When Nirvana Went Number One

This post has taken me nearly 3 years to write. I kept starting and stopping because it is personal and about a difficult time I did not wish to revisit. I did write a couple of posts about that space of a week in 2014, when I was called back for additional screening, to be “sure” about a “suspicious area” on a mammogram that might have indicated recurrence. I wrote about my annoyance with the word “hope” (I still don’t really like the word) in Complicated Relationship With Hope, and about the outcome of that MRI (no cancer recurrence!) in Scar Tissue. I meant to publish this last September during the 25th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, but the #BreastCancerRealityCheck event (hopefully the first annual) took my attention. So, instead I celebrate the 25th anniversary of that seminal album going to Number 1 on the charts, and it actually might make more sense.

For those unfamiliar with this blog and my details, here is the Cliff Notes version: I had my first ever mammogram at age 38 in the summer of 2010 because my 48 year old maternal aunt had just been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, and her mother had been diagnosed, but not treated, as she was dying of heart disease several years before. Whether all that family history was not communicated to the person reading my mammogram, or WAS communicated and ignored, I guess I’ll never know. At any rate, he dismissed the large area of white present only in the image of my left breast as “density”, though I did not find that out until later–this was before all the legislation about informing women about their densities. I was sent a letter saying there was no evidence of cancer; 5 weeks later my left nipple inverted. Much scrambling to various doctors and all those different scans (ultrasound, MRI, PET, CAT) later, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 (spread to lymph nodes), E/P negative, HER2 positive cancer. This was on October 25, 2010, just a few days before I turned 39. Chemo, surgery, radiation and a year’s worth of Herceptin, I was finished January 2012. In 2014 I had to switch insurance, causing me to switch to a different oncologist, different hospital system, different place to get imaging. I’d had 3 or 4 MRIs during diagnosis and treatment, and this one went a little differently.

When I went to this new imaging place in 2014, I was armed with discs of all my many mammograms and MRIs, and I told them directly about that first missed diagnosis. I’m upfront about my lack of trust these days. So that might be why the doctor looking at my mammogram called me back to view the images, to tell me he wanted more images in the form of an MRI. I remember sliding down the wall when he told me this, like some damn over-emoting actress in a TV movie. At that moment I understood why those cheesy movies always included that scene; I suddenly knew the feeling of my legs just failing to work.

The week that followed while I waited for the day of my MRI I do not really remember. I just curled in a ball most of the time. The day of the MRI arrived and as I entered the room, before they put me in that machine, the tech asked me if I would like to hear any music while the test took place. I was stunned. You see, I often heard others, my aunt included, talk about having some atmospheric type music played while having MRIs–you know, the calming stuff I imagined to be similar to stuff that plays during a massage

So when she asked if I wanted music, I laughed mirthlessly and requested Nirvana, expecting the answer to be “no we only have…” and a list of some boring, supposedly calming Enya-style shit. But instead, she said, “yeah I think I have Nevermind”. And so I listened to that landmark record during one of the worst hours of my life.

 Let me back up and explain a few things.  I was a teen in the 80s, and loving the not-ready-for-radio stuff while living in a rural area was tough. There was no college rock station within range. All I had was MTV’S “120 Minutes” and a local rock radio station playing “alternative” (before that was a thing) from 10PM to Midnight on Wednesdays. So when Nirvana changed the music landscape in September 1991 and the grunge/alt-rock gold rush began, better stuff was suddenly on the radio. Why does that matter? At the risk of sounding like a grandpa bitching about the 5 mile walk to school in the snow uphill both ways, there was no Internet and downloading or streaming music back then–no social media to hear about new bands. Adding injury to insult, I was broke, working my way through my 3rd year of college in the fall of ‘91, I had a crappy car with a busted tape deck, so radio was all I had. When Nirvana pulled down that wall, music I liked was finally on my radio and my drives to class and work were less awful. Finally, the music I liked was accessible! Lots of people howled when the underground went mainstream–certain bands weren’t the cool little secret anymore. I get it, I myself still cringe and mutter “sell out” when I hear old songs I love in TV commercials, for a second, then I don’t mind it.

After I was ensconced in the MRI machine, the tech shuffled around, telling me her son had left her a bunch of his old CDs. I could not help but wonder–and I wonder still–about the odds of this happening, and how much slimmer the odds would’ve been if Nirvana had not become multi-platinum, radio-friendly unit shifters. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was THE CD to own back in the day. How old was the tech’s son? Was he one of those kids that got Michael Jackson’s record for Christmas and exchanged it for “Nevermind”, thus dethroning that 80s superstar—as the old joke went back then? And then what happened–like me, he left his physical CDs behind due for our current download or streaming lifestyle? And whatever possessed his mother to bring “Nevermind”–a record which is a pretty far throw from some kind of Enya crap meant to soothe the nerves of cancer patients–to an imaging facility?

That day in March of 2014, it had already been announced Nirvana would be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–something I was pleased about–vindicated again that these scruffy small-town weirdos had knocked away the canned pop and hair metal bands. Spring 2014 saw lots of articles about Nirvana, lots of stomach-churning pieces about the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s suicide in the media. Meanwhile, my small world was shattering because I did NOT want to face cancer again–whether it was a metastasis or not. I wept silently while keeping still–NEVER move during an MRI–out of a stupid self-pity, and maybe a little for dead rock stars, which is equally stupid. I remember not crying when Cobain killed himself, I considered myself too old for that. Typical rock star story, I thought then. I’m a little less rigid now, and allow myself the tears. I still think it a typical rock icon story, and ultimately have little patience for Cobain or even Layne Staley of Alice in Chains. Great musicians, but I cannot forgive them their choices no matter how much I admire their talent. Yeah yeah, drug addiction is an illness, as is depression. I have that ever-present worry that most cancer patients share—the one in which we know it can come back even 15 years later—which causes me to always have that little fear inside that I may never reach 60, or even 50 years old. It may seem immature, but my desire to live and never have cancer again keeps me angry at rock musicians who throw their lives away. Having empathy and understanding of the nature of their diseases is even more difficult for me now, when I am supposed to be older and wiser. Hey, as I’m fond of noting, I seemed to only learn UNacceptable cancer lessons, and my favorite is my new view that patience is overrated. So I will not apologize for my impatience on this issue.

nirvana_band_logo
source:bandlogos.wordpress.com

In his 2014 book “Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain”, Charles Cross says, “The question of any performer’s impact is ultimately a personal one. If you were touched or moved in any way by Kurt Cobain, whatever drew you in is the key to what that legacy means to you now.” I read this book not long after that MRI. But is it really whatever drew me in back then still representative of the legacy for me now? Not so sure. Back in the early 90s, I had no way of knowing that I’d reach for those seminal Nirvana songs again in my middle age because I got cancer. And for sure, the songs still resonate with me, but mean something quite different. Certainly not what Cobain meant by them, and again, I don’t care.

So no, the legacy of Nirvana changed for me a bit, although I get what Cross meant in his book. There are things I hang onto in the darkest moments, like re-watching a certain movie or re-reading a favorite book when nothing else is doing the trick to distract me from the fear of my situation. These things are like comfort food, or a security blanket. It had not occurred to me during my 15 months of treatment to rely on favorite albums. Maybe I didn’t want to make an unpleasant association, like what happened with certain foods I ate during treatment. Luckily, that 2014 MRI was clear, I was and am still NED (no evidence of disease), so no awful association of cancer=Nirvana songs was created.

But I still think about listening to “Nevermind” during that MRI. Didn’t even get through the whole album (which is great, usually MRIs take for-fucking-ever). This hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of the record, and I’m still able to recall my 90s self more than my 2014 self when listening. (We love the music of our younger days because it calls to mind…our younger days, duh!) But the record is just a little different for me now. A odd dimension I cannot quite define has been added. Is it joy, because I should associate listening to the album during a test that ultimately brought me good news? Not exactly–the ever-present worry is still there (sure, I dodged the bullet that time, but what about the next oncologist visit/mammogram, and the next, and the one after that….).

I think I’m OK with “Nevermind” functioning as a security blanket against my cancer fears. It’s just something I never imagined happening. But it is no longer the record of my 20-something, what’s-with-all-those-angry-Gen Xers era, no, not anymore. I’ll always be aware of the music/pop culture significance of the record, but it turned into something both darker and lighter for me in 2014.

I’m In Love With That Song

“I’m in love with that song.” –from “Alex Chilton”, The Replacements, lyrics by Paul Westerberg

I have been feeling utterly defeated by all the Pink this October, despite my earlier claim to Take October Back.  But a very welcome distraction arrived for me last week in the form of the 16 nominees for induction into 2014’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I pause here to acknowledge the absolute lameness of a former punk-alterna-girl being so invested in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rock in general is about rebellion, and the Hall of Fame is an institution, the sort of which rock should rebel against. And even if rock became “respectable” somewhere along the way, then things like early and classic rock belong in there, but the punks that came along later to rebel against the established stuff, and then the post-punks after that, I mean, wouldn’t they rebel against that former rebellion-turned-new institution/establishment? See the Sex Pistols’ infamous rejection of their induction in 2006.  Even worse, I have to pause and acknowledge that in the past few years I’ve seen a few of the bands that provided the soundtrack of my teen years creep in, which just really means, I’m getting old.

Yeah, yeah, this is a cancer blog, and that will come into play much later in this post. This blog is an indulgence for me; my view on cancer, my personal experience with it, and how I (don’t) function in an American social culture that surrounds cancer, which I find mostly distasteful. So I’m indulgently rambling about music, because it was the one respite I had once I found myself a bit lost upon exiting the treatment treadmill (“you’re all better now, see you in 6 months!”, ha ha). Proof of my allegiance to my method of beating cancer blues is everywhere; in the post Punk Rock (Breast) Cancer, my tattoo (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hall of Fame inductees in 2012), hell even my gravatar (The Ramones, Hall of Fame inductees in 2002).

I skip over the crap like “rap doesn’t belong” (yes it does, and I’d argue that until I’m blue in the face, and even if I lost the argument, I’d still argue it), “Yes/KISS should’ve been in there loooooong ago”, or “the world is doomed because more people like Nirvana than Link Wray”. Yada, yada, yada. I love watching the arguments unfold on various websites, and agree and disagree with so much of it. “We all come from the damn blues,” said Chuck D. (Public Enemy) in his acceptance speech last year. That should be made into a sign and posted above the door to the museum in Cleveland, or maybe noted in every article about this comparatively (to cancer, for me) silly topic, to remind everyone with an opinion how the whole mess called rock and roll got started.

My humble opinion is any person or band that is inducted, or heck even nominated, including the 16 this year, deserves to be there. I do have my favorites however, and this year I’m voting every day for Nirvana, The Replacements, N.W.A., LL Cool J, and the fifth option is a wild card for me every time. I could write forever extolling the qualities of my choices, but it is the first two I’ve listed that matter most to me now.

As a lonely punk-goth girl (weirdo) growing up in the 80s (remember in the 80s, there was no interwebs, so radio and magazines were the only exposure to music available) I hated what was on the radio; I lived in a rural area where there were no alternative stations—D.C.’s WHFS was an hour out of range. I loved the left of the dial stuff like The Cure (nominated once), The Pixies (never nominated, an outrage) and R.E.M. (inducted in 2007 and yeah, gonna be a snob and reveal I was fan well before they got played on regular radio, and got all famous). I used to stay up for those one or two hour programs of “college rock” on the radio or “120 Minutes” on MTV just so I could hear stuff to my liking. It was on one of these programs I first heard Nirvana’s  “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

People always like to talk about where they were when they heard the bad news of some horrible event, and lots of cancer patients remember all too well, and have written about, where, how, and when they first heard of their diagnosis. My own memory of that, still so sharp, I’d like to erase. But I always want to remember the feelings and thoughts when I heard first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I was beginning my junior year of college, tired from working my ass off all summer to pay for the privilege of extended education, but still unsure about my future (well, that turned out unexpected, what with all the cancer). I heard that song and knew it would change everything.

Reams have been written about the influence of Nirvana in rock music. To me it was much simpler: the weirdos won. Finally, I could hear music I liked on the radio—which was great because my car’s tape player was forever breaking. With the nomination and almost assured induction of Nirvana, the weirdos win again. And I cannot let this year or this post pass without expressing shock and joy at the nomination of The Replacements. Of all the precursor bands to the so-called alternative music revolution that happened after Nirvana got famous, those bands that faded back into obscurity after it was so quickly over, I thought that only Sonic Youth would get any eventual recognition, and I still find their lack of nomination scandalous. So I view this nomination of The Replacements as nothing short of triumph, even though I am sure lots of people heard their name last week and said, “who the hell is that?”

But here is the funny thing. I know it matters a great deal to me, but not much to most people.  All summer, I’ve worn my Nirvana t-shirt with the smiley face logo (see banner) on the front and the less offensive claim on the back that the band is “flower sniffin’, kitty pettin’, baby kissin’, corporate rock whores” (the other version is worse, look it up).  People I interact with saw my t-shirt front and asked about Buddhism!  Here’s this band that is still a great favorite of mine, that had this tremendous influence on my young 20 year old self, and on the music industry, and no one seems to know who they are/were anymore. Because I immerse myself in entertainment media, I’ve been barraged with details of the 22nd anniversary of the release of their album “Nevermind”, the 20th anniversary re-release of “In Utero”. I get a skewed view of the world, I think they mattered greatly.  And yet, I constantly interact with people who do not even remember them.

It mirrors how I experience cancer at times. As a breast cancer patient with a tiny blog, who tends to seek out info that reaffirms a notion that Pink is WRONG, I sometimes get the sense that Pink, ribbons, and cancer are bigger issues than they are to most people. I have to remind myself that most people are not as tuned in to the issues, the lies of Pink and that is why they ignorantly continue to buy into it. I have to calm myself down—most people do not deal with breast cancer every day and do not know or understand that some breast cancer patients hate Pink. I wanna scream, “why don’t they get it, there are a million articles about how pinkwashing is damaging.” Well, because not many seek out that info.

Sure, lots of people are “touched” by cancer via friends and relatives, but it is only a small (hopefully growing) segment of breast cancer patients that have done the homework behind what is really happening behind the Pink-party-charity explosion. Just like most people are aware of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but maybe, to paraphrase Nirvana’s “In Bloom”, likes the pretty songs, likes to sing along, but don’t know what it means.

To avoid being strangled by pink ribbons and all the surrounding bullshit, I’ve reveled in the news of the nominations. For the past several days I don’t think I’ve played a song on my phone that was not a Replacements song—yikes, better mix it up with songs by the other nominees! I’ll listen to “In Utero” for the millionth time, I’ll vote (maybe pointlessly) for my favorites on the Rock Hall website for the next several weeks; it is a great diversion. And when Nirvana’s living members accept their induction next April, I’ll try to remember that every once in a while, the outsider voice becomes the mainstream, and I’ll hope that the small segment pointing out all that is wrong with Pink can capture the attention of the world, without smashing any guitars.

“To truly love some silly piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts” from  “Almost Famous”, film by Cameron Crowe, 2000