My back ached, my stomach grumbled with something like thrush, my head swelled with a beer buzz from our stop at the apartment on Commonwealth that Meighan shared with a few other angry drunks, and the memory of the Greek final that I thought I had bombed still hung in the back of my mind.
Still, when the doors opened on that bar that night in Kenmore Square — “Bill’s Bar”, literally — in Boston in December of 1991, perfectly coinciding with the first drumbeats of Smells Like Teen Spirit, I was aware enough to realize life had changed. I was participating in history there in historical Boston. And I both loved it and hated it.
I had arrived.
My journey had come to a way-point, if not a conclusion. It had started months earlier when I decided to sell or throw away the remaining traces of my father’s last folly — a commercial music and sound company that couldn’t pay the bills and didn’t suit me at all — only to take off on my own folly of driving 2600 miles to a minuscule liberal arts college I had never seen and couldn’t afford. And that journey had brought me there to Bill’s Bar.
It was what I had wanted for myself. I had finally graduated to making my own mistakes.
I was in Boston at a college bar, hearing music that sounded unlike anything I had heard before. I had left Phoenix listening to R.E.M. and harmless puerile crap like That Petrol Emotion. But this was different.
As the door opened to reveal the scene in the bar below me, I heard the soundtrack to what at the time seemed the entrance to my personal hell — and it was Nirvana. It was 100% angst.
The center floor of the old-style saloon was sunken beneath street level. The wan and the dissolute from Harvard and Radcliffe and BU and BC and MIT and Northeastern wandered among other wan-and-dissolutes. The lighting was primarily red. The music was loud. Loud. Loud.
Where was I? What was I doing there?
As the night wore on and the jukebox cycled through Nirvana to Cypress Hill to Soundgarden to Temple of the Dog to Alice in Chains to every other then-cutting-edge grunge and hip-hop stalwart, I could sense it was all leading up to something.
Soon, arguments flared and fingers were broken and acts of caveman bravado were displayed and women were seized and the beer still flowed and my gut ground even more. I started to understand what it meant to be — if not in hell — then at least deeply in purgatory. I was on my own. Any sense of being covered or supported or even endorsed had been ripped away or soon would be.
Soon enough the cap pistols fired (they were really serious about the 2AM close), we were dumped out into the streets, and my car floated down Commonwealth Ave past the Citgo sign. I held the wheel. The backseat was full of crying girls. I turned to see someone who looked like Trotsky enraged and yelling at me from the passenger seat. He wore a black watchcap. I couldn’t hear what he said. We all made it home safely, but I’m not quite sure how.
Nirvana went on to serve as the soundtrack for almost my entire college career, which had its moments of joy, but actually turned out to be more of a purgatory. I was being stripped of things I didn’t need, and forced to confront things I had previously ignored. It resembled redemptive suffering. It was something I endured, and desperately needed.
It was only a month before graduation when I heard Kurt Cobain had taken his own life with a shotgun.
On campus there was shock and sorrow, but also some relief. I think most of us agreed with his widow when she said that you can’t go through life hating everything as much as he did without something snapping at some point. There was also a some self-righteousness in us. Most of us resembled young farts in one way or another. Kurt had worked without a net.
But looking back on it, in many ways his life represented everything I had fled by going East in my grand search for meaning. Cobain was done in by the same sort of nihilistic rage that had forced me to reconsider my personal options time and time again. How close I had come to taking the same way out, and how many times.
I pray for him now. A beautiful, lost soul. I pray he found peace.