(Written for the Irish Independent newspaper)
Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago tomorrow. If you’re one of the legions who revered the grunge legend (still do), you’ll know this already: that date, April 5 1994, is seared into the Generation X consciousness as much as the date of JFK’s assassination was for our parents.
Even if you weren’t, you’ll almost certainly know who he was, what he did and his impact on millions: Kurt was of that rare breed which transcends art and music to become iconic. (Ironically, probably the last thing this shy, sweet-natured, flawed man would have wanted.)
The Nirvana frontman, then 27, shot himself at his lakeside Seattle home, with the body not discovered until April 8; the band were actually due to play Dublin that night, though the gig had already been cancelled. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news: on the lash in Cork, end of the college week, possibly wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.
All night Kurt’s death was the main topic of conversation: people consoling each other, whispering their shock, as though we personally knew the guy. Several times female friends touched my arm comfortingly, asking if I was alright.
Funnily enough, it didn’t hit me too much straight away. A bit of sneering youthful cynicism, I suppose: makes you too cool to care. And Nirvana had become way too popular by that stage for hip dudes like me; I’d moved onto more obscure (i.e. inferior) bands.
As the years went by, though, there was a renascent love of Nirvana’s music: nowadays I listen to one or other album at least every few days. I’ve also watched endless hours of documentaries, interviews, promo videos, concert footage, news reports on Kurt’s suicide. I’ve read two biographies, hundreds of articles and even bought the somewhat unreadable Journals, a collection of juvenilia and diaries.
I’ve published a crime novel inspired by grunge which name-checks Kurt on the cover bumpf. I’m soon to publish a Young Adult novel which mentions Kurt in the first sentence and whose title comes from a line on the last song of Nirvana’s last album. Safe to say, the guy crosses my mind, totally unprompted, several times a week.
I never quite felt “loss”, I must admit, the way you might with family or friends. I guess the mind knows the difference between knowing someone and knowing an idea of them, even a mildly obsessive mind. But there’s sadness at how his life ended, sympathy for the demons that drove him to end it, regrets at what he might have produced in some alternate timeline.
That’s how much Kurt matters to me – yes, still, aged 40! – and countless others like me. But why does and did he matter?
This was a scruffy, slouch-shouldered, anaemic-looking dweeb from a Washington State backwater, playing screamingly discordant rock with misanthropic lyrics. How did he become a global megastar, revolutionise the music industry and burrow his way into the hearts and thoughts of a generation?
The songs were great, for starters: Nirvana absolutely kicked ass, like few bands ever did. Screeching guitars, pounding drums, driven by a propulsive, compulsive energy, but leavened with almost Beatles-esque melodies.
Everything about his image and attitude tapped directly into the Generation X zeitgeist: sarcastic, ironic, angry, witty, empathetic, well-read, cynical-but-idealistic, rootless, low on ambition, high on disaffection (among other things). And like other grunge musicians – and despite constantly fighting against it – Kurt was ineffably cool, which was of paramount importance to us.
Cool enough to rock hard but also remain a loud, proud advocate of women’s and gay rights (he famously alienated thousands of new fans by writing on In Utero’s sleeve, “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe, or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”)
Cool enough to be that rare thing, a literate rock-star: Kurt name-checked Beckett, Bukowski and Burroughs among others, while Scentless Apprentice was inspired by Patrick Susskind’s unnerving novel Perfume. Cool enough to be a scruffy, slouch-shouldered, anaemic-looking dweeb and not particularly care.
And he was authentic, which is about the coolest thing there is. He presented himself to the world, nothing more or less. I think this, most of all, is why Nirvana and Kurt struck such a chord – you looked at them and thought: nerd, loser, outsider.
And not in a stylised “geek-chic” way. They genuinely reminded you of those likeable guys who shuffle through school, drift through life, happy-ish in themselves and not a bother to anyone else, but never quite in step with the rest of the world. Which is something anyone, bar “alpha-plus masters-of-the-universe” types, can relate to.
Here was a regular schlub like the rest of us, who’d conquered the planet, not by selling out, but the complete opposite: I Am Loser, Hear Me Roar.
Of course, it’s undeniable that Kurt’s demise contributed to the legend; dying young is, as cynics say, the ultimate career move. Tin-hat conspiracy theories about his death further fuelled the fire: he was murdered, he faked his death, he’s living on Mars with Elvis and Shergar.
Kurt’s wife, the volatile Courtney Love, also helped keep him front-and-centre in the public eye, perhaps not always for the best reasons. (Though it should be noted that, scary-flaky as she may well be, Courtney too seems authentic. She was also regarded as a constructive influence on his later song-writing, and in Live Through This and Celebrity Skin produced albums as good as anyone’s.)
The Kurt/Nirvana “brand” – oh, he would have loved that term! – continues to grow. The albums still sell by the bucket-load. He’s been a character in a videogame. Gus Van Sant made a movie based on a fictionalised version of Kurt.
There have been art exhibitions, TV investigations and retrospectives, numerous documentary films: another is due later this year. A graphic novel of his life – the second – has just been published. Nirvana will next week be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On it rolls, decade after decade, presumably forever: Kurt long ago reached that plinth of post-mortem fame and earnings, alongside John Lennon, Marilyn, James Dean, Elvis and the rest.
For some of us, though, he’ll always be the greasy-haired slacker in an ill-fitting cardigan, the awkward kid from the back-of-beyond, the intuitive musical genius, the eternal outsider, howling at the world, howling to us and for us.
So tomorrow I’ll be reverting to that 21-year-old who was too cool to care, by putting on Nirvana and cranking it up loud, to the point of distortion. Mosh around the kitchen, embarrass the kids, frighten the cat, amuse the neighbours. Oh well, whatever, never mind.
You should too. Everyone’s welcome to this party; just come as you are.