He was young. He was cute. He was vulnerable. An American boy-child caught in the hungry spotlight of the world's gaze; his lonely plight and precarious circumstances came to symbolise a new youth movement and a new aesthetic. But back then, in 1991, he was confused, he was out of his depth and he was naked. Literally.
Spencer Elden never asked to become an icon for a generation. Even if he had been asked, it's unlikely he would have had any sensible response, being three months old when his dad volunteered him for the photo shoot that made him iconic. Elden is the naked baby, submerged in an azure swimming pool and clutching at that tantalising floating dollar, on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind album. His dad was a pal of the photographer and, for 200 of those aforementioned dollars, he held little Spencer briefly beneath the surface of the pool for an image at once cute, breathtaking and very disturbing. It's bright with some kind of meaning, something suggestive of corrupted innocence, danger and venality, all of which preoccupied the short life of another modern American icon, Nirvana's creative leader, Kurt Cobain.
The band's second album, Nevermind, is 20 years old this autumn. And even in a rock entertainment sphere glutted with cheap and meaningless anniversaries, each one an excuse to flog "deluxe legacy-edition" CDs to the few who still buy such things, this one seems to have some weight, some ballast. Nevermind changed the way rock music sounded in Middle America, changed the way Middle America's children looked and felt, filled its stadiums and set its cash registers ringing - much to the ambivalence of Cobain, a troubled kid from the a small Pacific north-western town of Aberdeen in Washington State.
Cobain's parents had divorced when he was a child, sending him into a faintly self-indulgent tailspin involving embracing and renouncing Christianity, vandalism, flirting with bisexuality and eventually, and most significantly, losing himself in the consoling noise of the Beatles, classic rock and US punk.
American punk, as played by artists such as Black Flag, Henry Rollins and Killdozer, came much later and was far more dourly ideological than its British forebear (Killdozer's best album is called Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite - you get the idea). Cobain loved the visceral tug of punk and hard rock, but his Beatles fixation also gave him a sweet tooth for a melody and an ear for the catchiness of AM
radio pop. Merging the two proved a combustible proposition.
Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987 with the bassist Krist Novoselic and a revolving door of drummers. "I started Nirvana because there was nothing else left to do," he said in an early interview. "I didn't like sports, so a band seemed to be the last resort for something to do socially . . . I don't wanna have any other kind of job; I can't work among people. I may as well try and make a career out of this. All my life my dream has been to be a big rock star - just may as well abuse it while you can."
Their first album, Bleach, has its moments and its admirers but gives little idea of what was to come next. Some of the ingredients of the Nirvana sound are there - the dark kernel of restless adolescent rage, the bludgeoning riffs - but crucially the drummer, Dave Grohl, and the producer, Butch Vig, were not. Grohl had both the can-do personality and the drumming muscle. Vig (whose work with the aforementioned and defiantly non-teenybop Killdozer Cobain had liked) polished the spiteful, sludgy, stoned texture of Bleach and gave it a hard, glittering, ruthlessly commercial sheen.
To understand the seismic impact of Nevermind and of that incendiary first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", in particular, one has to hear it - metaphorically at least - through the cheap, fizzing foam headphones of late-1980s pop. Nirvana emerged, to paraphrase Auden, at "the fag end of a low, dishonest decade", at least as far as mass-market pop went. MTV had nullified and sedated white rock. Madonna and Michael Jackson were at creative lows. Hip-hop, after the firestorms of Public Enemy and NWA, had fizzled out in the vaudeville of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Alternative rock largely meant REM, who were huge but spoke now to the constituency that also bought Annie Lennox and Bruce Springsteen records, rather than to disaffected teens.
In Britain, "alternative" music, for want of a better word (some would use the expression "indie", but it is so vague and malleable as to
be meaningless), had dominated the discourse of the hipster press for years. But the Smiths were dead, the Madchester scene was only half born and the papers were full - I know this, as I was helping to fill them from my desk at the NME - of lightweight dance-pop from the likes of Adamski, the Beloved, Soul II Soul and the Shamen, or a turgid Home Counties version of proper psychedelic rock known as "shoegazing", which was every bit as torpor-inducing as that sounds.
And so, enter Nirvana. In January 1992, Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson's Dangerous at number one in the Billboard charts. It then sold 30 million copies around the world, helped by the corporate clout of Geffen Records, which Nirvana had joined, much to the chagrin of indie purists. Cobain was always sanguine about this. "We were always opposed for similar reasons until recently," he said, "but I just don't see independent labels running their businesses any better." Interestingly - given how Nirvana's sound and stance had been born of a young man's loathing of the dead hand of the mainstream - it seemed no time at all before this new outsider rock had a handy and marketable name, "grunge", and promptly became a new orthodoxy.
It would be wrong to say that Nirvana ushered the alternative into the mainstream. REM had already started to do that some years earlier; but their sound was an altogether sweeter proposition, with its plangent echoes of the Byrds and the Band. Nevermind was something blacker, harder, more bilious: the industrial attack of Black Sabbath melded with the sarcastic loner mentality of the Columbine high-school shooter.
Unlike some, for whom it's a saleable pose, Cobain was genuinely uneasy about, even contemptuous of, the fame that Nevermind brought him. He was now a big fish swimming in the shallows of Washington's grungy indie scene. And as he said at the time:
"I've been confronted by people wanting to beat me up, by people heckling me and being so drunk and obnoxious because they think I'm this pissy rock-star bastard who can't come to grips with his fame . . . I was in a rock club the other night . . . and one guy comes up, pats me on the back and says, 'You've got a really good thing going, you know? Your band members are cool, you write great songs, you affected a lot of people, but, man, you've really got to get your personal shit together!' Then another person comes up and says, 'I hope you overcome your
drug problems.' All this happens within an hour while I'm trying to watch the Melvins, minding my own business."
Nirvana got bigger (though never better). Cobain got bitterer, acquiring a heroin habit and an equally toxic girlfriend in Courtney Love. Plaid shirts and lank hair were everywhere, as was a slew of inferior fellow-travellers such as Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and the Stone Temple Pilots, who had Nirvana's volume but none of their talent. Not everyone was happy. Me, for instance. I hated grunge. I hated the terrible clothes and awful haircuts, the whining and petulant lyrics. For me, the last straw came when we put a band called Superchunk on the cover of the NME. Their records were risible and they looked like people doing community service who'd come to clear a canal towpath, except less sexy. I left the NME to go and write about what was happening in Britain in direct reaction to grunge - about young bands such as Suede, Blur and Pulp, who had a glamour and allure that Alice In Chains would never have.
But even I can recognise the power and importance of Nevermind, especially "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Hear it on the radio today and it still sounds astonishing: corrosive, volcanic, utterly self-possessed, the most ambivalent rock anthem ever. It was also perhaps the last time that rock music has sounded so curdled with contempt for its own mores. And yet, at the same time, it's a kind of anguished bedroom love song to the possibilities of rock and its power to save and heal. It didn't work for Cobain, who blew his brains out with a shotgun within four years of Nevermind's explosive arrival; though it has definitely worked a kind of bleak charm for a million kids across the world who are still around to slam the bedroom door on a world that doesn't, like, understand them, and turn up the volume.
“Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone" is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 6pm)