explain (you’re not erudite if you can’t explain it) and those who don’t read (unless they genuinely can’t…of course).
Then again, the joy is in the unfolding of one’s mistakes. The looking back. The chuckle. The gentle weep.
And it could be worse. I could’ve been hit over the head with a bottle opener and not be here, on this day, to celebrate the anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ by listening to it on repeat, whilst jumping on a bed with the vigour of my younger years.
(The bed will preferably be my own, not one belonging to someone I suspect might off me in the night).
“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us.”
– Nirvana, ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’
The eponymous ‘teen spirit’ of course supposedly refers to a particular brand of deodorant an ex-lover of Cobain’s had used (Tobi Vail, the drummer of Bikini Kill), and which Kathleen Hanna (also of Bikini Kill) had sharpied over his bedroom wall after a drunken day out. The day also saw the pair of them picket a right-wing pregnancy centre on which Kurt sprayed ‘GOD IS GAY’ in six-feet letters. Of course he did, that’s why we love him.
What was Hanna implying? That Cobain was marked by the scent of a former lover?
Aren’t we all.
Lesson one for an infectious, immortal song?
Lost lovers be like a sharpie to your chest –
it’s bloomin’ difficult to wash away their scent –
wear it, drown in it, profit from it.
I’m romanticising the Hanna anecdote, sure. The song doesn’t scream ‘you stuck a stake in my heart and now I’m defecating armies of aggressive, tiny little love hearts everywhere I walk. Come back Little Sheba. Come back’ vibe to it. Cobain had, perhaps unwittingly and undesired, in his lyrics and in the band’s insouciance with the media, given a voice to a new class of young people overcome by apathy in the wake of Reaganism, free markets and ‘greed is good’ faux moralising. Generation X the newspapers called them. They must always have a name.
In a ’94 Rolling Stone interview, however, the self-proclaimed anti-media whore and reluctant spokesperson for a generation confessed:
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. Basically, I was trying to rip off The Pixies.”
Lesson two? Aim high and grand,
but don’t worry about committing minor theft in the process.
If it worked for Shakespeare and Cobain,
it can work for us all.
And Hey! (anyone…), you might inspire ageless anarchy in the process, a sense of rebellion as relevant as ever.
Youthful, politicised listlessness aside (say that ten times fast), the Rubik’s cubed lyrics convey something of the emptiness that brewed throughout Cobain’s teenage years. A feeling he’d never shake and one that would shape the nihilism of his keenest, most volatile moment of songwriting. In 1993, he told the writer Jon Savage,
“I was so withdrawn, so antisocial that I was almost insane. I always felt they [my classmates] would vote me most likely to kill everyone at a high school dance…I fantasised about it, but I would always opted to killing myself first.”
The song might have been sparked by a reference to something used to cover up sweat and shame, may convey the boiling belt of years of fomenting loneliness and have been written as a jump at immortality, but handed over to its listeners? It’s performative in the way all great works of art are: it becomes whatever the listener desires and so much more.
Its power is in placing us all centre stage. The lacerating vocals, the bruised grunge guitars and the roar of the drums speak of sex, drugs, self-loathing, self-aggrandising, the onslaught of unwanted thoughts, ennui – everything:
“A mulatto, an Albino
A mosquito, my libido”
Kurt tried to give an explanation in several interviews in the nineties but, in pure Cobain fashion, he changed and also exaggerated the story each time.
“I’m tired of people trying to put too much meaning into my lyrics…a lot of times when I write lyrics it’s at the last second because I’ve been really lazy,” Kurt said in the film Soaked in Bleach.
Sometimes we speak the truth;
sometimes we speak the shit.
The trick is in navigating which is which.
The song constitutes the fault line which marks the ‘alternative’, grunge era of the early Nineties from the ‘hair-band’ era of the Eighties. Given the intrigue into the knotty personal life of its key writer, it’s also impossible to listen to it without detecting (and projecting onto it) a similar fault line between revelry, rebellion and self-destruction.
It makes me think: how do we know when we’re simply being hedonistic or when we’re trying to holla at hell? If the crack is where the light comes in, it’s also where the darkness stalks, circulates.
“Load up on guns, brings your friends,
It’s fun to lose and to pretend.”
– Nirvana, ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’
My avenues for escape and / or self-destruction used to be much more hardcore. Nowadays, no matter how ardently I may desire a semi spiral-spell into semi-oblivion, it’s tricksy when all you have is a packet of some shaman’s stale tea and an old Tramadol pill from 2008. Not very 90s; not very rock n’roll. But hey, hedonism is dead anyway. So, that’s of some comfort. Right?
And in any case, it’s so much neater to get high on…breathing…and such banal joys. Freshly mown grass, an obnoxious leaping deer in Richmond Park, the arrogant clarity of the oxygen of the Scottish Highlands, and just the general beauty of dappled sunlight on a late summer’s eve; the heavens whispering through the cracks in the clouds as angels frolic on high and a lover (the non freaky kind, or the good freaky kind, tickles your back). All that natural jazz.
I have a feeling Cobain would be ashamed. I also have a feeling he wouldn’t give a shit.
While I’m glad I thrashed out my teenage years in the pre-social media age – slut shaming was at least slightly more Malory Towers in nature and the scope of its publicity – as I listen to the song as an ‘adult’ the lyrics now trigger in me a desire to speak a few words to that girl. The girl who sat listening to the song on her Discman, wishing for a release, not from life, but from the exhaustion that comes from feeling like you have to be polite and contained and tidy…
When a friend takes a photo of you at a party, in a bedroom, with a boy, and pastes it on the sixth form common room board, don’t feel ashamed, don’t feel ridiculed and don’t feel like you’re supposed to be flattered. Feel sorry for the one who took it. For he has so much to learn about what it means to make a man.
When your first love breaks up with you by text, have the courage to call him, to hear the cracks in his voice, for he is not strong enough to match strength with strength. More importantly, he deserves bollocking for cowardice and lack of manners. And when you see him at a wedding years later, know that you will never say hello. Know that that’s ok. In fact, you’ll find it hilarious, question your taste, and realise that, sometimes, goodbyes aren’t necessary.
Remember that, despite what you have seen on screens, hidden away in darkened rooms in house parties, sex is not something that is done to you; it is, at its best, molten raven magic, malleable mysticism. You are powerful. Roar often. You contain multitudes of goddesses. You are not perfect, no one is, no one has to be. Despite what you think, you are more beautiful than you realise. We all are. And your butt is higher than it ever will be again so be grateful, savour it. In any case, you will soon come to value yourself by the books you have read, the lives you have touched, the smiles you have sparked and the hugs you have given. And that counts for so much more.
Also, at another house party, when you laid a spaced out boyfriend down on the sofa and he called you Britney, know that he is hallucinating. Try and take it as a compliment.
Your ‘friends’, and yes I also mean the one who bullied you by fax (god bless the 90s); the ones who tease you when you wear the ‘wrong’ piece of clothing, who compare you to people they mock, who sometimes won’t speak to you for unknown reasons, who do not lift you up and see the light you have to offer: they are not worth your pain, your years of effort and optimism. Some people, unfortunately, really don’t change, because they don’t want to. Find the ones who make you wet yourself laughing. They’re the good ones. They tickle the light into the open.
Kiss everyone. Learn how you can actually catch an STD. Don’t overthink everything. Say yes more often. Kiss more often. Call people more often. Love more often.
Savour each day with your parents, even when they confiscate your phone because you lied about boys and drinking and probably loads of other things you’ve forgotten. They are everything. Soak up their wisdom, for one day, sooner than you think, they will break into stardust.
What would you say to yours?
‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ encapsulated not just a generation, but a malaise for the Establishment and a corporate world that transcends youth. A malaise that is, in some respects, very much alive today.
At a time when Neo-nazi fascism is rebranded as ‘alternative’, we need our musical anarchists more than ever. We need to rouse our future generations into sustained, impassioned and constructive rebellion against the forces of darkness in the political and cultural landscape. Forces that, if they had their way, might push the Cobains of this world into the margins of history. But we all know this.
In the documentary ‘Montage of Heck’, Courtney Love says that Cobain was a man who was searching for whatever would make him feel like he wasn’t alone. The emptiness he tasted, and that he felt also marked him out from youth, cries out to anyone who has ever felt alone, rejected, reviled or debased.
Nirvana is listening.
That is why it remains so powerful. That is why we are still celebrating its resonance today. And that is why Cobain was sprung into the echelons of musical legend; a supernova strumming a guitar as he laughs, risibly, at how little has changed, at the hilarious consistency of mankind, but hopefully smiling at how many people still savour the fire-sparks of his own particular brand of ‘teen spirit’.
“I found it hard, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind….”