(I originally posted this on Facebook on April 8, 2019)
I knew this anniversary was coming up. I was a high school senior when Kurt Cobain shot himself in April of 1994. It had been a rough year for me, as heavy drinking fueled some adolescent legal problems, familial conflict, and a general sense that I had fucked up a winning hand.
I was late to Nirvana. I grew up without cable and didn’t listen to the radio much, other than the classic rock stations out of NYC and the Lehigh Valley. In the spring of 1992, I heard a few songs from Nevermind in the Voorhees High School weight room. I was transfixed. “What the fuck is this?” I asked whomever was around.
“Nirvana. Where have you been?”
Indeed. Where had I been? I bought Nevermind and devoured it. Then back to Bleach. Then I waited with baited breath for word of the next album. I bought bootlegs from concerts, demo tapes, and unreleased b sides.
It was new. It was different. Rock had been angry. Rock had been rebellious. Rock had been mournful. Nirvana didn’t communicate anything particularly unique, but they had a novel sound that spoke to me. It was for me.
I read that Cobain was horrified about the football player bully types who liked Nirvana’s first album, so he wrote this about them “In Bloom”
Hey - he's the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
A line from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has kept my admiration deep into adulthood:
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
I could go on and on and on about the lyrics. But that’s enough.
I was in the cafeteria line in rehab when someone told me that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. I didn’t believe it. Then I did. My initial reaction was very selfish. “No more new music. This sucks.”
My next thoughts were harsh. “What the fuck? He had everything. Amazing talent. Huge sales and critical acclaim. Admiration of millions. Admiration of other artists. Married. Kid. What the fucking fuck?”
Then it was back to group and my own little world. I got home a few days later and read newspaper and magazine articles about it. A Gen X suicide. This generation’s rock martyr. All kinds of horseshit.
I couldn’t comprehend his supposed self-loathing. Not with all that he had. Even with, what I supposed, the disaster I had made my life, the idea of taking one’s own life just seemed so out there and pointless. It made a confusing time more confusing.
The mourning of the fans and the pictures of Francis Bean got to me. My own problems got worse. The MTV Unplugged Album came out. “New music. Great…..I can’t believe he killed himself. This sucks.”
His death caused a collective trauma for millions of people around America, and beyond. Eventually, his self-loathing was glorified. I remember getting angry at people who thought his death was cool. “Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse.”
I still listen to Nirvana, all these years later. Not as much. But a week doesn’t go by where I don’t hear one of their songs on my Ipod (yeah, forever). I feel terrible for his wife and daughter and mother. And for people who attempted to justify their own self-injuries and other destructive behaviors by pointing to him. Kurt Cobain was immensely talented. I wish he didn’t commit suicide. I wish he had gone to therapy, quit drugs, and then talked about going to therapy, quitting drugs and addressing his suicidal impulses. He could have made a monumental impact. I’m not angry at him. It all just…sucks.
The music endures. We can learn from his life. And death.