“Swap Meet” * Nirvana * Bleach * 1989
Nirvana was a very intense, very personal band. Their songs didn’t touch on politics or universal, worldwide issues. This isn’t to say the band didn’t have beliefs, and there is the occasional exception (“Rape Me,” something of a feminist anthem, comes to mind), but for the most part Nirvana songs are about the tortured, unhappy mind of Kurt Cobain. Now, tortured, unhappy artists are nothing new. The themes that Kurt wrote about weren’t original in the least, even if the band produced music that was (or at least sounded like it at the time). Yet all this angst had to come from somewhere, and this song has at least a partial answer as to why Kurt was so profoundly fucked up.
Nirvana isn’t from Seattle. Nirvana is from someplace much, much worse, which is to say Aberdeen and Montesano, Washington. Have you ever been to Aberdeen or Montesano? Sad, isn’t it? In the interest of full disclosure, I was born in southwest Washington (although thank all things holy, also my parents, that I was not raised there) and have family living there, so I’m familiar with the region. And it’s a huge bummer. All of the towns in the area are the depressed remnants of the logging industry, which has long since been on the decline in the larger Pacific Northwest. Those who remain in these places have acclimated themselves to a life of limited means. This, of course, breeds deep-seated discontent, generally aimed at the federal government. Lack of opportunities leads to above-average substance abuse, corrupted family units, the whole thing. That resentment is thrust onto the kids, who in turn push that aggression onto anyone not driving a pickup truck. Kurt Cobain, sensitive artist type, did not fit in.
“Swap Meet,” then, is a portrait of an Aberdeen Sunday at the actual swap meet. It’s a brief story about sad people who “make a living out of arts and crafts,” who tell themselves they are content with their trailer park life and messy divorces. There are no aspirations here, and Kurt rails against that here and elsewhere. Of course, in a horrible monkey’s paw situation, Kurt achieved the wrong kind of success with his art in the end. He aspired to Sonic Youth levels of outsider artistry, and ended up leading the biggest band in the world. Obviously he had other serious issues which his life in southwest Washington only exacerbated. The good ending to this story would have been Kurt giving way to Dave “Uncle Rock N’ Roll” Grohl and going off to New York to noodle atonal noise in a Greenwich Village loft, but that’s not what happened. Instead we get snapshots of a collapsed community, which help round out the complicated story of a sad, talented man.