kurt.

My office phone rang.  It was Rich.

“Kurt Cobain died,” he said.

“How?” I asked.  I thought it was the beginning of a joke.

“He put a bullet in his head,” he responded.

I laughed.  I didn’t know what else to do.

I found Nirvana when I was in college.  They were noisy and sloppy and just not as good as any of the other bands of that ilk that I liked at the time.  They couldn’t shine Skin Yard’s shoes.  They lacked the songwriting prowess of Gruntruck or Screaming Trees, they lacked the power of Soundgarden or the punk ethos of Mudhoney.  They just weren’t as good a band as Bitch Magnet or The Melvins or Helmet.  And in 1990/91, I lumped all those bands together.  Nirvana was at the bottom of the list, for me.  Just above Tad.

But when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” things changed for me.  Quickly.  I remember sitting in my 1984 Mustang in some parking lot somewhere, rewinding Nevermind to the beginning, listening to “Teen Spirit” over and over again.  Holy cow, did I love that song.  I think I owned the cassette for a full day before I let the second song play.  I don’t remember ever playing a song as much as I played that one.

As the band became more popular – and “grunge” music, in general, joined it, I became more and more disillusioned with it.  Much like funk-o-metal before it, when a young band enjoys commercial success, major labels, in their infinite desire to be the same as everyone else, in their complete lack of originality, run out and find bands who are just like that successful young band.

And bands, in their own complete lack of originality, work really hard at sounding just like whatever the flavor of the month is.

Invariably, when this happens I lash out at whichever band came first, and in the case of grunge music, every Stone Temple Pilots got me more pissed at Nirvana.  Fair, or not, that’s how I am.

It didn’t help much to see the band plastered all over MTV and on every magazine cover.  

I didn’t really blame the band, at first – they didn’t seem to have changed much as they gained popularity.  But as the Kurt and Courtney Show took its place at the front and center of the entertainment world, and flannel-wearing grunge rock wannabes started taking their place along side the indie rock wannabes that we constantly ridiculed, Nirvana became another band we rejected.  

One year, at a CMJ Music Marathon, I met Joey Ramone.  The meeting was brief, and loaded with irony.  Joey had just walked out of one of the panel discussions into the hotel lobby, where a few hundred college radio and alternarock geeks were milling around.  Upon seeing Joey, a throng of people quickly congregated around him, waiting for the opportunity to shake his hand, hoping for an autograph or just a brief audience with the guy.

He hung around until every request had been satisfied, and until each person eventually left the lobby and went onto their next panel discussion or concert or schmooze opportunity.

I was sitting at the lobby bar, watching this all, thinking it was pretty ironic.  The Ramones were born partially out of a desire to rebel against all the bullshit that was going on in the music industry, and here, all these years later, a whole cottage industry had been built around that very rebellion.  And one of its originators stood in the lobby of a four-star hotel, surrounded by a herd of kids looking for autographs, suddenly a symbol of the same industry The Ramones were rebelling against in 1974.

Joey came over to the bar, looked at me, and shrugged.  I think he got it, too.

Kurt Cobain had turned into what Joey Ramone was that day, only on a much, much larger scale.  An entire generation of kids was dressing like him, listening to his music, pretending to understand him.  An entire industry was trying to emulate his music, which had been more timely than good, and the poor dude was obviously crumbling under the pressure of being front-and-center, yet consistently acting in ways to ensure he would remain front-and-center.

Alternately making jokes about “Punk Rock Baby” and wondering what it must be like to go from being a Seattle dirtbag to being rock and roll’s most famous new father, we watched from afar as the band, and their personalities, imploded.  We heard all the allegations of drug abuse, and also all the insider whispers that came from being marginally connected to people who knew people who knew people who knew Nirvana.  We laughed at most of them, but also felt badly at the overexposure that was clearly taking its toll on these guys who weren’t equipped to deal with that level of fame.

I knew plenty of people who played indie rock and simultaneously wished to be rock stars.  One time, a person I worked with told me in all honesty, “All my life, it’s been my dream to have people line up and pay money to hear me sing.”  But I also knew people who just wanted to have fun playing music, maybe get out a record or two, and then go back to their dayjobs.  Or people who wanted to eke out a meager living by releasing a bunch of records, touring the country each year, and sleeping on people’s floors.  I knew people who were signed to major labels – and subsequently dropped, having only kissed the degree of fame that Kurt Cobain had.

Nobody I knew was equipped to deal with the level of exposure that Nirvana had, though.  Nobody.  I didn’t know a single person who could have dealt with that level of popularity, and the pressure to perform that must have come with it.

When Nirvana jumped the shark with their appearance on MTV Unplugged, we had become completely disengaged with the band.  I didn’t even own any Nirvana albums besides Bleach and Nevermind; I was too much of a hipster to buy them.  I would just as soon have spent my money on Smashing Pumpkins or Terence Trent D’Arby.

Just a month or so before he died, he nearly overdosed in Europe somewhere.  I remember Rich saying “This story is getting out of control.  This guy is an absolute mess.”  

So when Rich called me to break the news, I laughed.

I laughed because this is what the world does to its icons, and this is what people do to their heroes, and this is what happens when you want to be famous.  It was, to me, funny.  I didn’t know what else to do.  

My boss came out and asked me what was going on.  I said “Kurt Cobain killed himself.”  He didn’t know who Kurt was.  A few other guys in the office knew, but they didn’t understand the gravity of the situation – this was perhaps the biggest rock star in America.

The night they announced that Cobain killed himself, Melting Hopefuls were playing an all-ages show at some high school somewhere.  They had a sort of superfan, a 16-year-old girl who was the biggest Melting Hopefuls evangelist that there would ever be.  She published her own zine, and she apparently booked the band at her high school.  Ray told me that they talked about Cobain from the stage, trying to teach the kids the lesson that suicide was cowardly.  Some indie band, playing a show at a high school on the cusp of taking the next step in their progression through the music industry meat grinder, looking forward six or eight steps and seeing what happens to some people when they get there, and calling it “cowardice.”

The record business wasn’t done with Cobain, though, so we got to hear Nirvana Unplugged In New York, and just a few days after Cobain’s death, Hole’s Live Through This.  We got to hear the “Who Killed Kurt?” debate, as well as the allegations that Cobain wrote all the songs on Live Through This (an allegation that, after hearing Hole’s later music, I am tempted to believe).  We heard Courtney Love’s ramblings at Cobain’s vigil, and soon after watched her come unglued on various AOL message boards.  It was like a never-ending soap opera, all milking a guy who wrote a handful of amazing songs, didn’t do much else, and fizzled out quick.

Rape me

Rape me, my friend.

Rape me

Rape me, again.

I wonder sometimes if he thought they would stop raping him if he disappeared.  His naive quote of Neil Young’s “Out of the Blue” in his suicide note led me to believe that he thought he would be burning out, instead of fading away.

But the record business wouldn’t let him burn out, and neither did the people closest to him.  They kept raping him and raping him, ensuring that he would fade away long after he burned out.  Because once you’re at that level, nothing is on your own terms.  

The record business, and the record buying public, rapes all its biggest artists.  None of them get out alive, whether they’re made a public spectacle like Cobain or whether they gradually slide into irrelevance like so many others.  But one thing for sure: the record business isn’t done with its artists until it says it’s done with them; even killing yourself won’t put an end to it.

When Cobain died I didn’t know this.  So when I got the news, I laughed.  I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do, but also because I felt like he was finally going to get to go back to being a normal kid from Seattle.  And also because, well, he was going to get to go back to being a normal kid from Seattle.  The record business didn’t get to milk him anymore, but he didn’t get to milk it, either.

But the record business always gets the last laugh.  The full, uncut 2007 release of MTV Unplugged In New York on DVD and the 122,000 friends on Courtney Love’s Myspace page should illustrate that clearly.

~ by Al on April 11, 2009.

7 Responses to “kurt.”

  1. I don’t remember where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain killed himself. I just remember being mad. I was mad because almost immediately, the mainstream press started martyring him and deifying him. I was definitively NOT on board with that.

    I did like Nirvana somewhat. But I liked a lot of other bands in the “grunge” genre, too. And I didn’t think Nirvana represented the best of the genre. But as soon as I heard about Cobain’s flameout, I knew he’d go down in history as a (mostly) unrecognized musical genius or something like that.

    Something else I realized at that point, too… The grunge movement took away a lot of the things I liked (and still do) about rock:

    * Rewarding proficiency (or even virtuosity) with one’s instruments
    * Music as fun, rather than as brooding expressions of self-hatred
    * Guitar solos

    Once Cobain’s suicide cemented his place in history, I just knew the pendulum wasn’t soon going to swing back toward liking the kind of rock music I really liked. And to me, that sucked.

    As a guitarist, too, grunge represented something else I hated: the resurgence of the vintage instrument market. Whereas it used to be easy to find a nice old Les Paul, Fender Jaguar or Stratocaster at a garage sale for under $100, all that inventory disappeared when all the grunge artists started playing these guitars. And then all the guitars we were playing when grunge hit were suddenly worth next to nothing. You suddenly couldn’t give away a Kramer Pacer or a BC Rich Bich or any of those guitars the hair bands were playing. So when you needed a backup axe for a gig or something, you’d go into the used instrument stores and, instead of finding a dependable old Strat, you’d find hot pink Ibanez junkers that would get you laughed off stage.

  2. I always looked at Nirvana as more of a punk band than a “grunge” band – I thought (and still do) that “grunge” was a convenient label to put on bands from the Pacific Northwest that had a dirgy, heavy sort of quality to them. The reality was that there were plenty of that kind of band long before Nirvana ever poked its head out of the sand – both in the Pacific Northwest and out. The Amphetamine Reptile label was putting out that kind of music from Minnesota for years, and Sub Pop, C/Z, and a bunch of other indies existed long before the “grunge” label got thrown on them.

    I think a lot of those bands WERE heavy on musicianship. I think it’s tough to deny the musical talent of Dave Grohl, or Page Hamilton, or Soundgarden, or Mark Lanegan, or a host of other guys who sprung out of that genre. Growing up a metal fan, I was willing to sacrifice the noodly guitar solo for actual songwriting, which Cobain was occasionally good at. At any point in my life, I would have taken a tight, ballsy Ramones song to a noodly, overproduced Metallica epic – even when I was more of a prog fan than a punk fan.

    All that being said, the mainstream media will deify any artist who dies in mid-career. They did it to Andrew Wood (who I never liked), they did it to Jeff Buckley (who I love), they’ve done it to everyone. I guess it was the irony of all of it that really opened me up to the degree that the record business is a bullshit business.

  3. Quite a few of these bands had talented songwriters. I’d put Dave Grohl in that category. And I actually liked the shift in emphasis from technical prowess to songwriting. I think you’d agree that we’d both rather spend time listening to Nirvana than to, say, a Steve Vai solo album.

    But I remember that you could learn a Nirvana song in five minutes. Much of the genre consisted of people playing sloppy power chords. There wasn’t a heck of a lot of challenge to it. When Kurt Cobain started making the covers of the guitar mags, and the most challenging thing you’d see transcribed was a Kim Thayil lick, it started to get really stupid. I used to like seeing a lot of the virtuosos play. Yeah, a lot of the stuff they did was way too self-indulgent, but I was always a firm believer in the virtuoso axeman who would make you sit up all night plugged into a Rockman trying to learn exactly how the hell he pulled off that harmonic or sweeping sequence. I still miss that.

    Totally agreed on the deification thing. Even in the cases of the deified musicians I actually like, sometimes the hype is overblown. I think Jeff Buckley is a great example. The guy legitimately has a terrific voice and a lot of his music is like a breath of fresh air. It’s definitely earning its keep on my iPod. But Buckley wasn’t the second coming or anything like that. So many people had hyped up “Grace” that when I actually listened to it for the first time, I was actually let down. Meanwhile, I bet if my expectations weren’t artificially raised… You know what I’m saying.

  4. Sure. And the further away you get from the date of the musician’s death, the more shitty posthumous releases you need to sift through in order to find the good stuff. I almost feel sorry for anyone trying to discover Jimi Hendrix today, because it’s nearly impossible to tell which records were actually MEANT to be released anymore. I certainly don’t know what they are.

    As far as the virtuoso thing is concerned, I understand the sentiment, but I guess I struggle with the definition. There are times I listen to pieces of Frank Zappa’s music and think it’s unbelievable in its technical brilliance, and other times I listen to other pieces and feel like he was so caught up in the noodling and studio trickery that the music itself absolutely sucks. I feel the same way about most of the guys who are labeled “virtuoso” while people like Sonic Youth or Bill Laswell or Glenn Branca or any number of others are neglected – mostly due to the lack of an “Eruption.”

    There are musicians I remember hearing for the first time that blew my mind for various reasons – Mike Watt, or Andrew Weiss, or Matt Cameron – who I just knew were never going to get the kind of notoriety of a Chris Squire or Neal Peart, mostly because of the type of music they chose to play. There are so many others, as well.

    I guess it goes back to the same sorry-ass story I tell any time someone points out some great new guitar player to me. You can walk into a Guitar Center or a Sam Ash any Saturday afternoon, anywhere in the country, and there’s a dynamite musician in there, showing off while trying out a new guitar. It’s a huge leap to get to the point where you can actually make compelling music.

  5. I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time in the summer of 1990 on WPRB. I was blown away, and rushed out to but the CD, which wasn’t out yet. So I bought the 3 song CD single. That fall I remember “Nevermind” slowly being eclipsed by Dinosaur Jr’s “Green Mind” in my mind. And by Christmas, because of all the media coverage, I was done with Nirvana. To this day I can’t stand hearing those overplayed songs. But that didn’t stop me from buying “In utero” when it came out. For some reason, I love “Serve the Servants”.

  6. The second-best Nirvana song was written by Footstone.

    I forgot that “Green Mind” came out at that same time, roughly. Man, “Puke & Cry” is still one of my absolute favorite songs ever.

  7. * Music as fun, rather than as brooding expressions of self-hatred<<

    Absolutely. It's SUPPOSED to be fun. It can be other things too, but without the fun aspect it might as well be accounting, with a little more physical exertion involved.

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