The first time I heard Nirvana’s Nevermind a volcano erupted. That’s not hyperbole. The first time I heard that album while riding in my friend Monika’s car — Mount Spurr had just dumped volcanic ash all over Anchorage. My best friend Jamie — who was quite literally an artist and one of those girls who was just effortlessly cool and always knew all the latest cool shit even though she lived on a wooded cul-de-sac in Wasilla, Alaska — had brought the tape with her (now that dates me, if nothing does).
The three of us were cruising around Anchorage, trudging through eddies of volcanic ash on our way through thrift stores, record stores and coffee shops. Because you cannot let a little thing like a volcano erupting and darkening the 24-hour sun on a perfectly good June day in Alaska stop you. (That’s the kind of shit you learn when you grow up in Alaska.)
“You gotta listen to this,” Jamie said. “You’re going to love it.”
There was never a time in the history of our friendship that Jamie had ever steered me wrong when she uttered that phrase. That day was no exception. Jane’s Addiction, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, hell even George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, and many more all entered my musical vernacular thanks to Jamie. This was no small thing to me, as I grew up surrounded by music. Three out of my four parents (only my step-mom was on the musical sidelines) were, at some point, musicians in various bands. And my three musical parents worked in radio, too. So, whether I was at my mom’s house or my dad’s house, there was always music. And, more often than not, someone was learning chord progressions on a new song or arranging band practice in the basement.
I find it almost impossible to put into words how I felt listening to Nevermind that day. It’s like the Roberta Flack song “Killing Me Softly”: I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud. And there was something about being introduced to them on the crappy speakers of a half-broken-down car, driving through the dust storm of volcanic ash under a diminished sun that is forever part of my introduction. Nirvana was loud and poetic and raw and witty and dark and it fucking rocked. I didn’t know any of the songs and yet I felt like I knew the meaning of every note. Kurt Cobain’s voice went to the core of me. The melodies were haunting and made me want to break shit all at once.
If that’s not an explosion, I don’t know what is.
There will no doubt be a lot of people writing about what Nirvana means/meant to them today, as the band’s seminal album celebrates its 20th anniversary. I wanted to avoid it, but I couldn’t. (Don’t blame me. It’s the Gen X condition.) It was Nevermind that I would listen to endlessly that winter on my Walkman while I squatted in the warm stairwell of the library before it opened, because my mom kicked me out of the apartment that day. Nevermind was short-hand when you talked music with someone new. It was also a beacon in the dark, cold Alaskan winters that I had to wait through until I could strike out on my own after high school. Nirvana became code for “Seattle sound” and all things good in rock. When you’re doing time in one of the most remote outposts in America, you’re just looking for a fix from the mainland anyway you can get it. And a couple years later, it was the right amount of moody, noisy pain that I wanted when I grieved Jamie’s sudden death from a car accident the week of Christmas 1993 — just a month before her 18th birthday.
I don’t know about musical legacies or how a band changes the zeitgeist. And I’ll leave it to the myriad pop culture and music critics to sort all that out. But in a land and a time when I felt stranded, estranged, alone and in a lot of pain, Nevermind was a powerful salve. It was meaningful to me because it wasn’t just great rock — which, by the way, is reason enough — it was a bridge for me to the outside world and a way to find all the other misfits like me. And now, so many years later, it’s a time capsule filled with swirling eddies of volcanic ash, snow and the strange interplay of light and dark.