Like many mothers of small children, my wife has a propensity for buying a lot of clothes for our daughters. She really can’t help herself. And this is why our daughters’ bedroom looks like a cross between the kids section at your average Target store and the average Midwestern trailer park after a hurricane.
Clothes are everywhere, and only occasionally inside the girls’ drawers, where they are ostensibly supposed to be. Shirts hang from drawer openings. Single socks that haven’t seen their mates in years litter the closet floor. And whatever color was their room’s carpet is lost to the ages as it is covered in not just dirty clothes that never seem to find their way into the hamper, but clean clothes that landed on the floor when the girls were hunting for something to wear and they pulled out three or four of my wife’s other purchases at the same time. Things that never occurred to our daughters to pick up because 8-and-9-year-old kids area not genetically predisposed to clean up after themselves
This avalanche of sartorial madness grows every day because, like I said, my wife can’t stop herself from buying stuff for the two adorable hellions. And this is how our older daughter, Maddo, came to own a Nirvana sweater.
Nirvana hasn’t been a functional band in more than 24 years, or since that day in April 1994 when Kurt Cobain went to a room above a garage at his Seattle home, put a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger. But that doesn’t mean Nirvana as a band has stopped mattering to millions of its fans. Nirvana remains one of the tentpole bands of the last 29 years (Its first album, “Bleach”, came out in 1989) and its music is still cited as some of the most-popular, and influential, of its time. You would be hard-pressed to find someone born between 1962 and 2000 who hasn’t heard Nirvana’s signature song,”Smells Like Teen Spirit” a minimum of 5,000 times since it came out in late 1991.
But…Maddo was born in 2008. And when we gave her that Nirvana sweater emblazoned with the band’s take on the Have a Nice Day happy face (A circle with two “X” marks for eyes, and a tongue sticking out of one corner of the mouth, suggesting drunkenness) she responded as you probably would have expected a nine-year-old.
I wasn’t surprised. I mean, why would she have any reason to know who or what Nirvana was? This kid has grown up on Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and about a hundred other female singers whom I can’t tell the difference between. Expecting her to know who Nirvana was would have been like asking the eight-year-old version of myself if I knew anything about Muddy Waters.
So, in order to expand the kid’s ears, I turned on our Apple TV device, brought up YouTube and found the video for “Teen Spirit”. Anyone who was alive and watching MTV in the fall of 1991 probably remembers where they were the first time they saw the “Teen Spirit” video. For me, I’m pretty certain it was when I was watching TV in my bedroom at my parents’ house after a day of throwing pallets at the West Coast Grocery warehouse pallet yard in Tacoma, Washington (And putting my recently acquired two bachelor’s degrees to work making a whopping $6.25 a hour. It may have been almost 30 years ago, but six-and-a-quarter an hour back then bought about as much as it does today.)
It’s a very tired and aged thing to say now, but everything, at least in terms pf popular music, changed when “Teen Spirit’s” opening riff first blasted out from America’s airwaves and TV screens. Seattle became the trendy music capital of the world. Within a few months, the Age of Hair Metal effectively died, and no one wanted to admit they had ever owned a Motley Crue or Poison CD. The crown was placed on Nirvana’s head when its album “Nevermind” knocked the self-proclaimed King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and his “Dangerous” album from the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s album chart. Even today, nearly three decades after “Teen Spirit’s” debut, it remains a signature song (and probably the signature song) for those of us part of (God help me for using this term) Generation X.
But, for all of “Teen Spirit’s” “importance”, that doesn’t mean the song means anything to Maddo. Hence, her lack of knowledge about Nirvana, or its biggest hit. However, that didn’t mean the song was completely unknown to her.
I put the video on. Cobain’s guitar kicked in with that famous riff, and things only got more explosive when the rest of Nirvana–bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, who was still several years away from becoming America’s favorite nice-guy rocker at the helm of Foo Fighters–joined in, and it was 1991 all over again.
That is, except for Maddo. Because for her, it was 1976.
Me: So, sweetie…What do you think of Nirvana?
Maddo: I thought it was “More Than A Feeling”.
Now, for a nine-year-old in 2018, this statement should make no sense at all. But, for a nine-year-old in 2018 whose dad plays Boston’s anthemic mid-70s hit at least once a day when he’s driving his kids home from school, noticing the similarities between Kurt Cobain’s George Bush-era appropriation of Tom Scholz’s Gerald Ford-era masterwork says that just because someone claimed that “corporate rock” sucked, that didn’t mean he wasn’t secretly a fan of what he claimed to hate. And make no mistake, there is a big difference between Boston and Nirvana.
No one, not even those of us who love “More Than A Feeling” (and, really, if you don’t love “More Than A Feeling”, you do have problems) refer to Boston as a “Great” (with a capital “G”) band, even though many of the songs on “Boston”, the band’s debut album, have the sound of “Greatness” all over them, thanks to Scholz’s soaring guitar and pristine, precise production. “Boston” has sold over 17 million copies since it came out in 1976. You probably have a copy of it yourself in some form or another around your house right now. And you very well may have listened to “More Than A Feeling” this morning because why the hell not?
I once read a description of “More Than A Feeling” that called it, “The sound of your older brother washing his car in your driveway on a hot summer day.” You can see that image now, whether or not you grew up with an older brother, or a driveway in which cars were washed. I don’t think I have ever heard any song described so perfectly. “More Than A Feeling” matters.
But, for all of that, and for whatever reason, “More Than A Feeling” and Boston never show up on anyone’s list of Greatest Anything. The only musician I remember ever hearing mention Boston as an influence on their sound is Garth Brooks. And even with a bazillion record sales, Garth isn’t the most cutting edge of rockers.
Then, there is Nirvana. From the moment “Teen Spirit” was released, Cobain & Co. were hailed as the most-important band of their era and there are plenty of examples to back that up. Because of Nirvana, the world suddenly became aware that there was a music scene in Seattle beyond Jimi Hendrix, Heart and Queensryche. (The Sonics, arguably the most-influential band ever to hail from area, were still several years away from their resurrection and overdue appreciation.) Nirvana introduced the world to the music of “grunge”, which itself became one of the most quickly played out trends in 20th century pop culture. And the band provided the starting point for an immediate switch in how a popular rock band was supposed to sound and look like, and behave. A busty blonde bimbo model like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” vixen Bobbi Brown was going to have no place dancing around with a firehose in any of Nirvana’s videos.
And Cobain wasn’t about to try and clone Eddie Van Halen with a run of finger-tapping hammer on solos on a Gibson Flying V in any of his songs.
No, Nirvana was sincere in a way that the hair metal bands they booted off the charts weren’t. But, Kurt Cobain was sincere in his love of his musical influences, too. I read an interview with Cobain in which he said he wanted to have the adoration of John Lennon, but the anonymity of Ringo Starr. That may sound profound, but is actually pretty silly when you take into account that it’s nearly impossible to be anonymous when your name is “Ringo Starr” and you were probably, at worst, the third most-famous member of the world’s most-famous band, but whatever. It was Cobain’s idea to have. And Cobain made no secret of his love of the Beatles. It would have been no surprise at all had Cobain had said “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Rain” had an impact on how “Teen Spirit” eventually turned out.
But, that would have been wrong.
Because if anything influenced Cobain’s biggest hit, it was Boston’s most-famous guitar riff from its most-famous song.
“More Than A Feeling” is nothing but hooks. From that opening acoustic guitar picking, to that signature rhythm of the choruses, to Scholz’s soaring, uber-produced solos, “More Than A Feeling” is a song that wasn’t just banged out in someone’s garage on a school day afternoon. Rather, it was crafted in either the most, or least-most rockin’ way ever: By Scholz, in his basement studio, after he finished his day job working as an engineer at Polaroid. And that riff that blasts out with the song’s choruses is something so simple in its construction that it might just rival “Smoke On The Water” as the definitive guitar piece of the 1970s. Only while Deep Purple’s magnum opus has become a punchline for any joke about up-and-coming guitar players, what Tom Scholz created on his Gibson Les Paul is rarely acknowledged as a source of musical inspiration by any bedroom rock star.
But, Kurt Cobain wasn’t just any bedroom rock star. Put on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” right now and try to deny that those first four bars of the song don’t sound like a rustier, grimier version of “More Than A Feeling”. You might get some hair-splitter who will say that the songs “hardly” sound alike because “‘More Than A Feeling’s’ riff uses the chord progression I, IV, Vi, V, whilst “Smells Like Teen Spirit” uses the chord progression Isus2, IV III, VI. Those progressions are totally different. It’s a common misconception that the riffs are the same based on the first two chords and the way they are strummed.”
In fact, this was exactly how someone on Facebook responded to me when I posted a photo of Maddo with her Nirvana sweater and posited that Cobain probably should have given Scholz a songwriting credit on “Teen Spirit”. This is also the kind of response you would likely get from someone who would complain about getting free pizza and beer while watching the Super Bowl on a 70-inch 4K TV at a friend’s house.
No matter. I never knew Cobain, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t charting out the chord structures between songs “whilst” he was listening to the first Boston album and working out the riff that would eventually get his band introduced by Rob Morrow as the musical guests on “Saturday Night Live” in January of 1992. Something tells me he knew a good groove when he heard it and it didn’t matter a particular groove came from one of the bands better known for 70s “corporate rock” than for any ties to the Stooges or the Melvins. Good artists copy and great artists steal, right? Maybe Cobain never thought of himself as “Great”, but “Teen Spirit” got millions of people thinking of him that way. And a stolen riff from the greatest song by a band that is rarely thought of as “Great” got him there.
And when Maddo heard Cobain’s “Greatness” for the first time, she knew where she had heard it before.