Nirvana and the Birth of Grunge

In the late 1980s, rock music had become over-the-top in many ways, with hair metal and heavy metal bands providing lots of drama, but coming up short on authenticity. That’s where Nirvana came in. A three-man band headed up by Kurt Cobain, Nirvana represented, for many people, a new kind of rock music—one that bypassed some of the more over-the-top elements of 80s’ rock and replaced it with a raw sound. Today, 20 years after Kurt Cobain’s tragic death, Nirvana is still considered one of the greatest rock bands ever. Although I was young when Nirvana’s popularity was at its height, something about that raw sound resonated with me, and I all but gave up my Top 40 pop sensibilities for full-on Nirvana worship. I loved them so much that I tried my hand at guitar, bass, and drums for a while. I never kept up with it, but I could still play you “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Come As You Are” if you asked. Maybe.

Nirvana was born in the 80s, where Washington-based Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were introduced to the emerging grunge scene via local group the Melvins. United by their shared love of punk music, Cobain and Novoselic began playing in a series of bands that only became called Nirvana in 1987, which featured Cobain on guitar, Novoselic on bass, and Chad Channing on drums. From their home base in Olympia, Washington, Nirvana recorded demos that became the basis of their first album, Bleach, which was produced by Seattle’s Sub Pop label. Released in 1989, the album became an underground and college radio hit while Nirvana gained further popularity by touring practically non-stop.

The Nirvana line-up was finalized in 1990, when Dave Grohl replaced a rotating group of drummers and joined Cobain and Novoselic in recording Nevermind, the band’s second album. Its success was pretty much instant, with the track “Smells Like Teen Spirit” quickly becoming an anthem. Radio stations played the song constantly and MTV showed the video on repeat; the album reached triple platinum only five months after its release, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the charts.
Unfortunately, Nirvana never seemed to enjoy fame, especially Cobain, who began using heroin with his wife, Hole lead singer Courtney Love. Despite Cobain’s personal demons, In Utero eventually debuted in the fall of 1993 and was a huge success, both in the U.S. and Europe, despite a sound that was supposed to be alienating and even more “raw” than Nevermind. The band’s most talked-about performance on TV, a set on MTV’s Unplugged, only increased demand for the album. Cobain’s troubles continued, however, with self-harm and drug overdoses. Despite many efforts by his wife, bandmates, and the authorities, as well as a stint in rehab, Cobain was found dead on April 8, 1994. Although I was 11 years old at the time, the loss, while intangible, felt very real, as it did for many other Nirvana fans. He achieved something akin to “rock god” status in the immediate aftermath, and had joined the ranks of the “Forever 27” club.

Since then, Novoselic and Grohl have pursued their own careers, and Grohl found fame again with his band Foo Fighters. Despite the band’s tragic ending, Nirvana lives on via its fans, who have continued to be dedicated to its genre-defining sound. Cobain, who was never easy with his role as a famous musician, has been called “the voice of Generation X,” ironically. Most recently, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the first year it became eligible, and the grungy sound they pioneered is still an inspiration to young musicians around the globe.