Posted June 17, 2006
HOW NIRVANA KILLED ROCK AND ROLL
I’ve bumped into a few people at gigs lately that I haven’t seen for quite a while, as much as several years. We’ve been chatting and, as you do when you haven’t seen much of each other for a long time, you get to talking about what things were like back when you were mates, drinking together, sharing drugs, eyeing girls and arguing about who had the best fuzzbox. One thing that comes up continually is how different things are these days.
Different doesn’t neccesarily mean better or worse. Digital communications technology (which will have a greater effect on humanity than anything since the printing press) has its aspects, but it is, on the whole, a good thing. What we’re considering here is a business-driven cultural shift. It would’ve happened anyway, but nonetheless…
Take a 15-year step back. Local bands played in inner-city pubs, no cover charge, released singles and occasionally four or six-track EPs. Overseas bands released similarly limited slabs of vinyl, if you wanted to buy it, you headed down to your fave city record bar, listened to it, listened to a bunch of other stuff, ‘cos yr friendly record bar guy (and they were almost always guys) wanted you to buy records. While you were there, you saw mates, swapped tips on records, anecdotes about bands you’d seen, all the rest of it. It was a cosy little scene. It was ours!
Never underestimate the power of that sense of ownership. If you wanted to be into the style of music that anyone logging into the i94 Bar is into, then you had to seek it out. You had to make an effort, and that effort made it all the more worthwhile, because you got to meet people at record bars, at smoky inner-city pubs, at smoky suburban pubs, wherever those distorted guitars and drums were humming and crashing, there we were.
First time I heard ‘Nevermind’ was in the bedroom of a girl I’d only just met. Might’ve been our second night at her place, she said, “I got the new Nirvana album today, it’s great!” First time I knew anyone who’d bought a new album on CD rather than vinyl (maybe, it was a long time ago and the details do get blurry with time). So we listened to the album, drank some wine, smoked a couple of big joints, fucked like the horny little bunnies we were, and I still managed to hear the record and think “Shit, there’s some catchy fucking tunes on this album.”
I wasn’t the only one. That record started to get kinda big. Then bigger. Before you knew it, the guys you wanted to kill when you were at school with them were jumping on your head at gigs. Metaphorically, at least. Nirvana, to their everlasting credit, passed on a US tour supporting Guns & Roses, to fulfil a commitment to tour Australia. I caught them at the late, lamented Phoenician Club and, shit, couldn’t that little guy sing, or what!
As it happens, I was in Saigon, early ’94, and bought Time magazine ‘cos of the second headline “Death of a rock star.” I thought it might’ve been Keith Richards – it wasn’t, as you’d all know.
Anyway, so there we were, happy and content with our insular rock and roll scene, not really interested in sharing it with anyone that wasn’t gonna make the effort to seek it out – and why would you? Fucking hell, if someone couldn’t make a halfarsed effort to discover something that set their world alight, then FUCK THEM! And then Nirvana become big, really fucking big, and all of a sudden, every half-arsed punk band that ever got a record out on any one of the hardworking rocking labels in the city gets contracts shoved in their faces. Especially if they had that cool blonde surfie look. Very marketable, that.
Just to rub it in, those New York arty wankers, Sonic Youth (who did made some great fucking records) went and released a vid entitled “1991 – the year punk broke.” I think they meant broke, as in broke into the mainstream, but, really, it was more like broke as in “I broke the neck off my guitar when I threw it up and didn’t catch it when it came back down, it landed on the headstock and snapped clean off, aw shit, I really liked that guitar.”
The street press at the time was full of interviews with local bands who’d “broke” claiming that they’d taken over the mainstream, poor dumb fuckers. Where are they now? As we know, as some of us might have known all along, no-one ever takes over the mainstream – it just lets you in every now and then, when it suits it. If you look back through 20th century art history, the avant-garde is always, inevitably, co-opted by the mainstream. It’s a standard progression, as obvious as A, D, E.
And now I can’t remember where that train of thought was going, if indeed it was going to stop anywhere or just keep slamming through stations like the train in ‘The French Connection. Maybe there is nowhere to go. Anyone remember the late 90s, the Dark Age of rock and roll?
So here we are, it’s 2006, and there are some great bands around, no doubt about it. There’s a sense that they’re more ephemeral than any time since the mid '60s and that’s probably because the communications technology has taken a leap forwad, as it did in the mid-'60s when transistor radios became cheap and affordable. They’re slick and professional beyond the dreams of any band from 15 years back. But they’d wanna be, when there’s hardly a venue around charging less than $8 for a Wednesday night. And THAT is what pisses me off the most. No more free venues.
Ah, fuck it. Time passes, things change, I’m a bitter and cynical old bastard. I’ll gas up Boadicea and hit the road for a couple of hours of 160kmh two-wheeled fun and if I wipe myself out, at least I’ll go out doing something I love, that makes me feel so awesomely alive! Like rock and roll, really.
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