Remembering Kurt Cobain
I was on a blind date when I first heard the news. We were in a Cajun restaurant in Memphis, eating peel and eat shrimp and trying to break the ice. Over Debbie’s shoulder on the Television that was tuned to MTV, I saw the words: “Kurt Cobain Found Dead”. I was astonished and told my date what I had just seen. At first, she thought that I was pulling some weird joke, a lame attempt to shock her, but unfortunately for everyone who loved his music, Kurt Cobain was gone.
I recently found a copy of Nirvana’s Unplugged album. I hadn’t listened to them in several years and had, quite honestly, forgotten just how much they had influenced me as a high school and college student. Now, I do not purport to speak for my generation. First of all, I’m not famous and don’t have a faithful following of people who agree with every word I utter; it would be pompous and pretentious of me to believe that I speak for anyone but myself. Second, my generation and this country are so fragmented and divided, there is absolutely no way that one person could adequately represent all of our views and beliefs. However, I do believe that on April 5, 1994, my generation lost one of its most powerful voices.
Kurt Cobain spoke to me like very few artists have. In short, only the novelist Harry Crews and musician Chris Whitley have made me feel quite so connected to something worthwhile. When I listened to Cobain’s lyrics – the ones I could understand and decipher – I knew that someone else in the world felt the same as I did. He despaired for humanity’s condition, mocked stupidity, loathed cruelty, and longed for a better world. His vision was at the same time immensely depressed and wondrously beautiful. His voice was weak, limited in range, and chaotic but also voluminous, melodic, and controlled. He was an enigmatic paradox who dared us to make sense of him.
I cannot believe that sixteen years have passed since he died. Since then, I have matured quite a bit, I think, and no longer view the world in the right-or-wrong, good-or-bad, simplistic views of adolescence. The world is much too complex, too full of compromise and shades of gray for anything to be as simple as right or wrong, and in these years, I’ve learned that Kurt Cobain understood too much about life too early. Perhaps, his knowledge of the world and his hard-earned wisdom are what led to his early death. Perhaps, drugs just suck. I don’t know. But I wish Kurt Cobain was still alive and making music.
A friend used to argue that Cobain was not passionate, that he was so distraught and depressed and horrified by the world all he could do was mumble. I didn’t agree with her then and, after listening again to the Unplugged album, still don’t now. While many of his lyrics were mumbled, his music contained both passion and some sense of hope, and the mumbling was a convention used to make us listen more closely, make us tune in to the music more than just casually. He had the level of genius to do something like that.
Nirvana reached an immense audience, touched more people from more backgrounds than any other band I can remember. I’ve known high school dropouts, graduate students, jocks, nerds, revolutionaries, fraternity boys, lesbians, gay men, good old boys, urbanites, and suburbanites who all loved them. Their music may have come from a Punk, underground scene and may have been born from antisocial sentiments, but it certainly became much more. For those of us who watched it live, the performance on Unplugged was a profound event. We didn’t have many cultural/social/spiritual events in the 80’s and 90’s, and there are even fewer today. On December 14, 1993, I was moved deeply by the performance, and even now, seventeen years later, I still get goosebumps when I hear tracks from that set.
I’ve always believed that a sign of greatness is when people have to have an extreme feeling about somebody, either good or bad, and Cobain fit this criterion nicely. Those who loved him and his music revered him. A writer friend of mine believed he was our generation’s prophet. The people who dislike his music despise it passionately. One heavy-metal musician said that he believed Nirvana should have won a new award for “Least Talented Band To Sell The Most Albums.” Other friends of mine hold similar views about Cobain and Nirvana, but one fact remains true: they all feel an extreme emotion about the music. Mediocrity usually doesn’t breed this level of passion.
It’s tragic that Kurt Cobain left us so early. Even if his music hadn’t continued to evolve, it would have been nice to see if his angst could have grown into spiritual serenity. If he had retired young, it would have been nice to have seen the comeback tour. Instead, we are left with conspiracy freaks with websites about “The Murder of Kurt Cobain,” a plethora of copycat artists with music that doesn’t quite measure up, but also a legacy of music that will hopefully remind my generation of how we used to view the world when we were young enough to see things as right or wrong.
My closest friend in college used to say that she believed Kurt Cobain’s death would be remembered as one of the saddest events of our generation. Since then, Oklahoma City, Columbine, and 9/11 have certainly annihilated that theory, but the spirit of her thought still has merit. Even in death, Cobain is an icon of our time, a symbol of wasted talent and the bullshit of drugs. But in his life and in his music, he moved me and many others. He was a powerful voice in a crowded din, and he was one of my biggest artistic influences.