So here we are: now, officially, one-third of the way through this series, in which I write about the 15 albums that shaped my life. I know—seems like this interminable thing has been going on forever, doesn’t it? Look, you’re not hurting my feelings here; I agree 100 percent. But the first third is the hardest. This installment marks a significant turning point, even in a series that is all about significant turning points.
See, when I started this, I had an idea where it was going, but no clear map drawn. As of right now, I don’t know its final destination, nor all the stops, but I do know a handful of landmarks that will absolutely be visited. I always knew, for instance, that Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time would be the first album on this list, but I was less aware, even somewhat surprised, when I found Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking at No. 2, Led Zeppelin’s “Crop Circles” Box Set at No. 3 and Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are the Sick at No. 4. I was surprised because there have been so many albums in my life that trying to find the 15 that most shaped me means sorting through hundreds of contenders. When I first started this endeavor, I made an initial list, trying to figure out what the final list might look like, and I can tell you that nothing in my actual Nos. 2 through 4 was in my original Nos. 2 through 4.
But again, there are landmarks, things I always knew would be on this list, because they could never not be on this list, and this week we are at one of those landmarks.
Nirvana – Nevermind (original release date: September 24, 1991)
In my last installment of “Fifteen Albums,” I mentioned that a friend of mine went to Gothenburg, Sweden as part of a student exchange program with the express purpose of buying new Swedish death metal albums and goods. Among the things he turned up overseas was the three-song demo cassette of a band called Nirvana 2002. That band shared a singer with Swedish death metal gods Entombed, and seemed to be one of the more promising acts coming out of the fertile Gothenburg scene.
Anyway, soon upon his return to the States, my friend purchased a CD called Bleach by a band called Nirvana, whom he had (understandably) confused with Nirvana 2002. The cover of Bleach featured the negative image of a group of young men with long hair and denim jackets involved in some sort of onstage chaos—essentially par for the course for death metal. However, upon listening to the CD and recognizing his mistake, my friend—a death metal snob—passed Bleach on to me. “It sounds like Danzig,” he said, knowing I liked Danzig. So I listened. To me, it sounded like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, two bands out of Seattle that I liked and were among those musicians changing the face of heavy metal as I knew it. But for whatever reason, this Nirvana did not connect with me in any substantive way, and the CD was passed on to someone else.
Some months later, sometime after midnight on a Sunday night heading into Monday morning, I heard Fingers on WBAB play a new Nirvana song called “Territorial Pissings,” which had considerably more melody and spark than what I remembered from Bleach. I liked the song very much, and decided I would look into the band again. Later that week, my friend Donny asked if I had heard this group called Nirvana, whom he had seen on MTV. As my parents refused to allow cable in our house, MTV was a luxury in which I could not regularly indulge. Naturally, though, I assumed Donny had also heard “Territorial Pissings”—because one would expect radio and MTV to play the same track from a young, relatively unknown band—and I decided that such a good and noteworthy song made this new Nirvana album a worthwhile investment. So I purchased the album that weekend, brought it home and threw it in the CD player.
And then, I listened to the first song on Nevermind: “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The initial rush was without question the most intoxicating musical sensation I have ever experienced. The song was magical, clearly the product of divine inspiration. I listened to it again and again and again and again. Hundreds of times in a row. I played it so loud that it was audible blocks away. The melody, the lyrics, the guitars, the voice…I have never tried heroin, but I have read numerous accounts of heroin use by junkies, and their reaction to the drug matches my reaction to “Smells like Teen Spirit” almost exactly. It was a feeling that transported me, something that made me feel like the world was irrelevant, something I wanted to live inside forever. And something, of course, that could not last, no matter how long and hard I tried to hold on.
These are just details, though—just the few bits and pieces that led up to what Nevermind eventually became for me. But I don’t know how to write that story. It’s too big, too daunting. Nevermind changed my life more than any piece of art, period. It changed my entire world. It changed the entire world. I can talk about Nirvana forever, and I feel like I have a million stories that somehow include them. These are just a couple of them, the first couple. After that, I was a different person. I was 17 years old, and suddenly, everything was different. This song, this album…everything was different.