Friday, April 9, 2004

COBAIN'S GIFT



MUSIC, IMPACT CLEAR DECADE AFTER DEATH

By ALAN K. STOUT
MUSIC ON THE MENU
April 9, 2004    

Ten years ago this week, Kurt Cobain was found dead in a room above the garage of his Seattle home. He had placed a 20-gauge shotgun to his head and chosen to end his life.

Cobain was 27 at the time, just a few months older than I, and though some considered him the spokesman of my generation, I never connected with him, nor his band, Nirvana, that much. Truthfully, I just didn't understand him.

He seemed to carry his fame and Nirvana's commercial success like a cross, yet wasn't it he who signed a big record deal with a major label? Wasn't it he who appeared in those expensive music videos?

If he had chosen, Cobain simply could have kept playing Seattle's clubs, but, at least initially, he tried to become a rock star, and when "Nevermind" sold 10 million copies, it seemed he'd gotten just what he wanted.

But he didn't want it. And I didn't get that, nor did I get too excited about his band's sometimes gloomy persona.

I grew up seeing very charismatic bands in concert that were not only great musicians, but also great showmen. Yet Cobain, the biggest rock star in the world and the recipient of much critical acclaim, also was one of the the so-called angst-filled "shoe-gazers." These were the groups - and there were others from the Seattle grunge scene - that seemed like anti-entertainers.

Some said the grand performers of the '80s were too indulgent, but to me, copping a "we'd-rather-not-be-here" attitude while on stage before a house full of fans was equally self-absorbed.

And so, at least initially, I didn't get Kurt Cobain.

After his death, and even in the months leading up to it, some media reported he had suffered from depression, which was completely foreign to me then. How could a seemingly happily married man with a beautiful baby and the founder of the biggest band in the world be depressed, I and many others asked. But now, 10 years later, after seeing depression up close, I no longer judge him on that. It is a serious condition and very real, and no matter how pretty a picture you might paint of your life, it can still consume you.

Even though it seemed so cowardly at the time, I now have some understanding and even some empathy for Cobain in the way he ultimately decided to deal with his condition. Condone it? No. Understand it? Yes, partially.

Considering how silly and formulated some hard-rock music had become by the time Nirvana released "Nevermind," I also can now better understand Cobain's approach to both his music and even his live presentation. Nirvana - and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, who I thought were much better bands - gave rock music a swift and hard kick in the tail just when it needed it. They were energetic yet without the pretense and, save for the commercial explosion of hip-hop, there hasn't been a musical movement like it since.

Grunge offered change, and Cobain was at the forefront. He mattered.

I get that now, and I get him a lot more.

The night his body was found, I was at Market Street Square seeing a band called Tribes. They were one of the biggest groups in town at the time and specialized in covering the big alternative sounds of the day. About 2 a.m., as the night was winding down, they played Nirvana's  "Heart Shaped Box," which I always thought was their best song.

It was a moment I've always remembered and one I now hold with some fondness.

Someone asked me last week if Cobain's death marked the end of the grunge movement. Probably not. It would have come anyway. By the mid-'90s, "shoe-gazing" and bands like Silverchair, Bush and even Stone Temple Pilots, whom some considered Nirvana and Pearl Jam copycats, were already getting some backlash. And I'll never forget the day I saw a mannequin in Boscov's dressed in flannel.

Grunge, despite its purest intentions, was not immune to corporate America. It had become fashion, and fashion always dies.

Cobain missed most of that. Maybe that's how he wanted it. He will always be 27, blond-haired and wrinkle-free, and rather than be remembered for all the silly things some bands that stick around too long are sometimes remembered for, he's remembered for what mattered to him most: his music.


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(Originally published in The Times Leader on April 9, 2004. To follow Alan K. Stout's musings on music, visit www.facebook.com/musiconthemenu.)

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