Today is the 17th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. I wasn't going to post anything, but after watching things float across my RSS feeds, Facebook and, strangely, on shuffled playlists, I figured it was worth considering. Until I reread Rolling Stone's 1994 story on his death and actually felt compelled to follow the herd.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Nirvana - Drain You (live in Del Mar Fairgrounds, California in December, 1991)
Like most people in their late-20s/nearing-30/in-their-30s-or-early-40s, I had a serious Nirvana phase. How could you not? This was the band that ushered in the idea of labels signing bands that didn't sound like the crap they were already pumping out to the masses. Alternative culture - yes, I said it - defined the 90s and made the idea of being whatever you want the mainstream thought for young people. Cringe if you like, but that started with Nirvana. This is the stuff that defined children of the 90s, whether we admit it or not. And as I've seen pointed out on more than one post, Kurt, Krist and Dave talked about the music scenes they came from and the music they liked and brought with them all sorts of bands that MTV and the masses had never come close to. It's important, though a lot of "adults" still don't get it.
In making music that was often raw, something the mainstream had lost for the most part in the 1980s with the synth revolution, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" stood out - much more than "Mountain Song" or "Been Caught Stealing," despite the pointing out of many that Jane's Addiction beat Nirvana to the mainstream. Which is true, but inconsequential. Perry Ferrell represents a mischievous fiend inside us all. Nirvana, though, with the raging guitars, and the pounding from Grohl on the drums, and Kurt's scratched howl, matched a dissatisfaction and bewilderment that American teens and twentysomethings were dealing with after a decade of American greed and decline (sound familiar?) was exactly what we needed. Kurt Cobain and his band woke people up in a way nobody else did.
I don't remember what day of the week it was, and I don't remember what I did that day - because I was 12 - but I do remember turning on MTV, which I had already developed a very strong obsession with, much like everybody else I knew at that point, and seeing Kurt Loder speak the words that were already crawling across the screen, interrupting Spring Break or something, that Cobain had been found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face.
I've had all the albums on repeat for years. I read and reread Kurt's notebooks, published by his evil widow, out of prurient and selfish curiosity. I've read and watched interviews with him, the band, the scenesters... And still I don't get it. I don't think I'm supposed to get it. Something was wrong in his head, much more so than any lyrics, save maybe "You Know You're Right," could let on.
There's no telling what would have happened with Nirvana, or if he'd be on Twitter, or what elder-statesman Kurt would have done. Certainly, the music would be interesting and Mr. Corporate Magazines Still Suck would be biting the hands that feed him. We would be lapping it up though because he was the icon. He fired the first bitter shot. He stood on the essential, though flawed, MTV, which had made him a massively rich success, and pointed out that it kind of sucked. For many of us, it was all we had. Hearing the members of Nirvana tell us that there was more than we were being handed was a big deal. Again, at age 10 or 11 or 12, when they were on the VMAs and in interviews, spouting these things, it meant a lot.
His loss is just as infuriatingly sad now as it was 17 years ago. Maybe instead of Neil Young's "it's better to burn out than to fade away," Kurt should have ended that note with his own words, from the end of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," considering just how true they are: "I deny you. I deny you. I deny you. I deny you."
Buy the vastly underrated live collection From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (which the above version of "Drain You" comes from), or any of the other Nirvana albums you should already know by heart. These albums are among the bibles of a generation and are not to be underestimated. As always, I suggest Shockhound. For all sorts of EPs, rarities and physical formats also head over to Amazon.