I no longer felt innocent, inexperienced, or afraid of girls. I had arrived, and Nevermind was my soundtrack. My experiences with listening to the album currently and originally are interwoven; Nevermind embodies the dark fun of feeling both depressed and enthusiastic simultaneously, of wanting to head bang and brood alone in a dark basement, and of being frustrated at an inability to decide which to do first.
Nevermind embodies the existential crisis that Richard Hell’s Blank Generation was heir to as well; life is walking death, so should I energetically make the most of my short amount of time on Earth or should I burden myself with the notion that life is meaningless?
French philosophers and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were some of the earliest minds to bring the existential crisis to the forefront of Western culture. In time, early modernist French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire followed suite along with French films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Richard Hell was an essential bridge in bringing the French notions of Existentialism into American popular culture with Hell’s seminal punk rock record Blank Generation whose album cover featured the artist himself sporting Rimbaud’s “bedhead” hairstyle, which would soon become the official look of punk rock after it was appropriated for a second time for English audiences by Johnny Rotten.
The lineage of punk rock goes from the genre being an underground movement in New York City and, then, influentially spreading out to the point at which punk culminates in mainstream culture with Nirvana’s commercial success in the early 1990s. As a small child, my notions of reality, ethics, and meaning largely stemmed from the grownups who spoke with me directly and from the grownups who indirectly spoke to me through the cartoons they made that I grew up watching. I believed what they believed, but the experience of listening to Nevermind was something else entirely. I wasn’t being told anything directly; I was merely feeling the angst that comes from living in a universe in which we’re confined to the prisons of our physical bodies and minds. Even more palpable, the album gave me an identity at a time when I first realized that I needed a disguise; I became “alternative.” In addition to being given a member’s only jacket in the form of long hair, band t-shirts, and flannel shirts; I was given songs that inspired me to take action. Nirvana, like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, made music that enacted change, but the overall message is the existential crisis itself.
From punk rock’s New York City origins, the music genre’s ethos migrated to Southern California and Washington D.C. where bands such as Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains made records that were more angsty than their predecessors, and the early hardcore bands recorded and released their albums themselves. Nirvana’s up-tempo rock songs share much in common with the styles of early ‘80s hardcore bands, and Nirvana’s existential message was also the same as its predecessors; anyone can be in a band if they want to be in a band. Punk had taken away the instrumentation and technical prowess of progressive rock and left three chords, up-tempo drumming, and barbaric yawps in its place. Here, we have the positive side of the existential crisis; the world is what you make it. If you want to be a rock and roll star, then be a rock and roll star. I was one of many who followed suit; I hopped on my brother’s drum kit and began pounding away by the time I was in the seventh grade.
However, Nirvana also carried a Nihilistic message that a subset of the ‘80s hardcore scene did not carry. The band Minor Threat, in particular, proposed sober living in reaction to the hedonistic decadence that proliferated throughout the lifestyles of rock and roll bands and their fans since the rock’s origins in the mid ‘50s. The Minor Threat song “Straight Edge” by Ian Mackaye expressed the viewpoint that it is intelligent to be sober while also being creative, particularly by playing in bands and touring. Here, we have Existentialism that does not divulge into Nihilistic decadence and self-deprecation. Conversely, Kurt Kobain’s excessive drug use, by default, meant that Nirvana promoted the ethos of the D.I.Y. side of Existentialism in regards to one’s job while also embodying the Nihilistic standpoint on drug use in relation to one’s personal lifestyle. Nirvana was essentially my template on how I wanted to live my life, so shortly after I started to play the drums, marijuana usage and drinking alcohol was soon to follow. Nirvana’s influence in this matter was a small subset of a myriad of other influences that led me to my drug and alcohol use.
My love for Nirvana, however, may very well have been the most conscious influence of the lot because in popular culture, Nirvana marked the new existential paradigm. They defined the rock and roll mentality; anyone can be a rock star if they decide to, but being a rock star means heavy drug use, drinking, and the general revelry of bad behavior. Kobain wanted to have his cake and eat it too; he wrote and spoke about wanting equality for homosexuals, African-Americans, and women, but by being a heroin addict, he promoted drug use by default. Addiction and equality don’t go hand-in-hand because the addict’s habit is at the forefront of their existence. Treating others equally is far less important to the addict than getting his next fix.
Like my childhood idol Kurt Kobain, I was willing to talk the talk, but I wasn’t willing to walk the walk. I believed theoretically in equal rights for all, but because I drank and did drugs, I was mean to pretty much everyone who came in my path when I was messed up. Even so, I never got a D.U.I. and I graduated from college with both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Literature by the time I was twenty-two years old. Likewise, I embodied the D.I.Y side of Existentialism by always being in bands and putting out records, but due to my nihilism, I constantly got in fist fights, had careless one-night stands, and was fired from almost every job I’ve ever had. Once I got fired from my job working for a paint company in 2011, I finally decided to pursue touring professionally.
Before then, I had gone on mini-tours with previous bands, but the maximum number of dates would be about two or three. Without a full-time job, I had the time to work on booking two straight weeks of touring through the Southeast, and so we hit the road thinking that the tour was the start of our professional music careers. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly until the final trip home; after midnight, I fell asleep at the wheel and drove the Jeep Grand Cherokee seventy-five years off an overpass. We should have died, but we all ultimately made full recoveries. Without health insurance, our bills were outlandish. My disillusionment, likewise, was bottomless. The accident took place in August 2011, and in December of that same year, I decided to give up my drug and alcohol addiction altogether.
As a result, my life has improved greatly because I’m finally able to treat others equally for the first time since I was a little kid. Likewise, since I’ve given up drinking and drugging, I’ve had more time to focus on making punk records, which has made me realize that my partying got in the way of producing and releasing albums. I embodied both sides of the Existential crisis by being a productive, creative Nihilist, but my Nihilistic drug use and drinking was a determinant to my productivity. I don’t by any means want for this article to have a didactic quality by proposing an evolved version of MacKaye’s “Straight Edge” Punk in and of itself. I’m merely sharing my experiences and what’s been working for me in recent years. For me, nihilistic drug and alcohol use has been a determinant to my creative output, and the satisfaction I’ve felt from playing live and releasing records far outweighs the pleasure I’ve received from getting drunk and high.
For those of you who are struggling between your desire to abuse substances and your desire to live off your art, writing, or music; I’d just like to say that giving someone your brand new record is way cooler than drunkenly talking about getting closer to finishing the record that you’ve been working on for four years.
Do you struggle between your desire to abuse substances and your desire to live off your art, writing, or music?