"Uh, can I get you something?" asks the waitress.
"Yeah, a beer please," answers Nirvana's giant, ragged bassist Chris Novoselic. The Howard Johnson server promptly leaves the table, as if she's just been given an order in an alien dialect. Maybe she doesn't realize she's speaking to one of America's favorite grunge bands, and possibly alternative pop's next superstars. Slam! The beers arrive. Longhaired drummer David Grohl's usually friendly face twists into a grimace while singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain remains calmly hidden beneath his bleachy mop. Cobain's face comes out occasionally for a drink, and by all normal standards he's a good-looking guy. "That's it?" asks the waitress hopefully. Drinks will flow for the next two hours, but for now Cobain just gives her one of his unnerving stares. She's gone.
In the beginning, the boys of Nirvana played, drank lots of beer and, by the look of 'em, dropped their fair share of mind-altering substances. These misfits of rock then signed with Seattle's infamous grunge label Sub Pop, and though they were often overshadowed by their noisy labelmate Soundgarden, they still managed to gain a devoted following of troubled teens. Now the raw little band is signed to a major label, Geffen Records. And what it's come up with is Nevermind, an album so good that by 1992 even our hardened waitress may recognize Nirvana's name.
Over plastic beer mugs at this Howard Johnson in Los Angeles, soft-spoken Cobain suggests that the members of Nirvana aren't exactly living like pop stars yet. "Dave and I are homeless right now," explains Cobain. "We were living in Olympia, Washington, but while we were down here recording the album we got evicted because, well, I don't know . . . we trashed the apartment. BB guns--we had BB guns in the house and squirt guns, you know, with ink in them and we, um, broke out the window and there was a lot of litter all over the place."
Novoselic, who's comparatively well-off (he's got a house), laughs like the Jolly Green Giant after a three-week bender: "Maybe it all began with that simulated wood paneling." That's Grohl's cue to explain: "We painted over it, which was a no-no to the landlord. It's that stuff you'd put on a station wagon, like this." He taps the wall. Well, Howard Johnson has never been a leader in decorating trends.
Even so, the place is starting to jump with red-faced, happy hour regulars. The construction workers seated in the corner are getting louder. No one in the band seems to take any notice of these tanked-up yobs, who seem to be growing dangerously interested in our table. "We're used to it," says Cobain nonchalantly. After braving scary hometown watering holes in the Olympia-Tacoma area, Cobain and Novoselic seem unfazed by these Southern California lightweights. A young, green-haired Cobain spent many character-building nights braving curious lumberjacks just to finish a beer. But his teeth are still intact and, amazingly enough, so is his loyalty to Olympia-Tacoma. "There's a great scene there; in fact, it's better than Seattle. I think that the `Seattle scene' is just ex-punks recognizing rock 'n' roll again and admitting that they like Aerosmith, because for a long, long time that wasn't cool," he says, pausing to blow the straggly hair from his eyes. "It's punk-rock slowing down, growing tired of hard-core. Hard-core's really exhausting."
Grunge didn't immediately spring out of the smoldering ashes of punk. It took a couple of years for angst-ridden teens to realize that they had nothing left to turn on to. A Flock of Seagulls certainly wasn't going to overthrow any governments, let alone piss off anyone's parents. But weren't the likes of Black Flag and the Germs going to change all that noncommittal pop into something that mattered? Cobain believed that once, too. "Yeah, it really did seem like a revolutionary time had started, because it was very real and sincere, and I think that some of the music that's coming out now, or at least grunge music, is kind of a reaction to that. It's kind of a nihilistic reaction, like, `It didn't work, we failed, so let's be sarcastic and make fun of what we used to do.'" Grohl, who's been docile until now, interrupts in a disgusted, acidic tone. "Most alternative music is a safe commodity now," he says. "It's not gonna take over the cock-rock metal. There's no real threat there at all."
But pouty-lipped rockers may be cursing Nirvana's name in the next few months. Nevermind is quickly emasculating overproduced rock idols and whipping up the musical consciousness of Poison-weary listeners. It makes the last two years of pop music seem like a dreary swim through warm whipped cream. Nirvana's jagged edges drag you into its bittersweet world of raw thrash and polished pop. The group's love of melody, which has always been buried under walls of distortion and feedback, has been brought to the surface and melts like processed cheese over the rough, grinding sound. The result is a perfect plate of accessible, grunge-powered pop--and one of the year's best albums.
Throughout the album, Cobain's voice ranges from a lull to a frenzied scream, and cracks over dozens of bum notes, as in the chaotic tune "Lounge Act." It's these perfectly off-key moments, coupled with the group's gut-level energy, that give Nirvana its honest charm. In the introverted "Something in the Way," the craziness gives way to a disturbed, dreamlike aura. Cobain appears to be a thoughtful, if slightly twisted, personality until the next livid blast, "Drain You." But "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a disillusioned anthem for Seventies babies, is the best track on Nevermind. It's an infectious blend of catchy riffs, ripping guitar and smart lyrics about a lost generation.
"`Smells Like Teen Spirit' is a song I really can't describe," explains Cobain with a touch of passion in his serene monotone, "'cause there are so many contradictions. I'm not only just saying that I'm disgusted with my generation's apathy, but I'm also making fun of being anally, politically correct at the same time. There's so many different connotations to the song that it doesn't have a direct message or one meaning. The lyrics were written in a safe, political way. There's a disclaimer line for every serious line because that's the way I feel." Nirvana's noisy Sub Pop debut Bleach was recorded in six days, the time it takes most bands to record half a song. Nevermind took considerably longer, and it's paid off. Most mainstream bands expect to spend half their time in a studio, but for Nirvana, the grungemasters of garage rehearsals, it's something the musicians feel they have to explain. Grohl, the obvious diplomat, takes on that duty. "Our songs are structured differently now, so there's a lot of overdubs and there's more music, so we had to take more time to get it down. There's a lot more dynamics to it. . . . When we break down into something a little . . . quieter," he snickers, like it's a dirty word, "it definitely sounds cleaner than Bleach does, you know, instead of just scratching." He drags an ashtray across the table for full effect. "It's been two years since we recorded the Bleach album and so a lot has changed," Cobain says. "A lot of kids are just getting it now, so they're gonna think we've changed drastically."
But will the kids who thrived on Nirvana's early form of twisted noise feel betrayed by the band's brush with digestible pop? "Well, that's their problem," blurts Novoselic, who's been head-down asleep only inches away from his "Howard Burger" for a good portion of the interview. He plops back down and Cobain takes over. "If the people who were into us before don't appreciate the songs now," Cobain says, "then that means they didn't originally like us for the right reasons. They didn't like us because we wrote good songs, they just liked us because we were an independent band."
"I think a lot people didn't realize that Nirvana was a pop band from Bleach," Grohl agrees. "I mean, yeah, it was really heavy, but. . . . " "At least there was a song about a girl on it, which gave an idea of what could happen," adds Cobain. "We've done exactly what we want, so it doesn't really matter if we were on an independent or major label. We would've turned into this no matter what."
The Howard Johnson manager is running around nervously, trying to set up a stage and a microphone for the upcoming evening of karaoke. Everyone watches in a curious daze. Cobain breaks the silence. "Later on, when people get drunk, there'll always be that one guy that does 20 Elvis songs, or there's the conservative secretary type that does `Time in a Bottle' and cries. Usually they have this generic movie screen behind them with the lyrics, but this one's low budget," he explains. "Yeah, low budget," adds Grohl in a zombielike tone. Cobain's intense blue eyes begin to focus. "It's not like we've got some master plan for Nirvana," he says. "We just did it to have fun. That's the only reason." "Yeah," says Grohl, "beats workin'."
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Nirvana will perform at After the Gold Rush on Wednesday, October 23. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. "BB guns--we had BB guns in the house and squirt guns, you know, with ink in them."
"I think that the `Seattle scene' is just ex-punks recognizing rock 'n' roll again and admitting that they like Aerosmith."
"Most alternative music is a safe commodity now."
Nevermind is quickly emasculating overproduced rock idols and whipping up the musical consciousness of Poison-weary listeners. The new album is a perfect plate of accessible, grunge-powered pop--and one of the year's best albums.