It's interesting to note that I can chart the rise and fall of Nirvana right alongside my high school tenure. The month "Nevermind" was released--September of 1991--I entered high school. As my junior year was wrapping up--April of 1994--Kurt Cobain had passed on. In a way, the music and career of Nirvana conjurs up memories of my high school experience more than anything else.
And yet, ironically, I wasn't fully able to grasp Nirvana at the time. When "Nevermind" hit in 1991, I was a shy 14 year old kid busying myself with Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and The Doors. I was also going through what I refer to as my "'80s Rennaissance," rediscovering all the old '80s bands I had loved growing up, and even discovering new ones. Many people have a story about the first time they heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but I can't recall the absolute first time...probably because, at the time, Nirvana kind of scared me. I do remember MTV playing "Spirit" every hour, usually on the hour, though I don't think I ever kept the channel on long enough to catch the entire song. Maybe once or twice, but it definitely was not my thing.
Many folks in my high school liked Nirvana, especially all the guys in my guitar class. One of my best friends was a huge, very sincere Nirvana fan, having gotten into the band as far back as 1989. A friend had given him a copy of their first record, "Bleach," on white vinyl...a major collector's item which eventually fell out of his possession!
Many say they had never heard anything like Nirvana when "Nevermind" came out...and to say that is definitely an understatement. Many bands akin to Nirvana had been bubbling under the surface for years, and while Nirvana probably weren't the most original of all of them, they certainly were the first to break through to the mainstream. When "Nevermind" was released in 1991, it famously decapitated Michael Jackson by derailing the King of Pop's "Dangerous" album at the top of the charts. How much more successful can you get? While I didn't have the tools to accurately describe what I was hearing in 1991, if you would have asked me what Nirvana sounded like, I probably would have said "hard."
Having said all this, I remember three specific moments in time when Nirvana finally began to seep into my consciousness so that I could actually appreciate them on some level. The first moment was probably Nirvana's appearance on "Saturday Night Live." Everyone saw this. I don't care who you were...*everyone* saw this, especially in my peer group. That night, Nirvana predictably performed their breakout hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but of more significance to me was their second song, a simple, charming little ditty entitled "Territorial Pissings." Riding on top of a raw, surfy guitar chord pattern, with a totally explosive drum line courtesy of Dave Grohl, Cobain sang axioms like "when I was an alien, cultures weren't opinions." Then into the chorus: the same chord pattern, over an even more incendiary drum line, with Cobain screaming "gotta find a way, a better way, I'd better wait!" Of course, at the time, one could barely understand what he was singing...but it was the intensity of the thing that got to you. It may have been the first real punk song I ever heard in my life. I distinctly remember sitting there thinking "I wonder what the cast members are thinking about this backstage." It was the indescribable feeling that this was a *happening*...not just another run-of-the-mill musical guest on SNL. Hell, this episode was wedged between episodes featuring James Taylor and Robbie Robertson as musical guests!
The second moment of clarity would have to be the video for "Come As You Are." I have very vivid memories of lounging around in the summer of 1992 watching this video and listening to this song. While "Spirit" had been too "hard" for me, "Come As You Are" centered around a less threatening--but equally sinister--guitar riff, smothered in flange, and sported a more normal melodic line. To this day, "Come As You Are" perfectly conjurs up memories of the summer of 1992, falling asleep in the afternoon with MTV on in my cold, air conditioned house. "Come As You Are" was the first Nirvana song I ever really liked, enough that I would borrow my dad's "Nevermind" cassette to hear it. (Yes, my *dad* owned "Nevermind" before I did...how pathetic is that?)
The third moment didn't come
about a year later, when MTV debuted the video for a new Nirvana song
"Heart Shaped Box." Nirvana must have had a significant impact on
me the first time around because this time they weren't really
to me...and from the first ten seconds of the song, I was definitely
A chiming electric guitar line gave way to a big, immense, thudding
section and a Cobain vocal that was alternately heartfelt and slightly
sinister. But the piez de resistance was in the chorus, where the
bass kicked into distortion and Cobain, among soaring, cackling
guitars, intoned "Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint!" If the
of "Nevermind" had been unlike anything I'd ever heard before, hearing
this song was like opening up a door into the fourth dimension.
managed to be innovative *more than once*? I managed to borrow a
cassette of the album from a friend in my Chemistry class. My
attention span in those days probably prevented me from playing the
thing, but I know I played the hell out of that one song, and also
spine-tingling, menacing song called "Scentless Apprentice."
time I wasn't going to sit around while all my friends told me how
the band was. I actually went out and bought "In Utero." I
remember how nervous I was, almost as if Obi-Wan Kenobi was standing
me, saying "you've just taken your first step into a larger
Quite simply, "In Utero" was the first "alternative" record I ever
Ten years on, I still think it's
far and away the best album they ever made.
On December 16, 1993, Nirvana's
"MTV Unplugged" special debuted. Again, anybody who was anybody
watching...except me, of course. I had missed the broadcast, but
the next day I had rather naively asked my friends if they'd done
Shaped Box." I did eventually catch a rebroadcast of the special,
an extremely captivating performance. In many circles it's been
as Kurt Cobain's wake. At the time, though, it just seemed like
interesting, unique, slightly ethereal performance, the band being
by dozens of candles, joined by new guitar recruit Pat Smear, cellist
Lori Goldston and even enlisting the help of the Meat Puppets on a
couple of numbers.
Kurt was definitely somber and soft spoken, but managed to get in a
of one liners and charmingly self-effacing comments here and
The performance itself was hypnotic, intimate, warm and very
given the band's repuation for being loud grunge rockers. Kurt
the band through some of the mellower numbers from their first three
as well as a number of covers, including tunes by The Vaselines, the
Puppets, David Bowie and a harrowing rendition of Leadbelly's "Where
You Sleep Last Night?"
Kurt & Co. were really starting to win me over. Their music was always intense and heartfelt; Kurt's voice was interesting, ragged and spoke volumes about the human condition, even when he wasn't literally saying anything; Dav Grohl's drumming was explosive and exhilirating; and Kurt's lyrics, while usually cryptic, were evocative and colorful, in much the same way Jim Morrison's lyrics were.
Three months later, word broke that Kurt Cobain, while on tour in Rome, had overdosed on rohypnol and champagne and had ended up in a coma. While this news was hardly surprising, it was most definitely shocking. It was suspected that Kurt had attempted to commit suicide and failed. Some of my friends were nearly inconsolable. One of them said that he and another friend of his were basically living minute by minute waiting for word of what happened next. They didn't know what they would do if Cobain ended up dying.
In March, Kurt Cobain had emerged from the coma and checked himself into a rehab clinic. On March 31, he went AWOL from the clinic. Five days into April, he was dead.
To some, the impact Cobain's death had on our culture--especially youth--seems to be exaggerated, but I, like many other people, remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news. The story itself did not break until April 8th, and even then it was a little convoluted. As soon as my mom picked me up from school that day, she said "they found a dead person in the house of the guy from Nirvana." Ironically, my first thought was that someone had been killed in his home, or that he'd murdered a robber. Maybe I didn't want to even think that it was Kurt's body that had been found, even though the signs had been there for months, nay years, that he was a terminally troubled soul. When I got home, I turned on the news. Footage of Cobain's house in Seattle was shown. The inevitable had happened. Cobain was dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Perhaps this was the Big
that had been waiting to happen for years. When you looked at
Cobain, you could tell that this was a man working on a very short
While he didn't exactly come across as if the Grim Reaper was always
over his shoulder, something clued you in on the fact that something
quite right with him. The entire Nirvana saga almost felt like a
dream, even while it was happening. Everyone knew this band was
major, something special...and phenomna like that never last too
Sometimes the world seems far too small to contain souls so big...too
to hold onto something of such power...the flame must be extinguished
it burns out at its natural course.
Cobain himself had often joked that he would one day go on to join the "27 club": the famous trio of musicians who had died at age 27, namely Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. While some still maintain to this day that Cobain was the happiest he'd ever been in the last months of his life, and that there were no signs of depression, it's clear that Kurt had something of a deathwish, even at an early age.
While I took umbrage to the "spokesman for a generation" tagline--only afforded to him post-mortem by MTV--and found the frequent comparisons to John Lennon a bit of a stretch, it's hard to argue with the massive throng of hardcore Nirvana and Kurt adorers: the social relevance and impact of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana can't really be emphasized enough. "Nevermind" had already sold five million copies by the time Cobain passed on. "In Utero": two million. After Cobain's death, 7,000 mourners gathered together outside Kurt's house in Seattle for a candlelight vigil, in which Courtney Love, Kurt's widow, read most of his suicide note over a PA system. Los Angeles alternative radio station KROQ received over 200 distraught calls from Nirvana fans within minutes of broadcasting the news of his death. Think what you will about Kurt Cobain or the music of Nirvana...this really was something serious. Youth everywhere felt some sort of connection to Kurt And Nirvana. The assembled throng in Seattle on April 10th was probably the biggest congregation of mourners for a celebrity since the death of John Lennon.
I too was pretty disappointed at the time--especially since I had only recently begun to really appreciate the band--but I didn't quite understand all the hero worship. A friend of mine went around scrawling "Remember Kurt" on chalkboards and I remember teasing him about it. Of course, at the time, I was a virtual Alex P. Keaton, so while I enjoyed some of Kurt Cobain's music, I didn't much appreciate or respect him as a person. I was too narrow-minded to understand or relate...didn't want to look past the rough exterior or merciless bombast of his music to see characteristics I could relate to...characteristics we could all relate to, if we could be bold enough to just look inside ourselves. Perhaps that's why Kurt's death resonates more with me now than it did back then. The older I get, the more I understand his jaundiced, weary view of this pitiful world around us.
While I wouldn't consider myself a diehard Nirvana fan--I own and enjoy their three studio albums, "Unplugged," "Incesticide" and almost all of the b-sides--I've found myself having to stick up for Kurt and Nirvana more and more with each passing year...especially online. It's a predictable story: a young star dies before his time and is instantly immortalized in the hearts of millions. Time marches on and it becomes less fashionable to admire said star and more en vogue to deem them overrated. The complaints leveled at Nirvana run the gamut: that Kurt was a horrible guitarist (if that's what your focusing on, you're not getting it); that their songs were awful (subjective); that they were tuneless, grating, loud and obnoxious (again subjective); and that they paved the way for a bunch of awful musical acts that we're still having to endure (as stupid an argument as blaming The Beatles for every bad pop band that has emerged since 1970).
And then there's the argument that Kurt Cobain was nothing more than a thoroughly messed up human being and a complete waste of space.
And it's that last one that
me the most. Taste in art is highly subjective and it's
for one to have an aversion to a particular type of music simply
it isn't their cup of tea. Heck, I was there once myself.
to completely dismiss Kurt Cobain as a human being because he had
emotional problems and was incapable of overcoming them is a disturbing
sign of our compassionless, disposable pop culture.
There's no denying
Kurt Cobain had serious issues...but to completely dismiss his art
because he lead a different lifestyle than you do or because he chose
act out his insecurities in a different manner or, sadly, end his own
shows how we as a culture are afraid. Afraid to look at
to probe a little deeper, to admit that we all are fundamentally flawed
and that this could really happen to anyone. We all float around
like pinballs, bumping into one another, just on the verge of spinning
wildly out of control. Some thing, some spark prevents most of us
from going completely mad...but others aren't that lucky.
Kurt Cobain--a person who never hurt anyone but himself--because of his
personal issues seems ludicrous to me. Sure, there are those that
argue that suicide is "selfish" and that Kurt was hurting plenty of
including his friends and family, but that's an argument I personally
never been able to swallow. Suicide is a way out chosen by those
who see absolutely no hope left in this world of ours. It's a sad
and unfortunate route to go, but if you open your eyes and take a look
at the world around us--and at yourself--it's not that difficult to see
why some feel completely hopeless. To scorn one who has committed
suicide shows a complete ignorance and disregard for the way clinical
Moreover, most decent art stems
from pain. Even comedy...most comedians will confess to being terribly
neurotic and depressed in real life. I think people like to empathize
with other "miserable" people. It gives them solace. When someone makes
an artistic statement stemming from great pain--or joy, for that
matter--the true test of that is whether or not people can relate to
it. Whether it resonates with people.
Ten years on, I think it's easy
to see that Nirvana were quite simply the best of their breed.
bands preceeded them and many an imitator followed in their wake, but
have had the impact, commercial success and resonance of Nirvana.
For a band that recorded only three stduio albums during their tenure,
it's a rather remarkable acheivement. Would they be as revered
if Cobain's life hadn't ended so prematurely? As always, it's
to say. And that leads to perhaps the saddest truth of all of
just what could Cobain have acheived if he'd gotten some help, overcome
his issues, gotten clean and sober and continued to make music?
Near the end of his life, Cobain kept claiming that he wanted to do something really different, far removed from the "verse/chorus/verse" nature of Nirvana's current music. I can see Nirvana having pumped out one or two more records but having gone out at the top of their game. After that, I can see Cobain having gone on to become a quiet singer/songwriter type, maybe putting out an album every few years and doing a few low key gigs here and there. On the other hand, maybe he wasn't strong enough to have endured the b.s. of the music industry without a band to support him. Maybe Nirvana would have called it a day and Kurt would have holed himself up for the rest of his years, opting instead to spend time with his child and--if they had stayed together, which is doubtful--Courtney.
It's 2004, and Nirvana is still everywhere...and they're not going away any time soon. Their legacy can't be dismissed, no matter what your personal views or musical preferences might be. The death of Kurt Cobain is another sad example of a supreme waste of talent. Even Bob Dylan once remarked that the "kid had heart." Let's hope his tortured soul finally found peace in the next world.
"All in all is all we are."