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Mourning the loss of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

Since the announcement of Kurt Cobain's sudden death last Friday, I've had a chance to think a bit about what his presence meant to me. As a resident of the Seattle-Puget Sound area for the last few years of high school when the first shockwaves from the "grunge rock" explosion were felt, I was troubled by Cobain's passing. He was the unwilling representative for the members of "Generation X," but he assumed that role with menacing authority. His songs were laden with anthemic rage and frustration, pushing the envelope for a new punk aesthetic.

His success with his group, Nirvana, signified his de facto voice for angst-ridden youth everywhere: after the commercially muted debut, Bleach (1988), on the Sub Pop label, Cobain's trademark riffs and howls struck radio and MTV gold with Nevermind (1991), a more refined but no less scathing album that probed everything from drug-induced hysteria/contentment ("Lithium") to the smash "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a song every bit as energized as the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." Cobain certainly had a gift for performance and hard-core showmanship that forced most rock fans to reevaluate their listening habits, shifting away from the MTV-endorsed glam rock of the late 1980s.

Nirvana's last studio effort, In Utero (1993), is a tougher listen than Nevermind. Without the catchy pop hooks that made Nevermind such a surprise, many of Nirvana's "fans" jumped ship, unlike the following of Pearl Jam, another Seattle group whose sophomore effort Vs. (1993) outsold Nirvana's album by at least two to one and poised them for arena-rock glory. Nirvana was not destined for such success; Cobain was content to play in smaller venues, and he openly rejected the praise that was heaped upon him. Unlike most major rock stars, Cobain was uncomfortable in his new world, and his alternating love/hate relationship with the media finally proved too much to bear.

Kurt Cobain's apparent suicide, as so many journalists have duly noted, has earned him a place in the hallowed halls of rock martyrdom, something that Cobain himself would have chosen to avoid. Nirvana's tragically shortened career recalls two other "punk" groups of the past: The Clash and the Sex Pistols. Neither Mick Jones of The Clash nor John Rotten-Lydon of the Sex Pistols have come close to emulating the phenomenal presence of their former groups with their present ones (Big Audio Dynamite and Public Image Ltd., respectively). Maybe rumors of a breakup of Nirvana, revealed posthumously to have happened earlier in the week, saddened Cobain and added a crushing emotional and artistic burden.

Ironically, Cobain's life seemed to be looking up. He had enough money to get away from touring, if that's what he needed to sober up. He had a loving, talented wife in Courtney Love (lead singer and guitarist for the group Hole). He even had an 18-month-old daughter. But, as the drug-induced coma he entered about a month ago proved, his grip on reality was slipping. It seemed that his life was being consumed by the instant-celebrity status and media machine that thrived on his music. Cobain, who proved to be a growling, thrashing threat onstage was actually a melancholy (perhaps even manic-depressive) man whose career demands were constantly underwhelmed by his fragile ego.

In no way do I condone Kurt Cobain's suicide. It was an incredibly selfish thing to do, and proves that, despite any noble intentions, his disregard for the impact of his death to his loved ones has proven him as much of a bastard as the media has portrayed him to be. By taking his own life, his entry into rock martyrdom will always be blighted; the modern mythology surrounding John Lennon defies criticism, while "simple" drug overdoses created larger-than-life heroes out of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Musician-as-saint status will escape Cobain, and a more tarnished anti-hero image will remain.

Rarely are the deaths of major rock stars resolved immediately. Two recent books exhumed ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones to suggest he was murdered rather than simply drowning in a drugged-out state. Until the contents of Cobain's suicide note are revealed, we're not privy to what he was thinking (no, I'm not suggesting a cover-up-or even a murder, yet), but it still seems like a tremendous waste. It's only been a few days, and already people feel complacent about Cobain's passing, as if they had seen it coming. Perhaps I wasn't shocked either. In a culture of disposable media heroes and video immortality, some bands seem eternal. In the case of Nirvana, Cobain violently altered his testament to rock history, cutting it dramatically short.