It’s Monday 20 February 2012, and if Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was still alive he would have turned 45 years old today. 45. Think about that for a sec. Dave Grohl is now 43 and Krist Novoselic is 46. It’s 18 years since Kurt died in 1994, but the legend of Cobain and Nirvana lives on. We will still be talking about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, long after Grohl and Novoselic pass the 50 mark.
Truly, the legend of Nirvana and Cobain is a phenomenon. Every year around the anniversary of Kurt’s death in April, Cobain and Nirvana become a hot topic once again. In terms of talk amongst music fans, along with column inches in newspapers and on music websites, I think it’s fair to say the legend of Cobain bypasses that of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. Few musicians come and go and make this kind of impact, and become this iconic; in our lifetime, perhaps only Michael Jackson will be more talked about, in the short term and longer.
Back in April 2004, I wrote an article on Music Vice on the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. The original story went offline after Music Vice changed format to WordPress a few years ago – I have republished the article in full below, with some date edits.
Remembering Kurt Cobain
It’s nearly 18 years since the death of Kurt Cobain. The Nirvana frontman was the leading pop icon of the nineties and remains one of the most inspiring and influential figures in music.
There aren’t many people in music who have had the same level of adulation as Kurt Cobain, whilst not many bands have been as influential as Nirvana. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana didn’t just change the music of their generation, they defined. Nirvana only lasted for about half a decade, but in this time they managed to bring ‘grunge’ garage rock into the mainstream, and influence the creation of thousands of bands. And now 10 years since Kurt and Nirvana died, there are still new bands spawning every week who sight Nirvana as a key influence.
The true range of people that Nirvana have influenced, and inspired, can be illustrated by the diversity of some of the bands of the moment who began partly because of Nirvana. Franz Ferdinand, Kings of Leon and the Libertines are three such bands with contrasting styles, sounding nothing like each other, but yet all these bands have cited that when they started out, they were influenced by Nirvana. To this day, kids around the world continue to discover Nirvana, to learn about Kurt Cobain, and pick up their first guitar after being inspired by the music of the group.
For any non-Nirvana fans (and I pity them), it’s hard to see or hear why Nirvana are so different. There’s nothing groundbreaking about songs with just three or four chords, but it was the way they were played that mattered: hard, loud and fast.
The power and meaning behind many of Nirvana’s songs came from the bands influences in life and music. Nirvana were heavily influenced by local band The Melvins, as well as fellow garage-punks of their time, the awesome Pixies. This garage-punk sound became defined as grunge and was perfect for delivering the angst-ridden songs of Nirvana.
More important than the instruments were the lyrics. The lyrics that Kurt Cobain scrawled into his Mead notebooks came straight from the heart and gut. On paper alone, the impact of the lyrics would not have been the same: it was all about how Nirvana brought these lyrics to life in their music. Kurt sung his songs with a searing passion and feeling, and this for me was what Nirvana were really all about. The songs that Kurt sung were so real, so full of emotion and so powerful – while still being easy to listen to, and more importantly, relatable, for millions of troubled young listeners around the world.
The meaning behind many of Nirvana’s songs is not immediately obvious. The song “Polly” is one example of this. Some may find Polly to be just a simple but peculiar song, if they don’t listen to what’s being sung – the song was actually about the abduction of a small child. While a lot of Nirvana’s songs are just raw and powerful, such as “Stay Away” – the lyrics may appear a bit dumb but they are sung with a rage that works flawlessly with the repetitively thrashed out chords.
Most the angst in Nirvana’s lyrics came from Kurt’s childhood life. Some of the anguish of Kurt’s traumatic upbringing is something that many Nirvana fans, including myself, can relate to. The way I see it, music has two uses: it’s either for pleasure or for comfort – the latter is why Nirvana are still so popular, but Nirvana were not a dappy, sappy either; so it’s not a drag to listen to, and kicks with it’s own unique sound.
The ‘comfort in sound’ aspect of Nirvana’s music is one of the main reasons why the band continues to get new generations of fans. At times when you feel angry about all the injustice in the big bad world, it’s always a good thing to listen blast Nirvana loud – this type of escapism is why I got into Nirvana when I was fifteen.
Kurt Cobain wasn’t a super talented guitarist but instead played with feeling and emotion, making great, real music. He was an excellent songwriter. Kurt once said when discussing Nevermind that; “Attitude is one thing. But a good song is the most important thing. It’s the only way to really touch someone.” This is what Kurt and Nirvana were all about, and that’s the reason why Nirvana’s music continues to reach millions of fans every year, long after the band have stopped making records. Kurt is sadly gone but thankfully his music lives on.
© Brian Banks, Editor, Music Vice
Nirvana covering The Vaselines “Son of a Gun”; as found on Nirvana’s Incesticide album, one of their best records:
Share and discuss using the links below. Follow Music Vice on Twitter at @MusicVice. Long Live Indie.