We measure our memories in milestone moments, some of them joyful, some tragic and a few floating somewhere in between. For a generation of music fans, April 8, 1994, was the day when the world stopped turning for a moment as they heard the news that Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s body had been found following his suicide three days earlier.
I can remember where I was (working at the now defunct Rose Records in Chicago), what I was wearing (yes, a flannel shirt and ripped jeans) and who called me to break the news (my childhood best friend who knew I would be devastated).
When the news came through that he’d “gone and joined that stupid club” (as his grieving mother, Wendy Cobain O’Connor, said in a statement), I was shocked and numb.
It was unfathomable that we’d lost a singer who seemed to have single-handedly pushed pop culture (music, fashion, art) off its axis using just his gaunt, hunched-over frame and lyrics that tore at his, and our soul. How could he end his life when he was on top of the world, fronting the biggest, most important band of his generation, the world at his feet? And at age 27? That’s not enough time to figure out if you were made for this world or not, I thought.
For generations, boys and girls had jumped on their beds, swinging tennis rackets around and pretending to be the rock stars they dreamed they’d become.
Cobain, though, always seemed like he never wanted that kind of fame or the attention. Too fragile by half, wracked by personal demons and conflicts that he turned into his signature loud/quiet buzz bombs, he just couldn’t stand the pressure. Maybe he was too deep in it to realize that his brief period in the spotlight would echo for years, decades, and, it now seems, forever. That he would have an impact deeper than so many of his heroes, from his friends in the Melvins, to more obscure bands like the Vaselines and Meat Puppets.
No band, no singer or songwriter, had ever spoken to me in the way Cobain did. And, to this day, no one else has, and, I suspect, no one ever will. I wasn’t a particularly angsty teen and I didn’t struggle with many of the issues that Cobain did (divorced parents, homelessness, depression, chronic pain, substance abuse). But Nirvana’s music, and Cobain’s broiling passion and clear-eyed vision, made my body and brain buzz as if we were somehow connected.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, though his death was enough to spur me to seek out a job in music journalism, landing my first cub reporter gig a short time later at a Chicago weekly. More importantly, it made thousands of budding rock stars pick up a guitar, put pen to paper and start hundreds, likely thousands of bands just like one of his other idols, the Beatles.
While shocking, Cobain’s death also felt kind of inevitable in a sad way. Nobody could burn as intensely as he did on that MTV “Unplugged” special and sustain that heat for very long. And keep in mind, he did it before the Internet. Before people could share live clips on YouTube, or make Cobain sweater Tumblrs, or write Nirvana fanfic, post their own “Drain You” cover videos or share links on Facebook of this awesome new band they just discovered.
The intensity of today’s always-on, always-watching culture might have buckled his knees even faster than it did back in the pre-wired early ’90s.
Whether you just discovered Nevermind last week, or stood vigil with a candle 20 years ago, the anniversary of Kurt’s death is a reminder that Cobain’s impact on pop culture has hardly diminished in the decades since his death. What made him so special was that he seemed like a regular dude who stumbled into rock stardom and then recoiled from it when he reached the heights that some people spend their every waking breath striving for. That is punk rock.
The other thing that his death did was trap him in amber: a perfect specimen who never had a chance to suffer an artistic or popular decline. There would be no 25th anniversary tour, no solo album, no side project with an ex-Beatle. His suicide was a hard slam of the door, a shock to the system in its finality and its loneliness. How could someone so adored, a new father and a creative force of nature who had hardly reached his potential disappear into such a pit of despair without anyone noticing?
Who knows what the future held for Cobain if he’d been able to pull out of a spiral that was exacerbated by a crippling addiction to heroin and a painful chronic stomach ailment? Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has, of course, gone on to superstardom as the leader of the Foo Fighters, while bassist Krist Novoselic has mostly retired to focus on local Washington state politics and his farm.
Cobain could have done anything he wanted. Anything. Including throwing it all away and (trying) to disappear back into obscurity.
But what he seemed to want the most was to be left alone. When you lose someone at the peak of their creative and cultural influence you’re left with their music and legacy, but also a million unanswered questions. Cobain isn’t fascinating because he killed himself, he’s fascinating because what he left behind was so real and raw that it transcends the time in which it was created. And that’s the hardest trick of all to pull off. Play “Pennyroyal Tea,” “Come As You Are” or “Heart-Shaped box” for someone today and watch their expression change.
The way Cobain’s music touched people and changed the course of the culture made him larger than life, but all he wanted was to shrink back down.
Yes, as many have written, we lost the voice of a generation when Cobain pulled the trigger and left behind a suicide note that quoted Neil Young lyrics about how it’s better to “burn out than to fade away.” Part of me was, and still is, selfishly mad that all I got was three albums and some outtakes. As amazing as those studio albums are, it’s not enough. It will never be enough, which is part of what makes us hold on to what we have so dearly.
Yes, we lost a rock star we loved who made it feel okay to be a little weird and disconnected, but others lost even more. Bandmates Grohl and Novoselic (who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week for their work with Cobain) lost their creative brother and friend. Wife Courtney Love lost her husband and daughter Frances Bean the father she hardly knew.
Kurt’s suicide left a huge hole in their lives, and ours. Even if you go out right now and download Nevermind for the first time, or listen to that final aching, cat scratch howl on the cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” from “Unplugged,” I defy you not to be moved in that moment. And, I suspect, for the rest of your life.