I FIRST MET Kurt Cobain on the night of December 3, 1989. His band had been on the road for weeks, touring the European toilet circuit in a battered old van with Tad, and his scrawny 22-year-old frame virtually creaked with fatigue, but he happily complied with my request for a brief interview.
“What are your hopes for the ’90s?” I asked.
“For our band to debase every rock’n’roll form that ever existed,” he replied. “We missed a couple this year.”
In less than two years, Nirvana did much more. They took the sound of the underground and made it popular. They gave initially thousands and soon millions of alienated small-towners like themselves a voice and a song to sing. Most importantly, they did this not by scam or via the pre-ordained marketing schemes of a corporate media empire, but by making the most unarguably brilliant rock music for nearly a decade.
The sheer improbability of Nirvana’s success, fame and then infamy sowed the seeds for trouble; seeds whose final, dreadful harvest were reaped in last week’s dire news from Seattle. Yet there was a period during the latter part of 1991 when it seemed nothing could possibly go wrong.
As Nevermind began to tumble out of the shops and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ inveigled its way onto the global jukebox, Nirvana tore a swathe of merry destruction across our TV screens and concert halls. They were everywhere, mischievously dragging the flabby rock mainstream around to the galling truth that this — glorious pop melodies atop gut-juddering metal riffage and Cobain’s beautiful, sad-eyed lyrics, all suffused with patent punk attitude — was what people really wanted to hear.
Nirvana’s potential for something other than the norm had been obvious to anyone present at that Astoria gig back in December ’89. Opening up for Mudhoney and Tad on Sub Pop’s our-brilliant-year beano that was Lamefest, Nirvana served graphic notice that this was an exceptional band. While on paper working from a similar blueprint to their colleagues — basically metal played by punk rockers — a palpable tension undercut their sound. There was no spread of irony to sweeten the blow, just a sinister, brooding sense of disquiet and discontent, amplified by Cobain’s lacerating screams. When they destroyed their equipment that night it seemed the only possible way to conclude matters. We need to give everything, was the implied admission. Nirvana very obviously meant it.
Their sincerity and direct emotional impact meant Nirvana were bound to strike a chord with a mass audience once enough people could hear them. They believed in the tremendous power of music, of POP music. Kurt’s political instincts were violently anti-establishment, yet he was not afraid to proclaim the virtues of a good tune. He once said that no matter how correct your politics were, a good song was the only way to touch people’s hearts.
He proceeded to prove the point by writing reams of the things: ‘About A Girl’, ‘Lithium’, ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Been A Son’, ‘Polly’, ‘Drain You’, ‘Something In The Way’, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, ‘In Bloom’, ‘Serve The Servants’, ‘Sliver’, ‘Aneurysm’, ‘Rape Me’, ‘Smells Like…’ You probably know them.
Having been an outsider all his life, Kurt inevitably found fame hard to deal with. Yet the kind of fame he found no-one in their right minds would covet. Its effects have proved too appalling. The hateful sentiments of In Utero seemed directed both at perceived enemies but also himself, as if in recognition that a part of him had become what he had always despised. When we shake our heads and ask ‘Why? Why would a man with a young family, especially a man whose own childhood was so traumatised, do such a thing?’, maybe we just cannot realise how troubled this soul was.
Spare him the deification that traditionally accompanies the untimely deaths of our talented youth: his is not a glamorous rock death but a pointless waste of life. Remember him for what he was — a sweet, witty, sensitive man who also happened to be a songwriting genius — and let there be no more Kurt Cobains. There was, after all, only one.
© Keith Cameron, New Musical Express, 16 April 1994