Life is just a series of moments and memories. Some of these are random, some correspond to something beautiful, tragic, happy, or sad. For everyone though there are the moments/memories that shape the person you became. These are the types of moments that are burned into your mind. You can remember where you were, who you were with, and other minuscule details surrounding that point in time.
One such moment for me happened 29 years ago this September. Music has the strength to create powerful memories. It is quite literally the soundtrack to one’s life. Never before and never since had music shifted the course of my life in the way it did in September 1991. I was in 7th grade and 13 years old.
In the previous few years a new sound had been bubbling beneath the surface on the West Coast and particularly the city of Seattle, Washington. This was a branch off of the rising alternative music genre. Known as Grunge it was a grittier and far less mainstream sound geared toward the youth of America, particularly Generation-X. Some of the bands that would become staples of the burgeoning Grunge movement had already released music to varying degrees of success. However it was one song that did not bring Grunge to the mainstream but rather brought the mainstream to Grunge.
It was an evening after school when I first heard the opening riff of a song named Smells Like Teen Spirit. Ironically I knew more of the women’s deodorant in the song’s title than the band that created it, Nirvana. Teen Spirit was originally created by Mennen in the late 1980’s. Legend has it that the title of the song came from ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ being written on his wall by a member of the band Bikini Kill of which Cobain was dating Tobi Vail.
|Nirvana c. 1991 (portalternativo.com)|
Sitting in the basement bedroom of my friend Matt Medeiros we decided to turn on the small alarm clock radio next to his waterbed. This in itself was an anomaly as we either would be outside playing, evening after dark, or if in his room we would be watching TV. The radio dial was already set on local station PIXY 103, which still is on the air today. Within seconds my world changed.
As luck would have it Smells Like Teen Spirit had just begun. The guitar that came pouring out of the small speaker on the radio was like nothing I had ever heard before. The vocals from Kurt Cobain were so gritty and visceral that my attention was totally diverted from whatever conversation a pair of 13-year old boys had back in 1991. For about 5 minutes my brain was connected to the new raw sound that was piercing my consciousness for the first time. It was one of those moments where after I had walked home the music remained bouncing around my head.
The Nirvana Nevermind album cover.
Not too long after that I bought my copy of Nirvana’s landmark album Nevermind. To this day I still have the CD, though in reality it is quite scratched and in a terrible state of disc rot. Kurt Cobain spoke to me in a way unlike any other artist I had listened to up to that point. Before hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit my favorite artists/lyricists were Axl Rose (Guns N Roses), Bono (U2), Michael Jackson, and Chuck D (Public Enemy) among others. Their lives did not match mine really. Kurt Cobain, though 10 years older than me said things that resonated through my obligatory teenage angst.
Then came the video. The dingy high school auditorium setting along with the throngs of kids headbanging and then smashing up the set seemed to match my internal feelings. It blew up on MTV and made Grunge and Nirvana household names. The slow then fast rhythm, the pounding drums, the slightly anarchist visual of the video. It all combined to make me want to become a singer/songwriter.
Unfortunately over the years I would discover to great disappointment that I just did not have the musical chops for guitar. I did enjoy the lyric writing which evolved into stories, books, articles, poetry, right up to these words I am currently writing. Though my desire to be a writer stems back to 2nd grade and my teacher Ms. Rodrigues the actual pathway was not laid out and my skills did not begin to be honed until the night in September 1991 when Smells Like Teen Spirit shook my world.
Kurt Cobain would go on to be one of the biggest influences on my life. It is impressive to say the least for me considering he was only an active musician for less than 3 years after I first was introduced to him. In the future I will definitely dive deeper into Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and Grunge music in general. For now I wanted to capture that moment when everything that came after was initially conceived.
To put a little bow on this to truly explain the magnitude of this moment for me and people from my generation here are a few facts. The Nevermind album was released on September 24, 1991. It only debuted at #144 on the Billboard charts, selling a measly 6,000 copies. On January 11, 1992 it dethroned Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album as #1 in the United States. It was a symbolic passing of the torch in music. By this time Nevermind was selling upwards of 300,000 copies per week. As of 2020 it has sold over 30 million copies worldwide according to Billboard. The video for Smells Like Teen Spirit has over 1.1 billion YouTube views as of 2020. It really became a seminal moment in the lives of a lot of people my age.
The song also made the deodorant a massive hit. For a time it was Mennen’s best-selling product. For those wondering, Teen Spirit the deodorant is technically still available. Today though it goes by Teen Spirit by Lady Speed Stick.
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