Down A Rabbit Hole With Nirvana and The Melvins

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By Christopher Vaughan

When I was 13-years old, my grandmother refused to let me leave for school after she saw me wearing a Nirvana t-shirt while I ate Cap’n Crunch at her breakfast table. I was excited to show off the brand new cream-colored crew neck on a dress-down day at my Catholic middle school in White Plains, New York. The Nirvana merch showed two devilish faces from the band’s “Incesticide” compilation album cover.

My mom, unfamiliar with Nirvana, must have thought the shirt’s artwork was from a Saturday morning cartoon when I pulled the garment from a towering wall shrine of mostly Metallica and Megadeth tees as we shopped for school uniforms three miles from home at Epstein’s Dry Goods. I don’t believe nanny knew the culture-shifting alternative band either, but the painting by Kurt Cobain didn’t match her ultra-conservative values. I recall that I returned to my room, the walls covered with Cobain’s profile, to sulk and pull a plain shirt from a droopy mesh laundry basket.

The year of the band shirt incident, I also bought “Never Fade Away: The Kurt Cobain Story,” a biography by Dave Thompson. The paperback was cheaper than the massively popular “Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain.” I read the short bio twice and obsessed over all of the bands mentioned that influenced Cobain, like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and The Meat Puppets. I bought their records and t-shirts along with the rest of Nirvana’s discography on eBay. I already had a scratched “Nevermind” CD, but I would soon play “Youth Of America” by The Wipers just as much as Nirvana’s first album “Bleach.” However, all but one of Cobain’s major influences mentioned in the bio would go unearthed for me as I entered adulthood.

The Nirvana-adjacent group would remain missing from my iTunes library until I was an entire draft deep into writing about my childhood this year, at the age of 28. I decided to return to the discography of my favorite band as a kid — hoping “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would dislodge far-off memories for a future memoir. But after hearing every Nirvana live and demo song on Spotify, I still had a feeling that something was missing. I needed to go further — beyond Cobain’s covers of The Velvet Underground, The Vaselines and Lead Belly. Then, I revisited, “Incesticide,” the album adorned with the cover art that frightened my grandmother. I began repeating “Beeswax,” one of Nirvana’s grimiest songs and I remembered that the drummer of The Melvins, Dale Crover, played on the B-side and four other tracks throughout the compilation. I also recalled reading in Thompson’s book that Crover contributed to some of Cobain’s first recordings in 1985 and 1986. After listening to “Beeswax” and “Aero Zeppelin” a few more times, I was suddenly inspired to hear more from the band Crover had been in since 1983 with the legendary guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne. So, I did what any sensible music obsessive would, I began listening to every single studio album by The Melvins.

The band has 21 studio albums and six EPs.

I listened straight through to the celebrated sludge metal band’s most recent record, which included a cover of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” — that sounded close enough to The Beatles. Hearing over 100 songs by one band in less than a month was an ecstatic and overwhelming experience.

I started with their first full length from 1987, “Gluey Porch Treatments,” which came out two years before “Bleach.” I immediately heard elements Cobain borrowed to conjure a murky and enveloping sound on early Nirvana scattered throughout the first few releases by The Melvins. Other underground bands would soon emulate The Melvins’ guitar riffs, distance yowls and an aesthetic that was grounded in 1970s hard rock. After I finished their third long player, “Bullhead,” it was clear that The Melvins had set alternative rock on a darker and heavier course than the initial crop of college rock outfits introduced. Independent bands, of course, were already distorted in the 1980s, but rock ‘n’ roll music hadn’t sounded so lumbering and slow crushing since Black Sabbath.

I was pleasantly surprised when I settled on one of The Melvins’ most dynamic collections called, “Stoner Witch,” released in 1994. Their second major label record featured eleven clattering tracks that incorporated solid feedback and catchy riffs — making perfect punk kinetic energy — while also allowing room for the sheen of the grunge bubble to peek through thick distortion. Plus, Atlantic Records was somehow willing to release this swampy, sludge metal epic the same week Stone Temple Pilots ruled the Billboard rock charts.

I don’t remember many details about the albums that came after “Stoner Witch” until their triumphant return to form in the mid-2000s.” I recall interesting experiments in noise, ambient, electronic, and instrumental music in the late 1990s, however, I missed Osborne’s knack for melody and his lightning crack humor. Osborne and Dale’s 2006 release “(A) Senile Animal” was blindsiding. They enlisted The Melvins-worshipping band, Big Business, to fill out the colossal poundings on the ten-song collection. The Melvins’ muddy metal gospel only spread as their sound exponentially grew in influence throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s as Boris, Kyuss, Mastodon and Kylesa expanded on the band’s heartfelt hard rock music.

I was certainly drawn to The Melvins’ accessible albums like “Houdini,” which Cobain helped produce, but my favorite quickly became their drone rock record “Lysol” from 1992. “Lysol” was a cleansing listening as I heard it last, since the LP was missing from Spotify, I had to find a ripped version on YouTube. It became a steady and methodical buzz to wash away the previous 20 releases. It’s their slowest and most punishing album with guitar riffs that sounded like they were falling from outer space. Those creeping guitar riffs, plus the dozens of others spread throughout 21 albums by the metal band, were all I needed to complete my nostalgia trip.

The Melvins have pushed forward with the exploration of alternative music with a fiercely loyal fan base, but without Queens Of The Stone Age’s coliseum concerts, Nirvana’s cultural status or a legion of forgotten grunge hits. And that’s just fine as Osborne and Dale continue to release impactful albums. The Melvins ultimately filled the Nirvana-sized hole in my heart and I would be elated to wear one of their t-shirts at my grandma’s breakfast nook on any morning.