Here we are now: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at 20

Nirvana, pictured here in November 1991. Tune into the Lithium channel on Sirius XM at 8 p.m. on Friday for Jon Stewart’s two-hour interview with surviving Nirvana members Grohl and Novoselic and “Nevermind” producer Butch Vig.

In a few months the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album will be old enough to drink. Although two decades have passed since it came out, no single album has shaken up the music industry and popular culture since. On Tuesday, Universal Music Enterprises is releasing 20th anniversary reissues such as a special 4-CD/1-DVD edition. Here we look back with some of the people who were close to the epicenter of the alterna-nation revolution — and those on the outskirts with curious reactions.

 “I had an advanced cassette of the album. I didn’t think that was the big song. I remember that. I remember thinking ‘Drain You’ or ‘On a Plain’ or something were the songs that were going to be big hits. And neither of those ended up being the single. … I probably didn’t know that there was going to be a changing of the guard in that album.”
— Stephen Malkmus

 “What I remember is, the first time I saw them play it live, which was this show at Jabberjaw, which was a tiny place. They weren’t a big band yet, but even for them, it was a tiny place to be playing in L.A. I just remember the reaction was insane. … I was on the inside, so I didn’t get to experience it publicly. I was trying to get people to experience it publicly.”
— Mark Kates, founder of Fenway Recordings (at the time that “Nevermind” came out, Kates was head of alternative promotion for DGC, the label that released the album. He went on to work A&R for Nirvana.)

 “My oldest brother and his friends would always watch MTV, and be hanging out. I remember walking in the room one day and they were all really excited about it, and I didn’t really know what it was, but they turned up the TV, and everybody got quiet, and watched it. … I didn’t know quite what to think of it, actually.”
— Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst

 “Probably babysitting where the family had MTV, which we didn’t. I thought the title was funny because of the deodorant. And good music is good music. … Every one of my friends was very familiar with Nirvana’s music. But I think generally I felt distant from that kind of rock ’n’ roll. I was not cool, and I was probably listening to mid-‘90s Michael Jackson and the oldies radio station instead of Nirvana.”
— tUnE-yArDs singer Merril Garbus

 “My friend Dave from WERS knew that I liked to run, and I had mix tapes that I’d listen to, and he said, ‘I think you’d like this mix tape that I made you.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s that band Nirvana’s new record,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ because it didn’t come out for another month.  So I remember I put it in my Walkman. Remember those? [laughs] And I just started running, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the first song, and I was knocked out!” — Mary Lou Lord

 “I remember I was at my friend’s house and she shared it with me and I was just blown away.” — Katie Holmes

“I remember feeling really relieved that music had that energy. Music had become so stilted. Then Nirvana emerged with this wild energy that was exhilarating.”
— Laurie Anderson

 “I loved them. I think they were just a great rock band. They had all the sort of great elements that a rock band has. They had that rebellious stance and a clandestine appeal. They were great-looking and rough and messy. And great songs. The whole package was there.”
— Blondie singer Debbie Harry

 “I remember so specifically the first time I heard Nirvana. My camp counselor — and I was like whatever age I was when ‘Nevermind’ came out, so I was like seven or eight —was really into good rock music, and all kinds of music. He was actually a great influence on me, because he gave me all those records. He gave me the first Ween album. I was like eight!  … And ‘Nevermind,’ I just put it on, and I can remember, like, where I was standing, what the room looked like, and everything. It was that memorable of an experience to hear it for the first time.”
— Jonah Hill

 “I was watching MTV in Mexico City and it came through a cable channel and I thought, ‘That sounded unlike anything I had heard.’ Because it was incredibly free and grungy, of course, but it was really sort of emotionally shattering. And I loved the video. It was pure innovation, both visually and in audio.”
— Director Guillermo del Toro

“We had this great radio station in Minneapolis, KJ104, they were kind of ahead of the curve on a lot of things… Basically I was riding around with my brother and it came on the radio. I was like, ‘I kind of like this song.’ My brother was like, ‘It’s kind of like metal.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ That was the generation gap. As a punk rock dude, I couldn’t see that, it was more like something speaking to my generation. I got to go see them like a week later. They did an in-store at Northern Lights .I didn’t get to see the show that night, it was sold out, but I  saw them with 100 people in a record store. They played an acoustic weird set, with Dave on drums. They played and smashed the acoustic. It was a cool thing to see. They signed my coat I had. I was like 16, just started liking music. I was like, ‘This is really awesome!’ That was a pretty big moment.”
— Motion City Soundtrack guitarist Josh Cain

“ I actually have an interesting story about that. I grew up in Seattle, Washington so I was a little too young to appreciate the scene and I didn’t listen to a lot of music growing up, so I didn’t actually hear the Nirvana album until I moved to Los Angeles and I think I was like 16, 17. I was kind of a late bloomer and I was in the studio with my producer and he was the one who showed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to me for the first time and it was a huge inspiration on the first album.”
— Lifehouse singer Jason Wade

“Everybody was so blown away by the single, when they heard it, that a bunch of people were standing in front of [famed NYC punk club] CBGBs at a show, and it was like the day that it had just come out on the radio and everybody was trying to figure out what the actual lyrics were. I just remember that that’s how many people were blown away by it.”
— Matt Pinfield, host of MTV2’s “120 Minutes”

Hear more first reactions of Nirvana on the Metro Monthly Music Podcast!

With additional reporting by Meredith Engel, Linda Laban, Luke O’Neil and Heidi Patalano


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