My first impression of Kurt Cobain, even before I knew anything about him, was that he was the kid in school who was painfully quiet, but whose mind was silently screaming. This, I remember thinking, was a kid who had spent a lot of time alone. Not because he wanted to, of course, but because, from Day One, he’d been made to feel that he was alone.
Like you (one can only presume), I have felt the odd juxtaposition of loneliness within a crowded room and written it off as self-manufactured. In Kurt’s case, loneliness was but a byproduct of absolute, unadulterated alienation, he of the broken home with no dad and a mom who couldn’t have given two shits about him if it meant any bit of sacrifice on her part.
If he and Nirvana had arrived at any other time in the history of rock & roll, they’d have gone unnoticed, but, since they came on the scene with their songs of anger and alienation at a time when the youth of this world could no longer maintain a happy faÃ§ade, their music was welcomed with open arms. Sure, it didn’t happen overnight. Their first album, Bleach, was only a moderate indie success, but it had led to a deal with major label, Geffen, and the strange planetary alignment that would result in the recording and release of an album that would change the world.
Upon its arrival, Nevermind changed little, if anything. I personally remember weeks of watching MTV’s “120 Minutes,” seeing their video, and not being at all moved by the band. Then one day some three months after the album’s release, I turn on the car radio and hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the local AOR radio station. I do a quick check to see if this is, indeed, the right station, because they’re more prone to play an old Pink Floyd or Billy Squier song than something like this. Whether I’ve heard the song before or not, I cannot recall, but, at that very moment, it is the single most beautiful and powerful thing I’ve ever heard. To this day, I remember every nuance of that moment like others remember where they were when JFK was assassinated.
The next day, determined to get my hands on the album this amazing song is from, I run to the local record store and find that I am not alone in my desire to procure said album. As I stand at the register, eager to part with my cash, the guy behind the counter gives the cassette (!) an odd glance — he doesn’t seem to know who Nirvana is, but mentions that a lot of people have been in the past few days looking for the album and that he’d been telling them he didn’t have it. “I should probably order some more of these,” he says as I exit the premises.
Within days, it seems the whole world has suddenly fallen under the spell of “Teen Spirit” and this quite amazing new band called Nirvana. What was most amazing about the whole experience was that “Teen Spirit” had seemingly pushed alternative rock into the mainstream. Within weeks, every kid that had been wearing a Whitesnake or Ozzy t-shirt was now decked out in new alt. rock attire and claiming themselves to be the biggest Nirvana fan in the world.
It didn’t end there, either. The band’s appeal cut like a hot knife across generational and societal cliques. Nerds dug them, freaks dug them and, sigh, the jocks loved them too. Ah, the minute that first well-tanned football hero entered the mosh pit at a Nirvana show, my hunch is Kurt saw him. He saw the next one too, and the next one after that. In fact, before long, they were hard to miss and an air of “there goes the neighborhood” was suddenly quite palpable.
To have the one thing that made him special embraced by people whose entire existence revolved around “fitting in” must have been a bitter pill to swallow. He’d wanted success, of course, but this was so much more than he, or anyone else, had bargained for. That one album, one band could so suddenly and completely alter the musical landscape remains amazing in and of itself. Sure, bands like U2, R.E.M. and Guns ‘n’ Roses had had their own impact, but none of them arrived with half the seismic thud as the little three-piece band from Seattle.
Such sudden popularity would mess with the mind of the most sane, well-adjusted person in the world. If, however, you have even just one issue from childhood, or adolescence, or last week, it will fuck you up. Cobain, of course, took the brunt of it. After all, he sang, played guitar, wrote the songs. Suddenly, everybody loved him. Everybody wanted to be his friend. He wasn’t just successful, he was worshipped!
From that point on, it seems, Cobain tried as best he could to wrestle back control of that which was his. He and the band hastily recorded In Utero with Steve Albini, hoping to create a sludgy sonic manifesto that would scare off the riff-raff. By then, of course, Cobain had given in to the most clichÃ©d of rock star trappings and become a heroin addict. He’d also married and impregnated Courtney Love. Like it or not, he’d become the very thing he and his music had always railed against and it made him sick. By then, though, there was no stopping the juggernaut. He couldn’t get off. He’d tried.
He’d tried to make the ultimate sonic slap-in-the-face to reclaim his band from the masses, only to buckle to pressure from the suits at the label to re-mix and re-tool the record. Albini had pressed the issue by going public about the behind-the-scenes machinations in Major Label Land that were, in his estimation, working to undermine his and the band’s work. When Kurt himself publicly disagreed with Albini via a prepared statement that followed Newsweek’s coverage of the fracas, Albini backed off and, in doing so, washed his hands of the band. After all, they’d now been swallowed hole by the star-making machine.
To him and a growing number of others, Nirvana was more brand than band. The arrival of In Utero, freshly re-tooled by Scott Litt and Andy Wallace, was watched with great interest. Upon first listen, the album seemed to be shouting” This is not Nevermind, Part Two!” with every fiber of its being. Cobain’s songs challenged convention, but only to a point. While “Rape Me” seethed with a disconnected anger that seemed to scream “So what if this never gets played on the radio”, the song had been re-titled “Waif Me” on the cover artwork so that In Utero could be stocked in Wal-Mart and other such retailers. It was a move Cobain could have nixed with a wave of the hand, but he didn’t. Nirvana, despite the “outsider” posturing, were playing ball.
Of course, everything else Cobain did from that point on seemed designed to counteract the decisions made to ensure the new album was safe and viable for mass consumption. Whe he and the band taped their unplugged performance for MTV, they were anything but slick and the material was heavy on cover material. Geffen no doubt wanted the band to concentrate on material from the new album. Cobain gave the audience Lead Belly, Bowie and Meat Puppets covers. What was an otherwise lackluster performance, in my humble opinion, was heard through the ears of fans and non-fans alike awash in the news that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. Thus, instead of “painfully off-key”, his vocals were heard as “tortured” and thus Cobain was given a pass and the legend was allowed to grow.
For all the promise that their arrival brought – after all, they singlehandedly laid waste to the hair metal dragon – the wake of one-dimensional slacker bands that they inspired, and that quickly littered the musical landscape, certainly tends to cheapen that which they accomplished. Kurt must have seen what he’d set in motion and knew it was coming. Leave it to him to piss in the punch bowl at his own party, then leave.