Cobain: A What-If Story

With this year being the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s groundbreaking Nevermind, the remaining band members (Grohl and Novoselic) and their old producer have re-released.The re-release (titled Super-Deluxe on iTunes) contains fan-fave b-sides and unreleased tracks, namely Endless Nameless.  In the early 90s I spent time skateboarding and hanging out with a friend listening to tons of Nirvana.  We were driven by the rebellion in the sound, the feeling of not belonging in the trappings of society and pop culture, the feeling of trying to create something different in a over-manufactured music world.  We were kids, but we had the sense of and desire to be something unique, different, not like everyone else.  To me, that’s what Nirvana represented in music, and why I believe the chaotic nature of the lyrics and the tension in the music resonated so strongly with people.  For me, as a teenage kid in the early to mid-90s, grunge was the best way to express all that was going on inside of us.  I think all kids feel something like this, an angst at the way things are and a somewhat scary realization that the world is not a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood like you were taught it was as kids, discovering levels of aggression, fear, love, and loss like you’ve never experienced.  We were searching for a nirvana to take us away from the insanity of being a teen kid.  And that’s exactly what we found-Nirvana.


Like most generations with music heroes, tragedy takes people’s lives.  Regardless of whether you’re in the boat that says Cobain killed himself or it was an inside job from his wife Courtney Love (a modern rock conspiracy theory), it doesn’t change the fact that Cobain didn’t get to live out his legacy, or experience for himself the very powerful role he played in changing music.  He didn’t get to listen to what commercial radio did with his iconic sound in trying to replicate it over and over again in the name of multimillion dollar profits.  We don’t get to hear his take on that, his musical response, the songs he could have written to further express his desire to not be a copied version of someone else and them not to copy him.  Lost life is tragic.  A legacy and purpose unfulfilled is tragic as well.  That’s what I’ve been thinking about over these weeks of remembering 1991 and Nevermind.


There were a lot of great memories from Nevermind, though I discovered it and really dove into it in 92 and 93.  As In Utero was the talk of the town, my friend and I (what’s up Shellington!) taught ourselves to play guitar to the songs on Nevermind.  A lot of what we made was a lot of noise.  In my longing to be a drummer, and before I had a set, I banged on pots and pans and tubs as Shell played guitar.  Somehow my parents didn’t go crazy downstairs.  Somehow my father was able to read the newspaper while we made a ton of chaotic sound.  I’ll never understand that.  But Nevermind.


Twenty years changes a lot of things.  You grow up, or at least you hope you have.  Your perspective on life grows, is molded into something more discerning and mature, and you see the world differently.  The way music impacts you changes as well, or at least the feelings it creates inside are different.  As a teen, a lot of Nirvana fueled an anger in me that I didn’t understand.  I think it was part of puberty, and not knowing who I was or what I could do, or even what the world was.  It propelled something in me to be resentful of people in authority because they wanted to put me in a box and be just like them.  I didn’t want to be them, I wanted to be me.  I still feel that way.  Most people do.  That’s one thing Nirvana continues to be for me, a shout to the box-makers and conformist power-players of the world to back off!  But as for the anger that I begin to feel towards people or even society as I listen to Cobain now as an adult, I can only take it only in small doses, because I’ve learned in 20 years that angry is a poor way to operate.  But music is a great outlet to let the anger have a voice when it needs one, and in those moments the music certainly accomplishes that.


The what-if story in my head is what could have happened had Kurt not died in the mid-90s.  It’s a Hendrix/Morrison/Joplin sort of thing, people who are now legends in music but were taken far before their time.  All the same, what if 1994 was his time?  There are people who are brilliant and talented who accomplish great things early in their lives and then don’t keep producing brilliance over and over again.  But they’re remembered forever for the time they had in the spotlight.  Michael Jackson was a walking tragedy the last 15-20 years of his life but he’s cannonized for his albums of the 80s before the child-molestation charges.  Paul McCartney is still heralded as an iconic songwriter and one of the last remaining Beatles, though he really hasn’t written a song comparable to his time with the Fab 4 in several decades.  Cobain said in an interview, “It’s better to burn out that fade away.”  He certainly came in with a fire and left in one.  For me, I’m going to stop asking what-if in terms of his potential life and legacy.  I’d prefer to leave a mark on the world not tarnished by decades of zero impact, or worse, scandal.  What if he left when he was supposed to, and though it was a short time here, he left a mark no one else could?  That’s a what-if worth asking, though the way he went out is one I think we can all agree was not the way to go. All the same, he’s still missed and the legacy lives on.

Here’s a video of my favorite song from Nevermind-Lounge Act

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Host of the syndicated radio program The Appetizer heard on public radio across Texas and online from our Listen Now link; enjoys conversations, music, food, art, storytelling, and people. Connect with me. Would love to hear from you.

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