I’m not sure any episode of the podcast will ever be as difficult as this one was to prepare for.
As you can tell when you listen to the episode, talking about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana results in an endless stream of contradictions and conundrums. We talked about him for well over two hours (mercifully edited down for you people) and easily could have gone on for a few hours more. We barely scratched the surface.
Efforts have been made over the years to get to know Kurt Cobain, the man — in the documentary Montage Of Heck and countless other films, plus books, articles, and so on. It is impossible to determine where, exactly, the human ends and the legend begins. So much about his life seems so predestined, so written, that it is easy to get carried away in grandeur and mythology and forget that, for Cobain, the experience of his life was present tense, as it was unfolding. He couldn’t have known what Nirvana’s music would become, even if it feels like, at some level, he always had some idea. He couldn’t have known how the world would respond to his untimely (but, strangely, also inevitable) death. And yet it all feels like it only could have gone this way if it were planned.
My own history with Kurt Cobain begins on April 8, 1994. The first time I was aware of him by name, he was already a tragic figure, a legend whose pain and suffering seemed outside the scope of what most can imagine. (Whether or not they really were is another story.)
There is something unreachable about the music of Nevermind. No matter what meaning you apply to the lyrics, there is always an intangible piece you can’t quite grasp, like you’re only getting half the story. These lyrics mean so many things to so many people that it feels entirely wrong to apply a singular definition to a single word of this music. Many other artists are esoteric, with enigmatic lyrics that are open to interpretation, but that usually feels intentional on the part of the artist. With Cobain, it is as if he intended to deliver his message with concrete clarity, and yet we fall short of truly understanding what he meant. Almost as if we aren’t worthy.It’s here that I run up against my problem in cogently speaking about Kurt Cobain as a human being. I know he was one. Yet for me (and many others) he is an icon of near-biblical status. He’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a living, breathing Jesus Christ. Idolizing him as a rock god genius is, in many ways, doing Cobain a disservice. It certainly isn’t how he saw himself, or how he wanted to be perceived. I don’t often buy into “destroyed by fame” narratives, and I do believe fame is relatively low on the list of things Cobain was destroyed by. Cobain as a person didn’t do a whole lot to warrant adulation, but as a musician, it’s hard to find anyone who’s made more of an impact in my lifetime. From what I can tell, not a single word or note ever felt false, or compromised, or manufactured. And though I hate to downplay the contributions of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who I’m sure made crucial contributions to Nirvana’s music, in my mind, Nirvana is Kurt Cobain.
Had I been born a few years earlier, I might have experienced him as many did, in the moment — as a musician. A great artist, sure, but one who still had to live in the same world I did. Had I been born a few years later, I would’ve been too young to pay any attention to the news of April 8, 1994. I wouldn’t have wondered who this man was, or why everyone mourned him, or what caused him to do such a thing. I would have come to his story too late to be a part of it, the way I experienced Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. As it is, however, my personal history with Kurt Cobain began at the exact moment his personal history had ended, the day he died.
Over the next few years, I heard a lot of Nirvana. My chosen radio station (you could only have one back then) was 107.7 The End, which played rock, grunge, and alternative from the 90s. Nirvana’s songs were about as popular as anything else ever was throughout this period, even the newer stuff. “Come As You Are,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Dumb,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” “On A Plain,” “In Bloom,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were always in that rotation, though I wouldn’t have been able to identify them. There were many other songs by bands I hadn’t familiarized myself with, like Metallica and Pearl Jam, that all went into the same box. I kept up with the who’s who of new singles, but any music released before 1997 or so was that “grunge” stuff I’d kinda missed, and it rarely was called out by name. The DJs at The End probably didn’t think there could possibly be a 15-year-old boy from Seattle out there who liked Nirvana’s music but needed someone to tell him what it was. (This is where Shazam could have saved me years of uncertainty.) In late 2002, the Nirvana compilation was released. At this point, I was living in Los Angeles and listening to my own CDs and MP3s more than any radio station. I was also having a rather poppy moment in my musical appreciation. (This is when Britney and Christina were both really good! Don’t judge me.) I knew I liked Nirvana enough to enjoy a greatest hits album, at least, so I purchased the CD and was able to parse out which songs from my youth actually were and were not Nirvana. Cutting out songs like “Alive” and “Black Hole Sun,” which are fine in their own right but don’t hold a candle to Nirvana (in my humble opinion), allowed me to hone in on Cobain’s singular talent. It is perhaps because Cobain was such a chameleon that I hadn’t been able to pin down which tracks were his sooner. Listening to his music all together for the first time, I finally got a sense of his artistry and what people found so special about him.
At this point, I still didn’t care to dive into Cobain’s personal story. I knew the basics from my childhood — heroin and a shotgun. I enjoyed Nirvana’s music more or less apart from an appreciation of Cobain himself, much as I might enjoy The Doors without getting too caught up in the Jim Morrison legacy. I don’t generally like exploring music as an extension of an artist’s personal life. I like to find my own meaning, and experience it as it relates to me.
But that doesn’t make for a very solid podcast. So for the first time, leading up to Episode 16, I did my Nirvana homework. I listened to Nevermind and In Utero, watched Montage Of Heck, and read up a bit. The more I learned, the more I wondered: how does this inspired but deeply flawed drug addict reconcile with the esteemed artist who loomed over so much of my formative years?The answers never exactly arrive, but discussing these questions with Becky and Seth made for a fascinating conversation — one of my personal favorites in When We Were Young’s run. Cobain and his music are conundrums we’ll never solve. As much as any one man can be, he was the voice of a generation. He changed the shape of music in the 90s, and it’s entirely possible that today’s music scene would sound drastically different without his influence. The fact that guns are mentioned in the first three tracks of his massive hit, Nevermind — all major singles — feels almost too convenient, given how he died. Somehow, the idea that he died “for our sins” has seeped into his legacy, even though he committed suicide. On some level, perhaps, he thought that’s why he did it — he was rightfully fed up with this world. He suffered greatly, but also seemed to prefer suffering to making any effort to get better. He wanted his music to be adored while he himself was ignored — or something like that. Cobain needed and craved admiration, but was too insecure to deal with the level of scrutiny it takes to be so recognized. A part of him is very vulnerable, relatable, and child-like, while another aspect feels ethereal, unknowable, and wise beyond words.
I don’t know what to make of Kurt Cobain, who in ways was very much like me — sensitive, moody, artistic, having grown up in the Seattle area — and is also very much not. The fact that he became a heroin addict after an unstable, difficult childhood is not a surprise, but how did he get so ahead of his time on issues like gay equality or sexual assault? His lyrics are obscure enough that it’s difficult to paint him as an “LGBT ally” or an “advocate for women’s rights,” especially given that he died before either issue would be identified that way. Something about what he stood for feels unearned, like it was handed down to him or predestined. Even though we’ve pored over his lyrics, drawings, and journals, we still don’t really have a hard line on what he was thinking. For some reason, he’s harder to pin down than just about anyone else.
Perhaps that’s all greatness is — being unclassifiable. Not fitting into any box, and instead forcing one to be built around you.Nevermind is, of course, the sound of the early-to-mid-90s, feeling like an underline to all the angsty, Gen X art that appeared before and since. Previous podcast topics Seinfeld, Jagged Little Pill, and Trainspotting all captured this in some way — a reaction to the masculine, greed-is-good, middle class materialism of the 1980s. Seinfeld examined the petty problems of well-enough-off white people absent of any meaningful self-reflection; Jagged Little Pill was a woman speaking up against the “good girl” expectations placed upon her; Trainspotting, like Cobain, wondered if the antidote to capitalist mundanity was heroin, then exploring the price paid for such an escape.
But none of these works was as seismic at summing up the better half of the decade than Nirvana’s Nevermind, in part because its lyrics are obscure enough that they seem to be about everything all at once. I’ve previously struggled to understand where, exactly, Generation X’s rejection of mainstream Reagan-era values came from — it’s much easier to grasp the youthful unrest of the 60s in my mind, perhaps because I wasn’t alive yet. Yes, the 1980s wrought very bad things like the mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic and a crackdown on “crime” (AKA, minorities who committed even the most minor of crimes). But is this really what the largely white youth of the grunge movement were pushing back against? It’s hard to find much evidence to support that.
Cobain was born in 1967 and thus grew up as part of the “latchkey generation,” whose parents were supposedly too busy giving in to the temptations of the 70s to parent attentively. Certainly, an absence of familial love seems to be at least one driving factor of Cobain’s angst.If I had to truly pick out just one overarching theme from Nevermind, though, it would be the selfishness of survival, and how much that disappointed Cobain — in others and then, ultimately, himself. The mere act of living is destructive to the world around us, and at least some of the people. Getting ahead means others must be left behind. Cobain was, I think, disappointed in the selfishness he saw in the people around him, and unable to live with it in himself. Using heroin is self-destructive, but generally pretty harmless to the world at large. It allowed him an escape.
In “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the titular teens demand to be entertained. In “In Bloom,” the male subject likes Nirvana’s music without ever considering its intent (and also sells his kids for food?). In “Come As You Are,” the speaker urges you to be yourself… but only “as I want you to be.” “Lithium” is all about a character’s interiority, his wildly conflicting and mutable moods. “Polly” takes on the persona of a rapist who dispassionately uses a kidnapped girl for his own gratification. “Drain You” is all about the yucky, leech-like aspects of romantic relationships. The chorus of “On A Plain” contains the lyrics, “Love myself better than you.” In “Something in the Way,” the song that first clued me in to this theme, Cobain sings, “It’s okay to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.” If Cobain hadn’t at one point considered a fish’s feelings, he couldn’t have written that.
These may be slightly reductive looks at the meaning behind these songs — there are many more layers of depth in each — but it’s the one truly unifying theme I was able to draw between songs that otherwise take on so many subjects, moods, and styles. Cobain is more often criticizing his peers than the older generation his parents belonged to. In a way, we look at Nirvana as having kicked off the grunge movement with Nevermind — and yet, in Nevermind, Cobain is already criticizing the grunge movement. Again, Cobain writes lyrics about a future he couldn’t possibly have foreseen without some form of divine intervention.As the story goes, Jesus Christ died for our sins — to make us feel better about ourselves, I guess. He took on that burden rather graciously. Kurt Cobain, perhaps, also died as a result of the selfishness of man — the selfishness in others he couldn’t accept, and the selfishness in himself he couldn’t reconcile with judging everyone else. I think most of us feel some of what Cobain felt — guilt at merely being alive. If you’re reading my blog, you probably live in a first world country and have it pretty good. We know that there are thousands or millions across the globe suffering in various ways, without the basic comforts we take for granted… and yet we live on without thinking too much about that, mostly. We can’t solve this problem ourselves, so we do what little we can and move on, or maybe we don’t do anything… and still move on. Either way, we don’t exhaust our mental and physical resources worrying about the pain everyone else is feeling.
This is all conjecture, of course; I can’t say with any certainty that this is what haunted Kurt Cobain, but it is the message I personally take from his music. Nevermind is outwardly focused, giving it that anthemic, “voice of a generation” feel; many songs are about people who have little in common with Cobain on the surface. Often, he’s critiquing them by becoming them, imagining what they’re thinking and exposing how selfish or careless or petty they are, allowing us to be the judges. In In Utero, he was already focusing more on his own suffering, the way most artists do. In Utero is a terrific album, and includes some of the most provocative and haunting singles of the 1990s. But for me, it falls short of the reach of Nevermind, which manages to speak to and be about everybody all at once. Cobain went out of his way to step into our shoes, see through our eyes, and understand us — and then, to his dismay, didn’t much like what he found.
The title of the album itself clues us in to what Cobain was getting at — the human instinct to shrug off the hypocritical, destructive nature of our quest for survival. When an unpleasant thought about our own inherent selfishness strikes up, most people immediately push it out of their heads, with an: “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” This, itself, is a survival technique — we couldn’t move on otherwise.
Kurt Cobain didn’t move on. He stopped, and made art of out it.
We reap the benefits.
Make of that what you will.