This weekend marks the twenty year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. On April 5th, 1994, the news was heard: the lead singer of Nirvana had apparently committed suicide. Although the group had only been in the public consciousness for just over two years, it seemed a monumental announcement. Even to those who weren’t passionate fans of the group. To fully understand why, I need to take you back to the 1980’s.
I was just seventeen when the 80’s ended and seven when they began. The decade is bracketed for me by going to see Empire Strikes Back with the annoying kid next door who had to have most of the movie explained to him as it went along (“I don’t get it. Darth Vader is whose father?”), and the fall of the Berlin Wall. This makes it sound like a momentous decade – yet the reality of growing up in it was much duller, mostly due to the appalling standard of popular music throughout it. Particularly the latter half of the decade, when terrible ballads featuring vomit inducing synth patches dominated the airwaves. The definitive 1980’s experience for me is sitting in the back of my parents’ car and being forced to listen to Glen Medeiros’ fantastically revolting “Nothing Gonna Change My Love For You” while feeling existentially depressed about human existence. For those of you not familiar with the musical piece in question, just imagine what cocaine sounds like translated as an aural experience and you’re there. You can almost feel the fake breasts in the room when it was recorded while listening to the song.
You kept sane during this decade by sticking to music that you could relate to. This inevitably meant bands that were completely out of the mainstream at the time, at least in North America. The Pixies, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth. Bands, not so incidentally, that would also be busy inspiring a young Kurt Cobain. So when Nirvana’s “Nevermind” topped the album charts in early ’92, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a top ten hit, it felt really, really weird. Good weird, but weird nonetheless. You had spent most of your life to that point knowing that if you liked a band or a song the chances of it being anywhere near the charts or AM radio was absolutely none. You lived in your musical world – and the rest of humanity seemed very happy listening to the Bangles. Then came Kurt and that wall seemed to have been torn down very suddenly. In Nirvana, one could clearly hear the Pixies influence. Where had all these people who now liked this kind of music come from? Whatever the answer, synthesisers that sounded like cocaine vanished from the airwaves overnight.
Mostly to be replaced by watered down versions of Nirvana, one has to admit. Saddest of all, most of the bands that had weathered the 80’s, who had kept the fire going during the darkest of days, couldn’t make hay once the 90’s arrived. Black Flag were long gone; The Pixies broke up tragically close to the Nirvana watershed; Sonic Youth signed to a major label but never really went astronomic. Amazingly, of the bands I mentioned above, only the Butthole Surfers managed any kind of real breakthrough, when “Pepper” became a big, proper radio hit. What was so fantastic about this is that the song sounds like a Butthole Surfers song; they didn’t have to change what they really did to get that very unlikely and unforeseen hit song. Thinking about that reminds me of the good parts of the 1990’s.
The grunge thing was short-lived. In fact, within a year of Kurt’s death it was pretty much toast. This was the harbinger of things to come for the record industry; we can now look back on the whole Nirvana thing as the last gasp of the already dying trade. Cobain quickly became the necromantic love icon he claimed in life never to want to become, which is sad in its way. He was like Hendrix or Coltrane – a musical legend who died while still at a high water mark artistically, thus torturing his fans for eternity on what might have come next had he lived on. But on this, the twentieth anniversary of that sad day, I can only look back with fondness on Nirvana. Their legend has grown since 1994 and they now assume a massive place in the rock pantheon. Mostly because so much of what has followed them has been crap, but still. We’ll always have Incesticide.