Searching for answers, 20 years after Kurt Cobain



When Kurt Cobain was found dead on April 8, 1994, it didn’t register with me any more than any current event of the time. The news outside of Red Sox scores was just a wash of politicians and wars and plane crashes that adults watched at 11. The death of a rock star seemed like another cautionary tale, a real-life “look what happens” to discourage kids from dreaming too big.

But within a few days at school, it was obvious that something was different. I was a couple of weeks shy of my 12th birthday and didn’t know what was good or bad in music and culture, really, but certain kids started plastering their book covers and folders with Cobain’s picture. Not everyone, mind you, but the “weird” ones that already drew band names in their notebook margins and had tapes in their walkmans of bands I’d never heard of before. This was a big deal to them. I didn’t know why, and as usual, I was too afraid to ask.

In the next couple of years, the musical awakening took full force, and my own listening began to branch out. I started to hear songs that awoke emotions inside that hadn’t before stirred, and from there it was a cycle of discovery, repeated listens and the leap down the next wormhole and next cycle, a path that has yet to cease and hopefully never will.

It was at this point, in eighth grade I suppose, that the kids were all gathered in home room for a pep talk by a guidance councilor who, more like an overeager football coach than a granola-hugging communicator, was trying to snap us out of our preprogrammed 14-year-old malaise. He might’ve been talking about drugs, or doing homework, I don’t remember. But he was trying to shake us up. And he used Cobain as an flashpoint.

“Look at him. Here’s a young, good looking guy. But was he happy? No. He was on drugs and he killed himself. Sound like a hero to you?”

I don’t know, man, but I don’t appreciate you cutting him down like that. I didn’t know him, and neither did you.

Twenty years later, what do I know? I know more of the sordid details that have surfaced since that day — the note, the specific drug use, the journals, the estate battles, etc. — but I don’t feel like any of that gets anyone any closer to the man who decided he was finished. More importantly, the music has become an enormous part of my life. It started shortly after that guidance councilor's condescending speech and it continues on. There are all the studio albums and the special editions of those albums and bootlegs chronicling those albums and the concerts they supported, and they’re stored on my harddrive and on my shelves and they fill my time at work and at home and my walks around the city through my headphones.

As I write this, a copy of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York is on the turntable, the not-quite end point of the Nirvana story but close enough that the image of Cobain, hunched over an acoustic guitar in a brown sweater and his ridiculous blue eyes screaming as he poured every ounce of nervous energy into every song, is likely his most recognizable visage. Without the accompanying video, I can still see the band playing, with Dave Grohl in a pony tail brushing the drums, Krist Novocelic propped up on a stool plucking away at his bass, Pat Smear’s tri-color guitar on the other side, and Kurt out front, uncomfortable and commanding as ever.

“What the hell am I trying to say,” he sings on “On a Plain,” which first surfaced on an album, Nevermind, that would hit the music world so severely that it has yet to settle, everyone still reeling and picking up the pieces and wondering what could come next to have such an impact. When he sings that song here, he’s clearly unsure of himself, waiting for the axe to fall, all the while utterly captivating.

That dichotomy cut through his entire career. He was a shy man with a boiling spirit, and he channeled it all through his music, the quiet acoustic laments and full-blown electric blasts alike. He was funny and he was eloquent and he was crass. He played his guitar gently and he ripped the strings off of it, fingerpicking through a folk song and snapping the neck from the bridge and flinging the entire broken contraption into the crowd. He had a lot going on and a superb sense for conveying it. But he didn’t know what to make of it all, even though he did have something to say.

He was also a tremendous music fan, and it’s a cover that’s made the deepest impact from that Unplugged appearance. The show ends with an impassioned reading of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” with Cobain taking all of the discomfort and insecurity of his life and transforming it into a rampage. It begins as a quiet reading on the blues, builds and erupts, with Kurt trembling and roaring before he suddenly cuts off, gazes and lets the last words fall out of him. And then he’s gone.

For the past 20 years, so many have been trying to make sense of his work and his decisions, including the last one. In that time, his music has become a near-constant companion, the standard by which to measure so much. He was the clouded, confused voice of one of the greatest bands of all time, and should be — and will be — remembered as an important voice, for the 1990s and for as long as the music can be heard.

Is that a hero? I don’t know. But I’ll keep looking to him for answers, even when they don’t exist.

April 8, 2014

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