By PROJ (@onaproj)
It’s been 23 years since Kurt Cobain, frontman for the *iconic* Nirvana, tragically took his own life. He would’ve been 50 now, and there are many more authorised than me that can comment on his tortured genius, anti-corporate attitude or enduring legacy. What I can share though, is how Kurt and his songs shaped my experience of music.
Like many, the first time I heard Nirvana was through arguably their most recognised track ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from 1991’s ‘Nevermind’. I mean, is there anyone left who hasn’t heard it by now?! And how many of us picked up a guitar, inspired to try and write our own 4-chord hit? (Or at least dance around our bedrooms pretending to be as cool as Kurt?) Aside from ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Lithium’ and other obvious hits, it contains my #1 Nirvana song of all time too, ‘Drain You’. Do yourself a favour and find it to listen to now, as you read this, and tell me that it isn’t the summation of everything Kurt wanted to produce musically.
It’s kind of ironic that Cobain, anti-supserstar, was awarded the role of spokesman for Generation X, when he wore his influences openly across his music. He often remarked on how Pixies set the ‘quiet, loud, quiet’ template for his songwriting. Nirvana’s first album ‘Bleach’ was born out of the scuzz-rock of The Melvins and Mudhoney, while ‘Incesticide’ featured covers of Devo and Vaselines tracks – nodding to both electro-pop and jangly folksy inspiration – yet Kurt Cobain was often referred to as a grunge pioneer. I think many mean this as him opening the door for other Seattle-area bands, such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, to enter the mainstream consciousness.
But it was this sense of accessibility that Kurt ultimately rallied against. The band’s final studio album ‘In Utero’ (my personal favourite) is a raw, abrasive, two-fingered salute to anyone expecting a repeat of Nevermind. Cobain’s dark humour is evident – titles such as ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ being subverted by huge walls of noise and squeals of feedback, as you would expect from a Steve Albini recording. ‘Rape Me’, mistunderstood, is a brash and childish ‘fuck off’ to the labels and stations wanting another ‘Teen Spirit’. Still, you do get the gorgeous and mature ‘All Apologies’, which maybe points towards what could have been Nirvana’s future direction. In fact, their ‘Unplugged: Live in New York’ session (which again, includes a number of covers) showcases the band at their most stripped-back, and the quality of songwriting is allowed to come to the forefront. No screams or pedal-driven guitar effects. Just talent.
Actually, as much as Cobain is painted as a teen-angst poster boy, it’s his music that he would want to be remembered for – if he wanted to be remembered at all. I haven’t yet seen last year’s ‘Montage of Heck’ documentary, or read any of today’s probes into the man behind the music’. It’s the songs that I go back to, and they’re always Nirvana, and Kurt as they appeared in my musical upbringing..as I want them to be.