Bri Blahg… Nirvana’s “Bleach” Deluxe Edition And The Hellhole That Spawned It

4 11 2009

by Brian Phillips (@BrianBlahg)

Nirvana "Bleach" Deluxe Edition-Sub Pop Records

Twenty years ago Nirvana’s “Bleach” seemingly lurched out of a Grays Harbor County cranberry bog. Truth be told, by 1989, the band was long gone, 50 miles east to Olympia and civilization. I lived in Nirvana’s Aberdeen for seven long months beginning in May of that year. During one three week stretch in December it rained every waking moment of every day. Aberdeen and by extension the entire county is the dreary rear hatch of hell. 20 percent unemployment will do that just as well as a few weeks of 42 degrees and drizzle. There’s only two things to do there. Go to church or drink. Sorry God I chose the latter, although in retrospect I suspect many chose both.

As I languished in my tiny 2nd Street efficiency, missing my girlfriend, and wondering what the hell I was thinking taking a radio job in a place too bleak even for serial killers, Nirvana was a band I read about in Seattle music tabloid The Rocket. Issued on Sub Pop just three weeks after I arrived, I’d like to say “Bleach” was the soundtrack to the sentence I served. That would be perfect wouldn’t it? Honestly I don’t recall seeing it at the only record store in town. I bought Soundgarden’s “Louder Than Love” instead and that got me through. In fact now that I think about it, it’s just as well I didn’t have “Bleach” until I moved to Seattle in 1990. It would have sent me off the Wishkah River Bridge Kobain claimed to have lived under (a myth busted by author Charles Cross in his seminal Kobain biography “Heavier Than Heaven.”)

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As immortalized in "Something In The Way"

The measure of any album 20 years on is of course the songs, and whether it sonically holds up. The former? Kurt Kobain’s melodic gifts weren’t as yet fully formed, and songs like “Paper Cuts” and “Negative Creep” get by on a primal level. All the parts are spread out on a tarp though. “About A Girl,” “School,” and their cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” hint at the song craft they would pursue with experience and the guiding hand of Butch Vig on “Nevermind.” I’ll leave it to you to decide if “Bleach” is feeling its age. I’d argue no, but I’m too close to it. It sounds fucked up by any standard, but in my mind doesn’t land in a particular era, so much as it does a place. That place is the other Western Washington. Places like Aberdeen, Forks (yes girls where all vampires live) and the town I grew up in, Port Angeles. I realize that doesn’t answer the question, but like I said, too close.

Sub Pop’s just released Deluxe Edition comes with an early 1990 show recorded in Portland, Oregon. It’s the sound of a band coming into it’s powers, but knocking it’s head on the club’s nicotine stained ceiling. Chad Channing was still playing the drums, and it’s apparent Nirvana could go no further without a change. A few months later Dave Grohl would settle in and they’d become another force entirely. The highlights of this set were the songs not on Bleach. The cowpunkish “Spank Thru,” the throbbing “Dive,” and their lovely Vasoline’s cover “Molly’s Lips” (a band favorite crying out for the backing vocals Dave Grohl would provide later) all crackled. No mere historical parchment, the show is the sound of a band at the height of their early powers.

So damn it “Bleach” becomes another “Live At Leeds” for me. An album I keep buying over and over as they cram it with ever more content.

-Coming soon. Thoughts on the other Nirvana release of the week, “Live At Reading.”

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