This month marks the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. When Nirvana went mainstream, Cobain's band ushered in a new sound to popular culture that made him the "Voice of a Generation" for rock music in the '90s. Like Bob Dylan three decades earlier, Cobain did not like being the poster child of a "Generation," let alone punk rock, alternative or grunge music.
Sure groups like Pixies, The Melvins, Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth (who were instrumental in getting them signed to major label) and many others were just as innovative and can be cited as influences/peers to Nirvana: they just weren't household names. Being on the younger side of Generation X, unless you knew where to seek out underground bands with access to the right record store, college radio, magazines or cool friends, finding them was tough. There was no Internet at our fingertips to expose us to alternative sounds. As a preteen/teen at the time, what made Nirvana a household name for me was the magic of seeing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time on MTV. It was fresh, angsty, rebellious, exciting.
I had been aware of Nirvana in different pockets of my early adolescent life. My dad was always interested in new music and as a former record store owner in the '70s, he continues to seek out new music. He bought "Nevermind" when it first came out because he thought the album cover was funny. I remember hearing the band on the radio while riding with my older brother in the car. But it wasn't until experiencing the band on MTV when I finally understood that they were something bigger than the personal connections my family had with them.
Eventually "alternative" kids at school had Nirvana t-shirts and started transforming their look to be like Kurt with Doc Martens, striped shirts (or a short sleeved t-shirt on top of a long sleeved one), messy hair, etc. After "Nirvana Unplugged" aired on MTV, oversized thrift store cardigans were all the rage. This was the gateway band that made teenagers at my school, who were otherwise seen as outcasts, feel powerful and okay with being different. I wasn't too extreme with my fashion at the time, but I loved Nirvana just as much, I just didn't conform to the look.
I was a latchkey child so everyday when I got home from junior high, I'd make a snack and watch MTV. When I got home from school on Friday, April 8, 1994, I watched MTV in disbelief to hear about the loss of Kurt Cobain, they kept re-airing this special:
Monday at school, the kids who wore their hearts on their sleeves for the band were definitely mourning, hugging and crying in the hallway. Teachers let us talk about it in class, and there was a vigil at the tree just off of school grounds where kids would smoke. They all met up to play his music on a small boombox. I did a report on Cobain for speech class while the news of his death was still fresh.
Cobain's legacy left behind a wife and a baby daughter. His daughter Frances Bean, now in her twenties, is a visual artist who has grown up for the most part out of the spotlight. His wife, Courtney Love, while volatile and the recipient of a lot of flak over the years, deserves more credit than she often gets. She had to publicly mourn the loss of her husband, who also happened to be one of the biggest rock stars in the world, while being a young mother. In addition, her band Hole had to go ahead and release their album "Live Through This" just eight days after his death. Looking back, the loss of her husband seemed to sober her up somewhat as she handled herself with grace during interviews, and I find her very thoughtful here just five months after Cobain died:
Nirvana's legacy left behind three loud, distorted guitar driven studio albums and a sincere, stripped-down live album, all with songs that hinted of a genius artist whose time on Earth was limited. Uncomfortable with popularity and embattled by demons which eventually won, his music will never be forgotten. In fact, while Cobain is seen as a "Voice of a Generation," Nirvana's music gave a new generation of musicians a place to start.