I remember clearly the moment the news of Kurt Cobain’s death was announced, nineteen years ago. I was 23 years old then, and I remember being restless the entire afternoon. I couldn’t wait to get off work. I needed to get home and make some calls. I had been in negotiations the previous week to buy an autographed photo of Cobain and his fellow bandmates, negotiations that obviously fell through because that photo tripled in value in a matter of minutes. I was crushed, but not for the reasons you might assume. I had had what I can only describe as a hunch — not a full-blown premonition, but more of a gut feeling — that Kurt wasn’t going to be around much longer, and quite frankly, I wanted to cash in.
You’re probably thinking that sounds awfully mercenary, and you’d be right. But to be perfectly honest, Kurt Cobain’s music — the entire grunge movement, really — never had much of an impact on me. I thought some of it was quite good (I was much more of a Pearl Jam fan, and even then it was a casual fandom), but it never grabbed me the way it did the majority of my peers. I was still a diehard fan of New Wave and Synthpop, and no way were these flannel-swathed ragamuffins going to pry my fingers loose from that Korg. I should probably also disclose that I held just the tiniest of grudges against Mr. Cobain and his band. You see, Nirvana ruined my chance to be a pop star.
Okay, that may be slightly exaggerated. I was, for a brief time, in a synthpop band. Like, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief. I can’t even remember what we called ourselves. I had teamed up with a couple of guys from the local record shop, and for nine weeks we practiced, learning various selections from Depeche Mode, Ultravox, and Camouflage. We were ready to go and had a line on a gig at a bar near Arizona State University . . . and then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” exploded onto the airwaves like an atomic bomb. Needless to say, that was the end of the gig, and the end of the band. So you can understand why grunge wasn’t exactly my favorite musical genre.
Still, I remember hearing reporters and rock journalists and disc jockeys saying over and over that Kurt Cobain was going to be remembered as one of the greatest influences in rock history, that his contribution to music would be felt for decades to come. At the time, I agreed. Time marches on however, and that promise has not been kept. I really don’t hear any lingering remnants of grunge in today’s music. Cobain and Nirvana were the spark that lit a brief fad, and like all fads, it’s a product of its time that we look back on with wistful smiles, and then dismiss with a shake of the head, a nod to our youthful folly.
He has left behind an emotional blueprint mapping the tragic consequences of thrusting sudden overwhelming fame upon a deeply wounded soul unable to carry the burden of the label “Voice of a Generation”. He is not the only one; certainly Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson fall into this category. But unlike Cobain, their self-induced demises were protracted — long, drawn-out, messy affairs. Cobain’s death came suddenly at the apex of an incredibly successful career. Suddenly to most, but not to the few who read between the lines and saw laid bare the pain and doubt hidden behind the Sturm und Drang. Kurt Cobain was young, immensely talented, idolized by fans and lauded by critics, and tragically ill-equipped to handle it.