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Friday, September 23, 2011


Twenty years ago, this Saturday, an album debuted that, for lack of a better term, turned the music industry on its ear. Nevermind, from Nirvana, was chronologically the second album but it was the first to gain the attention of a mainstream audience.

I was 16 when Nevermind hit the scene and, quite frankly, apart from thinking it was kind of catchy, I didn’t give it much more thought. I was more impressed with Weird Al Yankovic’s parody “Smells Like Nirvana” eight months later.

Two years after Weird Al parodied “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the sorrowful, but perhaps inevitable happened. In the span of only three studio albums, Nirvana left an indelible mark on the recording industry, kicked off a new style of music and left fans befuddled and bewildered when the lead singer, Kurt Cobain, took a shotgun and ended his life.

I was a Freshman in college. I was struggling through my second semester in a new, urban school setting, and I was pissed off at the world. I wasn’t pissed that my favorite singer killed himself. I was pissed that the everyday, casual teenager felt the need to dress like a grunge groupie. For an alternative music genre, distinct in its desire to be different from everybody else, there was a lot of conformity. There were a lot of people wandering around the frozen quads of Pitt wearing flannel shirts tied around their waist. Even at the age of 19, I was developing that “Get off my lawn” mentality because where I was from, born in raised in Fayette Nam, PA, you wore your flannel for warmth and comfort, not for show. So, as everyone reminisces and waxes about the impact of Nevermind, I will remember how stupid people looked, trying to light a cigarette in 20 degree weather, shivering, while trying to look like they were Grunge.

Perhaps it was fate that Cobain killed himself.  Perhaps it was undeniable destiny that, for someone who redefined Generation X from the 80s and "I Want My MTV" eras to the "The world sucks and we're all not going to be your sheep." era, should not live long enough to be played out and bastardized in the pop culture media of the RIAA machine.  Nirvana could not be envisioned as the poster boy for the likes of TRL.  They would not be.  Cobain's resistance to fame was that more indicative of fame's desire to have him.  He was going to be a star in spite of himself and maybe that is what killed him more.  

Denis Leary joked that someone should have walked up to Elvis and shot him in the head at an early age instead of leaving us with the lasting vision of him dead and bloated on a toilet.    The Cobain legacy played out exactly as he would have hated it, in the courts fighting over who gets more ownership of his existence, Nirvana or Courtney Love.   His only way of existing was to cease to exist.  Could you imagine Cobain being relegated to countless greatest hits albums, selling out an image to maintain relevance? 

Spanning the last 50 years, look at those who died before their fame truly became bigger than the artist.  Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and the latest addition Amy Winehouse, though her inclusion is in question because of the freshness of her death.  Time will tell whether she becomes more famous, now.
On a similar yet different note, two months after Nevermind was released, the music industry lost an even more iconic symbol. On November 24, 1991, Freddie Mercury lost his battle with AIDS, dying from pneumonia.  Queen was/is a band who, as my co-worker put it, should be considered one of the greatest rock bands ever, that still perform, but never got their due.

Now, my generation is probably more closely related to Kurt’s impact rather than Freddie’s. However, I am prone to go beyond my generation’s predefined areas of influence and pop culture observance. Granted, I had never heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” until it appeared in Wayne’s World in 1992. And yes, I still bang my head at the appropriate time when it comes on in the car. But, I knew of Queen’s music before. I had seen Flash Gordon and heard some of News of the World and The Game, growing up.

To me, Freddie Mercury’s death was a greater loss to music. This is not to diminish Kurt Cobain in any way. Kurt’s impact was in the writing. Freddie’s was more overall based on his vocals and delivery. Mercury had such a stage presence and musicality. His looks were, in a way, unconventional, much like Cobain’s. And even though, they were vastly different in their styles and contributions, their influential paths were following the same direction.

Possessing over a four-octave vocal range and writing such iconic songs as “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Somebody To Love”, “Killer Queen” and “We are the Champions”, Mercury brought a style of rock that had not been present in the 70s. There was a showmanship to his stage presence, flamboyant costumes, but those chops were unmistakable as Brian May’s Red Special guitar sound. They played operatic tunes, mixed with straight rock. They pulled influences from ragtime and blues. They had some disco and even gospel touches to their songs. Queen became a stadium rock staple culminating in one of the most memorable performances at Wembley Stadium’s Live Aid concert in 1985.

I still listen to Queen in my music shuffling. I assembled my own greatest hits compilation and from time to time, I’ll cue it up. It even includes Flash’s Theme. But I was reminded of how Mercury sounded and how much those vocals sent shivers down my spine when I saw a video of a Canadian Christian Rock singer band covering “Somebody to Love”.

Marc Martel has a bit of a resemblance to Freddie Mercury but his vocals are sometimes so close to Mercury’s that I had to really watch and see if this was lip synching or really his voice.  The main video of him singing, “Somebody to Love” could have been synced.  It could have been faked.  Just looking at t, who knows?  However, digging deeper, I found a live video of him singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a church group.  Amazing. 

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