It was 20 years ago today that Kurt Cobain killed himself. 20 years ago (in the innocent days before computers, social media, smart phones and the like) when I came home from my day in CEGEP, turned on MusiquePlus as I was prone to do and I saw the coverage and learned that this figure that I had been intrigued with, scared of, and in love with had died. I remember there being a suicide hotline at the bottom of the TV screen throughout all of the coverage. I remember people were calling in – these crying, shocked Francophone teens, expressing how much they were saddened by his death. I said nothing. I just watched. I thought about Courtney Love, and where she was right now. I thought about Frances Bean, and how she would somehow probably feel like I do – forever hearing stories about her father, but never truly knowing who he was. I couldn’t stop watching that evening. I wanted to go to school the next day and talk about it to my friends. I remember calling people that night and freaking out with them at this news…I wasn’t going to shake this off so soon.
It’s a fair estimation to say that I’m a pop music fan. I’m pretty open to any and all kinds of styles of music, but when it comes down to it I’ve always been a Top 40 guy – the one who would get a new “tape” or “CD” (now archaic forms of music storing) on a Tuesday and keep current with what was going on. There’s never been a real edginess to the music I liked – it took a while for me to be cool with that estimation.
If you were to go back to my world in 1991/1992, my “tape” collection contained the following:
C+C Music Factory – Gonna Make You Sweat (huge fan of that album back then, and maybe a bit now).
Gloria Estefan – Into The Light (the album she released after her bus accident. Laugh if you will, but she was the shit back in the day).
Prince – Diamonds and Pearls (ok, maybe I had a tiny edge as I would always go and get his latest every year. Remember when he would release an album once a year?)
Paula Abdul – Spellbound (Paula – one of my crushes, this was her second album. Sigh).
Michael Jackson – Dangerous (oh man, did I ever love that one).
So, you could see that by my taste, you knew what to expect.
Then, all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, this guitar riff came out from some dark crevice and blew into my universe:
(I actually haven’t watched this video in probably over 20 years…and as I watch it now, it still makes me stop in my tracks).
Something about the pain in his perfectly tuned yet heartbreaking voice spoke to me. I didn’t know what the hell the song was about. But, there was something there that broke into my heart. I would watch the video and see imagery of school life: cheerleaders, janitors, kids thrashing and think to myself: I don’t look like any of the people in this video, but I am one of those kids. I think it was safe to say that my constant wanting to like what was trendy, what was popular was also symptomatic of me wanting to be always liked, always respected, always noticed….even when at times in my teenage life, I was thinking of things that were not so happy, not so mainstream,not so sunlit and kind of forced to not talk about it, because it would have been impolite to do otherwise.
So, here was this frontman, and this band singing and screaming their way into the mainstream and becoming a voice to millions of boys and girls who were unheard. The music hit a nerve. I got Nevermind as fast as I could, and I devoured it. And when I say devour, I literally ate that album up. I loved the album cover, I loved every single song that was on that record. Friends of mine at the time, I remember, were really shocked that I had become a Nirvana fan. I think a part of me was shocked too, but I couldn’t help it. That beautiful wave was bigger than me, and I rode it and embraced Kurt, Dave and Krist as though they were my friends.
(In Bloom remains my favorite song on the album. Years later, I remember my nephews playing Guitar Hero on our cousin’s television and them asking me to play. In Bloom was once of the choices to sing, believe it or not, so I decided to do that one. I remember my sister being taken aback that I knew the words so well, even saying something along the lines of how odd it was that Merrill would know and love this song….)
Kurt Cobain became a superstar. He didn’t want to be one, but sometimes things are out of your control. I never forgot the impact of what Nevermind was to me. I don’t think I ever will. I still have it in my collection. I will keep it forever. And maybe some day I can tell Lea all about it.
By the time, In Utero came out, I was so excited. And here is where I must admit something: I never gave that album as fair a shake as I should. I lost my copy. I listened to the album about a dozen times. But, as most 19 years old are they are fickle. And my need for a hook always won out. To this day, I want that album back in my collection, I want to re-listen to it as a nearly 40-year-old man and embrace it for what it was.
I however never forgot the impact of this song and its beautiful video:
(There’s still something about that last shot of him in this video – smiling with gritted teeth, and then going serious….that foreshadowed something to me)
By this point, even though I might have been lukewarm on In Utero, (I know, I know – I was stupid to do so!) I still worshipped Kurt Cobain. I wanted to read anything and everything about him. I wanted to read about his struggles and his life…he represented this strange breed of heroism, rejection and sensitivity that connected to me on so many levels. I always felt that if I had ever met him, I would be his friend. I don’t know why. But it was something that I still think about to myself, as I am sure lots of others of my generation do as well.
There was something imminent about Kurt by the time their beautiful and stunning Unplugged album came out. Something was going to change – you could hear it in his voice and in the songs that were chosen for this show.
(Whenever I hear this song still and see this footage, the hair goes up on my arms…)
There was something foreboding and strange and dark about these entire proceedings. You couldn’t put your finger on it, but there was something….the way his eyes are so shut while singing….
And then the news. April 5, 1994.
Kurt Cobain was 27 years old – which seemed so old when I was 17.
I remember the flurry of people yelling “ASSHOLE” back to Courtney Love’s recorded statement to the fans in Seattle – the way her voice was so tear-soaked. She sounded so out of it. We were all out of it in some way.
Kurt’s death is also connected to Hole for me. I remember thinking how eerily prophetic it was that Hole’s brilliant record Live Through This came out days later and how ominous the title was, and how the images of the “Doll Parts” video still haunt me :
(The last image from this video always makes me teary…)
I still remember when I turned 28, I thought about how I had “outlived” Kurt Cobain.
I can only speak for myself, but I believe that I was a feminist 20 years ago, but I didn’t know what to call it. And if I did know what to call it, I would never say it out loud because I would be afraid of judgment from other people. And at 17 in 1994, that really WOULD NOT be cool. As I’ve gotten older, gotten more comfortable in my skin as time tends to do, I believe that it was that grain of feminist understanding that made me connect with Kurt Cobain. That was what brought me to his music, I believe. It was a completely subconscious movement that happened there. And it went for it.
And the more I think about it, I believe it was Nirvana that made me fall in love with the guitar and appreciate it for the instrument that it is. Nirvana (through Kurt) was my entry point to other grunge bands from the era (you know who they are) and brought my focus into rock and made me appreciate the sounds and emotions with which the guitar could ring out.
There’s a lot I have to be grateful for.
And today it’s April 5, 2014. And the tributes and quotes and tweets as they do every year come forth. And I participate every single year. Because it still means something to me. It’s a genuine reaction.
Ever seen this? This is a beautiful animated interview that gives real insight into who Kurt was:
I never put people on pedestals. Humans make mistakes – they are not gods. It was a lesson I learned early on. It makes things easier when you don’t do that.
Kurt Cobain had demons. For someone who was a trailblazer and was ahead of his time on so many different issues that are so vocalized and spoken about today, he himself didn’t have the tools to help himself. And we should mourn that, not judge it. We will never be in his shoes. And we should never claim to know what that is like. We are blessed that most of us are able to navigate through our feelings healthily and without barriers. He did not have that. Respect that. He did take a wrong turn. But it was his turn to take, not yours. His career may have been brief, but his impact on the world was gigantic. And like all icons, they have a generation of followers. I was lucky enough to be in the era where he was there for me. And like other generations prior, I’m sure there are many who don’t understand what his appeal was. And for those who don’t understand, there is no explanation required. Because if you heard that guitar riff at a certain time, all those years ago….you just got it.
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”
“If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women please do this one favor of us. Don’t come to our shows, or buy our records.”
“Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth and it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”
And if I close my eyes still, his voice is still there….