This is the first installment of Nevermind Miami, a tribute to the generation-defining album Nirvana released 20 years ago, on September 24, 1991. To commemorate the occasion, we have asked local musicians to cover each of the 13 songs on the original release. We will be posting the covers throughout September in no particular order.
First up is Baby B Strings with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. To learn more about the group, visit babybstrings.com and check out our brief interview with violinist Belinda Ho from early August. Music writer and Roofless Records chief Matt Preira contributed the companion article.
It was the summer of 1997 when the opening riff of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brightly burst out of the bombed-out speakers of my Sony boombox. The station was the now-defunct 94.9 Zeta, South Florida’s FM rock outlet for over 19 years before it was reformatted in 2005 as a Reggaeton station and then, ultimately, Spanish Top 40.
I was 11 and was listening in as part of my beginner’s education as a late-blooming “head banger”. You can bet rock and roll in north residential Miami Beach at the end of the ’90s came out looking funny. My mother only indulged big pants to a point but approved of my allowance money going toward Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind cassettes. Those Casey Kasem-friendly alt tapes built a bridge to Metallica CDs which, in turn, led to Zeta, which had a whole program devoted to the heaviest band I had ever heard.
I don’t remember what I was doing when I heard the opening, seven-second riff that starts “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but I do remember pausing and staring at the radio as the lick ushered in a previously unheard pairing of aggression and melody. Clueless to the song’s elaborate history, I was arrested. Later brushing up at the rock magazine shelf at Uncle Sam’s in South Beach taught me that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Smells Like Teen Spirit, a multi-volume entry unto itself in the annals of pop.
After a brief incubation on the blossoming, proto-indie “college rock” circuit, the song received acclaim across the critical spectrum, from The Village Voice’s end-of-the year Best Of “Pazz & Jop” list, to MTV’s 120 Minutes, a #6 ranking on the Billboard charts, and two Grammy nominations. Nevermind‘s displacement of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous on Billboard signified Grunge’s final crossover to the mainstream much like The Sex Pistol’s Never Mind The Bollocks had broken punk a decade and a half earlier.
From glossy corporate mags like Rolling Stone and Spin, and the ink-bleeding pages of punk zines like Maximum Rock N Roll, Flipside, and Razorcake, I also learned about Kurt Cobain the tortured artist and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the crown jewel of his despair.
After the initial high of mainstream success, the pandemonium and lack of privacy that comes with fame began to grate on Cobain, who still held a deep affinity for independent and DIY music scenes. As late as November 1993 — less than a year before his suicide — when Nirvana performed in Miami at the AT&T Amphitheater in Bayfront Park, Cobain was telling the thousands in attendance to check out Harry Pussy that night at Churchill’s Pub.
At their famed Reading Festival performance, the song is buried in the setlist and preceded by a cynical, false start cover-intro of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”. At the 1992 MTV VMA’s, the band was in a dispute with MTV execs over what song they would perform almost right until they took the stage. MTV wanted “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Nirvana wanted to play “Rape Me” from their forthcoming attempt to frustrate the pop audience they had recently acquired, In Utero. They settled on “Lithium”, though Kurt taunted the censors with the opening riff and lyrics from “Rape Me”.
The story goes that Kurt got the title from graffiti that Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hannah spray-painted on his bedroom wall: KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT. It was a reference to Kurt’s then-girlfriend, Toby Vail, who wore Teen Spirit deoderant. He later said he had no idea the brand existed, and that he liked the pseudo-political ring the slogan had, a deeply resonant irony within the Nirvana narrative arc. It was as though Kurt was the baby on his best-selling album’s cover.
I imagine Kurt didn’t always hate the song. While “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the only Nevermind song credited to all three members, Cobain came up with the riff and reportedly required the band to practice around it for hours. Presumably he sensed that he’d written a keeper. The opening is one of the greatest hooks in rock music, if not the greatest. The quiet-loud dynamic that Kurt identified as a Pixies rip-off plays a perfect game of tension and release. The lyrics, and, more importantly, their enunciation, recall the great ambiguous vulgarity of The Kingsmen’s rendition of “Louie, Louie” (though, to Cobain’s credit, the words look good on paper too).
Put simply, there was a reason “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a number-one hit, that it would still be on rock radio years later and a kid all the way at the bottom of the country would hear it for the first time and pause.
Keep up with Nevermind Miami throughout September on beachedmiami.com/nevermind-miami.