Kurt Cobain killed himself, and grunge, 18 years ago today. So what?

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Yeah, yeah, I know, today’s the 18-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. We’re all supposed to be wallowing in depressing reminiscences, etc., etc., but really, I can’t register much of anything at all.

I had a brief fling with Nirvana within a couple weeks of Nevermind coming out and had pretty much burned out on it when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was impossible to escape the following summer. That’s what Nirvana is to me: One of those “I found them first” bands. Yeah, that’s right, it’s likely I was listening to them months before anyone else around was … and you’re so jealous.

There was that strange period when I was a teen where it wasn’t how obscure the bands I was listening to were, it was just the fact that I got to them first! I revelled in my ability to “find” new music many months before anyone else would, thinking that it actually meant something to the world, as if it indicated some divine ability to determine the Next Big Thing. What it really meant was that I simply had an ear for what was catchy, but my attention span didn’t match it.

I traded Nevermind in the local record shop right about the time “Spirit” landed in the top of the charts. I’d listened to it quite a bit at first, enjoying the “for the love of rocking out” freedom the band took such delight in, but Nirvana, simply put, wasn’t my kind of thing. While I appreciate a great, simple chord progression and brilliantly catchy choruses, the likes of which were plastered all over Nevermind, I never got past the feeling that it was all just too easy, too simple, too watered down. Watered down from what, I don’t know.

It was a feeling that grew with each spin of the CD until I eventually couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take Kurt’s helpless howling rasp. I just couldn’t take any of it anymore, and hearing it blaring from every car stereo on every street, every day killed off any desire I would ever have to listen to the band again. I traded it in. I don’t even know what I bought in its place. I traded it in and left it for someone else to come along and get sick of.

Of course, I expected that eventually the world would get sick of Nirvana and the whole scene. I found worthwhile bands in the grunge movement — Pearl Jam is still a favorite, while others like Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and a few others were more “of the moment” types — even while the sub-genre was slowly destroying itself. I lent a half-interested ear to a friend’s copy of Nirvana’s In Utero, but knew there was nothing left there for me.

Kurt’s suicide put a final nail in the coffin of grunge, as if fans simply had to turn away from the music because it was too painful to face in light of his demise. While it came as no real surprise — Kurt Cobain, suicidal? No! — it was as fitting an end as one could imagine to both the band and the genre they’d come to represent.

Without that sudden, horrible death, what would have become of Nirvana? They’d have eventually petered out, becoming hollow shells of what they had been. Who knows if Dave Grohl would have wound up starting the clearly superior Foo Fighters?

Is it wrong to be thankful that something good came out of something so horrible and sad? Probably not. Is it wrong to be thankful that something horrible and sad happened in order for something good to come to life? I’m still torn on that question.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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    GLEN BOYD: Tom, I don’t necessarily share your viewpoint, but you made your points so well, it’s almost hard to disagree … and I like Nirvana. LOL.

    MARK SALESKI: I was never the biggest fan, either. Actually bought ‘In Utero’ first, because I read an article about Cobain and where some of those songs came from: “Scentless Apprentice” from a horror movie character, for instance. But I got tired of it. I grew up when what I call “real punk” exploded onto the scene and this stuff didn’t have the same level of abandon.

    S. VICTOR AARON: I never “got” the whole grunge thing. They all sounded like Crazy Horse, without the benefit of Neil Young’s songs, to me. Nothing terrible, just didn’t strike me as all that original.

    FRED PHILLIPS: Couldn’t agree more. Nirvana is the most overrated band in the history of rock. They weren’t even the best band of the grunge movement. I was much more upset to hear that Layne Staley died than Cobain, though that wasn’t unexpected either.

    GLEN BOYD: Nirvana had some great songs. Besides being really loud and all that, Cobain had a great pop sensibility (and Neil was a fan, by the way). Most of the rest of grunge was pretty overrated though.

    S. VICTOR AARON: I know that Young was called the “godfather of grunge” at the time and did a record with Pearl Jam. But I just think he’s head and shoulders above all of these guys. Kurt did have a couple of good songs, but I like them better when someone else is covering them.

    FRED PHILLIPS: The best Nirvana album, to me, is the ‘Unplugged’ record, and a lot of those are other people’s songs. Nirvana had some good songs, and I’ve got three of their records in my collection. But they can’t touch Soundgarden’s ‘Louder than Love’ and ‘Badmotorfinger’ or anything that Alice in Chains did with Layne Staley.

    GLEN BOYD: Interesting that of all these grunge acts we’ve been talking about, Pearl Jam has had the most longevity. I say interesting because, premature deaths aside, PJ was initially the least well received, critically speaking (yes I know their first record was a megahit). As for Soundgarden, they were a great band, for sure. But between Thayil’s distaste for touring and Cornell’s inability to figure out whether he wants to be a rock star or a pop singer, they kinda shot themselves in the foot, didn’t they?

    FRED PHILLIPS: Definitely. Chris Cornell has been a huge disappointment to me as a fan. Dude’s voice is awesome, but since Badmotorfinger, he’s hardly used that range at all. The stuff he does now, I couldn’t give a **** about.

    GLEN BOYD: As for Kurt, he is definitely not in the same league as Neil. But he did have a great ear for a catchy hook, underneath the wall of sound that was Nirvana. Dave Grohl is also a mother****er of a rock drummer. However, the Foo Fighters … now there is one very average sounding, overrated band.

    MARK SALESKI: My favorite Foo Fighters tune isn’t even a rocker: It’s that theme song that they did for the TV show “Ed.” Also like “Your Hero” (or whatever it’s really called). Honestly haven’t listened to them very much. Grohl can indeed beat the living snot out of the drums.

    TOM JOHNSON: A song so good I didn’t even mind it being whored out like that. And I have to disagree with Glen about the Foos — they may have a spotty track record when it comes to entire albums, but they are pretty much unmatched when it comes to straight up rock in today’s mainstream music market. ‘Wasting Light’ was an amazing piece of work as a whole, and if you go back through the catalog, you’d find one hell of a best-of package (which would put to shame the official greatest hits album.)

    GLEN BOYD: The fact that the Foo Fighters are one of the last remaining “rock” bands (a fact I don’t disagree with at all) says more to me about the sorry state of rock music than it does about the Foos having any true “greatness.” I don’t dislike them, but I do think they sound like a very average rock band. And their albums are spotty as hell … like you said, take the two or three best songs from each and you get a decent, but hardly great, hits package.

    MARK SALESKI: I do have to point out that Mudhoney had ****loads of early punk influences.

    GLEN BOYD: Mudhoney always reminded of what Blue Cheer would sound like if they were fronted by Iggy Pop.

    TOM JOHNSON: Not a bad description, and I kind of like the one CD I have of them, but they didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

    GLEN BOYD: I recently picked up the Live At The Paramount DVD — I actually attended that show — and was completely floored by it, and especially by Grohl’s ferocious drumming on it. I remember at the time I saw the show, not quite “getting it” yet about Nirvana being such a huge deal. But going back to that DVD, you can really tell they were in fact, something pretty special.