My first encounter with Nirvana was actually coincidental. Perhaps even accidental. I was a mere youngling who just worried about this bedroom door basketball hoop with the foam ball. In passing, I turned the channel to MTV and out rang the beginning power chords to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. At this time, my parents played R&B and hip-hop music, so I had little encounters with rock. I remember watching the video with cheerleaders em-brazened with the anarchy symbol on their uniforms and a lead singer dressed with his hair over his face making him look almost indistinguishable. Everybody knows those power chords, but the lyrics are another story. This was way before Google and Siri. I’m hard pressed to say this was my first introduction into rock music. I didn’t understand what Kurt Cobain was saying, but I sang to what I thought was the chorus. (It wasn’t pretty)
Kurt Cobain was almost a mythical figure during the 90’s grunge implosion and well after his death in 1994. I’m not talking Zeus and Achilles, but up with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix (they all did pass away at the age of 27). Recently, HBO released a new documentary called Montage Of Heck that looked at Kurt Cobain, the man. When I watched this, everything started to make sense. I remembered the first time watching the video for “Teen Spirit” and wondering why it was so dark. Why I couldn’t really see Cobain’s face. There’s a poignant moment within the documentary where Cobain’s mom, Wendy, is interviewed by director Brett Morgen and she speaks about the beginnings of their monumental album, Nevermind. She says, “You better buckle up because you are not ready for this”, with a rather eerie piano and choir laden rendition of the same song as the video played. That was my gotcha moment.
Ultimately, what made the man a hero to many, started the time clock to his own demise. We live in a time where image is everything. There are ads, billboards, (photo releases, ha!) and videos where your favorite artists are put together like lego pieces to the smallest morsel. Kurt Cobain was an open wound who just wanted to craft music. The reluctant hero of many who was not destined for his own happy ending. The demons that fueled Cobain’s ascension were ultimately supposed to end him. Perhaps Nirvana would not have the lasting impression if everything was supposed to come up roses. If Cobain felt isolated before, this explosion of fame only magnified that feeling.
It was a time period coming out of the late 80’s glam rock explosion, with the makeup and the big hair. Everything was about a good time and beautiful women. Then you have Kurt Cobain, who was often unkept, wore flannel shirts and jeans appearing as an everyman. One of the things in his world that made him happiest the most, his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who had a big input in the direction of the documentary), showed the human qualities of her father through candid home movies and outtakes. The man who went on a creative binge painting and writing songs when out of work or making funny banter in between takes. It was all about the music and not the image. I found it interesting that his death was a footnote in the movie and the last image of him was performing a cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, a folk song that dates back to the 1870’s. Rather demystifying, but our lasting image of him was broken and shrieking his heart out. In my opinion, that’s more powerful than his death. Behind the myth, the legend, was a man.
Over the years, I’ve made several attempts in memorizing the lyrics to “Teen Spirit”, the song that ultimately got me into my life-long love affair with rock music. There are a set of lyrics that I’m going to close with, lines of which probably describe Kurt Cobain to the fullest. “I’m worse at what I do best/And for this gift I feel blessed”
Main Photo Credit: Getty Images