Seventeen years since Gen X’ers in gestation and Airwalk-rocking pre-teens mourned the loss of Kurt C. — the de facto choice for last American rock star and chief inspiration for Collective Soul. Nirvana occupy a bizarre space in the collective American psyche. They’re still idolized by those who have never heard “Where is My Mind,” and music snobs tend to treat them with an elitist disdain usually reserved for Jim Morrison. And like the Mr. Mojo Magazine cover boy, I’d argue that any argument against their excellence can be deaded by the way they sing the blues.
Disclaimer: this is an overly simplistic argument. But despite their truncated careers, its safe to say that singers who can sing the blues have the best chance for wrinkled relevance. The genre is designed for those who run up the odometer too rapidly, the emotionally overworked who carry dust and dissipation in their vocals. Melodrama is the mortar of the blues. It’s a genre for the overly sincere and has little patience for the irony and subterfuge of college rock. So like LA Woman is to the Doors, Nirvana Unplugged is to the Grungies — part skeleton key, part final statement that points towards unreached destinations.
The iTunes genre tag for the files that I hastily swiped off the Internet because I’m too lazy to upload it myself, read grunge. But don’t let anyone tell you differently. Unplugged is a blues album. Recorded with a hellhound in his house and under the duress of addiction, illness, and psychological scars that never healed. If you’re looking for the reason why Nirvana will always endure, it isn’t about power chords or college rock rip-offs, or even the prettiness of the melody to “Pennyroyal Tea.” It’s about the way Cobain instinctively understood how to interpret Leadbelly. The pain scarcely sublimated in those vocals, the ability to mumble a wounded lament familiar to both tormentors and the victimized. His belly was filled with acid, the lead went north, and no one else could better convey the feeling of shivering the whole night through.
MP3: Nirvana-“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
MP3: Leadbelly-“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”