Friday, April 8, 2011

Kurt Cobain was found dead 17 years ago today.

He's estimated to have committed suicide 3 days earlier. (Wikipedia.)

Here's an interview with him from December 1993, after they released their last album. Most of the clip is pretty mundane, but if you skip ahead to 6:38 (after it looks like the interview has ended), you can see a chilling moment. He talks about his famous stomach problem:

Ah! It's gone! I finally have been prescribed the right stomach medicine after 6 years of being in constant pain . . . I was in pain so long, I didn't care if I was in a band, I didn't care if I was alive. And it just so happened that I came to that conclusion at a time when my band became really popular. It had been going on and building up for so many years that I was suicidal. I just didn't want to live. So I just thought: if I'm going to die, if I'm going to kill myself, I should take some drugs. May as well become a junkie, because I felt like a junkie every day.

I've blogged tributes to Nirvana and to Cobain, so I don't have anything more to add to what I said:
I vividly remember when I was 13, sitting around watching MTV on April 8, 1994. Kurt Loder announced on MTV News that Kurt Cobain had been found dead in his home and that the cause of death was "a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." I was so young that the meaning of that delicate phrasing didn't register with me, so I asked my mom about it. She had to explain: "That means he killed himself."

Nirvana released only three proper studio albums. In an interview near the end of his life, Cobain was critical of the band's soft/loud formula and talked about wanting to branch out stylistically. He was disappointed that the band up to that point had emphasized the heavy side of that formula instead of a poppier, Beatley side. We'll never get to hear how the band might have developed; the analogy would be if John Lennon had died not in 1980 but in 1965. They should have done so much more. But they changed the direction of rock music in the few years they were around.

ADDED: This Metafilter thread has a lot of remembrances of Cobain and Nirvana. A commenter named lubujackson says:
As a tween when Nirvana hit, I never thought "life sucks" was Nirvana's message as all the haters seem to believe. Lyrically, the songs cover a lot of ground in an impressionistic way, and at the time I just thought Nirvana was really good, satisfying rock music. Most importantly at the time, they passed the Holden Caufield "sniff test" for phoniness.
DaDaDaDave says:
Nirvana made great music to jump around your seventh-grade best friend's living room to. For me that was about it (and that was enough), but I had several friends in whose emotional lives Kurt Cobain was an important force for good. Cobain's songs may be about depression, but they aren't depressing--even the slow, sad ones have a reinvigorating and genuinely human energy. Two decades later I can put on any Nirvana album (even Bleach) and it still sounds good; any Nirvana album on my car stereo will cause me to drive faster. What more can anyone ask of a rock band?
Naju comments:
I was 12 and my favorite band was Nirvana, and I can't tell you how influential and positive they were for me. They were my punk rock, they made me question everything, they made me smarter. It's easy to be jaded about the whole downer teen angst thing going on in the music. But I was young and reading the biography of the band was sort of life changing. The way Kurt befriended and stood up for gay people at his high school, and the ways he went against the grain in order to be compassionate and real, made me realize that my friends laughing about "fags" were just incredibly immature and lame.
Gompa says:
People sometimes forget just how hard it was, before the internet, to access unconventional culture, particularly if you didn't live in a major city. I was in high school in northern Ontario in the early 1990s, and other than these mix tapes my friend's older collegiate neighbour made for him that had some Dead Kennedys and Dead Milkmen and stuff like that on 'em, we were completely out of the loop. You'd catch a Sonic Youth video on the MuchMusic "alternative" show, go down to the crappy little record store at the mall, go to the "S" section - nothing. I remember it being flat-out miraculous to find the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Mother's Milk album in one of those stores.

After Nevermind? Before long, there was a whole section in those stores stocking this kind of stuff. Also, Cobain was a namedropping goldmine - I'd read an interview with him, write down the names of every band he referenced, and then go on a shopping spree next time I was in Toronto. That's how I discovered Fugazi, the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, L7, the Pixies. Basically uncovered the trail that would, by '93, lead me to quit a business degree and do something I actually gave a shit about with my life.

Discovering Nirvana at the age of 18 changed the basic course of my life. I'll always have Kurt Cobain to thank for that. Wish he was still around to hear it.
Here's a comment I posted over there:
Nirvana was to grunge rock as the Beatles were to '60s rock, or as Mozart was to the Classical style, or as Bach was to Baroque. They didn't invent their style. They perfected it. You don't become the definitive reference point for a whole genre just at random.

Kurt Cobain was the first to admit that he mostly ripped off a lot of other bands to make Nirvana's music. I'm so glad he did.
I'll close with a comment by adipocere:
I remember hearing Bleach played for the first time on a radio station with the vaguely-defined "college" format with a "What? Is? That?" sensation. I believe I got that on cassette and played the hell out of "Negative Creep" (try that song in your workout mix).

Damn, listen to "Sliver." That's the track where Cobain's empathy and his ability to craft a set of lyrics around someone else's story became his strength. I wouldn't say it was his formula but it was definitely a new plateau for him.

Much later, I heard "All Apologies" off of In Utero and turned to a friend. "I don't think he's going to be around much longer." It sounded like a suicide note or the foreshadowing to some dreadful accident.

Finally, I was driving a hundred miles home at three in the morning, trying to stay awake, radio blaring, when the DJ came on to announce the news. I pulled onto the shoulder, got out of the car, stood there for a while not believing it, then got back in. I did not have trouble staying awake for the rest of the drive home.