Fifteen years ago, on April 8, 1994, an electrician discovered Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body. A shotgun blast to the head ended Cobain's life three days before, and in a somber suicide note the musician confessed he hadn't experienced joy in creating music for years. He was 27.
The Nirvana frontman was more than a grunge prophet for Gen-X; he embodied the soundtrack for apathetic youth who rejected the sellout and feel-good, self-absorbed hippy bliss of their parent’s generation.
Nirvana’s magnum opus, Nevermind, is the quintessential Gen-X anthem. From the first rhythmic savage licks of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, to the guitar solo amid a primitive drumbeat, you knew you were listening to something different, something special. And yet, with its watershed appearance that signaled a move away from the glamour rock of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nevermind didn’t seem all that revolutionary at the time. Looking back, it’s easy to understand the album and the band that produced it sounded like the grunge wave that emanated from Seattle at the time.
With the lights out it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
- Smells Like Teen Spirit
The sound, a syrupy blend of muddled chords and raspy-voiced lyrics appealed to the college age kids who played the CDs and tapes on their campus stereos. It was a mix of gloomy, raw lyrics and alternative music that diverged from the pop-infused mass-produced happy music clogging the mainstream. Bands like Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden served as commercial successes in this new style; plaid-wearing, scruffy-headed soothsayers of gloom, grimacing minstrels playing for an audience of self-loathing slackers riding the trust fund wave through college and slaving their way in the recession-dominated workforce of the early 1990s.
But Kurt Cobain, he was special. He became the unwilling spokesman for the music, a troubled troubadour with the soul of a wounded poet. Or maybe not.
Despite Nirvana’s commercial success and popularity, Cobain never lived to see the aftermath of the grunge era. Lost in a fog of booze and drugs, he went out the way many artists and writers choose to – by his own hand.
For Gen-Xers like myself, I can remember where I was when I heard Cobain committed suicide: sitting in my car in a supermarket parking lot in Haddonfield, NJ. The radio announcer played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after reading the story and I just thought, “Generation X now has its own John Lennon.”
Unlike Lennon, who embodied the Baby Boomers, Cobain wasn’t an attention whore or sellout. He didn’t shack up in bed for peace, didn’t burn his draft card or didn’t raise any sort of “awareness” through his music.
I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have a light
The day is done
But I’m having fun
Nirvana’s music was kick-ass, in-your-face grunge. Cobain didn’t worry if you understood it or not.
But his death trapped him in the minds of his fans, preserved him as a youthful unshaven, long-haired musician. Looking at photos of Cobain, he is who we were back then. He didn’t live to see Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution, the Monica Lewinsky jokes and the train wreck of the late 1990s. He wasn’t around to witness 9/11, the war in Iraq and the superficial silliness of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. What would he have thought of his music 15 years later? What would he be doing today?
Would he be like former Nirvana bandmate Dave Grohl, who formed Foo Fighters following Nirvana’s dissolution in 1994? Or would Nirvana still be kicking around, playing venues like the Wisconsin State Fair or Al Gore’s Live Earth concert?
But that’s all speculation. What’s real is that a bright talent, plagued by personal demons, perished 15 years ago, leaving behind his music and a cult of personality. For the generation of misfits and seekers still playing Nevermind and remembering our youth, we are grateful.
Come as you are, as you were,
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up
The choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend as an old memoria
- Come As You Are