Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, and the Legacy of Seattle Grunge
In high school and college, I idolized Kurt Cobain – as most suburban kids of the 90’s did. At the time he was the epitome of alternative rock, with his raspy and raw songs, heavy melodic choruses, and brooding angst-filled lyrics. When Nirvana first hit the music scene in Washington I highly doubt anyone ever predicted Cobain would become a voice for an entire generation of youth, the media came to refer to the band as the “flagship band of Generation X” and that same sentiment still bleeding over to Millennials. Nirvana would take an entirely new genre of rock now known as “Grunge” and often referred to as the “Seattle Sound” to the mainstream and even after that genre died down, Nirvana’s legacy is still thriving 22 years later.
“The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.” – Kurt Cobain
Grunge had evolved from early heavy metal and Seattle’s local punk scenes and in the 90’s the sub-genre had become the most popularized form of American rock. Themes of Grunge being popularized by the masses of youth were apparent, with its own emulated style, the unkempt hair, thrift store clothing, Doc Martens, ripped jeans and flannel shirts were signature looks at the time that followed the whole mentality of those who listened and related to the music. The motive behind the trend was driven by a backlash of social norms and a huge contrast from the flashy, big, and bright style of the 80’s.
“Grunge was so self-consciously lowbrow and nonaspirational that it seemed, at first, impervious to the hype and glamour normally applied swiftly to any emerging trend. But sure enough, grunge anthems found their way onto the soundtracks of television commercials, and Dodge Neons were hawked by kids in flannel shirts saying, ‘Whatever.’” – Douglas Rushkoff
The musical style of Grunge is characterized by a distorted electric guitar, usually down tuned for a heavier and lower sound, and often slower tempos. The grunge sound was known for its energy and primitiveness, as opposed to precision and finesse of techniques, and the non-fancy, hyper, just straight dirty rock sound. The distortion and fuzz sounds were usually created through stompbox pedals or several fuzz pedals together all plugged into a turned up tube amplifier. Grunge practically rejected the shredding solos and instead opted for melodic and blues-inspired focus, grunge musicians such as Cobain had little interest in mastering his instrument and became a sort-of “guitar anti-hero.” Cobain’s early sound came from a not-so-common gear set-up of four 800 watt PA system power amps.
“When it comes to grunge or even just Seattle, I think there was one band that made the definitive music of the time. It wasn’t us or Nirvana, but Mudhoney. Nirvana delivered it to the world, but Mudhoney were the band of that time and sound.” – Eddie Vedder
Grunge lyrics mirrored its birth place of Seattle, a gray weathered city known for its rain and Starbucks coffee. Nirvana’s 1991 hit album Nevermind helped launch the grunge movement, also helping to pave the way of success for other bands such as Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam who equally left their footprint on Seattle’s music scene. Time Magazine had crowned Kurt Cobain “The John Lennon of the swinging Northwest” and since Nirvana’s debut the band has sold well over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. In 2014 Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in its first year of eligibility. The popularization of Grunge had made it possible for other niche audiences, proving mainstream marketability of other alternative rock genres to flourish.
JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE in 1966 from l Mitch Mitchell Jimi Hendrix Noel Redding Photo Tony Gale
“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” – Jimi Hendrix
Most people may think of somewhere in sunny California, New York, or Nashville as the main music hubs, but music is entirely cemented into Seattle’s culture. Musical pioneers such as the legendary Jimi Hendrix and jazz aficionado Kenny G, and rock and roll hall of fame inductee Heart originated in Seattle, even Ray Charles and Quincy Jones have spent years in what is now known as “The Emerald City”.
Today Seattle’s music scene has shifted from grunge, yet still holds onto its independent roots and gave birth to successful indie acts such as Modest Mouse, Minus the Bear, and The Postal Service. Also, you can experience a piece of history at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, which originally opened it’s doors in 1928. The theater held notable acts such as Madonna’s first concert to filmed live releases from The Grateful Dead and Heart, and even Nirvana filmed at the famous venue in footage that can be seen in their music video for the song “Lithium” and a live DVD released in 2011 titled Live at the Paramount. A few hours outside of Seattle is one of Washington state’s most popular music concerts the Sasquatch Festival, with a 2016 line-up that includes Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Grimes, Asap Rocky, Alabama Shakes, The Cure, Florence and the Machine, and many more.