Nirvana’s Nevermind at 30: Tim Rogers on the album that changed music

Nirvana’s Nevermind at 30: Tim Rogers on the album that changed music

09/24/2021

By Tim Rogers

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana at the Big Day Out music festival in Sydney, January 25, 1992.Credit:Andrew Meares

He walked onstage at Selina’s at the Coogee Bay Hotel in February 1992 with the nonchalance of an unblemished teenager, dragging his Converse like a sleepy child, a guitar strap slung over his right shoulder like a noir-ish assassin. For all Kurt Cobain’s insouciance, the guy was seriously enigmatic. And his angles and levels were as cool as any guitar player from Hubert Sumlin to Steve Jones.

Hunched and scrunched on the floor on the second level of the pub like a crushed beer can with face pressed against the railing, not yet towelled off from my band’s undeserved support slot, I did some quick equations: was this the most excited I’d been at a show and why? Was it the expectation from the room, from the city, from the world? Or was it simply the knowledge I was about to be pummelled by an hour of beautiful, bludgeoning pop/rock/punk music that had the utterly rare ability to sound fresh yet familiar. In the way a dream can, I guess. What proceeded was like being lowered into a vat of hot caramel by your ankles. Syrupy, sweet and scalding.

Nirvana, the three-piece, sometimes four-piece, band from Aberdeen, Washington had been in my thoughts and actions for two years before Nevermind due to the greatest gift you can receive: an older sibling with a record collection. Not content with plundering the record stores of Sydney (Waterfront, Phantom, Red Eye, Collect) my brother Jaimme would mail-order whatever was the fragrance on the wind: Detroit house, grindcore, indie-pop. Voracious not for what was the “next big thing”, but for what was exciting, raw and inaccessible through mainstream media. As is now, you’ve got to hunt the good stuff down.

A sound of sludge and grudge that was a bit Sabbath and bit Buzzcock and a whole lotta desperation … Nevermind was an assault.

Nirvana was one of the great bands associated with Sub Pop Records, which had a savvy and smart-arse mail-order get-up. Sub Pop was full o’ chutzpah in the way that it made fun of major label brassiness while employing some of the dictum and language. Nirvana was one of the bands on the label. Jaimme adored most Sub Pop acts but ‘the Vana’ was special. Pop hooks, ripped the books and had good looks. The LP Bleach hit our share house in Baulkham Hills like a slap in the face with a fresh trout. It was heavy in the right regions, had hooks like bear hugs from strangers but also tenderness, or sweetness? So, we’d listen to it suckin’ on an Orchy bong or a Coopers and wouldn’t shirk at hugging each other in joy or weariness.

Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain performs at Selina’s at Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney on February 6, 1992.Credit:David Anderson

I first heard Nevermind, released this week 30 years ago, on a cassette gifted from Robyn Doreian, writer and editor of the mag Hot Metal. She was our mate and passed me the hottest contraband in the land with a B-side that was Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger. Two LPs yet to be released, but so expectant was our house that even the ever-tumultuous rent discussion was but a waft from the dunny. Robyn had taped the albums in a Rorschach-style reverse print. Side Two came first: Territorial Pissings, Drain You, Lounge Act, On a Plain. We didn’t even get to hear Teen Spirit until after we’d ripped the couch out with our teeth in excitement.

Our favourite band in the house was Mudhoney. My favourite band still is Mudhoney. They made us wanna dance and drink. This record made us want to destroy our lineage. We felt disloyal and delirious: Nirvana was the scrappy cute band that wanted Grandma to take ’em home and got bad haircuts from a guy called Floyd. This record was as misunderstandable as puberty: you wanted to jump around your bedroom, cry and shout in joy all at the same time. “Love myself better than you/ I know it’s wrong” was a refrain that urged you to jump off a couch into the 20 buck living room table bought at Tempe Tip, but “Polly wants a cracker/ I think I should get off her first” had you rolling a durrie and scratching at imaginary itches.

Cobain at Selina’s in 1992: “It was despair, joy and hurt from a skinny imp whose every move felt as genuine as vomiting, as intimate as pashing.”Credit:David Anderson

The power of the band had been there since we knew of them. A sound of sludge and grudge that was a bit Sabbath and bit Buzzcock and a whole lotta desperation. Nirvana’s previous recordings were loose and gritty and fun. Nevermind was an assault. If you didn’t get overwhelmed by the melodies and harmony, it was headbangingly exciting. If you didn’t wanna mess yer hair, get off on the pop.

Robyn’s cassette was protected in our share house, now located in Chippendale, by methods as fanatical as the Vatican. Friends and acquaintances would be allowed through the front door only under strict surveillance. Parties would be held just to play it at full volume with all attendees either projecting themselves at each other or holding one another pledging to get a band together. The tape would not be lent, traded or bartered. As Teen Spirit was released onto radio and then the accompanying video, signs of its ubiquity flickered in the cornices. Walking up Glebe Point Road, Broadway, Cleveland Street, Parramatta Road, lil’ carbon copy Kurts shuffled in mumbling nonchalance.

This was affection. It was despair, joy and hurt from a skinny imp whose every move felt as genuine as vomiting, as intimate as pashing.

As with the term grunge, which we had previously ascribed to the Scientists, the Cramps, Grong Grong and a murder of tousle-haired crows, these elements of fashion, instrumentation and stance had existed previously but now “they” were doing it: those who had no idea from where Nirvana sprung. Wouldn’t know their Melvins from their Calvins or a Butthole Surfer from a surfing magazine. That’s the way it crumbles of course, and the raging debate among us rakes and rubes swilled around what was selling out, which band deserved it more…which…and then that record was put on. And we all hugged or threw ourselves at a wall.

I wondered what my brother thought. He who had the rare singles, the fanzines, the demos, the whole palaver. Even when I sat outside the Phoenician Club in Ultimo, ticketless for Nirvana’s first Australian show, he was inside. What did he make of being surrounded by sweaty oiks that had only heard Teen Spirit and not waited on record releases like pulses in involuntary breaths?

As I asked him post-show for an appraisal, he wiped a little blood from his nose, cupped his sweaty fringe back from his forehead and opined: “Great, but they didn’t play this…and that”. Popped a Coopers Red, and we probably played Nevermind again. It could make sense of a post-show delirium. The lyrics were inscrutable and opaque; the chords, melodies and harmonies teasingly beautiful; the drums as thuggish and charming as the school bully; the guitars rich as spooning cake mix into your mouth pre-baking; and that voice. So much “singing” has since smelt of affectation. This was affection. It was despair, joy and hurt from a skinny imp whose every move felt as genuine as vomiting, as intimate as pashing.

When news of Kurt’s death came through to us, we were in Fremantle on tour with the Hoodoo Gurus and Redd Kross, a Los Angeles band that had strong connections with Nirvana. The bands huddled pre-show in shock, mumbling memories while the club’s DJ played Teen Spirit over the PA before Redd Kross played. Our manager Kate leapt from the dressing room like a distressed lioness and clawed at the DJ’s booth. “Not now! Not now,” she roared.

Clockwise from main: Cobain performs with Nirvana at a taping of MTV Unplugged in New York in Novemeber 1993; the cover of Nevermind; Dave Grohl, Krist Noveselic and Cobain.Credit:Frank Micelotta/Getty Images, David Geffen Company

I can still at times echo her cries when I hear the LP. Listening to the record then, pain, anger and joy were apparent and as crucial as the gorgeous cacophony of the band performances. But at what cost? “Here we are now/ entertain us”? Watching this week the film clip for a posthumous Nirvana release You Know You’re Right, the dynamic, balletic, chaotic moves of Kurt are collated with his despairing, handsome face. I love that song, but the visual accompaniment haunts me. Entertain us.

My band played before Nirvana at Selina’s, but my memories of their show are few. Watching Cobain’s hands move from an E chord to an A flat, to a C sharp to an A major, me thinking how unique those changes sounded though familiar. The slack-jawed ecstasy of watching a rock band explode in joy and fury just 20 metres in front of you. And afterwards walking to our room and catching his eye in passing, and his kind, shy smile. A smile that has persevered through the legacy of heroin chic and hundreds of awful facsimiles of the band’s charm and chunder.

Nirvana on the cover of Rolling Stone in May 1992 and, right, a poster promoting Nirvana (supported by You Am I) at Selina’s at the Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney in February 1992.

The night before Selina’s, Robyn asked me to accompany her to a record company party where the band would be. Apart from the free booze and possible drugging, being in a room with those guys was gonna be a thrill. Kurt absconded, but speaking to the indefatigable Dave Grohl in a corner, both watching the “company” flapping around like ducks, I felt like we were the kids’ table at a parents’ dinner party. “Can’t we go…throw stuff? Or just play music?” The noise around Nirvana even then was seismic. To see them play, to hear that record, to hear them? They’re at the kids’ table. Having a better time than the parents for sure.

You Am I’s Tim Rogers performs at The Metro in Sydney in 1996.Credit:Wayne Taylor

There is a band near you. In a garage, a share house, a community hall. They play with affection, joy, despair and hurt. Go see ’em, support ’em, listen to them. You were there.

I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken by the Hard-Ons, with new singer Tim Rogers, is released on October 8. You Am I’s latest album The Lives of Others is out now.

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