A co-worker walked up to my desk.
“Kurt Cobain killed himself,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Right.” She looked uncertain.
This was a rumor that had been circulating for a couple of years at this point. That Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, who struggled so publicly with heroin addiction, fame, his wife and fellow addict Courtney Love, and Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, had committed suicide.
My co-worker looked doubtful. “They’re saying they found his body. He shot himself.”
“‘They’ve’ been saying that for, like, the past two years,” I responded.
It was April 8, 2004.
I came late to Nirvana. Like, say, summer of 1992 late.
After my Pearl Jam revelation, I made my way through Seattle-area grunge: Screaming Trees (lead singer of which, Mark Lanegan, was clearly Vedder’s voice coach), Soundgarden, Alice and Chains, and so on.
Why yes, I was a sunny, happy post college graduate. (Not.) Why do you ask?
Although Nirvana’s single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had caught my ear, it wasn’t until I saw the video with the tattooed cheerleaders that I decided to pick up the CD. I distinctly remember hoping that it wasn’t just that one song.
To this day, Nevermind resides in my top five albums of all time.
I know Pearl Jam and Nirvana were lumped together in the “grunge” music category. Out of the necessity that we have for labeling and categorization. I tend toward seeing their differences, though, especially these many years later.
Pearl Jam had a dark romance to them. Nirvana were nihilists.
Pearl Jam’s music was tightly focused, driven, while Nirvana’s hovered at the near edge of chaos.
Both bands knew their music history — they truly sensed their roots. PJ were rooted in Neil Young and other ’70s-era bands, plus the Ramones; for Nirvana, it was classic rock, and punk and alternative rock forerunners (The Stooges, Pixies). While both groups seemingly struggled with their sudden fame, where Pearl Jam and especially Vedder learned to channel and use the spotlight, Cobain simply turned into a deer in the headlights. Then imploded.
Pearl Jam went from angst to activism; Nirvana, although they made an amazing third album (In Utero) (counting Bleach as their first) and an amazing MTV Unplugged episode, didn’t go farther than 1994.
Once upon a time, WYEP had a Friday night show that focused on very new music, a lot less Joni Mitchell and a lot more… well, at that time, Nirvana. An acquaintance of mine, Don, was the DJ.
And when, that evening on the air, Don announced Kurt Cobain’s body was found, I believed him. Don’s voice was hushed, serious, that of a fan already mourning a dead star.
I called him.
“Are you okay?” I blurted.
We talked for a while before he had to get back to DJ’ing. I told him about what my co-worker had said earlier in the day. “I didn’t believe her,” I said.
“I don’t blame you for not believing her. Cobain would be dead a hundred times over if every rumor of his death were true.” He went back to his shift.
I went to the bar.
I’m not proud of this, but when Don announced Cobain’s death, the first thought that went through my head was, “Now I’ll never get to see Nirvana live!”
My second thought was for his baby girl.
Although I never bought into the idea of Kurt Cobain as “the voice of a generation”, it’s not as if he didn’t have anything to say. He was an artist of his era trying to capture, if nothing else, his own intense experience. He was troubled, plagued by chronic pain, tortured by his fame, and, ultimately, not strong enough to take on the weight of his own world. But Nevermind — along with Ten — launched a thousand alternative rock ships.
And if I can be nothing else, I can be grateful for that.