For those of a certain age, the news that twenty-five years have passed since the death of Kurt Donald Cobain will scarcely be believable. But it is 25 years and yes, you do now feel old. You probably still feel sad and melancholy. Time has a terrible way of playing tricks with your memory but the passing of Nirvana’s frontman still resonates as if it were yesterday. The past remains, undoubtedly, a foreign country but I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was in laundrette in Bristol, England doing a weekend load of washing (this is what students did then). I was listening to the BBC on my five-year-old Sony radio walkman- remember those?- when the terrible, heart-stopping news came through on that grey, terrible slate grey April day.
1993 and 1994 were years when the Nirvana story seemed to have more than its fair share of trials and tribulations. Stories of drug use and abuse, domestic upheavals, internal tensions between band members all combined to produce the most compelling and often shocking soap opera in rock music. A coruscating article by Vanity Fair journalist Lynn Hirschberg alleging heroin use by a then-pregnant Courtney Love perhaps the most eye-catching and divisive story when seemingly every move, every syllable by Cobain, his bandmates, family and assorted hangers-on were dissected and ruminated over too often tedious levels of detail. The level of psychodrama that can exist in the heart of the greatest of artistic endeavours was palpable. It was tempting, and many were often tempted, to conclude that Kurt’s suicide was somehow inevitable. Throw in the fact that he was 27, the same age as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and you have yourself a ready-made modern-day tragedy with an image that would not age and another icon for the age.
Twenty-five years later, it’s a very different world and we are all very different people but Cobain’s echo across the years remains undiminished. Nirvana was a much more complex and nuanced band than journalist shorthand would often give them credit for. They were, if anything, a band of paradoxes and contradictions, many of which existed with the complexity of their lead singer. This was a band that the underground and the jock fraternities could, and did, embrace equally. A band whose love of Abba and The Beatles was as well known as their love of Teenage Fanclub, Mudhoney, and Joy Division. A band that actively eschewed the idea of fame, yet sold millions of records, toured extensively and headlined festivals the world over.
In Cobain, you have rock’s ultimate anti-hero. The slight physique, the quietly spoken intelligence; at times you felt like he was in need of a hug and a warm meal. At other times, the venom and incandescent rage at injustice made him a lightning rod for a generation that may not have known exactly what they wanted but they knew, through Kurt, exactly what they didn’t. On Kurt’s most famous song the lyric “Here we are now, entertain us” was both 90s resignation of a world gone wrong but equal political invective to wanting something, anything, better.
At a quarter of a century distance, it is understandable if you don’t get Cobain’s impact as an artist. It is hard to overstate what it was like, however. The speed at which Nevermind captured the public imagination was remarkable and profound. In many ways, it was too quick for Cobain and the rest of Nirvana. Follow up album In Utero, hit the mark as the band’s ultimate middle finger to a mainstream that they never really held affinity with, but, over time, the creative breadth and depth of this record and its palpable influence on subsequent generations suggests that in eschewing its audience, it only made us love them more.
Cobain as a musical icon is obvious but as a musical artist, this is what truly resonates. Go back to debut album Bleach and marvel at the addictive simplicity of ‘School’, the fragile beauty of ‘About A Girl’. On Nevermind, you cannot fail to be moved by the dark, brooding beauty of ‘Something in the Way’, be excited by the decade-defining ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or uplifted to excess through the majesty of ‘Drain You’. As you delve deeper into this artist, you soon begin to see how much latent talent was here. Have a listen to the sarcasm embedded in ‘Aero Zeppelin’, where Kurt throws off huge riffs and power chords like confetti at a wedding. He knows that this stuff is easy to do but you know that, in his art, he is striving for something more profound and more resonant. Some of this can be observed on ‘All Apologies’, the expansive and haunting coda to In Utero and the expansive creativity is certainly at play on Unplugged where the definitive cover of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ sits effortlessly with The Meat Puppets ‘Lake of Fire’. These choices are emblematic of the contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of Cobain and Nirvana. Taking a choice from the world’s best solo artist and one of the underground’s more feted bands was typically Kurt. His genius was not just to be able to bring seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum together and for us not to notice the joins; no, the genius was to take these influences forward and to suggest a new world of possibility, of creativity and of hope.
Rest in power, Kurt.