21 years to the day that Kurt Cobain died and the cult of personality that surrounds the former Nirvana frontman has never shown any sign of abatement. The man who, along with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, went on to definitively shift the course of popular music forever remains a benchmark for success and provides a dark morality tale on the perils and pitfalls of fame and fortune.
In its broadest sense Cobain’s death – estimated by a coroner to be April 5th, 1994 after the discovery of his body on April 8th – was Generation X’s spin on the outpouring of grief that commenced in the wake of John Lennon’s shooting. Cobain’s role as the reluctant, would-be messiah was confirmed by the candlelight vigil that took place on April 10th. Thousands crammed themselves into a Seattle park as wife Courtney Love held court and read her late husband’s suicide note; his frustrated, sad and confused words now available to all via microphone. Mass public displays of grief can provoke odd behavior in people at the best of times. Where some may view the public reading of a suicide note to be in poor taste, others will deem it cathartic. Whatever their reasons that day, those who had travelled into the center of Seattle in memory of Kurt did so in force.
Staging a memorial today would bring in the same – if not more – numbers of people. Old, young, black, white, gay, straight… if you imagined the liberal-minded Cobain wanting to use his position and abilities to bring people from all walks of life together then he certainly succeeded. As the man himself sang in All Apologies: ‘All in all is all we are’. Kurt inspires single-minded devotion from fans old and new. His lyrics still affect realization and changes in people and the historical context is too grand to ignore: three sheepish-looking horsemen thundering into the public sphere like distorted horsemen and claiming victory in the name of the right to do like, whatever, man. For a man with such a large and intricate mythology surrounding his brief but influential life, it’s fitting that there’s an Icarus parallel hiding in there somewhere too. Even in death, Cobain was the inadvertent showman: his entry into the 27 Club was the grim spoils of his passing. If emulating and succeeding rock’s other mainstays wasn’t enough, then sharing ground space with Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin and more besides wasn’t a bad coup either.
The 21st anniversary of Cobain’s death brings with it a new cinematic release – Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck. This ‘behind the scenes’ look at the Cobain structure promises to be one the most clinical and heartfelt yet. Using home-video footage, sketches and entries from Kurt’s notebooks, animations, interviews with friends, family and other characters, Morgen may not have the last word on the kid from Aberdeen, Washington, but it may just be the strongest yet.
But what is it about the quiet and combustible guitar player that keeps us coming back for more? Twitter will hum with activity and relevant hashtags. Mainstream news press will at least make a brief note of the day in some fashion. Radio stations across the world will be blasting out Nirvana throughout the day. How many 50/40/30/20-somethings, teenagers too, will wear shirts declaring support for the “flower sniffin’, kitty pettin’, baby kissin’, corporate rock whores”. Their albums still sell well. The Cobain estate and various Nirvana-related legal wrangles are lucrative but bitter. Cobain and Nirvana aren’t a mere cash cow. They’re renewable and sustainable energies.
But what is it about Kurt and Nirvana that has allowed him and them to stand the test of time? According to Adam Downer, writer at Cokemachineglow, it’s still about pandering to the teenage demographic.
“I think as time as gone on, Kurt has grown to stand for the mythos of the 90s. He was a beautiful and tortured soul, as we hear over and over again, and made music that is similarly tortured and beautiful. I can’t imagine that sort of aesthetically beautiful pain would ever not resonate with a certain set of teens who feel out of touch with the more breezy line of pop music that isn’t going anywhere.”
But as much as Cobain still inspires both his own and future generations, it stands to reason that there must soon be a tipping point; the moment when the rampant dividing up and commercialization simply stops being a lucrative concept. According to Adam, that won’t really be any time soon.
“Oh god, we hit the saturation point long ago but dammit we’re beating the dead horse for all its worth. Because Kurt is such a piece of 90s kitsch, anything he’s ever done becomes fodder for fanatics to pour over, when people forget he was just a dude. It benefits a lot of people to act like he was more than that though.”
For now, it’s best to simply enjoy the music and remember why we’re talking about the guy 21 years after his death. Check out BaDoink’s Top Ten Nirvana Tracks playlist below… have we missed your favorite out?