So it’s been twenty years since Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I suppose that I’m not the only person writing a piece about it today (although I’m definitely one of the least important people writing about it). Truth be told, if I wasn’t spending much of this year looking at 1994, I might not have even noted it beyond recognition upon seeing a Facebook post or something.
His death didn’t affect me very much–celebrity deaths rarely do. However, when I was sixteen, I wasn’t that much of a fan of Nirvana. Oh sure, I’d enjoyed the songs I’d heard off of albums like Nevermind, but I didn’t own any of them and was more into stuff like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Metallica. I suppose that might all have been different had I access to MTV on a daily basis but I can’t exactly write about something that wasn’t true.
What was true is that my friend Brendan called me up on April 8 and told me he saw something on MTV about Kurt Cobain having been found dead (Cobain’s autopsy would later reveal that he’d died on April 5). We made some jokes about it adn then talked about something else. It was probably hockey or school. That night, I went to a meeting for the People to People Student Ambassador group for the trip to Europe I was scheduled to take that summer. One girl, whose name I think was Tammy, was wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and I innocently asked if that was because of the news. She replied that he wasn’t dead and that wasn’t completely true about the heroin overdose. I apparently then became the person who first told her about Cobain’s suicide.
Beyond that, life went on. I listened to other bands and explored other genres. I did noticed that other people were more upset. My sister’s friend, who had a flair for the dramatic, seemed pretty insistent on proclaiming that every lyric on every Nirvana album was a clue to his suicide. There was at least one piece in the student newspaper about it. And T-shirt stops at the mall seemed to be selling a lot more Nirvana T-shirts.
As the grunge of the early 1990s gave way to the fluorescent pop of the late 1990s, I began to see the significance in his death, culturally if not personally. Cobain’s suicide is almost a dividing line between the two decades, establishing a Nirvana/Britney Spears divide between Generations X and Y (for lack of better terms, anyway). It also winds up establishing Nirvana as a near-perfect band. Okay, I’m not a fan of In Utero but the group has that Beatles-esque achievement of ending before they could really suck, whereas Pearl Jam was more like the Stones–slowly fading with diminishing returns and occasional flashes of brilliance.
Had Cobain not taken his own life, how would things have been deifferent? Would we have gotten another Nevermind or would they have been put out Binural? Would Kurt and Courtney have continued to be a trainwreck of a couple or would they look like Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani (well, before they broke up)? Would Nirvana’s continued presence prevent the rise of The Goo Goo Dolls, Marcy Playground, Third-Eye Blind, Smashmouth, Fastball, and a host of other “Where are they now?” bands from the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Such speculation is both fun and frustrating. So are overwrought odes to dead artists and pretentious think pieces. At least on a day like this, we can take the time to appreciate his contributions to music.