Photo: Stephen Sweet/REX USA.
It remains one of the most frequently asked questions regarding my time at MTV News — “What was it like reporting on the death of Kurt Cobain?" The short answer is, of course, that it was breathtakingly, sickeningly sad, but no one who was around at the time would honestly say that it was shocking. I never interviewed the members of Nirvana — their ascent happened relatively early in my time on-air, though I did meet Kurt, along with Courtney and baby Frances Bean, at the 1993 VMAs. But, given the way things had gone for the man — years of chronic, searing gastric pain that made him contemplate suicide long before the deed was done, the unlikely explosion of his band into something wildly popular, even revolutionary, yet also uncomfortably unwieldy — Kurt and Nirvana seemed fated to come to an early demise. That it happened in as lonely a setting as it did, pen stuck through suicide note in a planter near a body not discovered until several days later, only made it more heartbreaking.
News of the electrician's discovery made its way that afternoon of April 8 to the east coast, and eventually to me, engaged at the time in just about as un-grunge an early '90s activity as you could imagine: shopping at the fashion-forward Charivari on 57th Street. There was some kind of event coming up, I had gone there with an MTV stylist to find something to wear, we were tracked down, and — this the being pre-mobile era — the nauseating news was communicated via the store's cordless phone. I contrast that cumbersome, one-on-one delivery of information sometimes to today's celebrity death routine: a tsunami of R.I.P. tweets, salacious details via TMZ, a missive from the family or an attorney asking for privacy, a memorial service, maybe a tribute show, and on to the next one.
But, with Kurt there was, in a sense, no “next one.” I sadly covered plenty of music-world death in the ensuing years: Tupac, Biggie, Aaliyah, Left Eye, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Adam Yauch — but not one superstar passing from the world of rock. This probably has less to do with rock musicians turning toward healthier, more risk-averse lives in the past 20 years than the fact that rock has become increasingly marginalized as a result of hip-hop and electronic music's world domination. There are precious few major rock stars left, and the legit ones there are — Bono, Thom Yorke — have never had the sort of specific generational resonance that Cobain did. That ground has been ceded to rappers, most of whom today make music that is escapist and fantastical.
Employment and life prospects for many millennials in 2014 are scarcely better than they were for Gen X-ers in the early '90s, when Kurt gave gritty, wild-eyed voice to discontent and ennui. One difference, of course, is that the 21st Century now offers an entire universe of diversion from reality at one’s fingertips. “Here we are now, entertain us”? No problem. There’s an app for that now— millions of them.
Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd.
For two decades now there have been, around this dark anniversary, a flurry of write-ups and think pieces about Kurt and his legacy. But, this year it’s been especially gruesome: the “reexamination” of a point in the suicide case by Seattle authorities, who came across a roll of undeveloped film; the seemingly pointless release of new photos from the death scene, including shots of Kurt’s arm and foot; yet more photos, from a trashed, graffiti-tagged L.A. apartment that Kurt and Courtney shared; the say-it-isn’t-so bombshell that Courtney recently floated about wanting to develop a musical on Cobain’s life; and on a positive note, an online campaign to fund the conversion of Kurt’s childhood home in Aberdeen, Washington into a museum. It’s easy to imagine Cobain having a laugh and/or sneer at these “commemorations,” not to mention what his sardonic self would have made of this coming week’s induction of Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are thankfully no announced plans for Nirvana music to be played at the ceremony. Let’s hope they stick with that. Last year’s Grohl-Novoselic-Smear-McCartney one-off “Sirvana” was quite enough for the nostalgic fanboys, thank you very much. Just let it be.
Nostalgia. That old growth-killer — toxic to progress, a crutch for those who’ve ceased to discover. I am resolutely non-nostalgic (it even took some persuading to get me to write this anniversary piece), and I like to think if a 47-year-old Kurt Cobain were around today, he would be just as uninterested in looking back. There exists, however, among the most ardent members of the Church of Cobain (a denomination that’s been going strong since the moment that body was discovered), precisely the sort of fans given to pronouncements like, “They don’t make music like that anymore,” or “Where’s all the good rock today?” That’s utter nonsense, of course. If you can’t find quality punk or garage rock in 2014 you’re not looking very hard. And, while we all like to project our own ideas onto who a middle-aged guy named Kurt would be, I like to imagine him in a crowd, thrilled by a band like Perfect Pussy, Iceage, or Savages — or taking the stage to join in on a song by Ty Segall or METZ, a band creating new memories for Cobain’s old home, Sub Pop. But that’s just daydreaming. Kurt Cobain, in black Converse with a hospital bracelet still on his wrist, entered "Club 27" 20 years ago.
The world’s a very different place compared to 1994 — most dramatically, to be sure, because of the aforementioned digital revolution. But, another sweeping change, especially remarkable in recent years, that would have gotten the thumbs-up and an “About time!” from Cobain, is our progress on gay rights. Seventeen states now recognize marriage equality. The CEO of Mozilla just stepped down over his opposition to it. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”— enacted the year Kurt died — is a thing of the past. And, Arizona’s recent attempt to legalize anti-gay discrimination notwithstanding, an extraordinary number of young Americans today simply consider any such discrimination utterly unacceptable. That was hardly the case in 1992, when Nirvana released Incesticide. It was a rare musician of any genre — let alone a rock musician with an ever-growing bro-base — that would openly and vigorously condemn homophobia. For all the great records and memorable lyrics Kurt created, it is these words from Incesticide’s liner notes that to this day choke me up:
"At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us - leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."
That’s courage. That’s balls. That’s class. That’s punk. And, that’s part of what I will remember this week when a gay man, Michael Stipe, inducts Nirvana into the Hall of Fame. Thanks for that, Kurt, and thanks for everything else. I wish you were still here.