Pop music died when I was thirteen. I was wasting time in front of MTV when Smells Like Teen Spirit suddenly came crashing into the room, and shot me down. I watched as anarchist cheerleaders lost themselves in a riot crowd. I saw a band that didn’t care.
That first sense of apathy was intensely liberating. I was entering a phase when popular opinion dictates your every move. I could feel it creeping up on me as friends began to regroup and other’s eyes clung to my skin in the school corridor.
That’s when Nirvana’s slow guitars and exploding choruses began to pick at the very centre of my mind, and I was drawn to my first troubled man, Kurt Cobain. He cared so much about things that he almost didn’t care at all. I nailed a huge poster of his sullen face to my bedroom wall, turned off the lights and held my breath as he screamed that final painful chorus of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night. It’s still one of the best covers I know.
While I mourned Kurt’s death almost a decade after his suicide and tried to distinguish myself from his fan club of smelly boys, a new scene formed around a Swedish band called Broder Daniel. Teenagers, also known as Pandas, glued stars to their cheeks and back-combed their hair until they looked electrocuted. My friend Susanna used to hang out with the band backstage, while I only balanced on the periphery of the scene and went to their gigs almost on command, caught up in an atmosphere so thick that you could feel it stick to the walls of your lungs. Drunk on 3.5 percent beers and smuggled vodka, we tracked down illegal clubs tucked away in smoky basements and danced until our legs were covered in mud.
Broder Daniel captured the sentiments of a whole generation of bored adolescents who drifted around town, waiting for something to happen. The singer, Henrik Berggren, was dark and depressed and, like most of us, longed to escape the grit and small town mentality of Gothenburg. His lyrics often cut straight to the point: “Got to go to work, then hurry home / Every day is just the same” and “Cruel town, it’s a cruel town / Cold people, cruel town.” Girls cried en masse when Henrik marched like a soldier to the hollow beat of Shoreline.
At the odd nostalgia-tinged indie night, you can ask for the song and watch how my generation of fashionable individualists become drunk and confused dreamers whose souls are still attached to the beer-smelling corners of amateur bars. It’s where we swapped heroes, songs and numbers and found new ways of being, for the moment completely consumed with the small universe we had made our own.
By the time I started college, I had systematically covered my Kurt Cobain poster with a collage of images cropped from my dad’s old TV guides, leaving only a small square bare. I never talked about Nirvana in my newfound indie circles and was secretly ashamed of my once unbreakable ties with Kurt Cobain, but I couldn’t bring myself to rip his face off the wall. Nobody knew he was still there, peering out at me with his left eye like a pirate.
For a while I was lost, traversing a wasteland of miserable Bright Eyes albums and trying to apply Conor Oberst’s broken-hearted lyrics to my own sheltered experiences. I remember listening to Lua on my way to class, staring into a golden sunrise and feeling shit for no reason.
One night close to my college graduation, I pulled out Patti Smith’s Easter from my dad’s record collection. The spoken track Babelogue amazed me. The memory is anchored in her poetry and deep American voice which, now, represents so many moments, thoughts and decisions that her music has formed a world of its own in my mind.
Patti was different. She had nothing to do with insecurities, anger or washed out self-pity. She is my last summer in Gothenburg, bright nights and messy floors. She is my friend Anna’s flaming red hair, a warm field in Sussex and a packed crowd of people. When we finally saw her on stage, tall, smiling and spitting with passion, we cried just like the Pandas used to do, squashed against the fence and mad with music.
We didn’t have stars beneath our eyes, but we wished that she would see us, and only us, in the vast sea of people.
This article originally appeared in issue 20 of Oh Comely.