Recently, I wrote about losing comedian Bill Hicks 20 years ago.
Outside of comedians, and comedy nerds like myself, that loss flew pretty far under the radar.
Two months after Hicks died, we lost yet another voice of our generation.
Yea, that was 20 years ago.
I’ll let that sink in.
On April 8th, 1994 Cobain’s body was discovered and according to the coroner’s report, Kurt Cobain committed suicide on or around April 5th, 1994.
I realize that it’s still a few weeks away, but as I was listening to Nevermind the other day, it hit me “Christ has it really been twenty years?” It has.
There are some artists who transcend their art and their time. Kurt Cobain is one of them.
Nirvana was a great band. Without a doubt. They still are. But Pearl Jam has always had more resonance with me. Regardless of personal preference, in the fall of 1991 through the summer of 1992, Ten and Nevermind were ubiquitous and quickly became the two albums that provided a soundtrack to a tectonic cultural shift.
However reluctantly, it would be these two bands that would come to represent an entire generation. Where one lead singer retreated into himself and his craft, the other stepped up and attempted to quell the hysteria.
One survived. One did not.
I type “two bands that would come to represent an entire generation” reluctantly. Doing so is over simplifying and neglecting the contributions of the numerous other artists who contributed. And there were plenty.
However, most of them are not dead.
In his June 2, 1994 essay on Cobain’s suicide, Anthony DeCurtis wrote:
“Kurt Cobain never wanted to be the spokesman for a generation, though that doesn’t mean much: Anybody who did would never have become one. It’s not a role you campaign for. It is thrust upon you, and you live with it. Or you don’t.“
20 years on and I still struggle with the cultural impact all of that early 1990’s stuff and what it all meant. Obviously, as a fan of the music, and a cognizant citizen, I knew something was happening but I was a young guy still sorting things out and had no real way to put it in any sort of context.
Now I’m 20 years older and still sorting things out and beginning to realize this sorting thing is a lifelong process. Similarly, here we are living through a seemingly endless cultural shift, ultimately proving “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
However, what seems to be missing this time around is a soundtrack.
I just don’t think any band right now is really of the moment and is actually able to capture the moment.
Nonetheless, I look back to that cultural shift and the one thing that mattered then is still the one thing that matters now. The music.
It sounds nostalgic, and I suppose in some sense it is, but not entirely.
When Nirvana and Pearl Jam blew out of Seattle, it seemed as if overnight, the rock and roll landscape had completely changed color, size and shape. This mash-up of punk and hard rock, that came to be known as grunge, literally eviscerated the sound of every band, of every genre, that had ever been known.
That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. The Seattle sound, or grunge, wasn’t really revolutionary, it wasn’t even evolutionary; we all knew where it came from and yet it sounded like nothing else.
It was exciting living through it and awe inspiring looking back on it.
Now I was just a fan, and a college DJ, so I can’t begin to imagine the mind fuck it must have been for the reluctant architect’s of this thing. Bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, et al. who were suddenly standing in the center of all of this, with every reporter, theorist and teenager misquoting, dissecting and hanging on their every word.
Over the next few weeks, I am certain there will be a media blitzkrieg about grunge and Kurt Cobain. While not necessarily a bad thing, my fear is the focus will be on his suicide, his drugs use and his marriage to Courtney Love (hands down the most vacuous and vapid individual of that period) and not on his music.
Certainly, there is no escaping how he chose to live and to end his life. Certainly, there is no way to not get angry for the way he chose to exit. And certainly, there is no denying his impact & influence on music is unfading.
It’s been 20 years and there are an exhaustive number of articles, opinions and interpretations out there. Among them:
Greil Marcus (Artist of the 1990’s – Rolling Stone via nirvanaclub.com)
Anthony DeCurtis (June 2, 1994 – Rolling Stone)
Bill Wyman (Salon)
Chuck Klosterman (a little levity – Spin Magazine)
Thomas Beller (Nirvana for two year olds – The New Yorker)
M.I.T Media Lab Pantheon (Interactive catalog of fame – fun)
I guess what I can talk about is what Nirvana meant to me. The truth is, not a lot. Nevermind is a brilliant record and I love, truly love, every song on it.
But at the risk of blaspheming against an entire generation, I never got into Bleach and thought In Utero was interesting, but a misfire. Having all the b-sides and extraneous songs put on Insecticide was what it appeared to be, a money grab. However, Nirvana Unplugged was brilliantly sublime and showcased just how gifted Kurt Cobain was and what a waste his death was.
Even though I wasn’t a Kurt Cobain or Nirvana disciple, I did always purchase the work and actively listened to it. Even after all these years I can recognize that it seemed more out of a sense of duty. I felt as though I should be getting something from the music…and yet I wasn’t.
Which is OK because millions of others were.
As a musician and artist I found Kurt Cobain fascinating and challenging.
As the designated spokesman for a generation? I found him frustrating.
Cobain seemed to have this push and pull relationship with celebrity. One minute thriving in it, the next shunning it. But, to be frank, no one starts a band to shun success. Period. So I think the fact that he did enjoy the success is an often overlooked element in the Cobain mythology.
The magnitude and gravitas ascribed to him that came with that success? No, I have no doubt he did not like that. Who would? Who would want the weight of the world tossed on your shoulders when all you want to do is create?
Like DeCurtis, I don’t think Kurt Cobain had any design to be the spokesman for our generation. But he was. And his coping mechanisms, mainly drug abuse, were infuriating.
There is no denying that he wasn’t given a decent emotional tool box to deal with being an adult. By the time you add on the extraordinary success he encountered, and accompanying pressure, no one can begin to understand his struggle.
That didn’t stop millions from trying. It didn’t stop millions from placing his struggle within the context of their own.
He may not have spoken to me, or for me, but he did for millions of others. And that matters.
When he killed himself, there was genuine concern that there would be a rash of suicides. In his book Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross notes “Kurt’s widely reported death caused great alarm among public health officials, who feared it was the perfect storm to threaten vulnerable youth.”
Fortunately, that didn’t prove to be the case. Cross even argues that his suicide, and the memorial on April 10, may have saved lives.
You may be asking “Who the hell am I to bemoan Kurt Cobain?” I’m a fan of the artist. I may not have liked everything but I always found him fascinating. I’m also a guy who feels cheated by the possibilities of what could have been.
I guess, even after 20 years, I’m a guy who is still pissed off about his suicide.
Suicide always leaves more questions than it answers and the shadow of suicide is eternal. Especially for an artist. It shrouds the work they leave behind. It may not always taint it, as in the case of Mark Rothko or Ernest Hemingway, but the suicide always ends up part of the story and therefore, part of the work.
Over the next month we’ll look back and remember. For me, I feel lucky to have the music. Sure, I am sad and I am angry and I think we were culturally deprived of someone with a truly distinctive voice.
But remember, no one was more cheated than his daughter.
As a young woman, now the age so many of us were then, my hope is that during all the upcoming hoopla and reflections she will understand exactly what her father, however reluctantly, tried so valiantly to represent, and ultimately dispel.
I hope she understands that the music mattered.
More importantly, so did the man.