Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kurt Cobain - 15 Years Later

April 8, 1994. The day the music really died.

It was the day Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's body was found in his Seattle house after committing suicide. For anyone between the ages of 14-35, you remember that day the way people remember 9/11, the moon landing or the JFK assassination. I know I remember where I was. I was at my dad's house when MTV's Kurt Loder came on and read the news the Cobain was dead. I remember thinking that it couldn't be true. Kurt Cobain, dead? No way. Cobain was my guy. He was my teenage angst come to life. Nirvana was MY band. He couldn't be dead. But the sad news was true. I remember my dad and old carmudgeons like Andy Rooney seemed to take some sort of perverse pleasure in Cobain's death. As if it justified their belief that Cobain was a talentless drug addict whom the world was well rid of.

I hadn't thought about that time in a while. I listen to Nirvana every now and again, but not that much. But when March turned to April, I immediately thought about writing a blog like this. Not sure why. Maybe it was the fact that I felt really, really old knowing Cobain had been dead for 15 years. I was in 10th grade at the time and it seems not THAT long ago. The funny thing is, when I think about Cobain now, I don't think about Nirvana or the great music he left behind. When I think about the 15 years since his death, my first thought is that Cobain didn't just kill himself when he put that shotgun to his mouth and pulled the trigger. He killed mainstream rock n' roll as an important, life-altering, pissing-your-parents-off entity.

Maybe it's painting things with a broad brush to say that Kurt Cobain's death killed rock n' roll. But it's also important to think back to the seven year period before April 8, 1994. Starting with Guns 'N Roses' "Appetite For Destruction" in 1987 and ending with Cobain's death in 1994, that period was one of the most amazing periods of music that has ever been put together. You had Guns with "Appetite" and later "Lies" and the "Illusion" albums. Jane's Addiction with "Nothing's Shocking" and "Ritual De Lo Habitual."

Things really took off in the early 90s. Nirvana exploded with "Nevermind" and then "In Utero." Pearl Jam had "Ten" and "VS." Alice In Chains with "Facelift," "Dirt" and "Jar Of Flies." Soundgarden had "Badmotorfinger" and "Superunknown." And that was just Seattle. Rage Against The Machine and Stone Temple Pilots put out their debut, and strongest, albums. The Smashing Pumpkins had "Gish" and "Siamese Dream." U2 had "Achtung Baby." The Red Hot Chili Peppers put out their only good album, "Blood Sugar Sex Magik."

The high quality wasn't just in alt-rock either. Metal saw Metallica put out "...And Justice For All" and "The Black Album" during the period. Slayer had "Seasons In The Abyss." Industrial rock had Nine Inch Nails' "Pretty Hate Machine," "Broken" and "The Downward Spiral" and Ministry's "Psalm 69." Prog rock had Tool's "Undertow." Even rap had one of its strongest periods ever with "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A., Dr. Dre's "The Chronic," Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle," Wu-Tang Clan's "Enter The Wu-Tang" and Notorious B.I.G's "Ready To Die." I'm sure I have forgotten many more but I think you get the point, this was a great time for music. The crazy thing is, not only were those albums of high quality, just about all of them sold a shitload of records.

Then Cobain pulled that trigger and it all fell apart. The whole damn music scene seemed to go with him. Jane's Addiction, Guns N' Roses, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains all imploded for various reasons. Gangsta rap would follow suit a couple years later with the deaths of B.I.G and Tupac Shakur and the genre as a whole would sink into an abyss of crass commercialism. NIN and Metallica didn't put out albums for 5 years. Pearl Jam got into wars with fame and Ticketmaster that sunk their mainstream popularity for almost a decade. The Smashing Pumpkins, thought at the time to be the natural successors to Nirvana's throne, quickly descended into bloated rock excess and then flat-out self-parody.

And with that, much like the 1970s New Hollywood after "Heaven's Gate," the beancounters took over. Mainstream music now is product, like a cheeseburger at McDonald's. Sure, there's some good bands out there, but it's all underground. Everything is splintered off into all these different categories. For some reason, it seemed different back then, like how Nirvana and GWAR could both be on "Headbanger's Ball" on the same night.

Rock 'n roll is no longer vital, dangerous or important on a large scale level. Everything is "pop-rock" which is just another way of saying "bubblegum pop music." It's all so soulless and corporate. You got no-talent hacks like Britney Spears running around, not even pretending to sing and charging $200 to see her do so. You got Kanye West using technology to make it seem like he can sing.

There was nothing soulless and corporate about Cobain. What made him work then and what makes him work now is that he was the real deal. His death has cemented, maybe even become his legacy. Sure we remember "Nevermind" and the music, but we remember that he died young. We hear the name Kurt Cobain and wonder what could have been more than what was. The only other public figures that I can think of like him are JFK and Len Bias. The questions about Cobain are endless:

-Would Nirvana have broken up? Or would they still be chugging along, going from hit to hit like U2 or Dave Grohl's post-Nirvana band Foo Fighters?

- Would he have gone solo? If so, what would he sound like? Would he have flamed out like Billy Corgan? Would he have sold out like Chris Cornell?

- What would he have looked like as a 40 year old?

- What would Nirvana sound like? How would they fit in to the modern music landscape?

It's all about the what-could-have-beens. In 10 years, there will be a full generation of kids that will only know Cobain from books, Wikipedia and "Guitar Hero." With iTunes and internet file-sharing, most of these kids will never have the experience I got to have in 1991-92, when my grandmother drove me to the record store to buy a cassette copy of "Nevermind." Of putting the album on my Walkman and being blown away, from the first chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the sad ending of "Something In The Way." You can't have an experience like that over a computer. The weird thing is, I doubt you could even have a Nirvana anymore. It's highly unlikely a band like that will ever make that kind of cultural impact on a major label ever again. That time, 1987-1994, was so good because it seemed the suits didn't know what was going to catch on. Now, I wonder if Kurt Cobain could even get a record deal these days.

So how do I wrap this up? I don't know. I guess the thing I take out of this 15th anniversary is that the years will keep adding up, 15 years, 20, 25, 30, but Cobain will live on. He'll always be 27, he'll always be the guy that ignited a cultural revolution in America that was all-too-brief and he'll always be the guy that ended it himself. And maybe, just maybe, it's exactly the way he wanted it to be.

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