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Kurt Cobain
1967-1984
BY JON GARELICK

This article appeared in the April 15, 1994 issue of the Phoenix.

Nirvana had just finished a majestic performance of "Smells like Teen Spirit" at the Wallace Civic Center last November when bassist Krist Novoselic burst into a sudden tantrum aimed at a member of the audience. "I saw you grab that girl! Why donít you come up here, you weenie!"

Guitarist/singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain then took a seat to play the ballad "All Apologies," first lecturing the audience about girl groping in the mosh pit. "Weíve hired goons," he said calmly, "and if we find anyone groping girlsí breasts or pinching their asses, theyíll throw them out . . . and then beat the shit out of them."

Musically it was a masterful show, perfectly paced, every segue showing off each song to its best advantage, with none of the dead spots that can stall a set at mid ballad. Through it all, Novoselic was a towering behemoth, hopping and banging out his bass lines. Cobain, by comparison, was a fragile waif. On stage, the bandís personal dynamic was as clear as their musical dynamic: with David Grohlís fierce, precise drumming behind them, Novoselic was the kinetic genial giant, Cobain the soft-spoken introvert shuffling across stage in his permanent slouch, emitting howls of vocal and guitar noise mixed with touching, tender melodies. It wasnít hard to imagine that if anyone ever laid a hand on the singer, Novoselic would kill him.

If youíve followed Nirvanaís career at all over the past three years, it was difficult not to feel protective of Cobain. There was reported weirdness and with guns, drugs, petulant faxes sent to various publications (including this one) ó exploits that made Cobain and wife Courtney Love a notorious rock-and-roll couple.

And yet, in interviews and in live performances, Cobain was invariably lucid, modest, intelligent. He denigrated his image as a "pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself." That came from an interview with Rolling Stoneís David Fricke after the release of 1993ís In Utero. Cobain said he looked forward to the development of the band and considered tinkering with extended song forms, allowing that "I donít know if weíre capable of it ó as musicians." But the set at Wallace Civic Center was not the performance of a band on the verge of breaking up, and there were none of the signs of a frontman who canít, or wouldnít, perform.

Even so, when Cobainís shotgun-blasted body was found last week in his Seattle home, the shock wasnít merely at his death. We had been prepared for that (if by none of the other signs) by the "Rome coma" of a month before. And there were hints through his whole career of instability ó an incident where he climbed a bank of amplifiers and appeared ready to jump off, his comment to writer Michael Azerrad that if he hadnít "cured" his mysteriously recurring stomach ailment with heroin, he would have blown his brains out.

Perhaps we were most shocked by our own sense of shock. At the time, I couldnít imagine another rock starís death that would affect me as profoundly. Bono? Eddie Vedder? Paul Westerberg? Is it simply because I like his songs the most? That Iíve written the most about him, "studied" him the most in my own rock-crit way? What other comparisons were there? We were more or less prepared for Frank Zappaís death. The jazz gods I worshipped ó Mingus, Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie ó were likewise in physical decline when they died.

But maybe this particular loss is part of the mystery of pop stardom. When it was confirmed that Cobain was dead, I was surprised at my own sense of loss, and of disbelief. The disbelief continued through the Friday-night MTV rebroadcast of the Unplugged session, through listening to DJs hopelessly trying to play amateur psychologist to distraught fans. Even the next morning, the shock was still there. Thereís his face on the front page of the Times ó he must really be dead.

The "unwilling spokesman for a generation" line doesnít exactly fit either. At 41, Iím at least two generations removed from Cobainís. (Gertrude Stein once said that every five years makes a generation, and I didnít grow up in the í70s or the í80s.) The only parallel that fits, and the one that Baby Boom rock crits have been throwing at Gen Xers all week, is that of John Lennon. Itís a more unlikely and awkward parallel than the Boomers will allow, but there it is. Cobain himself told Fricke that Lennon was his favorite Beatle, saying with a laugh, "He was obviously disturbed." Cobain wasnít nearly as famous (it was painful to have to listen to NPR explain who he was to a general audience). Nirvanaís influence has been massive but not on a par with the Beatles. And yet itís that same loss, that same sense of disbelief, and the shock at the violence of his passing.

There is, of course, anger as well. Lennon didnít choose his death. The self-destruction of Janis Joplin and Jim Hendrix can nonetheless be seen as accidents. Thereís compassion for a suicide, but also dismay over the selfishness of the act. A suicide leaves behind guilt for his survivors. And in Cobainís case, a fatherless daughter whoíll have to deal with the anger and sense of abandonment for the rest of her life.

There is no good answer to the question "Why?" People scoff at the notion that fame alone can do someone in, no matter how sensitive or vulnerable the star. Cobain had access to treatment, he could have "retired," as John Lennon did in order to become a house husband. Cobainís troubled childhood in a broken home, his being shuttled from one guardian to the next, has been well enough documented in band biographies as well as in his own songs. In "Sliver" thereís the primal scream of "Grandma take me home!" In "Serve the Servants" thereís the ironic self-observation "Oh no, that legendary divorce is such a bore," followed by "I tried to have a father/but instead I had a Dad."

None of which excuses Cobainís suicide or makes it completely comprehensible. Thereís only the understanding that his feelings of shame ran so deep that he finally lost all sense of himself. (In his suicide note, he apparently called himself a "faker.") There were stories that Cobain and Love were in danger of losing custody of their child because of their problems with drugs. There were published reports that in the last couple of weeks of his life heíd fled a rehabilitation center, that Love had called police because of suicide threats. And there was the purchase of the shotgun. It looks as though he went to great effort to isolate himself, so that this time no one could talk him out of it, remind him of the world outside himself, remind him about his daughter.

For some, Cobainís suicide validates a portion of his art ó the demons in his songs were real after all. But his music was an affirmation. It was about survival. He turned the internalized demons outward and released them as squalling guitar rage and affecting melodies. It was proof that you could emerge from an unbearable isolation and connect, as he did on "Something in the Way," with only two chords and that delicate whisper of a voice. Even at their roughest and most abrasive, he made sense of chaotic feelings.

In hindsight, critics talked about the inevitability of Nirvanaís success ó the surefire mix of metal, punk, and pop that knocked Michael Jackson out of number one on the charts and made Seattle a brand name. But Cobainís art was no formula. His musical style was as personal as his oblique, powerful lyrics. He invented his own language, found his own voice. In the world of pop music ó that mass commodity ó he was that rare thing: an original.


Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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