I recently did an e-mail interview with the estimable Kerrang! writer Hardeep Phull for a piece he wrote about the 20th anniversary of Nevermind. If you're not already burned out on coverage of this topic, here's the full transcript.
At what point did you begin to realize how big/important 'Nevermind' was becoming?
The impact of Nevermind was obvious even before it was released, with the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single. That song was all over the place — in grocery stores, blaring out of passing cars, not to mention on heavy rotation on MTV and the radio. Often, when you'd see a band, the guitarist would test out his amp before the set started by playing the opening riff — that kind of stuff happened all the time. "Teen Spirit" defined the moment if only because it was everywhere.
Was their [sic] a particular show you saw them play (circa 1990/'91/'92) that stands out as being especially exciting?
I covered Nirvana's 1992 Reading Festival show for Rolling Stone. There was a lot of speculation about whether Kurt would even play the show — the rumors were that he was terribly messed up on heroin and it was touch and go as to whether he could even appear that evening. But they did go on. Kurt, well aware of the rumors, dressed in a hospital gown and was rolled onto the stage in a wheelchair. To say it was a great show is an understatement — it was transcendent. I felt like my feet were barely touching the ground. I was on the stage, and I looked out at the packed-solid crowd and as far as the eye could see, people were pogoing up and down throughout the set; they got so overheated in the cool summer night that vast clouds of steam evaporated off them, which made the entire audience look like a human forest fire.
What was it about 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' that connected so intensely to American music fans?
"Teen Spirit" is an impeccably crafted, very catchy song based on primordial chord changes that go back at least as far as the immortal "Louie, Louie." Right away, it sounded like one of the great rock songs of all time. But there was much more to it than that: after years of inane dance-pop (Milli Vanilli) and inane hair farmer bands (Warrant), kids wanted rock music that spoke to and about them, instead of focus-grouped junk approved by a bunch of greying, coked-up baby boomer record execs. "Teen Spirit" did precisely that. And it had a crucial edge because it encapsulated a lot of the underground and alternative music those kids had probably heard bits of but hadn't been able to get into because it was too raw and unmelodic — or just too hard to find. This song had that indie sound, but it had a glossy coat to it that made it possible for everyone to hear its profound soul and awe-inspiring power.
The subject matter of 'Polly' seems to have shocked people at the time. Why do you think that was and what did the song say about Kurt as a songwriter?
"Polly" was a pretty shocking song. And even in 1991, people were starting to get so blasé that being shocked by something was itself pretty shocking. That song uncovered some uncomfortable truths about our society — about violence towards women and the misogyny that still pervades our culture — and it was incredibly controversial considering it wasn't even a single. A good songwriter will point out things that we're unable or unwilling to think about, and that's exactly what Kurt was doing with "Polly."
Aside from that, what do you feel are the other most important songs on 'Nevermind'?
"In Bloom" is the key song on that album. It's a huge singalong, and Kurt knew that before he even played it for anybody — he even has lyrics about people singing along. The song uncannily anticipates the band's fate: people who love their music but "know not what it means." And then there is the mention of guns. That song was astonishingly prescient.
What are your memories of Nirvana playing SNL? They seemed to take a lot more pleasure in playing 'Territorial Pissings' than 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'…
The band got pretty tired of playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" very quickly. It was kind of an albatross around their neck. Kurt intentionally screwed it up every time I saw them play it. They wouldn't even call it by name — if they had to refer to "Teen Spirit," they just dismissively called it "The Hit." So it's no wonder they didn't play "Teen Spirit" with much gusto on Saturday Night Live.
I was part of the entourage when Nirvana played SNL the second time. By now, Kurt, Krist and Dave were old hands at television and they weren't terribly nervous. Still, I think Dave was pretty excited — he'd had his life changed by seeing the B-52's play SNL when he was a kid. RuPaul was also on the show and before he changed into drag for his appearance, he and Kurt had a nice little chat and Kurt was kind of tickled about that. Anthony Kiedis also stopped by and he and Kurt had a private conversation that no one dared interrupt.
At what point do you think Kurt’s increasing fame started to become a problem for him?
Kurt's fame probably became a problem for him not long after "Teen Spirit" came out. He'd been living in the college town of Olympia, Washington, where the underground scene absolutely disdained big-time rock music and "the corporate ogre," as local label K Records put it. Coming from an unsophisticated rural background, Kurt wanted the approval of those people very much and he was sure that they frowned on what was happening — in its Olympia version, punk was ostensibly about no one being more special than anyone else. But now Kurt was being singled out as "the spokesman for a generation." There was nothing more un-punk than that and it made him deeply uncomfortable.
[At this point, I should have emphasized that this discomfort really played no significant part in Kurt's fate. He suffered from chronic and profound depression, a very serious condition which was pretty much untreated, and when that's the case, the result is all too often suicide. It's that simple.]
Is there any aspect of band during the 'Nevermind' era that you feel is underrepresented or not talked about enough?
So much is made of Kurt's pain and angst. But, as he told me many times, he wrote and played music specifically as an antidote to that pain and angst. (Hence the band name, I guess.) So Nirvana concerts were joyous and cathartic — you were transported. A good metaphor for the experience is Dave's drumming — it looks like he's angry, punishing the drums, but he was actually incredibly happy, ecstatic even, while he was flailing away. That's how everybody in the audience felt too, even when they were bashing into each other. Nirvana's music was a balm for the soul, and it still is — we can't ever forget that.