Nirvana singer remembered on anniversary of death

Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on April 8, 1994, in a small shed behind his home in Seattle, Washington.

Marking the seventeenth anniversary of his death last week, rock scribes and magazines the world over rehashed the gory details of his final days: the drug abuse and depression; the gun purchases, estrangement from his band mates, and a previous, failed attempt to remove himself from this mortal coil.

Much was made as well of the cultural significance of the so-called “Grunge” movement he spearheaded, with Cobain often represented as the era’s generational spokesman, the Bob Dylan of late twentieth-century, disaffected youth.

Too often lost within the reams of hyperbole, however, was the very singular gift which found focus in the band he shared with Kris Novoselic and Dave Grohl; nearly absent from these adoring or dismissive articles was the one thing the man should be remembered for—his music.

Like most people, my first encounter with Cobain’s strange talents came in 1991 by way of the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which seemed to have rocketed in from somewhere beyond the great glossy void of the days mass consumer universe to take over MTV and the album charts.

I can still viscerally recall my reaction to the grainy, surreal images and raw dynamics of the song’s whisper-to-a-scream arrangement. “Finally,” I remember thinking, staring open mouthed at the screen, “somebody’s making real rock and roll again.” In a phrase I’ve heard echoed elsewhere about that moment, it was like suddenly being presented with a thing you’d lost years before and, without even realizing it, had been searching for ever since.

Opening with a chord sequence as distinctive and offhandedly enthralling as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” the song feels as ancient as a field hollar and as modern as a teenage misfit stalking his high school corridor with an automatic rifle. Moving through eddies of bored sarcasm, rage, hipster snobbishness, drug-addled gibberish and surreal beauty, the song sounds at once instantly familiar and as if it just sprang, Zeus-like, from the head of its creator.

The album that followed, “Nevermind,” is simply one of the finest examples of melodic song craft welded to barely-contained chaos ever released. At the time, these songs seemed more present, more anchored in reality, than the other sounds that passed for rock music at the time, inhabiting a space rarely visited since the heyday of The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols.

The music moves and shimmers, stripped down and aquatic, one perfect song stumbling into the next like a somnambulist lurching down the street at midnight, screaming out his favorite Top 40 hits from some lost golden age of rock.

Within those songs the band managed to harness two contradictory impulses: the forward motion and excitement of youth with the physical and moral torpor of a world stunted and drained by Vietnam, crack, trickle-down economics, and the “Me Decade” blowback of the 1980’s.

All those failings, and the yearning to break free of them, could be heard in Cobain’s voice, one of the most expressive in rock history. To find a true antecedent to that instrument, one has to move beyond the punk warblers that Cobain held in such esteem, back through the pop-candy crooners who taught him the importance of melody, and farther still past the early rock and roll belters aping their black heroes in the music’s formative years.

No, for a true comparison you would need to revisit the Mississippi Delta of the 30’s and 40’s, when the early country blues singers such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Leadbelly were inventing that most quintessential of American music.

English band leader Alexis Korner once referred to the blues as “the most human music” and that’s exactly what you hear every time Cobain opens his mouth: raw humanity scrubbed bare of all the ameliorating filters that are normally self-imposed by popular singers of every genre. Like those nearly forgotten blues singers before him, he seems to be saying, “This is how it is, take it or leave it.” The effect is startling, frightening, and ultimately, heartbreaking.

I had planned to buy tickets to see the group during their stint on the traveling musical caravan known as Lollapalooza in the summer of 1994. That appearance, of course, never happened, and it would be beyond the scope of this article or my patience to try to suss out the cultural or musical implications of Cobain’s death.

Instead, I would refer readers to one of Cobain’s final performances with the band, the much mythologized MTV Unplugged performance, specifically to his version of the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a song often associated with the aforementioned  Leadbelly. As Cobain performs it—and I’m not sure performs is even the correct word—the song is recast in the tones and shades of his musical landscape, turning from a lovers lament into a howl of sorrow at…well, who can really know.

The final verse of that final performance contains what I would wager my soul to be the most chillingly bereft, strangled note ever uttered on a multi-million selling album.

In that one cry, the man proved himself to be that most elusive of artists: A blues singer for the ages.


One Response to “Nirvana singer remembered on anniversary of death”

  1. Jonathan Harrell Says:

    I was never a true fan of Nirvana for various reasons. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the music, however.

    I’m glad that you pointed to Cobain’s performance of “Where Did you Sleep…” from the Nirvana Unplugged set. It always seemed to me that Cobain’s voice was at its peak of emotional volatility when he covered the tunes of other artists. This one in particular stands out. Compared to many of the band’s other (original) songs, which are often full of mumbling, disaffected and passive apathy, you can actually hear hurt and heartbreak and rage and more in this tune.

    Good work, sir. Very nicely put.

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