Grunge Before Grunge
Nirvana: Bleach (Sub Pop)
It happened 20 years ago, a few turbulent years before Nirvana accidentally led “alternative” music’s charge onto mainstream radio and MTV, puzzling record executives everywhere. Before Dave Grohl left his old band Scream in Washington, D.C. Before Nirvana became the first post-punk band to headline a major European festival. Before they knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts. It was before they inspired hipsters to dress like Field and Stream models in trucker hats and plaid flannel. Before the tabloid life, the feud with Axl Rose, the disastrous marriage, and the crushing suicide that ended it all. Before all that, Seattle’s little-known Sub Pop records quietly released the very loud Bleach.
Producer Jack Endino recorded it at Reciprocal Recording Studios in Seattle for $606, beginning on Christmas Eve 1988. It was an inadvertent shot across the bow of Seattle’s then “big” rock bands, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. With Krist Novoselic, his hometown friend from Aberdeen, Washington, on bass, and the drummers Dale Crover and Chad Channing, Cobain led the band through an economical 30 hours of recording. The album would be released in 1989 with an initial pressing of a thousand white-vinyl copies. Following the overwhelming success of Nevermind, their legendary second album, Bleach would finally be discovered by the general public and sell 1.7 million copies in the U.S. alone.
When I first heard the names of those three bands, I thought there was a wave of psychedelic music taking over the Northwest. Mudhoney? Soundgarden? Nirvana? “Must be the mushrooms,” I thought. Little did I know what was really happening up there. I grew up in the Northwest, but was living in Hollywood at the time, listening to Jane’s Addiction and the Pixies and N.W.A. Those Seattle bands sounded like mellow hippies if you went by their names alone. But then I heard the first Mudhoney album and couldn’t believe my ears. “Touch Me I’m Sick” was no hippie anthem. It was a Stooges-influenced stomper with fuzzed-out guitars and Mark Arm’s boisterous vocals. Soundgarden was still on Sub Pop then, and was less punk than heavy metal. They were weirder and much darker than the radio-friendly Bon Jovi or Poison, who were selling boatloads of albums, but not as confrontational or debauched as Guns ’n’ Roses or Mötley Crüe. Nobody could agree on what genres these bands belonged in. Somebody decided to call it “grunge.”
None of that, however, would prepare me for the self-loathing scream therapy of Bleach. When Cobain shouted, “Won’t you believe it, it’s just my luck…No recess!” in “School,” it was rock music knotted up with a very real sense of anguish and rebellion. It was neither glamorous nor political. There was no artifice, no costumes. It was raw and real, and the sound of Cobain’s voice was familiar, like maybe you went to school with this kid. The songs on Bleach were cathartic, the voice of a young man purging his anger, an anger born of pain from losing a “normal” family after divorce and being a sensitive outcast in a macho logging town. It manifested as pain that bubbled up from his notoriously bilious stomach and was launched into noisy rock music. It was a clear case of someone who couldn’t possibly have found another line of work to satisfy him if he hadn’t learned how to play guitar and sing.
Cobain didn’t particularly want to be famous, headline stadiums, or give interviews to reporters from Time magazine. He really just wanted to be as big as the Vaselines or the Germs, to fit in with the oddballs and write songs that he could play loud. But once his music leaped beyond the borders of the Pacific Northwest, the whole plan spiraled out of control. Nirvana went from opening for Steel Pole Bathtub and Tad at the Vogue in Seattle to headlining the vast Reading Festival in England. And Cobain went from dropping out of high school in a logging town in southwest Washington State to being the biggest rock star in the world. And that most certainly did not bring him joy or satisfaction.
It may be hard to believe, but before Nirvana released Bleach, the Pacific Northwest might have been best known to the outside world as the home of the Green River Killer, Nike, Boeing, and Bigfoot. Nobody outside of Seattle knew what Starbucks was, and they certainly didn’t know about Sub Pop. The city was an ultra-green backwater between San Francisco and Canada crawling with loggers and hippies, where Bill Walton was more famous than Bill Gates. But somewhere in the town of Aberdeen there began to stir the beginnings of a worldwide phenomenon. A diminutive, dirty blonde, cardigan-wearing punk was licking the wounds of his broken childhood and finding solace in Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and Cheap Trick. After becoming a musician himself, he would move to Olympia, Washington at the urging of his heroes, the Melvins.
Meanwhile, Sub Pop went from an Evergreen State University fanzine hand-distributed by student Bruce Pavitt to the center of a cultural maelstrom in a few short years. When he first started including mix tapes of underground rock bands with his zine in the mid-80s, his sales peaked at 2,000. But when he took on partner Jonathan Poneman and began releasing EPs from local Seattle groups like Green River and Soundgarden, things began to happen and a scene began to form. Then came Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone and later a band from Aberdeen that went from calling itself Fecal Matter to Skid Row to the name they would settle on, Nirvana. With the revenue that band would generate for them, Sub Popwould eventually be able to promote dozens of other pioneering bands like Fluid, Eric Matthews, Afghan Whigs, the Shins, Pissed Jeans, Blitzen Trapper, and No Age.
Nirvana could be appreciated by punks, Beatle fans, hard-rock fans, and eventually listeners of Top 40 radio. They had a talent for melody and could rock heavily. They wrote songs that got stuck in your brain whether you liked it or not, just like a Top 40 band. But Top 40 bands didn’t write songs like “Papercuts” and “Negative Creep.” And Top 40 bands wanted to be in the Top 40. Kurt Cobain wanted to be left alone. And by the time he checked out completely he had left behind such non-mainstream songs as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Milk It,” as evidence of his growing disenchantment with the industry.
Despite accusations of “selling out” from the “real” punks who resented their eventual success and high profile, Nirvana never spent a lot of money making their records. Even their final, major-label effort, In Utero, cost a mere $25,000 to produce—a fraction of the cost of the average budgeted video of the time. Smaller bands were spending more on catering than Nirvana spent on making their records. In fact, it might possibly have been Cobain’s obsession with not selling out that killed him. The anguish he felt at being placed, against his will, above all the other bands out there drove him mad. He knew very well what it was like to scrape by, living out of rusty touring vans, sharing ramshackle motel rooms, and dealing with poor sound systems in town after town. When he reluctantly agreed to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, he wore a handmade T-shirt that said, “CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK.”
Cobain’s generosity was renowned when it came to promoting bands that he believed in. By using his new power in the press and his ever-expanding public stature, he boosted the profile of those he respected or felt were underexposed due to a lack of record label resources. He was constantly wearing band T-shirts for television appearances or photo shoots. Daniel Johnston, the Vaselines, the Raincoats, the Wipers, Flipper, and the Meat Puppets would all benefit from Cobain’s support.
Cobain was a sensitive kid who also happened to be a riff-heavy guitarist. His uncle gave him a choice for his fourteenth birthday: a bicycle or a guitar. With his posture and stomach issues it was probably best to shelve any Tour de France or BMX aspirations and take to the Beatles and heavy-metal songbooks instead. So a guitar it was. The eclectic tastes he developed early on made for a powerful brew later. Yes, he loved the Pixies, Black Flag, and the Melvins, but he also liked the Knack and the Bay City Rollers and Cheap Trick. And despite being drawn to Scratch Acid and Killing Joke, Cobain couldn’t resist the melodies of the Beatles. He covered Led Zeppelin songs during his earliest gigs as well. Nirvana would also famously cover David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” for their Unplugged album. Cobain was much more than a punk, and it was that amalgamation of sounds that triggered Nirvana’s popularity.
While Cobain couldn’t have minded acquiring more creative freedom and having a decent place to live after being a nomad for so long, he hated the idea of being the “spokesman of a generation” in much the same way that Bob Dylan did. But by the time it was Nirvana’s turn in the white-hot spotlight the media had grown into a far bigger monster than it was in Dylan’s 60s. Cobain’s success felt like a failure to him. Or he felt as if he was betraying his punk roots and he was ashamed of it. Combined with manic depression and heavy narcotics abuse, this sense of being a circus monkey trapped in a corporate cage with vultures all around him eventually drove him over the edge. But long before that, there was Bleach.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.