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About a Guy: The Lingering Legacy of Kurt Cobain

Naveen Sultan about about 1 year ago

photo by Flickr/Dan Marsh

About a Guy: The Lingering Legacy of Kurt Cobain

By Amy Beeman

When a man shoots himself in the head with a shotgun, it’s brutal and tragic. When that man was Nirvana’s front man and song writer, Kurt Cobain, the brutality and tragedy of it was a kick in the teeth to millions of young Nirvana fans who felt they found something deeply relatable in his songs. The effects reverberated across the nation, crystalizing him and his industry-changing music in a metaphorical time capsule that defines a generation as much as bands like the Beatles or Rolling Stones did in the 1960s.

Twenty years after Kurt Cobain killed himself in April of 1994, his music is still relevant, and his short, turbulent life is still compelling. The anniversary of his death, and subsequent induction of Nirvana into The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame this month, has ignited a flurry of articles revisiting the era of Nirvana, and the 1991 release of their second album, Nevermind. Though there were other albums, Bleach in 1989, Incesticide in 1992, In Utero in 1993 and MTV Unplugged in New York in 1994 (after Cobain’s death), Nevermind was the album that turned the music industry on its head and paved the way for alternative music into the mainstream. But it goes deeper than that.

R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe said Nirvana “captured lightning in a bottle,” in his recent speech inducting Nirvana into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, explaining the phrase to mean “capturing something powerful and elusive and then being able to hold it and show it to the world...Nirvana tapped into a voice that was yearning to be heard.”

That they did. And we all went mad for it, at least us Gen Xers.

We’d had enough of hair bands, Paula Abdul and MC Hammer, and their trivial pop songs, so when Nevermind was released and Nirvana came kicking and screaming into our ears and on MTV, with their punk-rock-meets-simple-melody, strong-bass-lines, and dark, gritty, raw-emotional-angst sound, we drank it in. We needed it. We didn’t even know how much we needed it until it was here and then nothing else would do. Much to the chagrin of commercial radio.

Not only did we get an amazing band with one of the best albums, if not thee best album of a generation, but our demand for Nevermind and other alternative music overwhelmed the music industry and radio in such a way that they were forced to change. These days the masses can’t seem to agree on anything enough to make industries bend to our will, but that’s the amazing thing about music. It touches people intrinsically, different types of people for different reasons. When done right it is incredibly powerful. And that’s why we’re still talking about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana all these years later.

At first many stations wouldn’t even play “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the first song released from Nevermind. It was “too loud, too aggressive, too confrontational,” according to an article on “Songs this loud, this unrestrained were seldom heard in America at the time.” Not on mainstream radio anyway.

"Yet the force of “Teen Spirit,” and “Nevermind,” was unrelenting. The album sold 100,000 copies a week for much of the year. Sure — Garth Brooks or Shania Twain do that too, but they’re not purveying confrontational music. Radio began to crack under the pressure — and soon, some of those hostile radio stations didn’t exist anymore. In many cities, conservative AOR (Album Oriented Rock) outlets were supplanted, and in some cases handily replaced, by a new crop of alternative stations; within a year or two after the release of "Nevermind," even bellwether AOR stations were wounded, as, punch line or no, the Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden became staples of AOR programming for the rest of the decade.

"In other words, the band forced the industry to institutionalize openness. Nirvana didn’t do it alone, of course; besides the 10 years of experimentation that came before them, the architects of rap, too, had strikingly pushed the boundaries of pop; and so, of course, had R.E.M., who by the time of "Nevermind" were a refreshing, if not sonically daring, presence on radio. But for the decade of what is now known as the post-”Nevermind” era, the record companies, and radio, were forced to look for the next new thing."

Our love for Nirvana’s music was solidified, and we were enamored by its creator, Kurt Cobain. But Cobain was an unlikely rock star, one who shunned the glare of the spotlight. Seemingly for him, being an artist, the drive to create and the creative process was the thing he liked and wanted to do. It’s no secret he was not a fan of having so many fans wanting a piece of him everywhere he went, or of being part of the big corporate machine (i.e. the mainstream music industry) that he despised.

It’s a strange thing about music and what it does to an audience. If a musical artist manages to hit a nerve, scratch an itch, people can’t get enough. They want to consume as much as possible of the music, want to know its creator, want more of the feeling the music gives them. It makes people act a little crazy sometimes. It must’ve been an overwhelming thing to deal with.

Still, even three months before he killed himself, he told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I’m a much happier guy than people think I am.” He spoke of how he was more comfortable with having so many fans, about how his long-standing stomach ailments were improved. He claimed to be clean and sober, and spoke about the future of Nirvana and their next album, though he was hoping to expand their sound.

He didn’t sound like a guy who would leave rehab abruptly, go missing for several days only to be found dead of a shotgun wound to the head, pumped full of heroin, leaving behind a suicide note about how he felt like a fake and couldn’t find joy. He just didn’t want to do it anymore.  Though he sounded like he was in a healthy place in the RS article, that was just one day, one interview. Friends and people close to him say they knew he was spiraling out of control. Yet somehow his death was still a shock and maybe more so, a disappointment.

Nirvana’s bassist and co-founder, Krist Novoselic told Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross recently, “It’s not uncommon what happened with Kurt. The same story happens all over the country every day. It’s a combination of drug abuse and lack of coping skills.”

So, yeah, the guy had issues. Deep ones. In a beautiful dark twist, he was able to turn them into something that changed popular music, and moved a generation of kids so profoundly that he will always matter to us. His music still ignites, or releases, something in us and it feels good. Still.

Since Cobain died, no one in rock-n-roll has swept the nation in the way he and his band did. Listening to his music today, his voice is at once angry, vulnerable, searching, aching, and sad. Kind of how his life seemed to be. Maybe it’s that honesty that makes his songs so compelling.

When his mother accepted his award during the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, she said, “He’d be so proud. He’d say he wasn’t. But he would be.”

It seems likely that, if he had lived, a now nearly 50-year-old Cobain would’ve had a different perspective than the young, emotionally distraught Cobain did, a perspective from which he could feel good about how his music meant so much to so many. It’s too bad he didn’t stick around to find out.

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