This week — on Tuesday the 20th, to be exact — Kurt Cobain would have turned 40. The obvious next thought is: What would he be doing if he were alive to celebrate it?
It's a difficult thing to imagine, as is pretty much anything involving Cobain in a world that's changed so much since he left it. Because like many artists before him — Jimi Hendrix comes to mind — Cobain is forever linked to a specific era: the heady and hopeful early 1990s, when the minority was the majority and the guitar was still seen as a viable instrument for social change.
And since he took his life in April 1994, the art form Cobain most excelled in — rock — has become nearly as fractious as the society it exists in. Erudite artists gave way to nü-metal, emo, punk-pop ... while you hear plenty of power chords and gravelly voices, some might argue that it's hard to find the spirit of Nirvana in any of it.
So, if he were still with us, where — if anywhere — would Cobain fit? Would he still be making music on a grand stage, or would he have disappeared from the spotlight, becoming a recluse like Syd Barrett or Jeff Mangum? Would he have split up Nirvana, as several biographies (and his widow, Courtney Love) insist? And if so, would fans greet a Nirvana reunion with the unbridled enthusiasm that the Pixies or the Police have found? Would they still even care?
To get some answers, MTV News reached out to people who knew Cobain as a friend, a musical compatriot and a subject. And while some respectfully declined to participate, we did receive several eye-opening responses that painted a picture of Cobain that few have seen. While he may have been a Man of His Times, he was also most certainly a man — a conflicted, quick-witted one who would have loved YouTube, been jealous of the White Stripes and found a kindred spirit in Pete Doherty.
"I'm pretty sure Nirvana would've broken up, but I have no doubt that Kurt would've kept making music. I know that he really looked up to artists like Neil Young or John Lennon, and so I think he would've probably made solo records like they did: really diverse and eclectic sounding, and on a very not-regular schedule. He may have stayed on Geffen [Records], but his albums would've been very dark, soulful and emotional. And they would've sounded like old blues albums, very grainy and craggy. I know he admired the way Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska sounded, and he admired how Bruce wrote, so I also think he would've written songs that were more socially conscious. He was a pacifist, and I know he would've detested what is going on in Iraq.
"Then again, I could also see him just living in the desert like Captain Beefheart, just drawing and painting and writing words ... and maybe he would've posted occasional ramblings on a blog — just throw something up whenever he felt like talking. But that would also probably be tough for him, because I know he wasn't a very tech-savvy guy. I remember him having a really difficult time trying to figure out how to use a cell phone, and he had no idea how to turn on the coffeepot in the studio."
(author of the upcoming "Nirvana: The Biography"; editor-in-chief, Plan B magazine)
"The thing that's really misleading about Nirvana is that everyone thinks of them as a band from Seattle, but if you actually examine their lifespan, Kurt only lived in Seattle for about a year and a half. He actually spent far more of his adult life in Olympia, Washington — the home of K Records and riot grrrls. And that was a really big influence on him. And when he was living there, he really enjoyed playing in these 'Project Bands,' a band you'd form one day and then split up the next. He'd do these 8-track recordings with people like Toby Vail from Bikini Kill and Calvin Johnson from Beat Happening. And I think he always wanted to continue doing that, but he found himself — because of his fame — in a situation that he wasn't able to, because he was always suspicious of why people would want to work with him. But sooner or later, the spotlight would've dimmed on him, and had he stayed alive, I think it's likely he would've gone back to his punk-rock roots in Olympia and collaborated with people there.
"I think the direction he would've gone in is kind of where Jack White started from in the White Stripes: to strip things back and make these raw, howling blues records. But I think they would all just be solo projects, because I think he would've kept Nirvana going. At the time of his death, he had pretty much split the band. He wanted to get divorced from his wife. He was pretty much unhappy with every facet of his life. But we all go through phases like that ... and I think had he gotten over his depression or whatever drove him to kill himself, he would've patched things up with Krist [Novoselic, Nirvana bassist] and Dave [Grohl, Nirvana drummer]. He was writing songs that were Nirvana songs — songs like 'You Know You're Right' and a few others — and I think he would've made another album with Nirvana."
"Kurt would still be making music. Maybe with some different musicians, maybe sitting out for a while, dropping off the face of the earth, coming back ... I think he would've gone in the direction of Mark Lanegan [and done] something really raw. I know that he and Mark tried to collaborate on that thing called the Jury [a band Cobain and Lanegan formed with Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel in 1989], and that was obviously something he wanted to explore. I could also see him maybe doing some producing for bands he liked, but he's not really a 'tech' guy — he never talked to me about tape speed or mic placement, but he knew he wanted specific sounds — so he would've been a producer but not an engineer.
"Also, I think he'd possibly start doing some writing. He might've had a blog — Courtney has one — and I can imagine him possibly writing articles about whatever was on his mind. And maybe after he had gotten older and settled down, maybe he would've gotten into politics and policy, just like Krist. I could see him becoming a spokesperson for this or that cause. And that would probably show up in his songwriting, because I know that would've gotten a little more concrete. On In Utero, he was writing about real, biting things, and not just singing things because they sounded funny. Some of his lyrics on Bleach were complete nonsense, just stuff he'd write down before we pressed play."
(author of "Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana"; co-producer of "Kurt Cobain: About a Son")
"Kurt would still be on a major label, but surely he'd be making very personal, idiosyncratic records, for the most part. Occasionally, he'd make a commercial record, but mostly he'd use the freedom his label would inevitably grant him to make music outside the mainstream. And it would be intense stuff, critically acclaimed, but probably not [selling in] Nirvana numbers. Basically, he'd pattern his career on Neil Young's.
"I think he would have explored both expanded instrumentation and very stripped-down instrumentation: Some music would have involved strings and horns and things like that, other music would have been just Kurt and an acoustic guitar. My guess is, he would have written lengthy, almost baroque pieces and to-the-bone blues songs. He listened to a lot of different stuff and it was all going to come out in his music eventually. Kurt's talent was perennial — he would have made very striking music, in several different modes, for a very long time. He wouldn't have repeated himself.
"I can say without question that Kurt would have been a massive YouTube fan — he'd be hunting up all the freakiest stuff he could find and laughing at it heartily. He was a connoisseur of weird, and YouTube would have served him very well. It's too bad he didn't live to see it. As Kurt treasured his privacy, I can't see him starting a genuine MySpace page, but I'd bet he would have started one under an alias and constructed a hilariously twisted alter ego that only a few friends would know about. Then, of course, word would inevitably get out and he'd have to give it up."
(author of "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain")
"Cobain told a number of friends towards the end of his life that he was tired of all the shouting, and as my book pointed out, Nirvana were essentially broken up at the end of Kurt's life. So definitely, he would've gone in a different direction. He had told a number of people that he was interested doing more pop music, less screaming, and he had obviously expressed some interest in working with Michael Stipe, so there were lots of possibilities. And if you listen to the last few demos he did, they reflect more of a blues interest, and an interest in stripped-down roots music ... I think he would definitely be a fan of the White Stripes. I think in some way, Cobain would've felt a competitiveness with the White Stripes, because they're roughly doing what he was starting to do. And in some ways, they're the only group that's come close in rock to taking the mantle of Nirvana. Jack White is most Kurt Cobain figure, musically, that exists; Pete Doherty is the most Kurt Cobain figure, personally, that exists.
"But if he had lived, if he had managed to stay sober, I'm almost positive he would've retreated somehow. And I think that retreat would've been personal, musical and physical. He would still be artistically involved, but I don't think it would've been as a big grunge star that people knew. It would've been on a smaller level. He also cited Neil Young as someone he felt had done a good job of aging in rock. And so Neil Young's idea of living on a ranch, making an album whenever he felt like it, getting sued by your label because the record isn't commercial enough ... those are all things I could imagine happening to Kurt Cobain, had he lived."
For more on Cobain's music and legacy, check out the feature "Nirvana: Days Of Thunder."