22 Years After Teenage Angst's Big Swell Payoff: RIP Kurt Cobain
I remember where I was when I heard the news over two decades ago in the second week of April.
Have quite a few of those moments in the brief time that Kurt Cobain walked among us in the public eye.
This was probably because his existence bookends my adolescence with near-perfect symmetry (Nirvana blew up in '91 then was gone by spring of '94 when I was graduating high school).
Also recall where I was the first time I saw the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.....Olean, New York (home to Saint Bonaventure University, right outside of Buffalo) staying at my great aunt's house over Thanksgiving.
They introduced Nirvana’s first official music video on 120 Minutes as a World Premiere sometime after midnight. The rest of the family was sleeping upstairs in a small house with a TV by the stairs in the living room while I was sleeping on a pullout couch (strategically so I'd be able to stay up late & watch TV). As the song kicked into gear I started feeling compelled to turn the volume up slightly, then slightly more, then MORE until halfway through the song I'm sure it was at a level that would be considered 'blasting' in a quiet house. Soon afterwards my old man was rushing to the top of the stairs in his tighty-whitey Jockey briefs yelling at me to turn it down & go to sleep. Damage was already done though, that song was already ingrained in me from that point forward.
On the day that January when Kurt OD'd in Rome and was rumored to be dead I remember walking the halls in between classes, getting actually taunted about it by a couple of the dyed-in-the-wool classic-rockists who were regularly battling me (who knew as much or more about their Zep/Stones as them) about any hip-hop, current alt rock or even Prince record that I was checking for......'You're boy's fucking dead, Bomb!' a typical dude was shouting at me while passing me in the hallway. I didn't know whether to haul off and punch him in the face, laugh it off in disbelief or slip out somewhere to go find out for real. Luckily it turned out not to be his fate (at least not right then, however there was always a weird sense of time-running-short inevitability accompanying myth-like invincibility, like a rock version of Pac in some way).
Him not dying in Rome led to us being able to see the now-famous Unplugged episode, which I recall watching with my mom (a huge Beatles fan) who for the first time could actually make sense of the noisy shit she'd been hearing and the band I'd been championing during my borderline juvenile-delinquent high school existence. I recall being proud that on some level his talent was visible to old folks but at the same time almost made vaguely uncomfortable by it, the same way I don't know how to react to the kids who came post-mortem and swear by that Unplugged album which to me was a nice different look but really didn't sum up the loud/abrasive/confrontational essence the band displayed at the '91 Reading Festival or the ’93 NYE MTV Live & Loud performance.
I plainly remember where I was in April of '94 when I found out he was dead for real, as if it happened yesterday. At the Hallahan family house in Dungarvan, Ireland during spring break from school (one of my best friends growing up was originally from Ireland so through his old man we ended up getting hooked-up with free Air Lingus plane tickets plus put up by his auntie/uncle in their place with 4 of us Americans plus his 12 cousins).
For those unfamiliar, Irish people are the biggest collection of bullshitters of any ethnicity on earth. For example, just earlier in that week his Uncle Dano had fooled my friend John into thinking he'd won the Irish lottery by reading the numbers off the ticket he was holding-out in too-plain view while pretending to read the results from a newspaper......he let us jump around the kitchen thinking we'd won a million pounds or so for a good five minutes before breaking it to us in joyfully brutal fashion).
So when my boy's cousin Audrey came up to me in the upstairs barracks and said 'Bomb, ya man is dead!' I already had my guard up without even fully grasping who she was referring to yet. But I did against my better judgement ask for clarification, suddenly that mellifluous Irish accent that at that moment sounded menacing as she said 'ya man, Kurt Cobain. He's dead. Shot heemself in the fooking head with a shotgun!'.
I still didn't buy it but at the same time felt compelled to head downstairs from the upstairs bedroom area (where the room all looked like barracks because as I mentioned they had 14 kids, plus were putting up four of us U.S. visitors) to the kitchen. Auntie Cellie was the one person in the family who didn't seem full of shit, so I came downstairs to ask her as she labored over a dinner fit for an army. She seemed to acknowledge that what Audrey was saying was true but I still insisted they put on the radio. As it came on they were playing "Something In The Way".....uh-oh, bad sign. When that song finally 'hmmmmm'-d out a BBC host announced confirmation via Seattle police that the body found on the estate dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound was in fact Kurt Cobain.
My man was, indeed, really dead this time.
The rest of events that followed that spring/summer of 1994 (that night taking full advantage of the ability to drink booze at 18 to a level that left us nearly in a literal gutter after a late-night post-pub grub session in which I had car-walked for a full two blocks of cobblestone streets, the weird Courtney Love reading of the suicide note over a PA system to a park full of mourners, coming back to the states at the end of that week to regale all the folks who'd never left the country with tales of Irish countryside, the girl I'd been in love with for the prior year at last acquiescing to my advances, graduation, cop chases, clashes with the folks over my then completely unforeseeable & fucked-up future, etc.) went by in a surreal haze that sort of runs together but amazingly several of those little moments involving a self-loathing rock-icon from Aberdeen, Washington stand out with crystal clarity.
I don't know what any of that really means. I don't even really listen to Nirvana much anymore. At least I didn't for a long stretch, now I can sort of go back and enjoyed the shit out of the Bleach reissue last year. Nor is it a group I even feel I could ever objectively comment on or divorce myself from the personal enough to evaluate their musical merits.
But this day 22 years ago was sort of the end and the beginning of a lot of things. Hard to believe I'm now a 40-year-old posting this from my own office in LA on a hip-hop website started by the Philly cats on Kurt's old label who I was going to see play the Middle East on Chestnut to a crowd of a couple hundred or so shortly after this.
I'm sure a lot of people who are passionate about music have some of those same sort of post-markers from their own adolescence. That’s when music is at its most heightened level of importance because everything thing is more dramatic and important. When you're a restless teenager trying to navigate that awkward terrain between childhood towards adulthood. In my particular demographic, Kurt Cobain's time in the public eye so closely shadowed the tenure of my own teens it puts that dude in a space that no other artist will ever be able to occupy.
And for that fact I'm both slightly saddened (the way thinking about how young you used to be gives you that wave of nostalgia & longing) while at the same time incredibly relieved. While it’s cool to experience/be-enthralled by music/musical-idols it's also on some other level a completely ridiculous and sometimes dangerously false premise to truly invest that much emotion in people that you will never actually know.
The guy who penned a song called 'I Hate Myself & Want To Die' seemed to understand that more than anybody however ultimately succumbed to much of that same old rock-star-beautifully-messy mythological bullshit.
A contradiction suitably fitting the defeatist dichotomy of a man who coined the phrase 'practice makes perfect but nobody's perfect so why practice?'.
Oh well, whatever, never mind.....22 years later, right/wrong or more than likely somewhere floating in between, that's still my man.
RIP Kurt C.