It’s been 21 years since Kurt Cobain was found dead, with a suicide note that sounds less like a swan song than a letter to fans explaining why he didn’t want to be the “spokesman of a generation”. Since then, Nirvana have become an institution — which is funny, because most music doesn’t really sound like that anymore. After the band went into the studio with alt-legend Steve Albini to record their last studio album, In Utero, he disparagingly referred to them as “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox”. And he wasn’t wrong: Nirvana took the turd-like underbelly of American rock music and polished it just enough to be popular. Like, really popular.
Lots of bands are quick to cite Nirvana as an influence, from Bat For Lashes to pretty much every band on Radio 6 — though you’d be hard pressed to find a trace of this influence anywhere in their sound or lyrical content or attitude or basically anything about them. Whatever else it is, you can bet it is in part The Narrative. Kurt Cobain has achieved the Romantic Legend status that is measurable by cheap Camden t-shirts with his face on them, punctuated with an uncontextualized quote.
Very few artists have attempted to pick up the mantle. Members of Nirvana performed some of their hits at the band’s inauguration into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with Kim Gordon, St Vincent, Joan Jett and Lorde. The gesture was totally in keeping with Nirvana’s feminist punk ethos — but was musically underwhelming (with the exception of Kim Gordon) largely because screaming isn’t cool anymore.
Steve Albini’s quip touches a nerve that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana felt acutely throughout their career. Nirvana raked in, and continue to rake in, millions of dollars for the very swine they seemed to despise. Bassist Krist Novoselic spelled out their ambivalence to signing with a major label, comparing Nirvana to fully-indie contemporaries like Fugazi. I can picture David Geffen whistling down his marble lobby, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”. You could argue that Cobain’s conflict between being true to his punk roots and being “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox” might have contributed to the unusual tone of his suicide note.
But speculation about the man and his death are fuel to the myth-making flames. The myth of Kurt Cobain sells more records and associated products (his fucking journals, for Christ’s sake?) than the actual man ever did. Kurt Cobain & Nirvana are listed in Bloomberg’s “Artists With The Most Posthumous Album Sales”, scoring two Number 1 albums released after Cobain’s death. It’s safe to say that the world still adores Kurt Cobain, and that being adored can mean big bucks whether you’re living or dead, arguably the latter more so.
Which all goes nowhere if you’re looking for the real guy, or anything real, because adoration of people you don’t know creates a whole new mythical person, who in many cases commands more presence than the person herself. The myth is like your internet presence, but with much, much better SEO. Think of it as the Jesus Spectacle. Like Yeshua ben Yosef, whom we cannot be sure was even the guy we think he might have been, let alone the son of a divinity most people don’t believe in, we have created a very present object of worship out of Kurt Cobain — among others. Insert your own examples of adoration here.
That larger-than-life presence can get in the way of any real evaluation of the music, like focusing more on a band’s Twitter than their records. This suits a lot of artists — who cares about Azealia Banks’ new music when she’s all over Twitter firing up a gay-bashing shit storm?
It’s taken me most of these 21 intervening years to acclimatize to the myth, just so I can forget about it like you forget about any disposable pop culture trash. One of the brilliant things about any art is that you change but it stays the same. As you grow, it takes on new meaning. Like music critic Ralph Gleason said: there is “the automatic reflex that if something is labeled one way then that is all there is in it and we are always finding out to our surprise that there is more to [these artists] than whatever it was we thought was there in the first place.”
Nirvana represented something when I was a wank stain teenager, luxuriating in misery because Kurt Cobain was dead. It was like I knew the guy. Like a lot of 15 year olds from the suburbs, I wanted to be a rock star. Who didn’t? Kids are aspirational in a way that gives Tories a run for their money. Just imagine all that light. Then a shadow crosses it.
The guy killed himself, and not out of nowhere. All those warning signs like the overdose in Rome just weeks before, the lyrics and song titles (how’s “I HATE MYSELF AND WANT TO DIE” for starters?) — I wonder what his family were thinking, his mother and his sister and his aunt. But the myth has no place for families. Families are lame. Our dead guys don’t have aunts or sisters; they’re the solo violinists of the crucifix pantheon. Enter the cult of Kurt Cobain, the living dead man, the MTV Jesus, the junkie messiah.
But something stank. The MTV narrative failed, because why would you aspire to be like someone who killed himself? A year later, I stared at the TV and felt angry and let down. When the “Lithium” video aired for the fourth time that day, the 100th time that month, I threw the remote at the screen and broke my TV in disgust. I’ve never replaced it.
So 21 years after a famous man’s death, I think about his family. Because I’m an adult now, and even though that’s really boring and more than a little sappy, it’s kind of important. And I’m grateful that when I listen to Nirvana now, all I hear is Nirvana.