Today is a sick-day for me. I woke up with a terrible pain in my throat, barely able to speak or swallow. It's probably a cold that will pass in a few days, but when you're a teacher, it's best not to risk spreading viruses around to kids and other teachers.
I was going to use today to write a post about the upcoming federal election. Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed a much higher tweet volume than usual. But today is April 5, and this day means something significant for me, as well as many people born between 1975 and 1982.
17 years ago today, Kurt Cobain pointed a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
|Kurt Cobain's suicide note. I still haven't read this yet...not sure I can.|
As a teenager in the 90's, Nirvana was the giant in our music and our culture. There were many bands that were going strong at the same time the people identified with: Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots....all great bands that stood strong on their own merits. But there was somehow, something different about Nirvana.
It might have been the awful singing. It seemed that Kurt was determined to avoid every lesson a vocal teacher would have told him: "Don't use your head voice! The power comes from the diaphragm below your lungs, not from your throat!". Kurt would then use this head voice to whine out lyrics so incoherently, that it was a widespread joke. Some speculated at the time that there were no lyrics, and this was intentionally part of the grunge "Fuck You." Weird Al Yankovic parodied this aspect of Cobain's singing style in 'Smells Like Nirvana.' (Indeed, Yankovic's parody of Cobain was so popular it helped revitalize his career, reminding the world that he doesn't just parody Michael Jackson songs). Kurt was a terrible singer, but like a lot of things, we didn't care about that.
It might have been something in the way of Kurt's apathetic demeanor. The 90's counter-culture scene was one that dripped of apathy, nauseatingly so (captured wonderfully by the Simpsons). This might be selection bias or confirmation bias on my part, but there seemed to be something genuine about Kurt's apathy. He seemed to carry himself as a man who had entirely given up, and was simply going through the motions of living. We learned later that this was indeed the case, as Kurt had long suffered from chronic depression.
Cynics today (and some at the time) admonished Kurt for being a self-centered crybaby while being the biggest rock god on the planet. Sadly, depression is not a condition that is influenced by how others see the individual. Kurt felt alone, worthless, and that there was no escape. This is not to downplay the role that Kurt's well-documented heroin addiction had in exacerbating his depression, but to illustrate that no matter how much genius gets recognized and rewarded at the time, depression still can take down our very best.
The tragedy of the 90's counter culture was that we all celebrated the sense of hopelessness and apathy that, when it was genuine, helped contribute to Kurt's suicide.
It might have been the songs themselves. At the time that Nirvana made it big (along with the wave of Seattle grunge that followed immediately after), rock was dominated by the second wave of over-produced hair bands that were desperately trying to mimic the guitar gods of yesteryear, and this is to say nothing about the music that actually seemed to be intentionally hollow (DJ "Jazzy" Jeff and the Fresh Prince, M.C. Hammer and Deee-Lite all come to mind).When Nirvana and Grunge came along, they threw out the whole playbook. They were poor musicians, poor singers, and the didn't give a shit. In this respect, they were a lot like the punk movement 10 years prior. But unlike the punk movement, the grunge musicians still wanted to make music for the sake of making music and expression (as opposed to making music for the sake of saying "fuck you"...a noble goal nonetheless, but not one I identify with).
The songs of Kurt ranged from the mellow and desperately expressive:
To the incredibly defiant and energetic:
The style of Lithium was to later be one of the defining characteristics of many 90's rock and grunge tunes: soft, quivering verses, punctuated by heavily distorted and screaming chorus.
It was partially in pursuit of this style of polarized music that drove Kurt to design the Fender "Jag-Stang:" a hybrid of Fender's Jaguar (traditionally used as a jazz guitar) and Mustang (a whammy-bar reliant guitar popularized by 60's Surfer music) models.
It might have been his suicide. If a rocker reaches the level that Kurt did, and they died before their time, they always seem to have a mythic sort of quality to them: Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison...these rockers have a fan base whose dedication goes beyond simple fandom. It's a kind of quasi-religious like reverence.
I remember the day Kurt's death was announced. I was in the 9th grade at the time, and in my first period music class. My friends and I (all budding musicians) shared the news with each other, and we all reacted like it was the death not of a a good friend but of a kind of leader. As a teenager in the 90's, it was hard to not feel the sense of hopelessness and apathy of a world that was going to do whatever it wanted to, and to hell with the young people (contrast this today with the culture of entitlement that teenagers and the youth have). Whether this apathy was misplaced or not, we all felt it (and teenagers have a way of confusing feeling with reality). Kurt was the one guy who seemed to be most affected by our collective hopeless culture, and he spoke both to, and for us all. And he was gone.
Our parents were baby boomers, and we were too young to be Gen X'ers. No one gave two shits about us but ourselves. we were a forgotten generation that just lost its only ambassador. We were told our whole lives that we missed the greatest parties ever, and nothing will ever be as great as the Beatles ever again.
Kurt Cobain was our John Lennon.
Our odd form of 90's counter culture kept going a little longer after Kurt's death, but pretty much gave up once the Spice Girls came around. Love it, hate it, mock it, or be indifferent to it: this sense of hopelessness and apathy was the identity we all shared, and it was ripped away because of heroin, depression, and a shotgun.
Just as there will never be another Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or Bob Marley, there will never be another Kurt Cobain.
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