A shotgun blast ended his life at the age of 27 a quarter century ago today. Few people in our world of billions manage to etch themselves into history; far fewer still can be considered a generation’s voice.
Kurt Donald Cobain managed to achieve both, in less than three years after bursting into the popular consciousness on the strength of Nevermind, the third release from his band Nirvana. It didn’t hurt any that Cobain was a slight, self-effacing, bedraggled, tortured and (often overlooked) improbably good-looking young man, or that his steps towards fame utterly lacked the swagger, bravado and outrageousness of the Sunset Strip glam metal bands that were still dominating the charts but whose reign had been rendered increasingly wobbly by the simultaneous ascension of Metallica and Guns N’ Roses.
The consumption-and-cocaine-fuelled hysteria that marked Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term in the latter half of the Eighties and the realization that the nuclear doom of the Cold War was probably going to evaporate left in its wake a degree of celebration and relief, but also a different threat – this one distinctly more specifically interpersonal – in the form of AIDS. Small wonder, then, that Cobain’s visual appearance, which got manufactured into the music/fashion/cultural movement known as grunge, seemed calculated less to project sexuality and more to hide, suppress or shrink from it. Where Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue OD’d on heroin in 1987, was revived by a paramedic who happened to be a fan and recognized him, supposedly then escaped from the ambulance to go find another fix, and then wrote a hit song inspired by the experience, Cobain’s demons were sadder, more desperate and more painful beasts that underscored most of his music but with nary a hint of glamour or anything resembling chic.
Cobain’s death at his own hands, while horrible and tragic, seemed almost inevitable and not completely surprising. Easy to say in retrospect, but even then, did any fan really expect that Cobain would still be around to record and perform at forty? The very thought seemed incongruous. The Nineties brought not a triumph of peace and shared humanity, but simply a rearrangement of the international and domestic corporate and political order. And without the Sixties-era perk of consequence-free sex to distract the youthful masses. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…. except this time, the new boss could give you a deadly incurable disease. Cobain was the unlikely, reluctant spokesman for that world.
Which made him all the more important, perhaps, because he damn well had something to say that the youthful masses of the day wanted to hear.
Being all of 27 and mired in addiction and depression, though, and despite having resources at his disposal, Cobain seemingly slipped through the cracks. Could he have made it to forty? Who knows? Even if the right hand had reached out at the right time, would it have mattered? Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, a fellow Seattle boy, says that he found himself on what turned out to be Cobain’s final flight home and chatted with him. He recalled that Cobain seemed particularly down, so much so that as they were deplaning, McKagan thought to ask Cobain if he wanted to crash at his place, but when he turned around, Cobain was gone. And fellow (but far more experienced) miner of the darkness Leonard Cohen, to whom Cobain had paid tribute in 1993’s “Pennyroyal Tea”, said a few years later, “I’m sorry I couldn’t have spoken to the young man. I see a lot of people at the Zen Centre, who have gone through drugs and found a way out that is not just Sunday school. There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him.”
Rest in peace.