Monday 16 September 2019

25 years ago, a blue cassette tape changed my life. Ah, Nevermind!

A young Kurt Cobain composing music.
A young Kurt Cobain composing music.

By David Looby

MUSAK in the pulsating vein of MC Hammer and Right Said Fred formed the background soundtrack to my teenage years in the early 1990s.

Alf was on the telly and sunny Home and Away provided a reprieve from the raindrops snaling their way down the bay window in our sittingroom. Life back then was about friends, footie, girls, study, with little connecting me to the vortex of subconscious life and emotion that coursed through my body and mind.

That is until a bubble-wrapped envelope arrived through our letterbox one day. Sent by my cousin Matt in Upstate New York, who knew I liked the song Smells Like Teen Spirit by Seattle-based band Nirvana, it had all the import of a sonic handgrenade. Not only for me, but for millions of people just like me across the world.

I remember opening the cassette case and taking out the sleeve, reading the wavy, sideways writing which neatly summarised the lyrical intent within the brown tape spooled in circles. I played the tape in its entirety for the first of more than a thousand times over the ensuing difficult teenage years and something happened which has happened very few times since, I had a physical, gut reaction to an album. The music glowered and swelled around me, while the lyrics transported. The howling, wounded singer Cobain and his soul-piercing words pulled me from the confines of my narrow, safe world in my bedroom into a world of wit, humour, guns, existential musings and friendship. The lyrics became emblazoned in my brain as if seared on by the ferocity of Cobain's excoriating screams.

Here was someone crying out to be heard, talking to millions of teenagers like me crying out to be heard.

The world was skin deep in the 1980s when pop icons ruled the airwaves and glamour TV ruled the television sets. With Nirvana things changed. Of course it wasn't just Nirvana, nor did they ever claim to be the only cultural game changers of the day. Charismatic and egotistic at times, Cobain was also a champion of truth and a defender of women, homosexuals and the downthrodden. He used his fame to advance society, even as he was gripped by heroin addiction and stomach problems. He overdosed the night Nevermind reached number one in the American charts after an appearance on Saturday Night Live.

All these rock star aspects of his life added to his appeal for teenagers who were living boring lives in rural towns. At around the same time an entire new world was opening up before my 14-year-old eyes as artists like Tori Amos and Pearl Jam started climbing the charts, while television shows like Twin Peaks, shattered the fake TV prism of happy apple pie American life, revealing domestic violence and the ugly truths in modern society.

If the duty of art, in its widest sense, is to make people see, as Joseph Conrad once wrote, Cobain, through his art and persona, had the effect of making a generation of teenagers see the world in a new, vivid way, just as the Manic Street Preachers did.

Both groups were never going to win plaudits for writing upbeat music and it is true to say many of us became addicted to the depressing sounds, but 25 years on the influence of Kurt Cobain, a true artist, who raged against his demons while turning a generation on to music, lives on.

I still have the cassette, so thanks Matt, and 25 years on I still rock out to the songs, songs that changed the world for the better.

Wexford People

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