Kurt Cobain only flitted around mainstream pop for four years, but he’s managed to become a lasting presence, and on this, the 27th anniversary of his death, it’s still hard to believe he’s gone. His gift to us wasn’t just his profound music or his provocative anti-image, but the way he introduced music lovers – many of them not old enough to get into an R-rated movie – to the exhilarating world of underground rock.
During the late 80s, MTV and the Top 40 were all about the gods of glammy, hammy hair bands who sang about sex, wild partying, and fast living. That changed in 1991, when Nirvana was signed to a major label (DGC), and took off like a turbo-charged rocket. Here were three gawky guys in long johns playing highly vicious mix of rabid punk, seething despair, and corrosive indifference. The new icons of rock culture, they decimated the musical landscape with an album ironically called Nevermind – as if anyone could ignore the songs saturated in Cobain’s feedback-laden guitars, Dave Grohl’s annihilating drumming, and Krist Novoselic’s bottomless bass.
Lyrics like “I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head” were deranged and goofy, springing from a psyche both malnourished and maladroit. Cobain injected rock ‘n’ roll with a feeling of mortality that young listeners weren’t accustomed to. This wasn’t some stage act with fancy laser light shows, suspended lead singers, or a smoke machine. This was achingly human – throbbing and cantankerous like a toothache. But for all his anti-fame posturing, Cobain became The Man, which given his infantile allure, is humorous. He swung from a chandelier in the video for “Come As You Are,” romped around in a dress in “In Bloom,” delighted in wrecking his instruments after a grueling set, and didn’t like to bathe. He looked like he’d be happiest just left alone, a notion that deeply resonated with his fans.
Nevermind shook up pop culture’s outlook on its lifeblood: kids. Cobain’s dejection hit hardest with a youth culture sect that was better left swept under the rug: the burnouts, deviants, misfits, and loners who were considered weird by their peers and hopeless by their elders. With Cobain’s arrival, they had someone who, without even trying, gave them a voice, ramming their existence down the throat of a larger social consciousness. Sometimes life is that harrowing, banal, and retarded.
But Cobain’s most lasting gift to the children of the ’90s wasn’t his angst – it was his love of punk rock. Nirvana’s popularity might have spelled the death of punk to many music purists, but it played a major role in lots of baptisms. Cobain revered the Vaselines, Raincoats, and Shonen Knife, among other bands, and educated fans about them while imparting an appreciation for the array of obscure but noteworthy groups that couldn’t be found in most retail stores. Encountering independent record labels like Sub Pop and scruffy rock bands like Green River or Screaming Trees was like discovering a new planet-it existed, but many music lovers didn’t know that, and therefore wouldn’t have thought to look for it. This made the world feel fresh and promising.
And then came April 8, 1994. A hefty dose of heroin followed by a shotgun blast, and Kurt Cobain checked out. With this one death, everything suddenly felt wrong.
In 1967 Lou Reed famously sang “And I guess that I just don’t know.” His sentiment was echoed in 1991 with Cobain’s “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” For all it’s romanticized, steeped-in-mystique implications, that lyric is a submission, a surrender to oblivion. There’s a comfort in admitting futility; life is less intense that way because you’re not accountable for anything. You remove your voice, crawl into the shadows, and launch the typical defense. Who’s listening? No one. Who cares? No one.
But we did care. We were listening. We still are. Imagine what could have been.