It’s been 19 years since Kurt Cobain hopped the wall of his rehab facility, went home to Seattle, and killed himself with a lethal dose of heroin and a shotgun blast to the head. With the passing of time it’s become easy to forget the asteroid-sized impact of Nirvana on the music scene. After all, Kurt Cobain was not a great guitar player. He sang in a harsh, unschooled style that incorporated blood-curdling screams and howls of torment. His lyrics seemed troubled, but were most often simply inscrutable. With his back twisted from scoliosis, unwashed hair in his face, Kurt Cobain was as far removed from today’s American Idol pop stars as Little Richard was from Pat Boone.
And yet, Kurt Cobain was briefly the brightest star in the rock firmament. He was the face of rock music in 1992 and 1993. His suicide led to an outpouring of grief unseen in popular culture since the murder of John Lennon, and not seen again since that April day. Just as Lennon’s murder made the almost universally despised Yoko Ono a sympathetic figure, the suicide of Kurt Cobain changed Courtney Love (briefly) from the parasitic grunge hanger-on to the beloved widow. Since his death Cobain has been the subject of documentaries, biographies, and endless speculation. By dying, he achieved immortality. He remains frozen in time, encased in the amber of memory where nobody can touch him.
But that question remains. How did a mediocre lyricist and guitar player with a remarkably rough singing voice become so popular in the first place? How did the howling, screaming wails of this troubled soul from the Pacific Northwest break through to the masses?
It’s far too glib to say, as many have, that Cobain was the voice of his generation. His lyrics were far too personal and, often, far too bad to tap into the consciousness of millions of people. Their breakthrough song was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but how exactly did “A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido/Yeah!” embody that generational voice?
No, it wasn’t Kurt’s words that spoke to the fans. What elevated Cobain into the stratosphere was that the music meant everything to him. A good friend of mine once said to me, “Kurt Cobain’s conviction highlighted the complacency of the entire musical scene at that time.” This is about as perfect a description of the reasons for Cobain’s status as a rock icon as I’ve heard.
To understand the significance of Nirvana you must also remember what rock radio sounded like in 1991. It was the era of Phil Collins and Michael Jackson. Guns ‘n’ Roses was the gem amidst the junk of the Los Angeles hair metal scene (and for many of the same reasons that Nirvana stood out). Mainstream rock was exemplified by bands like INXS, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Spin Doctors, and Billy Idol. The slickly produced sound that defined the 1980s was starting to wane a bit by 1990 and 1991, but it was still heavily represented on the radio. It was still the era of the so-called “corporate” sound…music that sounded like men in suits sitting around a conference table were dreaming it up. Nirvana would later write a song called “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” because that was the jargon that record companies used to refer to hit singles.
Meanwhile, there were underground bands starting to make headway. Bands like Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Metallica, Mudhoney, and Alice In Chains spoke to those fans who were tired of slick production and insubstantial, often crudely misogynistic, songs about partying at the trendiest clubs in Los Angeles. Here, for the first time since punk rock came out of the New York City Bowery and the London housing units, were songs that were played and sung as if lives depended on it. The subject matter was often dark and the guitars were sludgy and tuned down, but what these songs had was a sense of urgency. The listener may not have been able to fully appreciate (or even understand) the lyrics, but they responded to the passion that poured out of the bands. What the bands were saying was largely irrelevant. What was important was that they clearly meant every single word. It was important to them that this song be written and played. And because it was important to the band, it became important to the listeners.It is impossible to overstate the importance of craft in songwriting. Popular music is filled with songs where the style, structure, and performance are better and more important than the substance. Many of these songs are intensely enjoyable (believe me, I’ve got far more Monkees songs on my iPod than any human being should be allowed to have). But these songs rarely define a time like Elvis did, like the Beatles did, like punk rock did, and like Nirvana did. For that, you need conviction. For that you need to believe that your very life, and maybe the lives of your audience, depends on what you are doing.
Kurt Cobain believed in what he was doing. Music, for him, was a way to escape his life as a neglected child and a bullied teen. It was a way to forget the stomach problems that kept him in a perpetual state of nausea, and it was a refuge from the sycophants and toadies that clamored around the band, seeking to bathe in reflected glory. In the end, Cobain was not strong enough to withstand it. His addictions were too intense, his demons too powerful. He turned to the wrong people for advice, preferring to surround himself with fellow addicts who assured him that everything would be fine if he just took another hit. He was his own victim.
But the intensity and passion he brought to his art still shine. It’s the same passion that you hear in the voices of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Robert Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, Mavis Staples, Howlin’ Wolf, Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Billie Holiday, Chris Cornell, and Jack White. It’s the soul power of music that comes from deep reservoirs of emotion, love, rage, and humor. It’s a connection to a musical history that is appreciated, studied, and respected.
Musical ability is great. Pitch perfect singers of astonishing range, musicians of awesome technical skills…these things can move the listener to gasps of appreciation. But talent is not enough. If it was, Yngwie Malmsteen would be a household name. What matters in the end is not the gasp of appreciation. What matters is how the heart is moved, and how the soul is touched. There are thousands of acts who can play their instruments and sing their songs perfectly, with every note in place and every lyric perfectly enunciated. Just watch American Idol or The Voice and you’ll see them.
Kurt Cobain did not have great musical talent, but he had enough. He did, however, have a great musical heart, and he wore it on his sleeve for the world to see and hear. That is why he is still relevant. It is why all great art and music endures.