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Two Decades of Teen Spirit

I don't think I actually listened to it until December, 1991. It came out in August, but right then I was busy moving from Houston to California to go to college. That first semester was a blur. I was inundated with new experiences, new ideas, living far away from my family. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was testing boundaries and desperate for some sort of comfort. And of course, at 18, I knew exactly who I was and how perfect everything was going to be and I had all the answers.

I'm sure I had heard it before, because it was so damned popular. But I remember the first time I really heard it. I was in Houston, so I was probably home for Christmas. I was driving my car, leaving my house to go on some errand or another. I was by myself, and it was a bright, sunny day. And I was paused at a stop sign at the edge of my street, about to turn left onto a busier street. The opening chords of the song started, and I was transfixed. I probably sat at that intersection listening for a good minute before I remembered that I was driving and needed to pay attention for an opening to turn left. I don't know how I actually drove while I listened to the song, because I wasn't paying attention to anything but the song.

It was playing on KLOL, the rock station. KLOL was independent at the time, having not yet decided to go all-Classic Rock and then later bought out and killed by Clear Channel. It was one of those stations where good music, past and present, was played. And they played this amazing song. A year before, when I was on a run, I listened to Dana Steele on my Walkmen (one of those yellow ones) tell me about the death of Stevie Ray Vaughn on that same radio station. I was more or less in the same spot where I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Of course, after it was over, they played some other song. And I actually waited in the car for the DJ to come back on, but they didn't tell me what it was. I spent a few days listening to the radio and hoping they'd play it again so I could find out what it was. I called the radio station to ask, but I don't think I was all that coherent.

They played it again and again. I think that there were a lot of people like me out there that heard it and became obsessed with it. Sooner or later I found out about Nirvana. Within hours of finding out who it was, I was an owner of Nevermind on CD.

I still love this song. As overplayed as it has been in the subsequent twenty years, I still get as excited hearing it as I did the first time I heard it. I played it over and over and over again on my discman in college, just absorbing it. I was the right age for that song. I was part of a generation seeking to define itself. Douglas Coupland's Generation X came out that same year. I was lost and unsure and seeking to make my mark on the world in a way that was different. I wasn't sure that my values were the same as my parents, but I wasn't sure in what ways they were different. I was technically an adult, but I was also still a kid. I wasn't angry, I don't think. But I was very confused. This song, with its incomprehensible lyrics, channeled all of that.

I've listened to it probably several hundred times in the last 20 years. I'm listening to it right now while I'm writing this post, and I think that was the third or forth play through I've done today. It never gets old for me. I don't feel a disconnect to it or that I've outgrown it. I know it now. I know it as well as I know any song.

Three years after I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit", I was a senior in college, having skipped a year. I was in the Coop, and I heard that Kurt Cobain had shot himself. My parents were visiting that weekend. I remember being un-surprised at the news, but I remember being unbelievably sad.

Ten years later, I came as close as I ever have to a similar reaction to a song. I was in the car again, and this haunting intro started. And a minute into "You Know You're Right" I said, "Goddammit." Because I thought I had found my new Nirvana, but it was the old Nirvana. And I knew I wouldn't ever find a band to replace them.


( 1 comment — Say something )
Sep. 13th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
I seldom comment on your posts--but I just wanted to say that I love them. Having met you once at the ranch (7/4/?), and talking to you a bit, I feel I know you through your posts more than real life. Thanks for journaling so well, and sharing an interesting life and perspective :-)
( 1 comment — Say something )