Where were you when you heard that Kurt Cobain died?
Today marks twenty-two years since his death. I always get the dates mixed up. I always think it’s the eighth, which is when he was found.
When you’re fifteen and a twenty-seven year old musician kills himself, people pay attention. And you wonder, does being adult suck that much?
And then, suddenly, you’re thirty-seven years old. You’ve survived a decade longer than he did. And sure, you don’t do drugs, aren’t a musician, and don’t have the public watching your every move, so that helps, I’m sure.
I was always a bigger fan of Pearl Jam than I was of Nirvana. I came to appreciate Nirvana way more as I got older. Pearl Jam continues to celebrate their longevity with re-release of their stellar early albums and rocking concert tours. Nirvana’s rise to fame started (in the mainstream) with Nevermind and was over three short years later.
I remember April 8th, 1994. Kurt Loder broke into whatever lame show I was watching on MTV to report that the body of Kurt Cobain had been found. He’d shot himself in the head. He was dead.
The press had a field day. Everywhere you turned, they were showing clips of Unplugged in New York, as if “All Apologies” was Kurt’s last message to a generation of wannabes. The irony of “Come As You Are” was milked to death, as the line “I swear that I don’t have a gun” became suddenly meaningful.
The group of fans that flocked together in Seattle in the days after Kurt’s death were on the news every night. Courtney Love read pieces of Kurt’s suicide letter as teens and twenty-somethings sobbed and lit candles. I remember her sobbing “Then why didn’t you fucking stay?” It was all surreal.
I was co-editor of the school newspaper in high school back then. This is what we put in the April issue that year:
For those of you who haven’t heard already, Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the band Nirvana, died on April 6th [sic] from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He is survived by his wife, Courtney Love, and his nineteen month old daughter, Frances. Using the words of Neil Young, Cobain said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Not everyone agrees. Here is one fan’s reaction to another loss in the music world.
Then, a letter to Kurt written by one of my high school friends:
I knew you, though never really. I know the way you felt – alone. Hopeless. Deteriorated. If you didn’t kill yourself, eventually the pain would have. You wrote of empathy: what was it to you? Your wife, your baby, not your fans. Definitely not us. ‘Cause I’m, left mourning everytime I play one of your songs, ‘cause you left. Your music wasn’t worth it to you, and neither was your wife. What about Frances? What about me? You expressed your pain in your lyrics and you used heroin to numb it. You still couldn’t handle it, so how will I? You’ll fade away from T.V., radio, and even from some of your fans, too. But not from me. I can’t every forget your weakness. I will always feel sympathy for your soul and the ones you left behind, who will always miss, resent, admire, and love you.
I wonder how much of that still resonates in the mind of the person who wrote it? How much of it has changed? A lot of things you feel at fifteen become quite different at twenty-five… and even more different, perhaps, at thirty-seven.
I remember thinking it was such a waste. Hearing about Kurt’s fans, some of who attempted suicide themselves in some sort of twisted homage to their hero. I remember feeling badly for Frances Bean, who would never know her father.
1994 was the year that Hole broke into the mainstream with Live Through This. I have long had conflicted feelings when it comes to Courtney Love, and at that time I hated the fact that she was riding Kurt’s coattails to fame. It was several years before I could be convinced that Hole was a good band.
The years passed. Conspiracy theories. Kurt Cobain-inspired Chuck Taylors and, for cripe’s sake, action figures. Creepy fans friending his daughter on MySpace, as if they have any right to keep tabs on a girl who was an infant when her father died and has lived with Courtney fucking Love all of these years.
Do I think Nirvana was the greatest band ever, or that Kurt was some sort of musical genius? No. I think Kurt was sort of the everyman of his generation. He represented what a lot of people were thinking and feeling, whether he wanted that job or not. The fact that he killed himself at the height of his fame is somehow shocking to the world. The theory that he was murdered, and that his wife had a hand in it? Maybe not so shocking. But there are lots of theories involved when someone who becomes an icon, reluctant or otherwise, dies. Whether they’re true or not isn’t necessarily the point.
I’ve become fascinated with the life and death of Kurt Cobain over the years, and in the coming days, I’ll be listening to Nirvana’s catalog, as I often do around this time of year. Shouldn’t it be about the music, after all? Forget the rest of it – the phoniness, the “what would Kurt have wanted?”, the “if Kurt were alive today”. He isn’t. His music is left behind.
The picture I get of Kurt Cobain in my head is one from MTV Unplugged, at the very end of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” He lets out this wail, and it pretty much sums up his short ride on the mainstream roller coaster.
If there is something after the time we spend on this spinning orb, I hope he’s at rest.
This essay is pieced together from previously written works on the tenth and fifteenth anniversaries of Kurt Cobain’s death, with minor edits.