Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago. I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this, although it’s impossible to argue with dates and the passage of time.
Oh, look! Another thought piece about Kurt Cobain’s death. Just what we need, right?
But I can’t help it. His death was one of the most influential things to happen in music in my lifetime in two ways: its impact on the individual kids who were into the music, and its impact on the generation that embraced Nirvana as a powerful influence.
I was 23 when Kurt died. Everyone called him Kurt. It was just that way. I loved Nirvana. I loved all of the music that came out of Seattle then and spread across the country, and I watched as one by one, several of the people who made it big out of that scene died criminally young. Depression and addiction and whatever combination of all of the things that can plague human beings killed Layne Staley of Alice in Chains (in 2002, but still) and Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon and Kristen Pfaff from Hole. When Cobain died, that felt like the end of something in the middle of something, if that makes sense.
He was 27, although he seemed much older to me at the time (like everyone did, I think) and that’s the same today. It was a terrible story. Suicide by gunshot, alone in his house, not found for days. Sure, his music was dark and his persona followed, but in interviews just months before his death, he said that that wasn’t really the truth. He sounded upbeat. He sounded like a pretty realistic guy who was piecing together how fame worked for him and how it didn’t. He knew he was in charge of Nirvana. He wasn’t sure how long they could keep making the same kind of music and survive. He had no intention of killing himself.
“I still see stuff, descriptions of rock stars in some magazine ‘Sting, the environmental guy,’ and ‘Kurt Cobain, the whiny, complaining, neurotic, bitchy guy who hates everything, hates rock stardom, hates his life.’ And I’ve never been happier in my life. Especially within the last week, because the shows have been going so well except for tonight. I’m a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am.”
Then he did it anyway.
Kurt Cobain’s death — pre-Twitter and Facebook — was the first death of an entertainer or popular figure that I remember punching me in the gut. I remember arguing with my boyfriend at the time because I thought the lyrics from Kurt’s suicide note — “It’s better to burn out than fade away”— were from a Def Leppard song and not Neil Young, as Kurt clearly intended. This guy was horrified that I’d credit a hair band with something that belonged to Neil Young, and I have to admit that 20 years out I’m still a little embarrassed, but what could I say? That music was my thing until I stumbled across some early Nirvana (thanks to him, probably) and was hooked on a heavier, more percussive sound. I had a lot to learn — about music and about everything else.
A reaction to ’80s glam and music that was more like candy than a main meal was part of the reason why I think the grunge sound resonated for so many of us. And it’s the reason why it hung on, if the continued success of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Krist Novoselic’s and Dave Grohl’s future projects are any indication. It had a particular effect on Generation X — my generation. Not everyone in Gen-X liked grunge or participated in the flannel shirt/Lollapalooza/dark lyrics/crushing guitars and percussion experience. But those of us who did were almost entirely represented by that generation. We had to have somewhere to go, I guess, and the bands out of Seattle provided a musical dot on the map, if nothing else.
Courtney Love and the surviving members of Nirvana have said they will be on hand for the band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next week. Courtney told Rolling Stone that it “might be awkward,” because of her conflicts with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic over song royalties and credits. She is also not known for being calm and collected in public, either in her own dealings or her relationship with her daughter.
And that’s the real loss in all of this — the loss of a dad. Cobain’s relationship with his year-old daughter Frances Bean Cobain was by all accounts a great source of joy for him in the last year of his life, as he indicated in his suicide note.
I have a goddess of a wife who sweats ambition and empathy and a daughter who reminds me too much of what i used to be, full of love and joy, kissing every person she meets because everyone is good and will do her no harm. And that terrifies me to the point to where I can barely function. I can’t stand the thought of Frances becoming the miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.
Twenty years later, like that day, that is the saddest part of all of this, besides the loss of a life of a talented man who meant so much to so many people. When all the publicity and public remembrances subside, that is the truth at the center of it — the reality that Kurt Cobain made a personal and artistic impression on the world and then chose to leave it because his suffering overwhelmed him.
Elegies are important, particularly for people who had a huge impact. Memories are important too, and when people like Kurt Cobain die, although we didn’t know them or hang out with them or claim them as family, it affects people who experienced him as a collective. There was a reason why Lollapalooza emerged out of grunge and alternative. I remember standing in a sea of teenagers, no idea what we were going to do tomorrow, much less after college, thousands of heads bobbing to lyrics we may or may not have understood. If you ever saw a group of teens or 20-somethings sing along together to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you saw, I think, the spirit of that movement, of that genre of music, and of a certain subculture of kids who all, either silently or out loud, cried when Kurt Cobain died.
For that deeply personal reason, but mostly for his family, I wish things like the pictures of his body at the scene of his death that are being publicized now go away quietly. I’m actually hoping that Courtney doesn’t do the musical she hopes to do about his life so his story can rest as well. I hope the most that Frances Bean Cobain has a good life today. I hope Kurt rests in peace. I thank him for the music, still and only. He made a difference to a lot of us who aren’t kids anymore, but remember that time, perhaps today more than usual.
Image credit: Wikipedia