Monday, April 7, 2014

The Boy in the Nirvana Hoodie

Among the only four pieces of band apparel that I own, my favourite and most-worn is the black Nirvana hoodie with the brownish guitar design. I'm very selective about how I represent myself, and there are a lot of bands I like whose merch I won't even touch. Part of it is aesthetic, but lot of it is who is going to notice you. If I like a band but they have a large following of assholes, I don't want to be part of that. By and large, Nirvana fandom is a great communion of music lovers. Which is shocking, because it seems to include nearly everybody. Everybody I really want to talk to about music, anyway.

The first Nirvana song I remember hearing was "I Hate Myself And Want To Die," a stray track which found its way onto the Geffen compilation The Beavis And Butt-Head Experience. It was the standout track, along with Aerosmith's ballad "Deuces Are Wild" and Butt-Head's "I Got You Babe" duet with Cher. "I Hate Myself" was a bit obvious by Nirvana standards, but far beyond the rest of the pack as far as I was concerned and made for an enthralling introduction. I was a bit too young when Nirvana happened - I don't think I heard this song until after Kurt was dead - and even my older brothers' guidance couldn't really prepare me to get into something that heavy and otherworldly. I was like 8 years old and I filed Nirvana away in the section of my brain for things that I might understand better when I was older, like sex, drugs and politics.

Over the course of a decade - between meeting like-minded people in grade 8 (my friend Nick worked "Rape Me" into a presentation about censorship) and acquiring my current job in late 2009 - I acquainted myself with this band in bits and pieces. First with the Nevermind singles, then the In Utero singles and "About a Girl" from Bleach. This was followed by selections from Unplugged, as well as the well-timed release of "You Know You're Right." I think I must have included "Come As You Are" or "Lithium" on the mix CD I made for a girl named Ana in Grade 10 because I knew it was not cool to like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (I was wrong.) Then on my second pass, there was "Aneurysm," "Sliver," "Love Buzz," "Molly's Lips," "Dive" and... yeah.

When I became a permanent part of the staff at the store where I work, in late 2009, Sub-Pop had just released the 20th anniversary of Bleach, and Geffen, probably not wanting to wait two years before they could get their own 20th, put out Nirvana's Live at Reading set. However much I had liked this band before, I became an utter devotee. Listening to this set, seeing the breadth and scope of their music... it was maybe the first time I heard "On a Plain," "Been a Son," "Lounge Act," "School," "Spank Thru," and others if not for the first time in my life, then the first time as anything more than noise. They were revelations. That 8-year-old kid was now ready for Nirvana, and in fact was long overdue. Around that time, I also read Charles R. Cross' biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, and am excited to read his follow-up, Here We Are Now.

I think there's a reason why music geeks like me have such a high opinion of Nirvana even if you could nitpick their technical ability and variety of songs. I think their sound, which they did exceptionally well, is the closest approximation of the noise that is blaring in our heads at all times, the chaos inside that spurs us to seek music as an outlet, to work out our stresses and frustrations with loud things, crashing and bashing, screaming and wailing, raw power with just enough subtlety and mystery. Loving Nirvana is practically a precondition for being able to talk about music nowadays. There remains no easy way to explain their appeal, beyond pure instinct: you just have to recognize real.

I'm going to be 27 this year, which means it won't be long before I've outlived Kurt Cobain. That's shitty, because what have I done with all that time? But I'm fortunate, because I have spent so much of that time with music that means a lot to me, and the people that that music has brought to me. It's a bit humbling that, in the time since I started this job, I've lived out a simulation of Nirvana's entire career through those re-releases. My hope is that the music is still a living, breathing thing, and not a harmless piece of nostalgia to be trucked out of the vaults at the appropriate intervals. I think it hasn't lost that revolutionary luster. I think it is still the soundtrack to our chaotic inner lives, with all the complex interplay of beauty and violence. I may not be the type to sanctify everything Kurt ever said, but I think he stood for always wanting to do better and hold yourself to a higher standard. Hopefully just not so high you fall into a cycle of drug abuse and eventual suicide.

Friday, April 4, 2014

One last thing about How I Met Your Mother (I swear)

Leaving aside the controversial ending that will forever dominate the dialogue about the show, one thing about the end of How I Met Your Mother has me seriously bummed.

It was the only really great "multi-camera" sitcom left on television. There might never be another good one.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some wonk who thinks multi-cam shows (often referred to derisively and usually inaccurately as "laugh tracks,") are inherently inferior to single-camera ones. How I Met Your Mother could easily have been a single-camera show in the vein of 30 Rock, Scrubs or Community (not a mockumentary like The Office, Parks & Recreation or Modern Family though, given its framing device.) It probably would have made a lot of peoples' lives simpler due to the constant playing around with the form and narrative Russian Dolls it laid out, not to mention the emotional punch it often packed.

But a lot of what made that show great was best shown in a traditional proscenium "everyone sits in the booth/on the couch" style. The give-and-take between the characters, the quips, the snarky comebacks... it was all classically sitcommy in a way that single-cam shows aren't. And it wore those tropes proudly, while also carrying itself to a higher standard of comedy, inventiveness and character depth than its lookalikes -- something a lot of people took for granted by the end of its run.

And despite the announcement of a sequel series called How I Met Your Dad (time will tell if it's more than That 80's Show all over again) I'm worried we'll never have another show that does that as well. The talent that is generally capable of pulling these things off are normally more attracted to the freedom of single-cam sitcoms. For traditional multi-cams, we're left with the Chuck Lorre pack, which I associate with cheap laffs, and Dads, which I associate with no laffs.

These shows continue to be very popular, but they aren't much fun to talk about. Besides giving a shot to HIMYD, pretty much zero multi-cam sitcoms get my attention these days (which puts me on the outside of the nearly 20 mil who enjoy Big Bang Theory on a weekly basis, and good for them.) Of course, things have been tilting this way for a long time: had it been acceptable in the 90s, Larry David is on record as saying Seinfeld would have been single-cam, which explains a lot of the more experimental stuff they did. Again, I am firmly against the idea that multi-cams are bad. It's just that anybody with much idea on how to make a show I want to watch isn't doing it with three cameras anymore.

Whether the ending left a sour taste in your mouth or not, I don't think anyone should deny that the TV landscape is poorer without this show. It proved that its entire aesthetic could still be done interestingly and engagingly. I don't think we'll ever see its equal again.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Long Story Short... a farewell to How I Met Your Mother

(Note: Obviously there's going to be spoilers.)

Nine years is a long time to be telling a story, isn't it?

In September 2005, I was 18 years old, recently out of high school and fairly used to seeing fly-by-night high concept sitcoms come and go. One Monday night we flipped to to CBS to see the debut of this new show about a guy in the future telling a long-winded story to his kids about how he met their mother. It seemed too unnecessarily complex and weird, way too ambitious, and there'd be no way to tell a story like that satisfyingly, and... hey, is that the voice of Bob Saget? Weird.

Anyway, I tuned in week after week and got to know the characters: hopeless romantic Ted, his longtime friends Marshall and Lily, their womanizing friend Barney, and the girl of Ted's dreams, Robin. Probably the definitive early episode for me was when Ted spent all night on the rooftop dressed in his Halloween costume from four years ago in hopes of meeting the same girl he did then. Then there was "The Pineapple Incident," which showed how adept the show would be at playing with the form, and "Nothing Good Ever Happens After 2 AM" which would prove the show's willingness to break all our hearts, as it did time and again.