A decade from now, when conversation turns to where we were when we heard Kurt Cobain died, I will, unfortunately, have one of the creepiest stories. That Friday, the Entertainment Weekly music department was having lunch with employees of Geffen, Nirvana’s record company. Shortly into the meal, one of them was called away. When she returned, a half hour later, she said she had to leave. ”You’re going to hear this soon anyway,” she said evenly. ”Kurt Cobain shot himself. He’s dead.” As we stammered out condolences, she and her coworkers departed. So much for lunch, for any of us.
I never met or interviewed Kurt Cobain. We tried, but evidently EW was a little too mainstream for his tastes, and the one thing Nirvana always craved was street credibility—especially after they sold more records than most of their Seattle peers combined. I consoled myself with the fact that sometimes it’s best not to interview your rock heroes, because now and then they can let you down. Ultimately, I was satisfied to let the music do the speaking for him.
Which it did, almost from the start. The band’s first album, Bleach, rightfully made little impression on most people in 1989. I gave the group no further thought until people in the business began talking about Nevermind before its release. Right from the harshly strummed opening of ”Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the hipster hype proved on target. Those diary-notes lyrics, that battering-ram sludge, that sense of ennui-to-rage, the barbed-wire voice (I mean, forget Barbra Streisand)—despite Kurt’s submerged words, Nevermind spoke volumes, as did the rarities collection Incesticide and last year’s corrosive In Utero.
I was fortunate to see Nirvana in concert three times, and they sounded better-more confident, more cathartic-each time. Yet my most intense memory may well be their quietest. Last fall, I was among the 300 invited to the taping of their MTV Unplugged. Before the taping began, Kurt wandered around the crowd, shyly saying hello to a few people. Then he sat down, looking grandfatherly in his cardigan, and the band played gentler, but no less gripping, versions of songs like ”Come As You Are.” Only then, as Kurt closed his eyes and quietly murmured the lyrics, did the sorrow and tenderness behind the din truly emerge.
We’ve read and heard about how Kurt was the ”voice of his generation” and other such trite phrases. True, Kurt’s singing and songwriting were leagues above those of his peers, yet that simplification trivializes what Kurt Cobain accomplished. You don’t have to be a so-called slacker to relate to the mixed persona in his songs-a confused, sensitive screwup one moment, a sardonic and begrudgingly happy human the next. His music was manic and depressive, often within the same song. It also revealed an intense, scalding passion to reinvent his life and become something else, something better. If he could make it through his morass of self-doubt, self-loathing, anxieties, and indulgences—as he indicated in his last interviews—then any of us could make it through our own.
Still, all of these arguments now seem purely academic, and nearly as mundane as all those “John Lennon of grunge” comparisons. I rarely get upset when celebrities die, yet for most of the 24 hours after our interrupted power lunch, I was both furious at and saddened by someone I’d never even met. The whole bleak mess is enough to make anyone pick up a guitar and rant and rave. With any luck, somebody somewhere is doing just that-and Kurt wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.