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Quoting Neil Young — “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” — Nirvana singer, songwriter and guitarist Kurt Cobain put a shotgun under his chin and ended his short, sad life of 27 years on April 5, 1994. He left behind toddler daughter Frances Bean, wife Courtney Love, a legion of stunned fans, and a small body of music that changed the course of rock history.
In the intervening decade, Cobain, a small, frail but handsome man in life, has become an abstract Generation X icon, viewed by many as the “last real rock star” (oddly, “real rock stars” Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died at 27), a messiah and martyr whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed, whose childhood home sold for five-times its real estate value, as if his lingering aura still charged the air with some tangible magic.
A cynic might charge that the heroin-addicted Cobain’s best career move was to die young and violently — and in a sense his self-annihilation did confirm an unwillingness to “compromise,” to reconcile his self-loathing with his newfound fame and fortune — but this would ignore the brilliance and significance of his best work, in particular the mega-platinum 1991 album “Nevermind” (more than 14 million copies sold), that established not just “grunge” (the Seattle-based hybrid of punk and big-riff metal), but also the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general.
Nirvana — the trio of Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (now the leader of Foo Fighters) — formed in Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, in the late '80s and drifted to Seattle by way of Olympia. Their first album, “Bleach,” displayed Cobain’s gift for combining raging rock power with emotional vulnerability, but on “Nevermind,” produced with the buoyancy of a pop record by Butch Vig, Cobain’s melodic touch fused perfectly with his ragged guitar roar to produce the album of the decade and one of the cornerstones of rock history.
“Nevermind” was able to bring together music fans from the usually warring tribes of hard rock and alternative rock under one umbrella for the first time as one outstanding, alternately catchy and vicious song followed another: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium.”
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (named after a teen deodorant) embodies all the contradictory certainty, confusion, bravado and vulnerability of adolescence in one tight package as Cobain shouts, screams and coos in a voice both hoarse and delicate, straining and resigned.
The sonic difference between “Nevermind” and the stark, spare “In Utero” ('93) is akin to the difference between the Beatles’ “Let It Be” with Phil Spector’s orchestration, and the recently released “Let it Be … Naked,” with Spector’s sweetening stripped out. “In Utero” (with “Heart-shaped Box,” “Dumb,” “Rape Me”) ably continued the band’s legacy, but it would not have established Nirvana as pivotal on its own.
A man of contradictionsBy 1994 Cobain was dead, the band was over, and the deification begun. In retrospect it’s all pretty obvious: the personal poles of raw hyperactive energy and beautiful pain, is right there, literally, in the music. No real need to read the journals or read a medical diagnosis. It’s there in Cobain’s voice: beauty and symmetry dragged through mud and broken glass on its way from his diaphragm to his mouth, reflecting the strain of the journey upon emerging into a microphone. Ultimately, Cobain’s contradictions could not be contained within his mind and body.
Of Cobain’s “Journals,” published in book form in 2002, Pete Townshend wrote in a review for the Guardian, that they show his “resentful, childish, petulant and selfish desire to accuse, blame and berate the world for all its wrongs, to wish to escape, or overcome and, finally, to take no responsibility for any part of the ultimate downfall.”
Townshend seems a bit peeved with Cobain, perhaps resentful that the younger man actually did die before he got old, (although his shotgun suicide hardly left behind a beautiful corpse). Deeper than that, Townshend’s generation, the generation of the '60s, ultimately failed in its bid to transform the world, retreating into entertainment and materialism after the high point of Woodstock and the low of Altamont.
In the journals Cobain wrote that he blamed his “parents’ generation for coming so close to social change, then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media and government to deface the moment by using the Mansons and other hippie representatives as propaganda examples.” Townshend perhaps felt a bit guilty about this.
But Cobain’s journals aren’t art, they are just the bits and pieces from which the art was built, and don’t doubt Cobain’s artistry, his ability to transform the personal into the universal, the real into the artificial that feels real.
“There’s something wrong with that boy ... He frowns for no good reason,” said William Burroughs in 1993 after Cobain had stopped by for visit to the “Naked Lunch” author’s Lawrence, Kansas, home. Indeed there was: the nervous, darting eyes, the lack of comfort within his own skin — a restless spirit squirming around, trying to find something solid and dependable to cling to, something it never found other than in music, and that music is how Kurt Cobain is best remembered.
Eric Olsen is the editor of and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.