Fifteen years ago today, I was just past the Ashland exit on Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway, on my way home from a class at UIC, when I heard the news on my Kenwood slide-out radio. I was listening to Q-101, my hometown’s “alt-rock” station, and the DJ used the 30 seconds of talk time he was allotted in his pre-determined playlist to announce that Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body was found at his Seattle home. Suicide. Shotgun blast to the head. Dead.
As the DJ’s “sad, sad day” announcement ended and the next Cake/Stone Temple Pilots/Weezer song started up, my first reaction was a cliched disbelief. It was a month after the close call in Rome, where Cobain had “accidentally” overdosed on champagne and pills. That he now put a shotgun to his own head and pulled the trigger seemed almost too perfect an ending to the life of the sensationally miserable punk/pop star who once penned a song titled “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” But, of course, it was real. He was dead. And I was fairly devastated. I exited the expressway at Kostner (those from Chicago know that you don’t exit the Eisenhower at the sketchy Kostner Ave. stop unless you absolutely have to) and took a break to collect myself. That’s it. There won’t ever be another Nirvana song, another Kurt Cobain performance, or another obscure artist I’ll discover because of him. It was a crushing blow for pop music, for rock and roll, and for Gen X.
My initial sadness, pity, and shock quickly took on anger and disgust when widow Courtney Love read the damn suicide note on MTV just two days later, not even waiting for his body to be cold before she began capitalizing on the Sid & Nancy-like validation her punk rock persona had just taken on. Kurt had a kid, for chrissakes, and he’d left her to be raised alone by that woman? Yes, Kurt was a mess. He was in pain, both physically and mentally. He poured that pain into his music and the screaming masses lauded him for it, constantly begged for more. Lord knows what it must’ve felt like to transform from a shy, awkward kid from a rainy Northwest town into a spokesman for a generation. But whether he asked for that fame or not (and there are some indications that despite his outward disdain for fame, Cobain was always very hungry for the spotlight), he had a daughter who counted on him, and it has permanently tarnished the image I have of my hero that he made that choice.
More selfishly, though, Cobain also had a fanbase that was affected very deeply by his suicide. I’m older now, and the all encompassing life-affirmation that kids derive from music on a daily basis is much harder to find. I’ve also spent the past 10-plus years writing about and covering music professionally, which can, unfortunately, zap some of the magic from the stacks of CDs I listen to every week. But I do believe that Cobain and Nirvana were pop music’s last true game-changers, ushering in a scruffy, music-first rock and roll passion that almost instantaneously erased the abominations that were Winger and the rest of the Aqua Net hair metal goons. The Ramones and Sex Pistols had a similar effect in the 1970s, Black Sabbath and Zeppelin before them, the Beatles, Elvis. One might argue that Pavement’s influence on an enduring indie-rock tradition was similarly game-changing, but either way, it’s been a long time since anyone’s been able to stage anything tantamount to Kurt and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” revolution in 1991. So even though I remain angry, disappointed, and disillusioned by his suicide, today, 15 long years since I drove home from class and heard the news, I also miss the guy something fierce.
Where were you when you heard about Kurt’s death? And does he still mean as much to you 15 years later?
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