Twenty years ago, in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide in early April 1994, I wrote an essay about what Cobain and Nirvana meant to me – or something to that effect – that was published in The Bee.
Back then, I was 21 years old and living in San Francisco, a young man born smack in the middle of what people call “Generation X,” and starting my career as a professional writer.
Cobain’s shotgun suicide was a massive shock to American pop-culture consciousness, and my piece, in part, attempted to unpack what seemed like an essential question: What did it mean when a rock star killed himself at the peak of his popularity and fame?
My essay, in true slacker fashion, abstained from making grand statements or taking an uncool moral stance. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that Cobain and Nirvana were “the voice of a generation” as the mainstream media wanted desperately to peg them at the time.
Other journalists had been tying “themselves in knots trying to explain how his songs reflect the angst of disaffected 20-somethings,” I wrote. “But Cobain’s was the voice of an angry individual. Cobain’s truest fans would reject the idea that he ‘represented’ them. If isolation is your mantra, how can anyone be your leader?
“It was great rock ’n’ roll,” I insisted, “that’s all.”
As the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death approaches (he shot himself April 5 in his home near Seattle; his body was discovered three days later), and the musician’s legacy is once more being examined and scrutinized, I decided to revisit the piece to see how my ideas – and Nirvana’s musical contributions – have held up over the years.
I still identify with the young person who wrote that article. Maybe I asked too much of readers by suggesting “we should make our peace with Cobain’s spirit and turn our eyes to the youth of Paris, who marched on the streets over lowered minimum wages,” but I think my heart was in the right place. The article wound up being one of the most widely syndicated pieces I had written at that time, giving me much needed confidence about my career choice.
I’m in my early 40s now, 14 years older than Cobain was when he died (quoting Neil Young’s “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his suicide note, Cobain was 27 when he ended his life). I guess I’ve done some living. I’ve written several books. I frequently travel to Japan in my job as a magazine editor. I have a wife and daughter.
But like a lot of people, I’ve had my difficulties with growing up and dealing with the relentless demands of adulthood. Maybe the Gen-X clichés are true: Too much cynicism and mistrust lurks inside me. This could also be related to why I seem to inevitably break out the old Nirvana records a few times a year for some very loud listening sessions.
While the music inevitably takes me back, there’s more to it than just nostalgia. Cobain and Nirvana’s music still has a raw and elemental power, even if the past 20 years have seen a once-edgy band make the inevitable transition to safe, “classic-rock” status through numerous box sets, re-issues, books and retrospectives. (The recent 20th anniversary box set of Nirvana’s final album, “In Utero,” even brought the band back to the charts, reaching No. 46 on Billboard’s album sales ranking.)
Nirvana’s sound – the intensity, the quiet/loud dynamics – has been able to endure much of the weirdness the 21st century has to offer, including the playable Cobain avatar in the “Guitar Hero 5” video game, Nirvana lullaby music for babies and Miley Cyrus’ unfortunate cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” viewed by millions on YouTube.
From his first to last recordings, Cobain wrote and sang about uncomfortable feelings and unacceptable thoughts with an unforgiving honesty. It certainly wasn’t the only band to mine self-aware self-loathing for inspiration, but the music Nirvana made never felt calculated or merely out to shock. It was real.
This authenticity, however negative or painful, was Nirvana’s greatest strength. It gave the band’s “Nevermind” album the power to knock even Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop,” from the top of the music charts.
I was lucky enough to see Nirvana play in concert at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre in 1991, a few months before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would launch the band, along with Kurt Cobain, into the national spotlight.
To this day, that show was easily the most explosive, thrilling and ear-rattling performance I’ve ever seen, a spectacle topped off by Cobain stage-diving on top of my friends and me not once, but twice, during the song “Negative Creep.” We pushed him back on stage. He jumped on us again.
Two decades later, my 12-year-old nephew, Diego, demands that I tell my old war story about seeing Nirvana live in concert over and over, with particular emphasis on Cobain’s unexpected – and repeated – acrobatics.
Diego’s dad, my older brother Chris (Macias, staff reporter for The Bee), is the one who exposed me to Nirvana in the first place by scooping up their early underground records for Seattle’s Sub-Pop label.
Chris says that Diego discovered Nirvana when his guitar teacher showed him how to play “Come as You Are” when he was 9. Since then, Diego has been obsessed with all things Cobain and Nirvana: He collects bootleg recordings, can rattle off arcane band trivia and is well on his way to mastering the entire Nirvana songbook on his electric guitar.
I can relate. When I was Diego’s age, I was fanatical about the Beatles, a band that hadn’t made a record for 20 years before I found its LPs buried in my parents’ album collection. It created a time warp when I ignored the first wave of MTV superstars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna in lieu of Sgt. Pepper and swinging London.
I don’t know how many 12-year-olds are into Nirvana these days, but I suspect Diego is likely in the minority. Despite its popularity, Nirvana’s music still resonates loudest with those on the margins, forever an alternative to the sonic pablum mainstream music has to offer.
I’d love to know what Cobain would think of the world in 2014. The concept of “selling out” doesn’t seem to trouble the younger generations in the same way it did mine, and most bands seem to worry just about selling anything (why buy something for 99 cents on iTunes when you can watch it free on YouTube?). What would the Kurt the “Negative Creep” think about people’s obsession with presenting their lives as “Greatest Hits” packages on Facebook with selfies and check-me-out status updates?
Looking back, Nirvana seems like the polar opposite of where pop culture is today. Maybe, aside from those few years in the ’90s, the band always will be.
Cobain’s music sounds best to me now when Diego plays it on his electric guitar. I name the song title, and his fingers play the riff from memory. I sit back, watch him strum and think: This is great rock and roll. That’s all.
Patrick Macias is the editor-in-chief of Otaku USA, a magazine devoted to Japanese pop culture. A Sacramento native, he lives in San Francisco.