On Finding Nirvana (The Band, Not The State of Enlightenment)

Basically, my University course required that I write a 4-page essay highlighting the importance of a one-time encounter. I chose to write about my introduction to alternative music, which I thought might be appropriate to share. Feedback is appreciated.

I remember that it was a Tuesday, because I’d caught the bus into town, stopping on the way to visit my Grandmother before heading home. I only ever saw her on Tuesday’s, because it was the only time I could, otherwise she’d be busy, or I’d be busy, or everyone in my family would be pretending to be busy. I’d gotten off the bus in town after receiving a text from my father telling me he’d be late, and I’d subsequently decided that an hour walking around the shopping center would be better than an hour talking about school grades over tea before my father would eventually show up with the prospect of better conversation for her. I was thirteen, dressed in my school uniform, made up of a shirt too big, sporting a mop of ginger hair combed into a sloppy fringe hanging over my left eye. My trainers were worn down, and the squeak they let off bounced from wall to wall as I walked through town, past children in different school uniforms but trying to kill time just the same as I was.

I wandered aimlessly past the condemned HMV and brand-new Tesco but was too lazy to go in and browse; I went up towards the fountain near the bus station where the cooler kids hung out on the weekends, shouting at old ladies and comparing skateboard decks. The place was empty when I got there, and I sat by the water for a few minutes, staring across the street towards a shop I hadn’t seen before. The dark windows were plastered with posters advertising bands I’d never heard of, and the faint sound of rock music drifted over the pavement, rising over the sound of car alarms from the motorway to my left and shouting parents in the shopping center behind me. The song, faint as it was on the wind, sounded like something I’d caught on MTV once when flicking through the channels after the football had finished on a Saturday afternoon. The season had finished the week before and it was summer now, but I was cold sitting there, and the chords I’d picked up had made me curious, so I walked around the fountain to cross the street, the song growing louder as I grew closer. I hadn’t noticed the name of the shop, but saw it now looking up from below, a scrawny teenager stood shivering outside of Banquet Records. I stood for a few seconds, before I felt a breeze behind my shoulder as a tall man in a dusty leather jacket strode past me and went into the shop. I caught a glimpse of a thick beard, unkempt, and caught the scent of motor oil mixed with cheap aftershave – it burned my nostrils, which were more accustomed to lynx. He was the kind of guy I imagined riding a beetle-black motorcycle, founding member of a biker gang, and I pictured him doing so as the shop door swung shut behind him, cutting off the music which had wafted out with the warm air from inside.

I don’t know why I followed him in. I think it was musical curiosity more than it was the heat from within which had suddenly seemed so appealing. I’d been raised on ABBA and The Beatles, and without knowing it I’d just been introduced to Motorhead, not even recognizing Ace Of Spades from across the way. The shop seemed exciting, different, and maybe it was my annoyance at my father’s lateness, or my exclusion from those cool kids hanging out on Saturday’s, but I wanted to see what was inside. I wanted to explore this other world perched on the outskirts of my hometown, the anarchical outsider intruding on a subtle, sleepy suburbia.

There were three people in the store; the man who’d just entered; a tall shopkeeper stood behind a clustered counter inspecting a Led Zeppelin LP, and a short blonde male probably only a few years older than myself. None of them looked at me as I entered. The place was small and full, the walls covered in tour posters and hanging T-shirts, a line of LPs lining the left hand wall at head height – releases ranging from Black Sabbath to Hole. A black tiled floor spotted with white paint stretched to the till, and two hanging lights illuminated the room, but only enough so that you could barely read the sleeve of the record you were holding. A large showcase partition split the room, stacked full of records neatly sorted A through Z, and I walked over to the nearest section, picking up an Alice In Chains record – Facelift. The cover was straight from a Stephen King novel (I’d just read It), psychedelic and phantasmal and I put it back quickly, moving on, browsing without purpose but taking in all of the names and titles. It was at this point that the shopkeeper walked over, a hanging chain from his jeans rattling against his side, uncovering the pot-belly he’d been hiding behind Alice. He stopped beside me, a towering adult, and asked if I was looking for anything in particular.

I wasn’t, and he knew that I wasn’t, confirmed by my feeble “just looking around”, and he smiled a huge Cheshire cat grin.

“You haven’t been in here before have you?” he inquired curiously. I shook my head sheepishly, feeling very out of place, as if I’d just walked into Waynes World.

“Have you listened to rock and roll before?” I shook my head again, and he nodded his, assumption confirmed, before asking how old I was. I mumbled that I was thirteen, and he let out a laugh – a loud, friendly laugh which seemed to bubble up from his swelling stomach and crash against the covered walls.

“I’m about to change your life” he declared boldly, and led me by the shoulder, around to the other side of the partition, placing me firmly in front of a rack labeled ‘N’. He stepped around me, the same aftershave smell from the biker blurring my vision, and pulled out a record from those stacked, handing it to me like a parent would hand over their newborn child to a relative, watching my reddening face.

People recognize the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind as iconic, and rightly so. I saw it for the first time in that record store, at thirteen, staring at it both confused and intrigued. I wondered why a baby was naked and underwater, why it was reaching for a dollar bill, and why this man was giving it to me like it actually was a baby. I left about ten minutes later with the record cradled under my arm in a plain plastic bag, after listening to the shopkeeper try to summarize why he thought it was the most important release of the 20th century – he did a good job of it as well. I learnt more from him there than I ever did in my music lessons at school in the three years following. I learnt about grunge, about Kurt Cobain, about music I hadn’t even thought to explore before (or had maybe been afraid to). He told me I could have the record for free – I only had enough money to buy my grandmothers TV guide – but under one condition, that condition being that I listen to it five times and then return and tell him what I thought about it.

I went home that night after a forgettable three hours with my father, and I listened to it once, quietly. The next day I listened to it again, this time slightly louder. The day after that I listened to it a third and fourth time, louder still, and then the next Tuesday on my way to my Grandmothers I returned to the store after listening to it fifteen times to tell the shopkeeper exactly what I’d thought about it, and why he was probably right to adore it the way he did. He wasn’t there though. I asked around for him, speaking to the same teenager I’d seen the week before, and was told that he’d left, that he’d moved to America indefinitely. The day I’d spoken to him had been his penultimate shift, and in ten minutes he’d changed my life, just like he’d said he would. I think his name was Matt, but I could be wrong.

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