You will have your own opinion, no doubt, of Kurt Cobain. I’ve heard most of them before – the range running from “spokesman (or person as he would surely have preferred) for his generation” through to “junkie loser”. Now he seems to just be a face on a tee shirt, like Che Guevara is a face on a tee shirt, an icon or emblem of something (rock and roll ? suicide ? disaffected alienation ?) that’s disconnected from the person.
Twenty years ago today was probably the day he died, his body found three days later on April 8th, 1994. I was in my final year at University and heard the news as I lay in bed listening to the radio. I’m still not entirely sure why but it definitely affected me at the time; it was troubling and shocking and sad. In retrospect my “tribute”, which involved daubing his name on the back of a white football shirt for a 5-a-side tournament I was about to play in, doesn’t seem desperately respectful. But then, it was playful I guess, and perhaps he would have liked that.
I was first aware of Nirvana from my frequent visits to the Kandi Klub in Bristol in the late 80s and early 90s. I don’t remember it exactly but I imagine “Sliver” was probably my introductory point. They made a bigger impression at the Reading Festival in ’91 – about a month before “Teen Spirit” was released – playing a set in the middle of the afternoon that had the site buzzing for the rest of the weekend. Not, mind you, that any of us thought they were about to have a no.1 album in the States – they were just one of “our” bands that had played a great set. Mudhoney played an equally enjoyable set that day and some of the smart money was on them breaking through if anyone was going to.
After success happened Cobain never seemed to satisfactorily reconcile art and commerce for himself; desperate not to “sell out” on the one hand but making choices that left himself open to the charge on the other (major label, the production on “Nevermind”, the video for “Teen Spirit”). It’s frightening how much changed for the band in the space of a year. They were back at Reading in ’92 but this time as headliners amid wild speculation about the state of Cobain’s health (which he lampooned by being pushed out on stage in a wheelchair dressed in a surgical gown). Their performance was good – I don’t have many “I was there” stories but Nirvana at Reading ’91 and ’92 is one of them – but there’s more cynicism. It’s worth listening to and comparing the frenetic run through of “Teen Spirit” from the ’91 set (at about 9 mins in here) to the deliberately mangled take from ’92 (here) when Cobain, at least, was evidently pretty sick of playing that song. The nod to the Boston “More Than A Feeling” steal at the start is still pretty funny though.
It had felt like a victory when “Nevermind” broke, a validation if you felt like you were on the margins of mainstream culture. It’s okay, that victory said, it’s okay to feel a little lost and a little alone and a little like you don’t know what your life is going to be. It’s okay to be vulnerable. He was never a “spokesperson” for me or for anyone I knew but he was someone I could identify with, from the goofing around with his friends to the pain you heard every time he opened out that cracked and ragged voice to sing. And make no mistake, Cobain was a brilliant, brilliant singer if the point of singing is to articulate and express aspects of the human condition. Catharsis is usually the word that gets bandied around when people talk about his vocals; cathartic for us maybe but evidently in the end not for him.
So inevitably it felt like a defeat when he died. Not just died but took his own life (I don’t buy any of the conspiracy theories). He was living in a lot of pain by all accounts and trying to numb it with whatever he could; heroin and, ultimately, a shot gun. Here was one of the guys that had made you feel a little better about being on the outside and he’d not been able to cope. Maybe everything wasn’t going to be okay ?
I don’t, and won’t, glorify his death nor his drug taking but neither will I judge him by those acts alone. I admired his sense of humour, how he took his work seriously but not the stuff around it, his sense of melody married to noise, and the way that he could produce sounds with his voice that spoke to how I felt, even (especially) when I felt pretty dark. I wish he’d been free of pain, free of his mental demons, free to find a way to continue to make music, and free to be with his daughter. I will raise a cup of lemsip (I am currently sick – it seems fitting) in his honour today.
The way I will always remember him is splayed out amongst Dave Grohl’s drums at the end of that ’91 Reading set having launched himself into it as a finale. Kinda cool. Kinda stupid. But happy and alive. Not just a face on a tee shirt. He got up, gave us a grin and a wave, and was gone.