I entered college in the fall of 1991 to the sounds of rustling Upstate New York leaves, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. How quickly that soundtrack would change.
I first heard the name Nirvana a few weeks into the semester, while visiting an old friend at his school near New York City. A kid from Seattle who lived down the hall had a weird poster on his wall: a naked baby suspended underwater. I didn’t listen to Nevermind that weekend; I was too busy soaking up another record, called Ten, from another band the Seattle dude had turned my buddy on to.
But days after I got back on campus, this guy I knew who heard everything cool first (hardly easy pre-Internet in an isolated town of 30,000) played me “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on cassette. I bought the album the next day. So did seemingly everyone else in the world. By winter, Nirvana was inescapable—coming out of the speakers at every party, raining down from random dorm windows, airing anytime we turned on MTV. “Come as You Are.” “Lithium.” “In Bloom.” “Polly.” “Drain You.” One night, I caught a ride from the straitlaced U2-loving senior who ran our paper’s A&E section, and he sang along to “Territorial Pissings” all the way home.
I wasn’t alive for Sgt. Pepper, and I was barely walking when Never Mind the Bollocks hit, but I experienced Nevermind in real time, and I’ve never been around anything else like it. Not only did Nirvana become the biggest band in the world in a few months’ time, but it dragged a lot of great music out from the underground with it. Suddenly, alternative rock wasn’t just the property of goth kids or college DJs. It was rock.
Twenty years after Nevermind hit, you can feel its impact everywhere—in destination festivals like Coachella and Austin City Limits, in the popularity of Pitchfork, in the Arcade Fire’s Album of the Year Grammy victory. Sure, that all might have happened without “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but my guess is it would have taken a whole lot longer.
I’m listening to Nevermind as I write this, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I played it all the way through. It’s not even my favorite Nirvana album (that’s In Utero), in part because of how ubiquitous its songs became during my college years. Still, it’s undeniable. Anything that muscles Billy Joel out from even a few New Yorkers’ stereo systems has to be respected.
Highlights from the new four-disc super-deluxe 'Nevermind' reissue
“Immodium” A raw early version of “Breed,” recorded at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin in April 1990 with Chad Channing on drums. The Nevermind version seems wimpy by comparison.
“Something in the Way” Lo-fi enthusiasts will relish this loose March 1991 “Boombox Rehearsals” take from Tacoma, Washington. Never mind the hiss.
“Come as You Are” Kurt Cobain once called Andy Wallace’s final Nevermind mix “embarrassing.” This Vig-rough-mixed version hits harder (those drums!) and feels creepier.
“Endless, Nameless” Disc 4 (live at the Paramount Theatre, Halloween, 1991) ends with this blistering run through Nevermind’s “hidden” final cut. The full show is also available on DVD.