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Learned from a 3 Min. Record - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

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I feel stupid, and contagious

I was not lying to sound cool. That's important.

When I was in second grade, my friend Joe came over to play after school one day. I had recently been invited over to his house, where we played his hand-me-down Atari for three hours. Being a video game neophyte, I had thought we were playing "Hatari!" because that was my cousin's favorite John Wayne movie. I kept waiting for a rhino to bust in during "Breakout."

My mother had probably decided to return the favor and have Joe spend some time at our apartment. Joe and I weren't great friends, just school friends, and we got along well enough ... until that day. You see, Joe was bored at my house. I didn't have Atari -- or even a copy of "Hatari!" And he didn't want to play Hot Wheels or Ghostbusters or Dino-Riders. Every suggestion I made, he shot down.

In the course of an afternoon spent sighing and staring at the rust-colored dining room carpet, Joe asked me a lot about what I liked. Did I like video games? Of course, but that didn't mean I had any. Did I like football? Not really. Did I like Guns N' Roses?

Yes, I answered.

I was not lying to sound cool.

But there had been a great misunderstanding. I had no idea who Guns N' Roses were in 1988. I was 7 and didn't have any of the usual means that would have brought Axl Rose and Co. into my young life.

I didn't have an older brother. We didn't have cable, so no MTV. My parents didn't listen to commercial rock radio. They listened to WXRT, "Chicago's finest rock." No GN'R there. But they did play The Smithereens. And The Smithereens had a small hit with a song called "Blood and Roses."

I thought Joe was asking me about the song with that stalking bassline and the aggressive, jangly guitars. Of course, the answer was yes. I loved that song.

After trading guns for blood in my head, I was corrected by my mother. I felt stupid. Joe went home.

Although the mix-up illuminated where I stood in my second-grade musical tastes, neither "Blood and Roses" nor Guns N' Roses taught me much. But significant learning was to come a few years later, with ...

Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Neeer nuh-neer. Chicka-chicka. Neer neer nuh neeer nuh-neer. Chicka-chicka. Neer neer nuh neeer nuh-neer. Chicka-chicka. Neer neer nuh- pounding and pounding and wailing and wailing.

This is the magical noise that explodes out of some no-name, duct-taped stereo on a rickety cart in the middle of my town's community center. It's winter 1992 and it's rec night and a bunch of fifth-grade boys and I are sitting on a white-tiled floor, next to white walls, under white florescent lights. You'd think it was a insane asylum if you didn't know better, and maybe even if you did.

There's like 12 of us and we're having a knock hockey tournament. There are some girls doing double-dutch behind us. There are kids playing cards in the corner. But we're playing a cross between poor man's air hockey and poor man's bumper pool.

And then ... Neeer nuh-neer, says the stereo. I can't remember if I'm playing or watching -- I think I'm a spectator -- when the intro riff for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" comes through those bent-up speakers. Of course, I don't know what it's called. I don't know what it is, or who it is, or where it's from. But, instantly, I know I like it.

I'm 10 years old and I like Mad Magazine, the Chicago Bulls and this, whatever it is.

And so, I start rocking to the music. A little head-bobbing, no head-banging or anything crazy, but you wouldn't have confused me with someone who wasn't enjoying himself.

Another kid notices. "Bryan, you like Nirvana?"

I awake from my daze. "Uh-huh," I nod, staring at nothing in particular out of the corner of my eyes.

I was not lying to sound cool.

"Cool, man," he says. His name is Anschuman. He's an Indian kid in a leather jacket. We all call him Ash. Well, not Ash, like Bruce Campbell in "Evil Dead." It's pronounced Ahhsh. Ash and I aren't great friends, just school friends, and we get along well enough. He's a cool, smart guy. Of course he's heard of Nirvana. He has an older brother.

I don't. And it's still all-XRT, no MTV at home.

Against these odds, however, I have now experienced Nirvana.

And what a fascinating sound it was that first time. Loud then quiet then loud. Mean and angry and noisy, but also melodic. You can walk around humming it, which I'm sure I did. It was over-powered pop. Audio Pop Rocks. Nasty enough to naturally appeal to any fifth-grade boy and pretty enough to resonate with a kid raised on The Beatles.

Now for the lyrical analysis ... wait, what's the point? I didn't care then and I don't care much more now. Nirvana drummer and future combatant of foo Dave Grohl has said he laughed off any in-depth "Teen Spirit" lyrical analysis because Kurt scribbled the words down five minutes before recording it.

It's simple, anyway. It's all about teenage contradictions. Getting ready to rage, then melting into apathy when the time comes. He's a boy and he's a man. When you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count him out ... and in.

Regardless, I can guarantee you I didn't hear one word Kurt Cobain sang that first time. Just beautiful, gutteral roaring. Partially because of that terrible stereo. And partially because it's hard to bargle nawdle zouss with all those marbles in his mouth.

But mostly because I was entranced by the sound, the tune, the energy, the eruption.

Now, you probably think you know where this is going, but you're wrong.

I didn't rush out the next day to buy "Nevermind" at Musicland. I didn't plaster my room with Nirvana posters. I didn't beg my parents for concert tickets. I didn't seek out every musical influence Kurt wore on his T-shirt sleeve or tossed off in Rolling Stone interviews.

Nirvana didn't change my life. Not directly. It changed the world around me.

I had grown up on a steady diet of '60s rock 'n' roll and '80s college rock (back when that was the preferred term for "alternative" or "indie" music). As someone who was reared on uncompromising R.E.M., reckless Replacements and dynamic Pixies (this is where XRT came in handy), Nirvana made instant sense. Kurt had even said "Teen Spirit" resulted from him trying to write a Pixie-ish song. I know I was not aware of the similarity at age 10, but it's obvious to me now that my ears had been conditioned.

I'm not going for a hipper-than-thou thing here. I lucked out having parents who liked this stuff. My point is that, throughout elementary school, when other kids talked about music they liked (besides Raffi and Michael Jackson), I was clueless -- and vice-versa. I didn't know Paula Abdul. They didn't know the dB's. Hence the Blood/Guns N' Roses misunderstanding and, surely, dozens of similar situations that I've forgotten.

Within a year of hearing "Teen Spirit," I was in middle school and I felt like everyone else was catching up to me -- musically speaking. I know that's a self-centered view of matters, but who wasn't self-centered in junior high?

Anyway, it's true. The sort of music that I had been listening to my whole life was enormously popular all of a sudden.

Nirvana -- "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in particular -- was the gateway drug. And it was a gateway to anywhere. You want to re-discover the band's influences? Here's The Melvins and Cheap Trick. You want weightier heavy metal? Here's Black Sabbath and Soundgarden. You want more punk? Here's Black Flag and The Stooges. You want riffs, man, riffs? Well, here come Weezer and Urge Overkill and Green Day. You want all that and more? Here's the "Repo Man" soundtrack.

It was like the cafetorium ceiling opened up and rained great music, old and new, for three years. There was all this amazing stuff out there and it felt like everyone was into it.

I remember walking down the stairway singing "She Don't Use Jelly" with 12 other guys (probably the same knock hockey people). I remember being able to recite half an R.E.M. lyric and have it completed by the dude next to me in Language Arts. I remember bonding with the kids in art class over Pearl Jam.

I remember that in the lead-up to the school talent show (which, as a goody-good drama club member, I was going to co-host), three guys that were performing as a rock trio had planned to pull a fast one on the selection committee. They said they were going to play Green Day's very safe "When I Come Around," when they actually were going to play that song and Nirvana's "Lithium." And they were going to sing "I'm so horny" and everything. Giggle, giggle, giggle.

Well, I was the only member outside of the the band (Zenas, Ray and Dino) to know about the plan, because they knew I loved Nirvana as much as they did. And they knew I would heartily enjoy such "horny" subversion in this wholesome talent show. We pictured the band getting dragged off the stage in chains or receiving a lifetime talent show ban (like they were Elvis Costello doing "Radio, Radio" on "SNL" or something). We thought it was this super-secret dangerous thing. But no one noticed, or if they did, they didn't care. You could barely understand Ray, and the Boosters club full of school moms probably didn't know Green Day from Morris Day anyway.

But it didn't matter. They still felt like they had gotten away with something and I felt like I had aided and abetted. And it was loud, nasty and noisy for a few minutes on the cafetorium stage. Just a teaspoon of middle school rebellion. Now, for our next act, here's four girls doing a dance routine to music from "The Bodyguard" ...

It's funny that during junior high -- a period of life when many people feel the most alienated -- I felt like I finally belonged. I wasn't popular. I didn't really want to be popular. But I could connect with just about anyone (the burn-outs, the smart kids, the artsy ones, the jocks and even my band teacher) by talking music. It was wonderful to be able to speak a language that my school friends understood.

That phenomenon has continued long past middle school. Music has become currency in most of the social interaction of my life. It's what we listened to -- together -- on the bus to high school. It's what we stayed up late debating in the college dorms. It's how I was able to embrace people from alien worlds ... like Iowa. Music played a significant role in the formation and continuation of every worthwhile friendship I can claim, and in just as many of the worthless ones.

That all began with Nirvana and, specifically, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But why this song? Why then?

Some music historians will babble about it being the "right time," that American listeners were finally ready for a rougher form of music. Others would point out that it was a culmination of a reaction to the glitz and glam, a rejection of the Milli and Vanilli of '80s mainstream music. Johnny Rotten said that Americans finally "got" punk music in the early '90s, because "everything was starting to crumble."

But that's all hindsight hooey. None of that mattered to a kid in a community center on a winter's night in 1992. It just sounded cool. The chords didn't change, they leapt into each other. The guitars weren't strummed, they were ripped. You didn't have to skip to the chorus for the good part, it was right there at the beginning. Yes, it was stupid.

And contagious.

There are 12 other songs on "Nevermind," each with more complex meanings and richer points of view. Under critical analysis, all probably hold up better than "Smells Like Teen Spirit." If you lived in a vacuum, you could probably learn much more from almost any Nirvana song besides "Teen Spirit."

But this ain't no Dustbuster. That song picked me. It fried my brain, it gave me a sense of community, it handed me my generation's rock 'n' roll. Despite and because of its cliched "Louie Lou-I" hook and its garbage vocabulary, it shook my world apart and put it back together in a way that almost made sense. It taught me that if you're talking to somebody, and they can't talk about music, they're probably not worth talking to.

Plus, every time I hear it, I want to kick the crap out of somebody in knock hockey.

So, what did we learn today?

We learned that a great riff can change your life.

We learned that an Atari/"Hatari!" cross-promotion would have made waaaay more sense than the "E.T." game, at least to me and my cousin.

We learned that middle school soundsystems are a great venue for defiance, if you're worried about getting caught.

And we learned that you can not know what a song is about, discover what it's about, find out it's not about much, realize you never really cared anyway, and still gain something from the experience.

Have a question or a record with a 3 minute lesson that you would like to be taught? Email Bryan at

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