Nirvana's long shadow
Look familiar? Stone Temple Pilots
"No, Thank YOU"For all the good Nirvana did in the music world, they also cast a shadow so looming that you could make a compelling argument they were inadvertent bullies. You know for most seminal bands inspiring (or even creating) a whole genre, it's not rare that the contemporaries not only match the initial band that started it all, but also in some cases, prove to be vastly superior.
by Jeffrey Thiessen
When Nirvana first emerged onto the national scene with Nevermind, it was at a time when the public was unbearably anxious for something, anything to shake their shipshape, suburban lives into oblivion. The late eighties were characterized by some seriously great bands, especially 1987 being a particularly tremendous year for indie-rock, but for the most part, it was a spirit that was consistently and forcefully swallowed up by the likes of U2 and Genesis, just two examples of the reeking pomposity that polluted so much of that decade, with their only visible function assuring that infinitely better, lesser known acts had no choice but to toil away in relative obscurity.
Eventually, people caught on to this, and in true bottleneck fashion, all the pent up fury and wrath flooded onto the streets with seemingly everyone joining this newly formed angry mob of grunge fans. Without a doubt, we needed a band that was the logical aural soundtrack to this confusion and bitterness we were going through as a result of the perpetually bloated 80's, and in walked Nirvana, not to mention a slew of other DIY acts that helped cleanse the scene of all the noise pollution that drove everyone in that decade to piles of cocaine. Don't be fooled, Cobain and Co. didn't do it alone. Sure they were the leaders of the movement, but without other acts like Fugazi, Feelies, and even Big Black, Nirvana's voice might have fallen on deaf ears, since those groups laid the groundwork for those Seattle lads.
Nirvana was the yin to the 80's yang, a polar opposite of all the shit that was so glossy and soulless that preceded them. It sucks to attribute their entire career and subsequent enormous influence to the right place (Seattle) in the right time (80's hangover era), and I won't necessarily do that. But if someone else were to take that stance I'm not sure I would boldly stand on the other end of the spectrum. I always hear Krist Novoselic say "We didn't come to the public, the public came to Nirvana." Maybe that's true, but to borrow an old archaeological adage, sometimes we have to examine the past to understand the present.
1977 ring any bells? Ostentatious bands like Kansas and Boston had a good run, but of course their major contribution wasn't their music- it was being so bloated and generally full of shit that the ensuing process of purging the industry gave us some pretty awesome acts. I wasn't around to see their long, indulgent solos to come to a crashing halt, nor did I bear witness to punk rising up in opposition but I did see it happen in the nineties. The parallels between the last seventies and early nineties are not few and far between. In some cases, the band wasn't very good (Sex Pistols), and in others they were pretty damn great (Nirvana). Mind you, the Pistols wrote some genuinely powerful songs despite barely being able to play, and Nirvana touched a generation with its brilliant songwriting and consumate shredding. They both got one thing in common though. Many people were goddamn sick of everything that preceded both bands, and placing that aggression within the context of a rock album all but ensured both these bands will be forever remembered, even if both were primarily a product of knowing precisely when to crash the party with buzz saw guitars and loud, driving rhythms those crazy kids just couldn't get enough of.
See, somebody once told me "Man, if it's not broke, break it, and see what you can do better. Think about it." I did, and while I'm not sure if he basically stumbled onto the trash esthetic forever inextricably intertwined with the soul of rock n' roll, but he definitely tapped into something worth looking into. The best music has always arisen out of destruction and subsequent repair, and with that in mind, I cannot understand why Stone Temple Pilots were such a punching bag for the vast majority of the nineties, even if that fact ultimately cemented their legacy as the best and most pure representative of the entire scene.
I have a good friend who sincerely believes "Interstate Love Song" is actually an astronomically better song then "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Nirvana was fucking awesome, I'm not arguing that, but here's something YOU should think about: as great as they were, they were pretty one-dimensional and just did not go the distance. Two awe-inspiring albums and then disappearing into a cloud of heroin and gun-powder. That's just like, one step above The Germs.
For my money, Stone Temple Pilots are heart and soul of the grunge movement, and not solely due to the unbridled triumph of "Interstate Love Song," unmatched by anything Nirvana released, but mostly because grunge was all about being stamped on, and maybe staying down, but clawing and biting through the corduroy and leaving your teeth marks on whatever you can get a handle on. Not because you think it'll get you back on your feet, but because leaving a blotch, a smear, a blemish, anything... to remind them that you do exist and you do matter, is more important then any form of personal triumph that seems unattainable from your ostensibly permanent position downwards, looking up.
Stone Temple Pilots know this all too well. How do I know this you ask? Well because that's how they've been defined from the get-go. They could have given up at any time, and nobody would have blamed them, due to the fact they took basically an unprecedented amount of bullshit from the critics, and to a smaller degree, the public.
Listen, I'm not trying to be devil's advocate here- the world of music journalism is already littered with those assholes with a penchant for problems but not the solutions. But Nirvana's impact can't be summed up by saying they started that whole 'grunge thing.' If we do say that, it's important to also mention that they also all but ensured the contemporaries were delegated to footnotes, however unjust that might have been.
STP got it the worst from both the public and critics alike, but they weren't the only ones suffering under the reign of Herr Cobain. Alice in Chains was regarded a ripoff of STP and Nirvana, with nobody bothering to note that AIC's primary influences were of the metal variety, instead just ragging on Staley for you know, copying the other two singer's prodigious heroin habits. Soundgarden was more rooted in Zeppelin and Sabbath than anything even remotely close to the grunge era, and Pearl Jam released one of the most gutsy and best albums of the entire nineties (of course I'm talking about Vitalogy).
A moot point though, when you consider Cobain consistently and viciously attacked Eddie Vedder both in the press, and at live gigs. Nirvana fans were nothing, if not some of the most loyal followers around. Ironically, the only band to make it out of the whole movement was the very band Cobain condemned. Granted they are more of an FM radio staple then anything else now, but I can't help wondering if Kurt would have been as willing to throw away millions of dollars to fight a cause everyone believed in, but nobody else had the guts to step up to (Pearl Jam's noble, but ultimately doomed Ticketmaster battle).
Morris Dickstein once wrote that "Critical journalism is an epigrammatic shorthand awaiting completion from the reader," and to me the same could be said about the alternative scene of the '90's. Releasing the music was only half of it. The fans did the rest cause in many ways; those bands were still one of us, and that was never more the case then STP. Nirvana got here first, so we took all this newfound energy and instead of directing it inwards, which is what Cobain was undoubtedly going for, we spat it outwards, spewing vile towards any band we felt was merely 'capitalizing on the new sound created by our precious Nirvana, and in the process, making STP, Soundgarden, and the rest ALL unsung heroes, even if we just didn't know it yet.
Lucky for us (and them), time has vindicated them big time, and it's only now we get to see them for what they truly were- misunderstood visionaries in the shade of a giant masquerading under the guise of a tortured Seattle boy with an affinity for striped shirts who hogged all the attention.
Like I said, I have no problem agreeing with Novoselic. I think the public did come to Nirvana. But lack of a healthy choice must not be confused with embrace and it's more apparent now then ever, that there actually was a healthy choice. We just didn't think to look around.
ED NOTE: This article has proved to be prescient since we started prepped it around New Year's as STP have since signalled that they're prepping a reunion (which'll hopefully back up the statements made above).
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