I'm not like them, but I can pretend (Obviously, this is an essay about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana)

The first time I heard Nirvana I thought it was noise. I kept listening until it didn’t sound like noise anymore

Published April 5, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

Nirvana performs live at The Roxy in Hollywood, CA on August 15, 1991.  (AP/Kevin Estrada)
Nirvana performs live at The Roxy in Hollywood, CA on August 15, 1991. (AP/Kevin Estrada)

I'm pacing around the kitchen, tethered to our phone attached to the wall by way of a cord that’s long enough to allow me walk all around the tiny room but not so long as to allow me to wander into any kind of privacy. My mom is looking at me, wondering what’s so important to have gotten a call so late. It’s after ten, a school night. My parents already made me turn off my TV, tucked me in, kissed me goodnight.

“Turn on one-oh-seven-seven,” Jason tells me. “It’s a commercial right now and the DJ said it’s gonna be next!” He doesn’t say much else, but that’s all I need. We both hang up. I tell my parents good night again and return to my room, get back in bed.

It’s 1991; I’m 13. My bedroom walls are all sports — a Tacoma Tribune newspaper clipping of Jose Canseco stealing his fortieth base, becoming the first member of baseball’s 40/40 club; a white pennant with orange and blue lettering and a bunch of yellow stars for our Major Indoor Soccer League team, the Tacoma Stars; an extra-long poster of a series of time-lapse Bo Jacksons: first in his Kansas City Royals jersey, swinging a bat, then sprinting to first, then transforming pic by pic into a running back in his Oakland Raiders jersey carrying a football.

I turn on the cheap, faux wood-paneled Radio Shack clock radio that wakes me up in the morning. I make sure it’s tuned to 107.7, the new “alternative rock” station, and turn the volume down low enough that I can hear it but my parents won’t. I don’t want them coming back in to tell me to turn it off, reminding me it’s after my bedtime, before I get to hear the song Jason’s been telling me about for the last few days.

It segues out of commercial, into opening guitar chords that years from now will sound both perfect and like they always existed, part of rock music DNA, but I don’t know that yet. Right now, they don’t sound like anything at all; it barely even sounds like guitar. The drums kick in, then the bass, then the guitar gets distorted . . . and then it all gets quiet. A simple bass beat, a tinny guitar, and finally, singing. It doesn’t really sound like a song. It sounds like a bunch of guys who don’t know what they are doing, making noise, with the lead singer singing . . . I don’t know what the fuck he’s singing. He’s alternating between mumbling gibberish and screaming, and I can’t make out either.

It’s possible my volume-too-low, cheap alarm clock radio is at fault. It’s also possible I am just entirely unprepared for what I am hearing. I mostly listen to bands like Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News. Music my parents turned me onto, bands that have videos on MTV that I like, songs played on 107.7 just a couple of weeks ago, before it rebranded into “the cutting edge of rock,” when it was still just Top 40 pop: Paula Abdul, Roxette, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, Phil Collins, Wilson Phillips.

I don’t get it. This is what Jason has been raving to me about? I turn my radio off and finally fall asleep, wondering what I’m missing.

“Appreciate your concern…”

It’s been a year since Jason called and told me to turn on my radio so I could hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, a year since I saw him in school the morning after and lied, told him I loved it, told him it was awesome. A year since "Nevermind" came out, since Jason made me a tape, his handwritten title drawn on the blank Memorex label in blue marker and looking like the underwater waviness of the actual cover. I kept listening to that tape over and over, because I didn’t get what was being raved about, but Jason loved it, everyone I knew seemed to love it. I kept listening to it until it didn’t sound like noise anymore, until it seemed impossible that it had ever sounded like noise.

Jason saw Nirvana last night in Seattle, and he's trying to describe the concert to me, but he’s struggling to capture it in words, or maybe I’m just struggling to be able to picture it. It sounds unbelievable. Unbelievable like amazing, but also literally unbelievable, like I can’t quite translate what he’s trying to describe into something that makes sense.

“We were all part of this giant group of people on the floor in front of the stage, all of us packed so tight. Whenever someone moved, everyone around them would move, too, like a rock thrown into water and little waves rippling out.” This is how Jason talks, how he describes things.

I’ve only been to one concert: MC Hammer at the Tacoma Dome in December. I went with my mom and her friend from Jazzercise and her friend’s daughter who is a couple years older than me. We sat at the top of the stadium in bleacher seats, same as when we go to Tacoma Stars games, and when no one is looking I hammer-dance a little in the bleacher seat aisle. It wasn’t anything like what Jason is describing.

Jason got to go because he went with his best friend Brandon, and Brandon got to go because he has a brother a few years older who can drive him to Seattle, who can take him to concerts and can introduce him to music, who can generally make available to Brandon this whole world of knowing what’s cool and doing cool things and just being cool, which all seems so foreign and mysterious and impossible to me. I feel so close to being cool, like I can see it, it’s right there, it’s Jason and Brandon and the concert shirt that Brandon is wearing, but it also seems so far away, always just out of reach.

“There’s a curse word on it,” Brandon says, and smiles. He’s been acting frustrated that he can’t take off the flannel that he’s wearing unbuttoned over the Nirvana shirt he got at the concert or else he’ll get in trouble, but in a way that makes it obvious that he likes that he can’t take off the flannel that he’s wearing unbuttoned over the Nirvana shirt he got at the concert or else he’ll get in trouble. Finally, when there aren’t any teachers in the hall, he lowers his flannel and shows us the back of his shirt.


I nod, smile conspiratorially when he pulls his flannel back on and turns around. You would get in trouble, my smile says, though in fact I still don’t get it. I didn’t see any bad words. Was it “sniffin,” like it implied drug use? Was "kitty pettin” a euphemism for . . . you know? Months, maybe even years, later, I’ll see the shirt and finally get it: Brandon had lowered his flannel, but not enough, or maybe too quickly, so I hadn’t seen the last word, “WHORES,” at the bottom of the shirt. CORPORATE ROCK WHORES.

“I got a shirt, too,” Jason says, and I immediately wonder why he isn’t wearing it. “It had, like a smiley face on it, kinda like Mr. Yuk. You know what I mean? Those stickers for things that are poison?  It had Xs for eyes and a squiggly smiley face with its tongue out. I tied it through my belt loop while I was crowdsurfing . . . ” and then he’s describing to me the feeling of being held in the air by a sea of people you don’t know, the magic of it, but I’m only half-listening, I’m stuck on being worried and bummed that he lost his shirt. Couldn’t he have found it? Bought another? Got his money back?

I’m still wondering about the lost shirt, but Jason’s moved on, is telling me about this new song Nirvana played. It isn’t on "Nevermind," not even on "Bleach." It must be new.

He’s describing how Kurt yell-scream-sings the chorus in that perfect Kurt yell-scream-singing way, over and over — “Rape me, rape me, rape me” — and how Jason and Brandon and Brandon’s brother and Brandon’s brother’s friend and everyone else at the concert all yell-scream-sing along together, all in unison.

“Rape me?” I ask, like I must have misheard him. I feel sure I must be missing something. I go to church every Sunday, youth group every Wednesday. I don’t swear in front of my parents, don’t really do anything at all that would get me in trouble or seem provocative in any way. Less than a year ago, I thought Nirvana sounded too much like noise, too edgy for me, and now I finally feel like I’ve caught up, I’m listening to and liking what most everyone else is, and here’s Jason and Brandon going to a concert in Seattle, here’s Kurt leading a whole audience through singing “Rape Me” together? I think I think of Kurt as a feminist, though I’m not totally sure what that means; I know he’s said in interviews he’s a feminist, and he wore a dress on "120 Minutes," and so I assume it must be an anti-rape song, I guess, but I don’t know, I don’t really get it, I feel like there’s something I’m missing.

“Do it and do it again…”

“Rape me,” I say again. I’m on the payphone outside my junior high, trying to request the one Nirvana song I know exists but hasn’t been released.

All week, The End has been hyping the forthcoming Nirvana album "Incesticide." They've been previewing a few of the songs — “Dive,” “Sliver,” “(New Wave) Polly.” One of the songs is a different, New Wave version of “Polly,” a song that was already on "Nevermind." I’ve heard the phrase before — New Wave — and I don’t really know what it means but am pretty sure it’s . . . not Nirvana?

The album seems kinda mysterious. I know it’s not an official new studio album, but a collection of previously unreleased songs, though I don’t totally know what that means. Aren’t all albums collections of previously unreleased songs? This is mostly pre-Internet—we get all our information through Rolling Stone, Spin, whatever news the radio DJs dole out to us, whatever gets telephone-game’d down to us from older brothers who get their news who-knows-where. Having any information that others don’t feels important. I feel the weight of my knowledge.

“Are you sure?” I say. “Rape me?” I say again, like maybe he hasn’t heard me, knowing he has definitely heard me.

“We don’t have any songs by that title.”

“Oh,” I stammer. “Ummmm.”

It’s 1992 now. I’m in ninth grade, which in our school system is still part of junior high; the high schools are just tenth, eleventh, twelfth. I don’t know that this isn’t the norm, that around the country most ninth graders are in high school already. I don’t know much about the world outside my little bubble.

I go to half a day at my junior high and then get shuttled to the high school down the road because I’ve already taken all the math classes the junior high offers. There are five of us—me and Shaun and Daniel and Norah and Todd—who in addition to being in the Advanced Scholars Program are specifically good at math.

We’re taking Biology at the high school, too, mostly just to make the commute worthwhile, and this week we’re talking about genetics and DNA, physical characteristics, dominant and recessive traits. We all got paired up, boys with girls, and our homework is to draw a possible portrait of our make-believe child from our combined, mixed-and-matched sets of traits. Shaun says he has it easy because his partner already has a kid and so they’re just gonna draw a photo of him. I’m 14, a junior high math nerd and youth group kid in a high school Biology class. I’m still years away from kissing a girl, much less having a girlfriend. I’m almost a decade away from having sex. Finding out a classmate already has a kid of her own feels not so much unbelievable as not even real.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” the radio station guy says, sounding equal parts bored and confused by me.

I look around. No one seems curious about why I’m on the phone, who I’m calling.

I often spend this time, waiting for the big school van to pick us up and take us to the high school, at the payphone, calling 107.7 The End’s toll-free number to request a song. Most of the time, it’s a busy signal or it just keeps ringing and ringing and ringing. It passes the time, gives me something to do while waiting. I usually don’t even have a song ready to request because I’m not really expecting to actually get through to someone, or even if I do have a song in mind, I’m so caught by surprise when I get through that I forget. The request itself usually doesn’t matter though; the thrill is when someone answers at all.

I know if they play my song because I have my Walkman in the inside pocket of my jacket, with my in-ear headphones strung up through my sleeve, so I can put my cupped hand to my ear and listen whenever I want. I’m rarely without my Walkman. I listen to it when my dad makes me mow the grass, I listen to it when walking home from the bus stop after school, I listen to it while shooting baskets on the hoop my dad measured to regulation for me and attached to the tall tree next to our driveway. I listen in my bedroom when I don’t want my brother or parents to hear. I don’t want to have to explain or even share it with my brother, wanting to keep it all only to myself; I don’t want to get in trouble for it being too loud or having any bad words. (Kurt sings “Until it’s fucking gone” in “Lounge Act,” Eddie Vedder thinks Jeremy “seemed like a harmless little fuck.”) I sometimes listen to it even when at school, when whatever we’re doing or the teacher is talking about requires only half myattention. I listen to the radio; to tapes I bought at the Wherehouse Music down the road from my house at the Lakewood Plaza; to tapes of songs I record off the radio, always frustrated at the DJ for talking over the beginning; to tapes Jason makes me; to the radio, to hear if they play the song I requested.

Finally, to make it stop, to put an end to this awkward teenager requesting a song he thinks exists called “Rape Me,” the radio station guy asks me if I have any other songs I want to request.

I don’t.

A part of me probably knows they can’t play a song called “Rape Me” on the radio. Can they? A part of me was just hoping the DJ would confirm that it is going to be on the album. Instead, my cracking, awkward voice is repeating “rape me” into the phone over and over for no reason.

“I’m not the only one…”

Nine months from now, "In Utero" will come out with “Rape Me” in between “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” By then, half of my friends will already not like Nirvana. They’ll think they sold out, are too popular. I’ll buy the album and will love it; I won’t really understand why they don’t love it when they just loved "Incesticide," when "Nevermind"
felt so important and that was barely two years ago. I won’t understand what they even mean when they talk about selling out, why something being popular has anything to do with it being good or enjoyable, but I’ll also be trying to figure out what they do like, what they’re listening to, feeling — again, still, always? — a step behind. I’ll be an actual high school student, not just a kid who gets vanned there for math and science, though some part of me will miss that one moment when I (with Shaun and Daniel and Norah and Todd) felt out ahead of everyone else my age for once, even if it was in the nerdiest way possible.

I will have taken down most of the sports posters in my bedroom; one wall will be getting slowly wallpapered in Rolling Stone covers — Nirvana in suits, short-haired Winona Ryder shirtless under overalls, Soundgarden, Beastie Boys, Trent Reznor, Jerry Seinfeld dressed up in a gold suit looking like Elvis, R.E.M., Courtney Love. “Rape Me” will appear on the "In Utero" packaging sold in Walmart and Kmart as “Waif Me,” and when Nirvana appears on the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, Cobain will start playing and singing “Rape Me” before switching into “Lithium,” “just to give [MTV] a little heart palpitation,” Cobain will say. But then they’ll actually play the song as their second performance on "Saturday Night Live" a couple of months later in November, this weird moment where something was apparently too scandalous for MTV but not NBC.

A mere five months after that, I’ll be in Yakima on a Spring Break mission trip, helping to rebuild a Christian camp. Less than three hours away from Tacoma, but I’m just barely 16 and three hours feels like forever away, and we’re east of the mountains which feels like a whole different state, if not a totally different world. We’ll go into town and run into Albertson’s for snacks. As soon as the electronic doors open for us and we walk into the store, one of the girls in the front of our group will start crying.

It will take me a minute to figure out what’s going on, what’s wrong, what happened. No one will say; someone will just point to the row of newspaper display cases. Even still, it will take me another moment. I won't understand the picture of the house, why it’s on the cover, what I’m looking at. Finally I will see and read the headline like it had been written in invisible ink and then finally made clear: “Nirvana’s Cobain dead.” It’ll be the first “I remember where I was when I heard (blank) happened” moment in my life.

I won’t really know what to think or how to feel or what to do. I haven’t really had anyone close to me die, I haven’t had any practice mourning, and I’m not sure how, or if at all, I should mourn someone I never met. I’m not even sure if it matters to me or not.

We’ll get our snacks, return to the camp. That night will be our cross ceremony that ends every mission trip, where we each get a horseshoe nail cross necklace handmade by a few members of the group. I’ll wear that cross for the rest of high school, sometimes under my shirt, sometimes displayed prominently, as in my senior pictures. The next day we’ll drive home, back over the mountains, back to Tacoma. The day after that, there will be a gathering at the Seattle Center to mourn. I’ll think about driving the hour north but won’t. I’ll be unsure my parents would let me drive that far, and too shy to ask. Seattle will still be farther than anywhere I’ve driven myself. Unsure, too, if I even want to go, if I care, if it’s cool or not to go, what I think about any of it. I’ll be pretty unsure about all of it, pretty much everything.

By Aaron Burch

Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart and the author of "Backswing," a story collection, and "Stephen King's The Body," a nonfiction book about the novella that "Stand By Me" was based on. He's currently working on a book of essays about music and growing up and religion and other stuff, "This Was All Before the Internet." He is on Twitter @Aaron__Burch.

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