Kurt Cobain tribute I wrote in 2004

April 5, 2004

Kurt Cobain
Kurt, we hardly knew ya

Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld
So I can sigh eternally

Ten years after his death, the singer-songwriter who inadvertently created “grunge,” caused flannel to appear on NYC runways and became One Of The Most Important Rock Stars Of All Time is still attracting the kind of media attention that he hated.

Kurt Cobain had always been the quintessential anti-rock star. Unhappy with his fame once it extended beyond Seattle (“I don’t like my fans anymore”), he was accused by his record company of purposely trying to make Nirvana’s second (and last) studio album, In Utero, non-commercial. If that’s true, he failed: track after track became hits and are radio staples even today.

His music and persona were the perfect ironic counterpoint to the kind of attention the band began to draw after their first major-label release Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts and had frat boys trying to figure out what “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” meant.

Homeless kid, high-school dropout, roadie, junky. He seemed like an accidental superstar, yet his bandmates claim that Cobain was ambitious. He wrote a song per night, made them practice for hours every day and was a taskmaster in the studio. He was quoted as saying that when the other two-thirds of Nirvana didn’t like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the first time they heard it, he made them play it hundreds of times in a row.

Here we are now
Entertain us

Like most people, I hadn’t heard of Nirvana before Nevermind. My boyfriend at the time lent it to me and dismissively said that the lead singer was a heroin addict. The music just sounded like noise to me, so I listened to it again. And again. I couldn’t have guessed that I was hearing the sound of the new mainstream. My relationship with Nirvana far outlasted the one with the boyfriend in both length and significance.

Despite a career that easily places him in the company of Dylan, Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, Cobain has a puny four-CD catalogue and a career that spanned just two-and-a-half years in the public eye. He has an output-to-legacy ratio that rivals James Dean’s, although he is more likely to be compared to John Lennon.

I’m so ugly
That’s okay ’cause so are you
We’ve broken mirrors.

Like Lennon, Cobain had the gift for being angry without being off-putting and for expressing intimate emotions that spoke to the masses. He also married Courtney Love, a woman who surpasses Yoko as most unpopular wife in rock & roll history. Loud, obnoxious, consistently out-of-control, Love continues to make Cobain look like even more of a misunderstood waif than his vulnerable, wrenching vocals do.

Well I swear that I
Don’t have a gun

I remember driving home from my job at UCLA when KROQ delivered the news that the body of a 27-year-old male Caucasian was found in a Seattle home, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The body was thought to be Cobain’s. I felt heartsick, although not at all surprised. It’s typical of the exploitation Cobain routinely attracted that the electrician who discovered his body immediately phoned a radio station rather than the police.

It seems that his world is as tumultuous in death as it was in life. A lot has happened with him just in the two-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Seattle. Courtney gave his private diaries to her lover and he wrote a bestseller, there was a bitter legal battle over Nirvana’s songwriting royalties (complete with an open letter to fans from Kurt’s mom and the rest of Nirvana, David Grohl and Krist Novoselic, trying to have Courtney declared insane). Of course there are the continuing rumors that his death wasn’t a suicide.

Just because you’re paranoid
Don’t mean they’re not after you

A hurricane of bizarre conspiracy theories has been twisting around Courtney Love for the past decade. A Seattle detective said that with all the drugs Cobain had in his system, he wouldn’t have had the strength to lift a gun, much less be able to pull its trigger. Although he was the perfect victim since his tendency toward self-destruction was so public, it seems far-fetched to think that someone could get away with murdering the most famous rock star in the world. Maybe to some people, thinking that his death wasn’t a suicide somehow makes it more palatable.

The end result is that Cobain has left behind a bipolar legacy. On the one hand, his suicide felt like a betrayal to a lot of people — a Seattle music professor accurately pointed out that it would have been less devastating if he had just overdosed. On the other hand, he is arguably the most important musician of the last 20 years.

When they first appeared, Nirvana was given a lot of accolades for sounding fresh compared to the hair bands who were their contemporaries. It’s over 10 years later and they still sound fresh, but this time it’s compared to all the bands who managed to rip off their sound, but not their songwriter’s talent.

Rest in peace, Kurt. I hope your Leonard Cohen afterworld is what you wanted it to be.


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