Light My Candles Every Summer
Growing up, I always hated summer, hated everything about it, the heat, the humidity, the aimlessness. I didn't just hate it; I dreaded it. For me, the year ended in May and began again in August. The summer months were just a stop over, a kind of empty space where time stood still, and increasingly, few good things happened. I looked forward to school with the same dedication most kids reserved for major, gift-giving holidays. In a way, it was a holiday, and there were gifts. New clothes, a fresh pair of boots with intact soles, and best of all, new school supplies. I'm not here to rhapsodize about the delights of blank notebooks and that new pencil smell, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who still wanders through the Office/School Supply Aisle for fun.
I loved school. It made sense; it was always the same; just show up, complete the work, and behave. The work was easy, and so was behaving. Yes, I was one of those quiet, nerdy girls who received minor privileges for being one. In middle school my biggest thrill was being allowed to go to the library whenever I had free time. Do I even need to say I had a lot of free time?
Things got...difficult in middle school, to put it simply. I was shy and awkward, prone to anxiety; a lifelong introvert, I was always more comfortable with books than my peers. I couldn't connect with them. The Internet was just beginning to spread across our tiny rural town, but my family didn't even have cable. At home, I was surrounded by woods on three sides, and it took at least twenty minutes to get anywhere. Walking was out of the question, unless you just felt like a stroll through some nice scenery, which, yeah, I did a lot, heedless of the guns firing in the distance.
By the end of eighth grade, things had gone from bad to worse at school, and home wasn't much better. The summer loomed before me, empty and suffocating. The previous summer had gone terribly, and I had no reason to expect this one would turn out any differently. The best I could hope for was to stay clear of the worst parts. That was a conscious decision I made the morning after eighth grade graduation when I woke up, reached for the phone, and realized I had no-one to call. My best friend had moved away, literally right after we were dismissed from the ceremony, and I wasn't close to anyone else anymore.
I was alone. There was no-one to tell if things got bad, but more importantly, there was no-one to just relax and have fun with, to stay up all night and talk to about whatever we were thinking. Society in general doesn't seem to take women's friendships seriously, and I could go off on a whole tangent about how that serves the patriarchy, but I don't have time for that. All that matters here is I'd lost one of the few people I genuinely loved and trusted.
I never would've guessed what was about to happen. I'm not sure it would've made much of a difference; you can't just replace one thing with another and expect to be the same. However, I have wondered if I would've fallen so hard so fast if she hadn't left when she did. Probably.
I didn't know anything about Nirvana. I didn't know the CD I picked up was their greatest hits, released just a few years earlier, nor did I have any idea it was significant year in their history. 2004. Exactly ten years since Kurt Cobain's death, and there I was staring at the back cover of that collection absolutely certain that whoever this guy was, he had something to tell me. He had things to share, and his face isn't in the photo, but even so, he seemed like he might be able to listen as well.
I had just enough money to buy it. There was no hesitation. I ran to the checkout and paid for it before anyone noticed. It took until the next morning for me to finally play it. I'd just won a DVD player in a reading contest at the library, and I was convinced it made things sound better than my battered boombox, so I inserted the disc while I got dressed. I've often referred to this as a life changing moment, but that feels so cliche even though it's true. So does saying Kurt's voice knocked me back, but it did. Stunned, I sat down, half-dressed, my hair dripping down my back and played the song again. And again. And again.
Sometimes I'll hear a song and get chills; other times, I get teary-eyed. Hearing Nirvana for the first time gave me chills, but it also gave me the strongest feeling of being alive. I've never understood people who come away with the opinion of them as an "angry" or "depressing" band. Yes, they're often loud and aggressive, and sometimes angry, and they can be deeply melancholy. But they're also beautiful and exuberant, with odd, often clever, and occasionally funny lyrics. Maybe it's just me, but I laugh whenever I actually think about the story "Spank Thru" is telling. Or just take a look at their appearance on Top of the Pops if you want a good laugh.
I won't say I didn't understand Nirvana back then, because I understood them just fine. Sure, I was limited by age and experience, but Kurt was singing (and wailing and mumbling) about things anyone could connect with. There's the obvious alienation, rage, pain, and anxiety, but there's also love, joy, wittiness, intelligence, and at times a sense of questioning the world and your place in it. Their songs are about being overwhelmed by your own feelings, good and bad, but they don't offer a guide for navigating those feelings. Kurt never shied away from expressing his opinions about anything, though he often comes off as bored or high (or maybe both) during taped interviews. There's an air of detachment around him; he doesn't always look comfortable, and sometimes he lets Krist and Dave take the lead, only breaking in when the urge strikes. I didn't see any footage of them for a long time, and everything I knew came from reading about them, but even so, I sensed that detachment. Kurt gave us everything in his performances, maybe more than he should have, for his own sake, and that kind of honesty is impossible not to respond to.
Yes, I understood exactly what they were saying, and each time I put on my headphones it felt like Kurt was saying it all directly to me, like we had some special bond and were sharing secrets. I read Teen Spirit, eager to discover the "stories" behind each song. It was illuminating, though it functioned more as a mini-biography than anything else. I found fansites with interview archives, which I scrolled through for hours. I looked up Bikini Kill, The Raincoats, and PJ Harvey because Kurt said he liked them. Later in the summer, during a rare visit to the mall, I bought Live Through This because Hole was Courtney Love's band, and she was his wife, and he loved her, so they had to be good. (They are, staggeringly so in fact, but that's another post.) I scoured the only thrift store in town for librarian cardigans, stopped repairing the scuffs on my boots, and hoping I'd trip just the right way so my jeans would rip, but I wouldn't actually hurt myself. I tended to fall a lot in those days, so I didn't see any reason why my clumsiness couldn't work for me. Mostly it didn't, which was probably a good thing given my extremely limited wardrobe (not to mention budget) and the school dress code.
I moved past the greatest hits collection, acquiring the rest of their catalog slowly. I managed to get Nevermind and Unplugged in the same eBay lot for a total of $5. I'd just turned 15 and wasn't even supposed to have an account, but all it took was putting in the wrong birth year. Remember this was 2004, so mailing a check or money order for your purchases was still acceptable. I didn't have access to either of those, so I just mailed cash. The whole process took about a month, but it was worth it. I became even more convinced there was something cosmic about my finding them when the package arrived and it turned out I had one of those rare copies of Nevermind without the hidden track.
I've received plenty of lectures from men about music, starting in my pre-teen years (the strangest of which involved my father playing a Creed album at top volume and screaming, "You need to like this! This is gospel!" while driving on a busy highway), but they really hit a new level when I entered high school. Well, I should say they hit a new level when, newly emboldened, I began sharing my own musical opinions. Guys wasted no time in letting me know that everything I liked and thought was completely worthless. I won't lie and say this didn't faze me, because it did. I was still searching for friends, and while I've never been "one of the guys", part of me thought maybe we could bond a little over shared musical interests. I was just excited whenever someone recognized my new favorite band(s), and in spite of everything I'd gone through up to that point, didn't have any kind of shame or detachment about it. Nirvana made me happy; of course I wanted to talk about them. I was falling in love with new bands all the time. Every day there was another math class and another set of lyrics to write out and obsess over. I was dying for someone to share it with.
However, I will never forget the day a teacher I didn't even know told me straight out, with no provocation, that Nirvana were the worst thing to ever happen, and Kurt was the most overrated musical figure of all time. I was 15. He had to be at least 30. I'm only a few months away from 30 now, and yeah, I've reached a point where teenagers are kind of annoying, but when it comes to pop culture, I'm on their side. I may not care for their tastes, but that doesn't matter. I'm not going to call them ignorant or insult what they love because it means something to them. It's giving them what they need, and that's all that matters. I might criticize it to friends; I might even loathe it, but I don't have it in me to look them in the eye and mock them. I don't need to feel that kind of superiority. Not to mention, "good" and "important" have a tendency to be slippery concepts, and there's enough old white guys out there whining about Ariana Grande being compared to the The Beatles to keep us all rolling our eyes for a few years.
Being mocked by my peers was one thing. It hurt, but mostly it made me angry, and snarling a comeback, usually involving the word fuck, wasn't exactly difficult. But this was a teacher. What could I possibly say? Telling him to get fucked wasn't an option, obviously, and I was smart enough to know nothing I said would be taken seriously. I'd seen that kind of smugness before; in fact, I knew it well. The best response is none, so I pretended to read, comforted by the songs in my head.
There's a tendency to not just dismiss what teenagers love (especially teenagers who aren't white, straight/cis males), but also, to dismiss what we loved as teenagers. How often have you heard someone describe what they used to listen to as "bad" or "cringey"? Laugh off some kind of musical "phase" or pretend it never happened? Most of us have probably done it. But why? Is the music we love in our adolescence really that terrible, or do we just hate being taken back there? When we say, "X or Y was good in 8th (or 10th or 12th) grade, but it's so bad now", are we giving an honest assessment of that artist, or are we really saying, "I've changed, but they haven't"? Are we feeling betrayed by something that was once like a close friend because we're looking at it through adult eyes and only seeing its shortcomings?
I've left artists behind, not because I suddenly realized they were terrible, but rather, because they didn't speak to me anymore. I'd outgrown them. I used to get upset when this would happen. I'd worry I was losing something, or I'd doubt myself for liking them in the first place. For the most part, I've moved past that. I can still look back at everything they gave me, and occasionally I might even listen to a song or two, but it's not the same, and it never will be. That's okay. That's how it should be.
But some artists stay with us, our relationship with them evolving as we do. We might take breaks from them, but we always find our way back eventually. My own listening habits tend to be seasonal and based on moods. I don't listen to Nirvana every day anymore, nor do I look at them with a 15-year-old's perspective. My love for them hasn't diminished; if anything, it's increased over the years, but I can see the whole picture now in a way I couldn't then.
I will never understand Kurt's struggles, not really, but I still find comfort in his attempts to express them. I still smile whenever I hear his voice. They make me as happy now as they did when I was still discovering them, although if I'm being honest, I'll probably always be discovering them. Yeah, the vaults are empty, and I've probably heard everything there is to hear, but it took until my mid-20s to realize there's a queer vibe in Kurt's public persona and performances. I always knew he sometimes wore dresses and make-up; I knew he talked about LGBT and feminist issues. I knew Nirvana played benefits for feminist and LGBT causes. As a lesbian teenager living in the middle of nowhere in the mid-2000s, that was fucking revolutionary. I can only imagine how it would've felt to see or read those things in the early ‘90s. I don't mean to praise a straight white guy for doing the bare minimum, but it matters that they--and he--did those things. I'm not saying Kurt was queer himself so much as clearly willing to transgress gendered boundaries, and there's something queer about that which is worth thinking about.
My high school years contained some of the worst experiences of my life. It wasn't constant misery, but sometimes it was almost impossible to see any bright spots. There were times when I thought things couldn't possibly get any worse, and then they did. I'm still working through the effects of all of it. Honestly, I don't like to think about it if I don't have to. But when I remember those days through the songs that were always playing, whether in my headphones or just in my head, that's not what I see. If I look back through Nirvana, all I remember is that first time I heard them when everything clicked into place. I remember knowing it was a significant moment. I remember they made me feel heard and like I wasn't alone. They gave me a place to put my pain and anger so I didn't have to keep it buried or turn it on myself. Most of all, I remember how good and glad to be alive they made me feel.
They've been creeping into my rotation more and more lately, but that's to be expected. It's almost summer, and that's always their season now. I don't dread it anymore.
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