back to the Black Table

 When you add it all up, the Cardinals, and the Woody Allen, and the penis insecurity, and the fear of ex-girlfriends, and the whole I'm-from-Central-Illinois-so-bear-with-me thing that I fall back on when I get scared, none of it matters … the only thing that ever really made an impact was Nirvana. Everything else, put together, isn't close.

It's easy to forget this. It has been a long time. Since Nirvana first seared that thing deep into our brain, made us feel like there was this whole other planet out there, good lord, what is out there, could there be more people like this, there couldn't be, no way …

You see … we have grown old. We have changed. We are working 9-to-5 jobs now. We are worrying about the economy. We wonder where we're going in our careers. We don't want someone to release the plague in Times Square. We wonder if we're missing out on the primes of our lives. We wonder if anyone will ever love us. That thing, that part of us that once flared up, previously undiscovered, where did that come from? We try to muffle it.

We discover new things. We find our new obsession. Some of us get married. Some of us devote ourselves to making money. Some of us snicker when we see our company's commercial come on television. We forget. We forget what happened.

We rationalize it. We were young and stupid, we didn't know shit. Man, that was college, or that was high school, or that was my 20s, man. Yeah, that was a great song and all … but a song's a song. We were just kids.

Don't you remember? It hasn't been that long, has it? Come on, man … you remember. I know you do.


Everybody remembers when they first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Laugh if you will, mock us for being stupid twentysomethings who never had to fight for anything in our lives, we get it, and we agree. But you ask any of us, we still know where we were when we saw the video for the first time.

You have to keep in mind, we were listening to Warrant at the time. We were listening to Slaughter. We were telling ourselves that Axl Rose was Mick Jagger. We were looking for something, and, unable to find it, we just figured we'd take what we could. You have to cut us some slack here. We didn't know they were coming.

So when that happened, the experience bore such a deep hole in us, we can all tell you when we first saw it. All of a sudden, some other force showed up. All of a sudden, something new happened, something we never could have anticipated. Where did they come from?

This weird little guy, not singing, not really, but not just screaming either. He was like a bent garden hose finally straightened, a spring uncoiled, a live wire with too much current running through it, as Jimi Hendrix was famously described. Sure, the song rocked, which was what caught our attention in the first place, but there was something else, something authentic, something afraid and pained and sardonic and intelligent and hopeful … and furious.

This sound was so unusual, we had no idea what to make of it. Who were these guys? You heard rumors. They were bisexuals. They were Satanists. I hear Axl hates them. One of them had a baby born addicted to cocaine. An associate of mine from high school, still confused, sold his CD after seeing Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl kiss on Saturday Night Live and became convinced Kurt Cobain’s garbled lyrics were going to make him gay.

But man, did it hit us. Everything changed … like that. Suddenly everything we’d been doing up to that point was ridiculous. We ditched our Skid Row albums, we dumped our parachute pants, we put down the hair gel. Authenticity was suddenly what mattered. Really believing, really caring. Sure, like everything eventually, what Nirvana meant was warped over time, and you could buy pre-ripped jeans at the Gap and “Grunge!” compilation CDs. But you can’t deny that it was there, and it was pure. Suddenly, something was important. We just wanted to eat something that wasn’t spoon-fed to us; we wanted that fire. It really was a revolution, however brief and fleeting it was. And it was all started by one song, one verse, one chord, one man.

Sure, we’ve changed. Nirvana is classic rock now. But Kurt is as woven into the fabric of our lives as our first date, or our first love, or our first death in the family, or our first broken heart. Or did you forget?

You remember standing in line at midnight, with a line around the block, to pick up In Utero. You remember hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” on the radio. You remember explaining to skeptics that “Rape Me” wasn’t really about rape. You remember the MTV Unplugged, back when there was an MTV Unplugged, where we were shocked to learn that not only was Kurt not incapacitated by heroin, but also that he could also produce 70 minutes of utter beauty that people would still talk about eight years later in awe. And you remember the pain, the worry, the fear, those hidden parts of you that sprung up when you listened, even if you weren’t sure why.

Admit it. You do remember now … don’t you? God, you have to.


I remember a controversy that bubbled up when In Utero came out. The album’s original back cover art was a collage of fetuses that Kurt had insanely patched together. Because of that image, still weirdly gorgeous, and the song title “Rape Me,” K-Mart and Wal-Mart stores refused to sell the CD. Nirvana, predictably, was the target of intensely boring “underground” fans who were perpetually accusing the band of “selling out” after Nevermind hit big. They were apoplectic, then, when Kurt said he would alter the art and change the name of the song to “Waif Me.”

Kurt explained that when he was growing up in Aberdeen, Wash., there were no record stores or underground shops. The only place you could buy music was Wal-Mart. Therefore, he made a Wal-Mart-only version, cleaned up. Urban hipsters screamed corporate sellout. The rest of us knew better. After all, Wal-Mart was the only place I could buy CDs growing up, too.


When Kurt died, when he’d had enough, I sat in my dormitory, alone, listened to In Utero, and cried for hours. I don’t care what you think about that fact. It’s true.


The new song is called “You Know You’re Right.” I’d heard it before, actually; no Nirvana freak worth his salt hasn’t searched and found a version from a 1994 concert. It’s a terrible mix, though. You can hear two idiots who happened to be sitting next to the bootlegger loudly complaining, “Man, I don’t know this song,” and then blabbering through the whole thing.

A friend of mine sent me a link to the “lost Nirvana song” that was supposedly leaked to the Web. I scoffed at him. I’d heard everything.

Wrong. I mean, I was just sitting at work, writing a brainless story about nothing of particular significance, tap-tap-tapping away, wondering about my fantasy football team, and whether this check would clear by Monday, and so on, and so on. My headphones were on. I hit play. A heavy bass line. “I would never bother you … I would never promise to … I will never follow you … I will never bother you …” And then … BAM.

The guitar comes in like a buzzsaw to the skull. I mean, it has been so long. You don’t remember what it’s like to listen to a Nirvana song for the first time. Then, from the grave, from the pit of that acrid stomach … there it is. “Never speak a word again … I will crawl away for good.” It knocked me out of my chair. I’m not kidding. Then that chorus, that pain, that living … that thing that made Kurt different, that thing that made him one of us. It’s all right there. God, how could we have forgotten?

Sure. It doesn’t sound like a mix that Kurt would have signed off on. It’s too clean, it’s too produced, it’s too convenient. It doesn’t matter. It captures exactly what made Nirvana matter, what we’ve missed, what he could have done. And Jesus … it was a new Nirvana song.

I couldn’t work the rest of the day. I was legitimately afraid to listen to it again. I, myself, had forgotten.


Some of us follow foggy tracks, full of faith that, if we stay true to what brought us here, they will lead us right. Some of us have lost our way all together. Some of us can’t remember what it was like to have believed. Some of us are too busy to notice much of anything anymore.

But, remember, damn you. Remember what that was like. It’s as close to something real and binding as we had. Don’t rationalize it away.

Just listen. That is, after all, why they recorded everything in the first place. To remember, to document, to celebrate.

And don’t forget to play it loud. Real loud.



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