AT MIDNIGHT on Friday, after the violence in Rwanda and before the end of the IRA ceasefire, a vaguely disdainful Radio 5 newsreader announces the death of Kurt Cobain. The lead singer of the rock group Nirvana, we are told, is thought to have shot himself. By cruel chance, the next scheduled programme is a discussion of what is wrong with pop music today.
Someone (I don’t mean to point the finger, but I’m pretty sure it’s “Whispering” Bob Harris) says: “I suppose it’s a kind of live by the sword, die by the sword situation, what with all the drug-taking and wife-beating and stuff.” Linda Duff of the Daily Star points out that Kurt Cobain has set a bad example to young people (Well, she would know). Presenter Richard Evans does not seem unduly moved by the affair, though he does suppose that “a lot of young heavy-metal fans will be mourning him tonight”.
One of the most depressing things about Cobain’s death is the way his brilliance and complexity will be diminished by it. Either by insults and ignorance or – even worse – by the dumb dull regalia of rock martyrdom. There is no glamour in this death. It is not even a senseless tragedy. Anyone who knows anything about Cobain can see the logic of it all too clearly. The very otherworldliness and individuality which made him such a compelling figure rendered him incapable of coping with the fame these qualities bought him.
Exactly a month ago, Cobain was reported to be in an “irreversible coma” in a Rome hospital (he was sitting up in bed happily demanding cigarettes just a couple of days later). After driving around town that night, listening to his wild and uplifting songs and thinking how sad it was that his talent was gone, Cobain’s death now feels horribly secondhand – there is no shock about it, just a wretched feeling of recognition. Especially as the joy of the best of this man’s music – the plaintive roar of his voice, the brittle swagger of his guitar – is the way it throws off the deathly secondhandness all around it.
Kurt Cobain was born on 20th February 1967, the son of a mechanic. He grew up in and around the depressed, reactionary logging town of Aberdeen, Washington. Always deemed “artistic” – fascinated by painting and music from an early age – and no physical match for more conformist youths, he became withdrawn and then rebellious after the break-up of his parents’ marriage. Punk rock, in this context, “was a godsend”. It happened more slowly in America than here: it hit Cobain in 1984, when he sold his collection of Journey and Pat Benatar LPs and bought a ticket to see Black Flag.
Cobain’s first band rejoiced in the name of Fecal Matter, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, never got beyond the demo stage. His next, Nirvana, were not the first to play the distinctive Pacific North-West music that the world and his dog would come to know rather unsatisfactorily as grunge, but nobody would do it better.
Their corrosive first album, Bleach, released in 1988, was a well-deserved small-scale success for Seattle’s feisty Sub Pop label, and Nirvana followed their mentors, Sonic Youth, through the revolving door at the mighty Geffen Records in Los Angeles. They were aware from the beginning of the compromises this entailed – why else would the cover of Nevermind feature a baby swimming after a dollar bill on a hook? In spite – or perhaps even because – of the doubts inspired by its authors’ pact with mammon, Nirvana’s second album was the most vital rock record in more than a decade.
It was heavy-metal thunder with a punk-rock intellect and brilliant tunes to boot. Cobain had wondered how successful a band could be that combined the force of Black Sabbath with the melodiousness of the Beatles. Now he found out. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a massive international hit. By the end of the year Nirvana were outselling Michael Jackson, and the band had cut a gleeful swathe of destruction across America and Europe.
Cobain’s charisma at this time was extraordinary. His face seemed to look down on you from all sides, and everything Nirvana did was beautiful, even (especially?) dumbly trashing their equipment and swearing on TV. On stage, electricity seemed to arc through them. Cobain was the most magnetic performer I have seen: his frail body coiled, his movements menacingly precise, the music seemed to flow out of him. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ might not have been meant as a wake-up call to a generation whose whole life looked set to be brand-mediated (Kurt claimed he didn’t even know Teen Spirit was an aggressively marketed deodorant – “I’ve never worn any”), but that was certainly what it sounded like.
Almost at a stroke, the underground became the overground, and Cobain found himself transformed into the thing he had always striven not to be: a commodity. His personal life became a soap opera: his stomach pain, his drug problems, his turbulent but somehow magnificent marriage to the formidable fellow grunge star Courtney Love, even the birth of their daughter Frances Bean. He himself was at least partly to blame for this, but what price a true punk-rocker’s integrity in a world of grunge fashion?
The man who had proved once and for all that you don’t have to be a macho idiot to make great rock records was reduced to making (well-deserved) death-threats to muck-raking journalists and starting a gun collection.
Nirvana’s next – and last finished – album, In Utero, was far from the ugly revenge on success that had been threatened, but Kurt’s lyrics still reeked of self-hatred. So
hell-bent was Cobain on not giving his audience what they wanted that he took a cellist on Nirvana’s last American tour, and encored not with ‘Teen Spirit’ but the old Leadbelly number ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ whose grim lyrics seemed to presage Kurt’s fate (as they had done Leadbelly’s)- “In the pines where the sun never shines, I shiver the whole night through.”
Remember him at his best. It’s the tail-end of 1991 in a godforsaken Belgian town, possibly Ghent. Nirvana’s set has ended in a higher degree of chaos than usual. Not just some, but all of their equipment has been destroyed, a fan has gone into convulsions, having been hit by flying timber, and the road manager is having a vicious anxiety attack. Kurt Cobain surveys the wreckage. “Hey, everybody,” he asks the assembled company, “why so glum?”
© Ben Thompson, Independent on Sunday, April 1994