Did Kurt Cobain really kill himself?
Of course he did.
I’m just a fan, not a prying amateur psychologist/conspiracy sleuth. But I am a fellow traveler on the road of music, life, drugs, depression, et al. So I can speculate. First: punk rock ruined Kurt Cobain. I’m talking here about the imperious ethos of punk rock, the high principled dogmatic element that preaches anti-authoritarian values with so much presumed authority. It’s funny how rebellious movements are so full of rules – the right clothes, styles, sneers. “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t fuck!” screamed Minor Threat. Punk rock is like Teenage America’s version of radical Islam.
By the early 90s punk rock was getting fully assimilated into the mainstream. And its mullahs were furious – they considered the popularity of Green Day to be a personal affront to their culture. “Selling out” was the ultimate sin. Can you imagine this? No, the rest of us in 2016 who struggle to pay bills and juggle multiple jobs in a shit-tanked economy cannot imagine this. “Selling out” by singing songs is a first world problem. But it was a big thing back then – Jello Biafra was assaulted outside of a club in San Fransisco because he no longer marched in lockstep to three chords. (Or maybe it was someone offended by his space shuttle Challenger bit, which is admittedly a little edgy). Note how so many progenitors of punk rock have stayed relevant by evolving: Henry Rollins, John Lydon, Ian MacKaye, Kathleen Hanna, Jello. The ‘principles’ of punk rock as a guiding lifelong ethos are quite silly; you can be a dissident without the sewn on label.
So Kurt Cobain and Nirvana reached the height of their popularity when the absolute worst thing you could do was to be popular. Pearl Jam struggled with this for a while until they settled into their lane as an MOR rock band with good morals, like Springsteen for boring Gen Xers. Kurt was already ill-equipped for the level of fame thrust upon him, so the added baggage of the “sell out” label was ruinous. It’s unfortunate, because in hindsight the glare of the early 90s wasn’t so bad – music magazines, radio stations, and MTV happily welcomed the Nirvana zeitgeist. The secret of Nirvana’s success was that these industry people genuinely liked the music. They were college DJs who’d loved REM and Husker Dü, came from indie and punk scenes in the 80s. They could hear familiar roots and inspirations, and they recognized Nirvana as one of their own in a landscape of hair metal and pop fluff. Today the media attention would probably involve him being asked for his thoughts on the Kardashians or if he’s supporting Trump or Clinton. Pop culture in 2016 is like a cheesebox – square.
But Kurt also put impossible pressures on himself. Nirvana were a pleasantly tuneful rock band. Smart, quirky, catchy. They were the sum of Kurt’s disparate musical tastes: KISS and the Beatles, Daniel Johnston and the Melvins. Clever songwriting: “School” captures the scream of adolescent rage while satirizing the puerility of it all (“No recess!”); “In Bloom” uses its singalong hook to laugh at an ignorant fan who misses the messages in the songs; “Sliver” is a completely unironic childhood story about a visit to his grandmother’s house. But somehow Kurt wasn’t satisfied with being a tuneful rock band – he wanted be weird, arty, challenging. Nirvana were at their worst when they were trying to be the Melvins. There are a lot of bad, ugly Nirvana songs out there, and they don’t work because the weirdness is transparent and ham-handed. This isn’t meant so much as a criticism but another reason for why he was so unhappy with his success. He ended up as a radio rock star for kids and moms and football fans and 4th of July barbecues. He didn’t realize how powerful that was. Being a dissident has nothing to do with punk rock, just as being popular has nothing to do with selling out. The song “Lithium” blasting out at sportsbars and baseball stadiums and family cookouts is dissident as fuck.
He was also a drug addict. I suspect he’d reached a point where the high was not fun anymore. And when the high isn’t doing it anymore, that’s when things get really tough. It becomes like a job. There’s no getting away from it – you’re gonna have to score and try to get high at least for a little while and it’s not even gonna be that good but there’s no way around it and no way out and maybe tomorrow you’ll get your act together and clean up for your wife and kid but most likely probably not and this stuff will end up killing you eventually but hey that’s life right? “It’s better to burn out than fade away”? That’s the kind of bullshit that’s constantly running around an addict’s mind. Kurt had reached an absolute breaking point with his addiction – either get clean or die from an overdose. But the concept of “getting clean” feels like an impossible leap from down there. Imagine the idea of changing everything in your life, moving to an entirely new country where you don’t speak the language to take a high level job as a computer programmer and you can barely work your iphone. Imagine an atheist enrolled for lifetime study as a monk. Imagine a hippie pacifist named as a general for a major war. This is what the idea of sobriety looks like to an addict. It’s all too much.
What’s the best Nirvana song?
What’s the best Nirvana album?
Nevermind. The cynical hipster music nerd in my soul hates to say this but it’s true. It’s not Bleach, though that album is a proto-grunge classic and nearly as hooky when you dig in to it. Bleach definitely captures the stoner rock atmosphere that was once described as ‘the Seattle sound’ before it all got swallowed up and disseminated by corporate radio and hacky imitators. It glides along just fine for the first half, but it takes a real dive at that point, when you can actually hear the band running out of inspiration. Some of the tunes on Bleach are fucking ponderous man, as Casey Kasem would say. There are some brilliant moments on In Utero, but overall it’s too reactive, too caught up in the nihilism of anti-fame. Plus we’ve got some bad songs on there too, experiments that just don’t work. The highs are as good as Nirvana ever got (“All Apologies,” “Serve The Servents”), but it can be a frustrating listen – the quirky humor has all but disappeared. We have to admire the artistic vision of In Utero, but ‘admiring artistic vision’ isn’t what Nirvana is all about.
Nevermind just is what it is – a great goddamn listen. Put it on in a packed rock club or on a Sunday afternoon retiling the bathroom floor. Driving the kids to school. Working out at the gym. Getting wasted on Schlitz and bong rips in the backyard. It all works. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” feels a little hacky, with its half Boston half Pixies thing, all but robbed of any power it might have had due it its pervasiveness. But the album really takes off after that – tunes like “Drain You” and “On A Plain” get into your head and won’t leave and that’s okay. Dave Grohl elevates their sound immeasurably – he hits hard and contributes melodically, like if you told John Bonham to try to play like Ringo Starr. Nevermind is a fully realized masterpiece, as important and endlessly listenable as Sgt Pepper, Never Mind The Bollocks, Ready To Die, Dark Side Of The Moon.
Were Nirvana overrated?
No. Going through some of Kurt’s demos and half-finished songs, one has a repeated realization – this would make a great Nirvana song! The demos themselves aren’t particularly engaging – I don’t hear the immediate lo-fi genius of Daniel Johnston or the Basement Tapes. Kurt’s solo “Sappy” is like dreary, draggy nothingness; Nirvana’s version is one of their finest recordings. There is a certain alchemy to the band, particularly once Grohl gets in to the mix. They could be formulaic and as we’ve noted their experiments didn’t always work, but as a unit they gave these songs life.
Live stuff is inconsistent, but I don’t suppose you study live Nirvana recordings for intricate musical subtleties. The old video collection Live! Tonight! Sold Out! is essential – we get Kurt’s vision of weird druggy editing piecing together infamous clips from little clubs, home movies, and television spots. My favorite bit is the start of “Teen Spirit” which gets the crowd jumping like crazy until Kurt cuts it off: “Nah, we’re not gonna play that one tonight.” Live at Reading is a tremendous performance, a real triumph at tough point for the band. The rumors about his health were such that Kurt was wheeled onstage in hospital garb and feigned collapse at the start. But despite all the hype, you have to be able to bring it live, and they do it there, effortlessly.
What about the conspiracy stuff with his death?
It is all shite. Courtney Love makes an easy villain – she really does come off as someone desperate for fame without any noticeable talent to achieve it. Her story is its own horrorshow that we don’t need to throw dirt upon. But this is an era of easy conspiracies – the illuminati planned 9/11 cause youtube said so. We already addressed some of this in the conspiracy article a few weeks back. Conspiracies serve to turn a complicated world into a Hollywood action movie – put Nicholas Cage on the job and he’ll figure out who really killed Kurt. (With accompanying soundtrack album of alt-country and pop R&B stars covering Nirvana classics!) Don’t confuse conspiracy theory entertainment pieces with actual journalism. Collecting disparate facts in support of an erroneous theory is a fool’s errand. I won’t say that it harms his legacy as much as it’s a waste of time for those involved. The takeaway from Kurt’s suicide is don’t do heroin! not let’s give some unwarranted attention to shady characters and bit players looking to make some money off his name.
It’s really just about the music. It was good. There’s something essential about Nirvana’s contribution to rock music. “Heart-Shaped Box” is a love song full of obsession, desperation, and paranoia. “Dumb” is a White Album outtake about the joys of heroin (everybody’s got something to hide…) “Negative Creep” is the mean older brother of the stoner on the porch in the Flaming Lips’ “Slow Nerve Action.” “Lithium” conflates the effects of a mood stabilizing drug with a celebratory anthem of a born-again priest. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” suggests that Kurt was ready to make his version of Beggars Banquet. All these tunes are a great way to learn guitar. They made rock music accessible and relatable at a time when it was drowning in extravagence.
One thing that should not be forgotten is that Kurt was a champion and shepherd of other bands. He invited the Meat Puppets to practically upstage the MTV unplugged show with three of their own songs – what other artist ever did something like that at a big televised performance? Kurt changed the meaning of what it meant to be a rock star – everyone shifted to match his steps, from old rock dinosaurs to upcoming bands eager for fame. Kurt was good people. He got lost down on a path of drug addiction and was never able to get out. How would he have changed or matured? I suspect Nirvana would have folded in the mid 90s, and we would have gotten some great solo albums and production work from him, surely some wacky side projects – somewhere in another universe there’s a Kurt Cobain/Frank Black album recorded around 2002. Maybe a couple quirky feature films, art or fiction books, probably some Nirvana reunion tours once in a while. I bet he’d have a really entertaining podcast too.
For any other Nirvana questions please send $50.00 through paypal to this site. You’ll be entered into a lottery whereupon quarterfinalists will be chosen by one of those powerball machines with the pingpong balls we have here at the office. I’ve got most of the balls tagged with sexual positions to spice things up with the wife, so I’ll have to rewrite the questions on all of them. Actually that’s going to be a lot of work, so let’s make it $75.00 per question.