Remembering Kurt Cobain's impact, 20 years after his death

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the day when Kurt Cobain, the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Nirvana, was determined to have died at his home in Seattle from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 5th, 1994. His body was found three days after that date, on April 8th. It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since then, because I can remember that latter date very well. When I was at work earlier that day, Cobain had actually been on my mind. About one month earlier, Cobain had apparently made another suicide attempt when he was hospitalized in Rome after overdosing on pills. Nirvana had planned to play at the Lollapalooza festival that year, but it then became doubtful that Cobain would be well enough to tour and perform. I remember wondering to myself how that whole situation would turn out. Sadly, my question was answered when I got home from work that day and heard the news that Cobain had taken his own life.

Upon hearing the news of her son’s death, Cobain’s mother Wendy O’Connor famously remarked, "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club, I told him not to join that stupid club." She was referring to rock’s infamous 27 Club, a long list of rock musicians who died at age 27 like Cobain did.

The news media bombarded the public with images of grieving fans. At a vigil in Seattle, a crowd of 7,000 fans heard a tape-recorded message from Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, who gave a sad-and-angry speech while reading aloud from Cobain’s suicide note. In one unforgettable image, a 15-year-old girl was photographed with the name “KURT” scrawled on her arm, telling the photographer that she “scratched it with a razor blade”. Ouch! The late Andy Rooney caused controversy when he said (among other things) in his 60 Minutes commentary, “What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems like a Depression, World War II or Vietnam?”

The media portrayed Cobain’s death (debatably) as a shot through the heart of a generation, proclaiming that the youth of Generation X had lost their spokesperson, who symbolized their “lost hope”. (Sound familiar? Every decade, the media tells us that a generation has lost all hope for their future). But, in the words of Ray Manzarek, "Kurt was a poet. Kurt didn’t speak for his generation. He spoke for himself. That’s what poets do."

From the point of view of the average person, it seemed that Kurt Cobain had everything to live for. He had become a multi-millionaire rock star, found a kindred spirit of a wife in Courtney Love, and fathered a baby girl named Frances Bean. He was living the American Dream – but the American Dream was evidently no cure for his troubled past. In fact, Cobain constantly spoke about how much he hated his fame and success. At the time, it was easy to dismiss his complaints as “whining”. But his final, terrible act was disturbing proof that he meant what he said.

Cobain’s suicide came only three short years after the release of Nirvana’s 1991 song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its accompanying album Nevermind had changed rock and roll forever. At the very beginning of the 1990’s, many people were declaring that rock and roll was dead. (Sound familiar? We also hear that quite often, don’t we?). Cobain and Nirvana not only pulled rock and roll out of a commercial slump, but also put a whole new raw-and-unkempt face on it. Some people credit/blame Cobain for killing off the hair-metal scene that dominated MTV in the late ‘80’s, but that genre was already on its way out, as its core audience was on its way out of high school. By early 1991, mainstream rock had become tired, caught in a bear-trap of baby-boomer nostalgia and blanded out by digital-age slickness. Younger listeners were turning in droves to the likes of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and other purveyors of increasingly dreadful Top 40 rubbish. Nirvana’s punk-rock-scream-built-on-a-classic-rock-foundation was the force that woke up the sleeping giant.

Cobain’s early musical training and influences were based mainly on the Beatles, the Monkees, and numerous ‘70’s hard rock bands. His first exposure to punk rock came through sight, not sound. When he read magazine articles about punk rock and saw pictures of its performers, Cobain immediately identified with and was attracted to punk’s rebellious attitude. But he was unable to hear what it actually sounded like. His hometown of Aberdeen, Washington had no record stores that sold punk records, and no hip radio stations that played it to the public. This caused Cobain to develop his own form of punk rock based on his imagination. He was surprised when he finally heard actual punk rock recordings for himself, and found that they did not sound the way he imagined them. Nirvana’s now-famous “grunge” sound was rooted in Cobain’s personal, pre-conceived, idealized notions of the way punk rock ought to sound. When the CD-buying public finally experienced it, it struck an immediate chord and it caught on like wildfire. But Cobain didn’t want or intend it that way, and he was caught off-guard by Nirvana’s massive commercial breakthrough.

Cobain has his share of detractors. Some people argue that Cobain and Nirvana ruined rock and roll by turning it lazy and negative, and that he destroyed the art of the guitar solo.

And, in the present day, many people merely think of Cobain as the artist who brought the now-antiquated “grunge” genre from the Seattle underground to the American mainstream. But those people are missing the larger picture. During a five-year span in the mid-‘90’s, various types of alternative music were given wider exposure after Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough. Although the 1980’s were once considered to have been the decade when alternative music crossed over into the mainstream, the 1990’s were the years in which music’s underground was brought above ground – whether it wanted to be or not. Commercial radio stations began to give increased airplay to alternative rock, some of them even basing their entire format on the genre. Artists and songs that would previously only have been played on college radio and on MTV’s late-night programs (such as 120 Minutes and Post Modern) were then being played on mainstream FM stations and on cable channels at earlier hours of the day.

Also, major record labels began to sign indie artists that they never would have considered in earlier years, in search of hip credibility and the next Nirvana. One classic example was the metal band Helmet, who became the center of a fierce bidding war among major labels who were convinced that they were looking at the next big thing. Interscope Records wound up paying a cool million to sign the band. Although Helmet did not become the big sensation that the label was probably hoping for, they have since become regarded as a major influence on Nu Metal. There were countless other examples of this trend in the years between 1992 and 1996. SPIN magazine dug deep in a recent article to find the most extreme examples of bizarre underground artists who were signed to major labels in the wake of Nirvana’s success. At the top of their list were the spastic Japanese avant-garde noisemakers called the Boredoms, followed closely by the mentally ill outsider musician Daniel Johnston. These were just two examples of outlandishly non-commercial artists who apparently were signed to the majors simply because Cobain was known to admire them. If a major label had been able to track down Jandek during the mid-‘90’s, they probably would have offered him a deal, as well – although he probably would not have accepted it.

Artists on indie labels also got a boost from the success of Nirvana. One shining example was the Offspring, whose 1994 album Smash (released on Epitaph Records) became a multiplatinum radio smash with songs that suggested a less grungy Nevermind. Indie labels began to take bolder chances, as well. In 1994, the Twin/Tone label released a 2-CD set called Bulk from a completely unknown artist named Jack Logan. That was at least one year before the Smashing Pumpkins made it fashionable for even well-known artists to release pricey 2-CD sets of all-new material.

I remember thinking it was great when off-the-wall bands like the Flaming Lips and Ween began to get airplay on mainstream radio stations in the mid-‘90’s. I thought this was a sign that the barriers between music’s underground and music’s mainstream had been permanently torn down, and that mainstream music would become increasingly creative and ground-breaking as a result. How na├»ve I was in my twenties! This trend was probably what brought the alternative revolution to a halt in 1996 and ’97. When songs like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” started getting broadcast over mainstream airwaves, I believe it caused mainstream listeners to think, “Uh oh, this is getting too weird, we’d rather listen to Hanson and the Spice Girls now”. In retrospect, I do believe that mainstream rock and pop have been altered by the ‘90’s alternative revolution, but not always for the better.

In recent months, the print and digital media have been inundated with writings about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. Numerous books have been written about Cobain over the years, and sure enough, a slew of newly released titles are hitting the shelves to coincide with the anniversary of his death. Volumes have been written about his impact on the culture, and how he changed the way we look at fame, depression, suicide, and heroin abuse. On April 10th, only five days after the anniversary of the tragedy, Cobain and Nirvana are being felicitously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cobain’s widow Courtney Love (who has successfully kept her name and face in the gossip columns through the years) is currently planning a biopic, a documentary, and a Broadway musical (!) about her late husband. At least two cities in the state of Washington, including Cobain’s original hometown of Aberdeen, have begun to celebrate a Kurt Cobain Day on different dates. And the Seattle police recently released new but not-so-surprising photos taken at the scene of Cobain’s death, probably in hopes of ending long-running conspiracy theories claiming that Cobain was actually murdered. (So far, the conspiracy theorists do not seem satisfied).

But where does Cobain’s legacy stand in modern music? Undoubtedly, more people listen to punk rock now than before Cobain’s time. But modern alternative music does not seem particularly Nirvana-influenced, at least not in terms of sound. The Foo Fighters, founded and fronted by ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, are one clear example of an enduringly successful by-product of Nirvana. But most modern rock bands whose sound is reminiscent of Nirvana are considered to be part of rock’s mainstream (for example: Nickelback, Linkin Park, Lifehouse, and, yes, the Foo Fighters). By contrast, current alternative bands seem more influenced by pre-Nirvana sounds. Many of them (i.e. Foster The People, Vampire Weekend, Neon Trees, Fitz and the Tantrums) seem enamored with ‘80’s new wave instead of ‘90’s grunge. Is this a conscious rejection of the Nirvana sound, since it now seems so mainstream after two decades of heavy radio airplay? Or is it just a natural result of the genre evolving over the course of 20 years? It’s hard to say for sure.

But one thing is for sure. In the decade-and-a-half since the ‘90’s alternative revolution faded, rock and roll still has not experienced another resurgence or movement comparable to the one that Cobain and Nirvana accidentally spearheaded. I do not agree with the people who constantly say that rock and roll is dead; if it really was “dead” for as long as some people claim it has been, then there would not be so many artists still recording and performing it. However, it is hard to argue with the much-stated position that there will probably never be another grunge-like phenomenon that would make rock and roll seem young again. The music industry – not to mention the world in general – has probably changed too much for such a thing to happen again in a similar fashion. Because nothing of the same magnitude has happened to rock music since Cobain’s time, it still seems like he is not so far away, even 20 years after his untimely passing. But at the same time, that is also the reason why he is still so greatly missed.