Kurt Cobain And The Soul Power Of Music

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.

The Listening Post: March 2010

Spring and more tunes are in the air:

  • Seconds Of PleasureRockpile. Not quite a forgotten classic, this is still an excellent album of old fashioned, 1950’s-style rock ‘n’ roll. Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe have always been rock and roll traditionalists, playing a brand of music that has clearly visible roots in rockabilly, Chuck Berry, and blues without sounding like they’re copying the style (a la The Stray Cats). The album opener “Teacher Teacher,” which was all over the airwaves when I was in high school, is the best moment on the album but there are gems aplenty, from “Heart” and “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” to “Wrong Again (Let’s Face It)” and “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine.” This is an album that may sound somewhat anachronistic today, but would still be a hit at any party. Not essential listening, but great fun from start to finish. Grade: B
  • Heaven TonightCheap Trick. The thing about Cheap Trick is that they’re a frustrating band. Blessed with talent, and capable of writing incredibly hooky power pop, they were also very inconsistent. Heaven Tonight is considered by many to be their best studio album and if that’s the case, it’s too bad. It’s not that the album isn’t good. In fact, overall it’s very good. But that’s only because the good material on it is great. There’s some not-so-hot material on the album, like the sub-“Kashmir” riffing of the title track, or the “Peter Gunn”-esque “On Top Of The World,” or the arena-ready posturing of “Auf Wiedersehen” or the annoying call-and-response vocals that mar the otherwise very good “On The Radio.” But this mediocre material (and it’s mediocre, not awful) is saved by the sheer brilliance of “Stiff Competition,” the cover of The Move’s “California Man” (complete with the sly incorporation of another Move song, “Brontosaurus”), the bouncy “How Are You?” and, most of all, by “Surrender,” one of the greatest of all 1970s rock songs. Grade: B
  • The Sound Is In YouThe Grip Weeds. Any band that names itself after John Lennon’s character in How I Won The War has got my attention. That’s way too cool a joke to ignore. But even without the name, 1998’s The Sound Is In You is a worthy listen. It’s a stellar album, filled with great musicianship and very strong songs. There is a very clear debt to the rock music of the 1960s, especially The Byrds and The Who. Much of this album sounds like a cross between those two bands. “Strange Bird” especially sounds like it was lifted completely off one of the first couple of Byrds albums. But from the real start of the album (not including a minute long “Intro”), “Every Minute,” to the fantastic closer “Inca,” there isn’t a disappointing note on the album. The band’s influences shine brightly throughout. In many ways you can play “Spot The Influence” on almost every track, from the blatantly obvious (“Strange Bird,” and their great take on the Buffalo Springfield rarity “Down To The Wire”) to the less obvious (the furious acoustic strumming that opens “What’s In Your Mind” harkens back to the Moody Blues’s “Question”, “Games” name checks the first Flying Burrito Brothers album), but the Grip Weeds manage to synthesize these influences and come out with a nicely updated take on 1960s garage rock. In that sense, they’re the garage rock equivalent to the more classic rock-oriented The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. The album rocks hard, but is never less than insanely tuneful and catchy. Fans of hard guitar rock, furious drumming, great harmony vocals, and hooks you could catch a whale with are well-advised to check this out. Grade: A
  • Bleach (Deluxe Edition)Nirvana. There’s really no escaping the fact that Bleach is an album that many people want to be great, but which simply isn’t all that fantastic. After the towering Nevermind and the blistering In Utero, many Nirvana fans sought out Bleach expecting an unheard classic. The inclusion of the brilliant “About A Girl” on MTV Unplugged only helped whet the appetite. But Bleach gives new meaning to the term “spotty.” About half of the album is great or at least very, very good. “Blew,” “School,” “Love Buzz,” “Negative Creep,” “Swap Meet,” “Scoff,” “Mr. Moustache,” and “Downer” are all prime slabs of early grunge music. As songs, they are somewhat lacking but they more than pass the audition based on sheer power and conviction. Here was a young band full of sound and fury and even at this early stage Kurt Cobain’s razor-ripped throat was enough to make a believer out of anyone. Best of all was “About A Girl,” one of the very few songs that could have easily fit on the later Nirvana albums, a true masterpiece that showed Kurt’s devotion to the Beatles. The rest of the album? Strictly mediocre riff-fests like “Floyd The Barber,” “Big Cheese,” “Paper Cuts,” and “Sifting” show a band that still hadn’t quite settled into a songwriting groove. But now the album has been re-released with a 12-track live concert from 1990 attached and it’s a stunner. The live show is recorded better than the actual album, and includes most of the highlights from Bleach as well as more well-known later tracks such as “Dive,” “Sappy,” “Molly’s Lips” and “Been A Son.” The performance is never less than ferocious. Sure, it’s a sloppy live show. Nirvana was a pretty sloppy live band, and while Chad Channing does a great job he’s no Dave Grohl. But for a band like Nirvana, sloppiness could be an asset. Because the performance is so frenetic and furious, it never sounds choreographed. The very realness of it leaks from every note, including the missed notes. The live show is not on a par with their recently released performance from the Reading festival, and it’s not as good as the bootlegged 1991 show from Halloween, but it still gives a great opportunity to hear the young band before they knocked the music world off its axis. Grade: B for the original album. Grade: A for the live tracks.
  • Sin & TonicMono Men. Lost in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Soundgarden/Alice In Chains tsunami that ushered alternative rock into the mainstream were Seattle’s Mono Men, who brought a more garage rock aesthetic to the punk/grunge movement. There’s no mistaking this album for any of the albums by Seattle’s first tier, but it’s a standout from the second tier, on a par with Flop’s Flop & The Fall Of The Mopsqueezer. Where Flop wrote power pop songs that placed equal emphasis on both the pop and the power, Mono Men dispense with the pop side of the equation and substitute a more roots-rock sound, even delving into quasi-surf instrumentals (“Monster”) and Blasters-meet-The-Clash rockabilly (“Waste O’ Time”). While there are only a few real standout tracks (“Mystery Girl,” “Hexed,” “Waste O’ Time”), the balance of the album is consistent in its excellence. Only the boring “Afterglow,” “Scotch,” and “No Way” drag the album down a bit and, of those three songs, only “No Way” goes nowhere. Grade: B+
  • ClairvoyanceScreaming Trees. One of the best bands from the Seattle “grunge” explosion was also one of the most overlooked. Sure, people knew “Nearly Lost You” because it was on the Singles soundtrack, but Screaming Trees had been a recording outfit since the mid-1980s and several of their albums, especially their later albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust, were as great as anything that came out of the Northwest alt-rock scene. Clairvoyance is their debut album from 1986, and it only hints at how great the band would later become. The sound of the band was closer to the Los Angeles “Paisley Underground” sound than it was to Seattle grungers like Green River, and a very Doors-y keyboard is at least as prominent as the raging guitars. It’s also hard to believe that it’s Mark Lanegan on vocals…his voice on these early songs is very different than the whiskey-and-cigarettes vocals he would later use to such great effect. The highlights include “Orange Airplane,” “You Tell Me All These Things,” “Forever,” “Lonely Girl,” “The Turning,” and the title track. Unfortunately, none of these highlights are great, and much of the rest is very mediocre. The band had not yet figured out who they were at this point, and many of the songs are heavy on feel and light on actual songwriting. Tracks like “Standing On The Edge” and “Strange Out Here” sink like anchors, and while the remaining tracks are listenable they’re not particularly memorable. There’s promise here, but the Trees would do much, much better. Grade: B-