Nothing feels further away than Kurt Cobain, he has become miles beyond our embrace, he just disappeared even as his influence in modern rock ebbs and flows. At the rock n roll hall of fame induction they had the likes of Joan Jett sing lead. I get it, and at least it points to the legacy, yet with the grinning Machiavelli Dave Grohl stepping on Krist Novoselic’s toes while displaying himself as more than the latest in a long line of drummer, whatever we admired about Cobain had been snuffed out by the business he hated. .
Cobain wasn’t there, of course, He was, as Patti Smith memorably put it, beyond it all. And the voice of Generation X. Generation X was the final gasp of the 1960s, social media hadn’t kicked in, rock was king, and grunge was a true musical movement as it added metal to punk and post punk and took it to Lollapalooza. But that isn’t why he was the voice of a generation. Generation X were latchkey kids who grew up to be helicopter parents. These latchkey kids were left adrift in the bottom of the 20th century, From “I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned” through “Oh well, whatever, nevermind” to “I miss the comfort of being sad” and “hey wait, I’ve got a new complaint” and finally, from his final song, “Things have never been so swell
and I have never failed to fail,” he wrote extremely melodic songs with powerful axioms for a generation lost and alone.
That might be enough to make Cobain one of the greatest rock song writers, but he had a voice that ached in a rasping, unhidden, sorrow: he might have been killed but he sounded like a suicide. Then, if that was not enough, he fought hard against the business aspect of rock: if by punk you were to mean the post-punk rock against racism and sexism, he listened to growing up, he embraced the ethos and it lead him to a world that no rock star has gone to before or since. A feminist of a different spike, listen to every song he ever wrote and point out some form, any form, of misogyny: women were included in his world view simply because, as a man, he was a serial monogamist who wasn’t interested in the world of groupies and promiscuity. Now, Jagger singing “Stray Cat Blues” is one thing, or “Under My Thumb,” or early Costello’s reflected self loathing, or, God knows, hip hop in the 1990s, but whatever it is, it puts women on the defensive and Cobain, with his deep blue eyes and shaggy blonde hair, was a rock god who didn’t do that. He respected women and this respect snowballed into a basic tenant on grunge: pro-gay, pro-transgender, hell pro LGBT, an embrace of people in their ubiquitous differences. Generation X had no big wars, the economy was humming along, there was nothing to really rebel against except being completely ignored by the baby boomers, who went from considering teens the golden age to considering mid-30s the golden age. And teenagers were shunted to the side and Cobain knew how it felt, and he knew how to sing about it. His songs were in a constant place of aloneness and a certain place where the finishing end of this US dream was left to a community of the unwanted.
Bleach was a lost boy in love and self flagellation, Nevermind was a rock band rattling its cage, and In Utero a suicide note from one Frances Farmer to another. That’s the broadest of broad strokes. There was also an odds and sods and an Unplugged album, rounding out the world from 1987 – 1994. They amount to a skimpy history but enough of a history run circles around their competitors. The “their” not Nirvana but Kurt. In layman’s terms, as important as Ringo was, there would (and was) a Beatles without him. Nirvana may have been a group experience with only Kurt, Spider never convinced a living soul that The Pogues were anything but Shane MacGowan’s backing band. Kris and Dave were Kurt’s backing band, and that’s all they were however much Grohl might dream of re-writing history.
Kurt had a vision of teenagers that circled round and round like the water down the drain, he was the most skeptical rock star who ever lived, he would have been, and was, disgusted,, with himself and with his band, as they travelled into the world of Geffen and superstardom. Kurt was a sellout and it killed him and deepened his disaffected voice of youth being conned on a humongous basis.
So between being a great songwriter and having a voice that ached in pain, he was also a voice of absolute nihilism in its most basic manner: he spoke to a generation and the generation, drifting in space and time, shrugged nevermind: they were less rebelling, though certainly their response to bullying was the prevalent sign of the times, they couldn’t see through their lives to another place where action, any action, helped anything at all.
What happened to Generation X would have killed Cobain: with no one to take care of them, they took care of themselves and became from a society and a culture, to a Familiar unit and went from the one to the three or four: Perhaps they would have fought if they could find something worth fighting for, they would rebel if their parents cared enough to care about it. The soft loud of grunge is the move from loud (“I found it hard”) to soft (“whatever”). Kurt makes this move over and over again, from rape (“Polly”) to rape me (“Rape Me”) the world flips on its side.
This was the sound of a world without barriers, it is a world without a unified dream, it is a world without limits in the sense that it was unlimitedin its circular weirdness, it is a world with just a denial, screamed and shaken and then denied in self harm and suicide. If speed was the drug of choice for punk, heroin was grunge’s choice. For the sake of this story, it doesn’t matter how Cobain died, it matters is the complete disappearance from the world, what matters is everybody nodding off.
The secret of death for the living is absence, Kurt’s absence as the years went by became a blaring refutation of everything he stood for, even if what he stood for was a clear eyed vision of how completely fucked he was. It is hard to imagine him at that hall of fame gig, he was forced into an embrace he would never have agreed to. Why? Because Grohl is an asshole.
Gen X formed a community around protecting themselves from indifference and helping those less fortunate. In time these precepts would be part of the USA’s moral code and Generation X would do for societies weakest members what the hippies did for blacks (though not for women), they heard the voice of a generation beyond it all.
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – August 1986 (Volume 17, Number 12)
“I used to read CREEM like the stuff in it was really gospel. Lester Bangs and all that stuff. And it was so important.”
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Nobody understood the world of music journalism better than David Lee Roth