I’ve been meaning to write this for about a year. Finally getting around to it… Here it goes…
I went through almost 20 years of hating Nirvana after Kurt Cobain died. And this is that story.
In 1993 and 1994, I was like everybody else my age. I was young, dumb, and immersed in grunge rock. Awash in a sea of flannel and apathy, our heroes were Cornell, Vedder, Weiland, and probably most of all, Kurt Cobain. Of course I had the Nirvana albums. Of course I sang along, defiantly stating that I knew and understood the mush-mouthed lyrics when all the next generation heard was “Widda lies oww, iss less dangess!” I had “Nevermind” and formed mini-mosh-pits with close friends. I remember “In Utero” being the NEW release and excitedly sitting up to watch the band perform “Heart Shaped Box” on Saturday Night Live. And my band regularly covered at least “Territorial Pissings,” “Teen Spirit,” and “Come As You Are,” and probably several others I’ve forgotten.
When we heard Kurt Cobain almost died in Rome, we thought nothing of it. Rock and Roll excess and drugs are a bad combination and we all believed it when we were told he wasn’t trying to kill himself–he just had a bad night. Then not long thereafter, we were all stunned to find out that Kurt wasn’t playing around. He’d gone and done it. He blew his stupid fucking head off.
That was April of 1994. I had not experienced serious personal loss yet. My mom would die later that year, but I didn’t know or even have reason to suspect that yet, and Kurt Cobain dying felt like my generation had lost our Lennon…except our Lennon was also out Chapman. Funny how that worked. My band immediately snapped into action and learned a shitload of Nirvana songs so we could throw a memorial party. I think we called it the “Come As You Are” party or some damn thing… We played some of our own tunes and a lot of Nirvana, and all our friends showed up and we recorded it. I think I still have a tape of it somewhere. (And yes, Marc, if I can find it, I’ll send you a copy.) We paid tribute to our fallen leader…but for me, that was just what I was doing on the outside. On the inside, I was seething.
I remember thinking, “How dare you? You were supposed to get us through this and explain it to us, and you chickened out…how DARE you leave us?” And I stopped listening to Nirvana. Life got serious after that. Six months to the day from Kurt Cobain’s death, my mom died and I didn’t feel like I had time or space in my life for “cowards” like Cobain. (I want to be clear that I am speaking only for how I saw it in 1994. I don’t think I would use that word for suicidal people anymore.) When Mom died, I remember a brief period of wondering what Cobain would have to say about that kind of personal loss–or maybe I didn’t actually think that at all. It’s hard to remember if all of your memories from 20 years ago are real or if they’re romanticized versions of how you WANT to believe it went. Regardless, the point is that Kurt Cobain’s music died for me the same day he did. Life was too real to keep listening to the words of someone I thought was only pretending to understand it. After all–he quit, didn’t he?
But there was a time before that when Nirvana was hugely important to me. It’s funny how important someone else’s dumb-assed BAND can be to you. And that means something. And it doesn’t STOP meaning something, no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from it, or how deeply you bury it. And I only figured that out thanks to–get ready–Paul McCartney.
Okay… When Nirvana ended, Dave Grohl formed the Foo Fighters and he went on to become Dave Fucking Grohl. I’ve made it no secret that I love the Foo Fighters and that Grohl’s something of a musical favorite of mine. I’ve frequently referred to him as being “pound-for-pound, the greatest living rock drummer.” (With no disrespect to Neil Peart. I put the Progressive genre in a different category from “Rock,” which is probably unfair, but allows me the freedom to make that claim about Grohl with no mixed emotions.) And his work as a songwriter in the Foos has been nothing short of stellar. Which is why when rumors started flying that he was reuniting the surviving members of Nirvana and getting Paul McCartney to front them at the 12/12/12 benefit concert, he had my attention. Even if I thought it sounded like a stupid idea or a step backwards at the time, I was still interested.
What we got that night was Paul McCartney and Nirvana performing “Cut Me Some Slack,” a new song from a special all-star project that Grohl put together for his “Sound City” movie. It was a good song and it got me curious, so I went out and bought the soundtrack. I liked a lot of the songs on it and decided to check out the movie. The movie is a really fun, really gripping documentary of the old Sound City studio, where Nirvana recorded “Nevermind.” The studio also helped bring to life Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush,” Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 release, Rage Against the Machine’s first record, Slipknot’s first record, and a slew of other great albums. It’s a really cool story of a really cool studio, and you should check it out if you get the chance.
The moment that brings us up to now happens when Grohl is talking in brief about recording “Nevermind” at the studio. The movie isn’t just the self-indulgent story of Dave Grohl and Nirvana, as you might expect, but it would be remiss not to include that, since it’s one of those records that teenagers had practically issued to them in the 90s. Grohl is talking about the process and there is a brief piece of footage of Dave Grohl playing the drum intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That fucking song that I heard a million times until I knew it in my sleep. That I was sick of. That I never wanted to hear again. That felt like betrayal every time I heard Kurt screaming, “Here we are now, entertain us.” The guy that played drums on that song 20 years ago was playing that same fucking drum part on a drum kit and it was the first time I’d heard him do it (more or less) live in 20 years…
And I immediately burst into tears.
And that is how I made my peace with Nirvana, and why I went out and re-bought the CDs. And yeah, okay…I’m musically educated enough to know that Cobain was never our John Lennon–though maybe he was our Jim Morrison… But like I said, it’s funny how important someone else’s dumb-assed BAND can be to you. I did myself a disservice by trying to run from that for so long.
Suicide is still a damn, stupid thing to do. I’m 34 and I’ve known five people who’ve died that way. Each time it’s happened, it’s aged me severely. I’m not joking about that, and it’s not overstating it. It doesn’t get any less stupid or any less painful any time it happens. But when I was 13 and didn’t know my ass from my elbow and Kurt Cobain killed himself, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I think I could’ve forgiven him more quickly if it happened today. You…kind of have to let go of the hurt when someone does that. You kind of have to stand by them even though what they did really sucks–otherwise, you burden your spirit to the point that you might be likely to join them. I didn’t know that then. I do now. And I forgive Kurt Cobain. And I celebrate his work, and I wish like hell he’d been around these last 20 years to provide us with more of it.
…but in his absence, the Foo Fighters have been pretty great.
And that’s it.