"Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old"
-- Kurt Cobain, Nirvana: Serve the Servants
Twenty years. Can you believe that? Twenty years! Twenty years have passed since the biggest icon of the grunge era silenced himself. Twenty years have come and gone since MTV News
broke into programming with a special report and radio stations began playing Nirvana songs non-stop. It's been twenty years -- longer than the amount of time that it takes to go from birth to adulthood -- since Kurt Cobain killed himself at the age of 27. Twenty years later, and we still ask why and wonder "what if?".
I was in 8th grade in April 1994, and the world that my friends and I inhabited had a soundtrack featuring a limited number of artists -- West Coast gangsta rap to feel tough and Nirvana to...well, just to feel. Of course, Nirvana first caught our attention in 1991 with the release of Nevermind
and the legendary single Smells Like Teen Spirit
. Nirvana's sound was just so different that we couldn't help but take notice. It was amazing that three people -- Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl -- could make so much noise. Every chord sounded like an attack, and singing the unusual (and often nonsensical) lyrics was Cobain. As good as the music was, and as interesting as the lyrics were, it was Cobain's raw and passionate voice that stood out every single time Nirvana performed. Inexplicably, Kurt Cobain was somehow able to simultaneously exhibit a ferocious intensity and a hopeless fragility. It was (and still is) mesmerizing to watch or listen to. Cobain was becoming a legend in his own time, and suddenly, just as quickly as it had begun, everything was over.
The most vivid memory I have of Kurt Cobain's death is the media's video cameras trained on the room above the garage of Cobain's home in Seattle. Under gray skies, the footage showed the outside of the home that Cobain shared with his wife, Courtney Love, and all that most Nirvana fans could think of is, "That's where it ended." That was where an electrician working at Cobain's house found the musician's body on April 8, 1994, about three days after Cobain had died. The brain that penned those unique lyrics, the mouth responsible for that raw singing voice, the hands that ripped Nirvana's distinctive sound out of his guitar, the heart that molded the incredibly sensitive Cobain into a different kind of rock star -- without the misogyny or racism or gay-bashing that seemed a requirement for so many hard rockers of the 1980's -- all of the components that helped create an iconic artist were silenced forever on that day twenty years ago.
The idea of a "tortured artist" has likely floated around since the very first person decided to become an artist and realized that it was difficult, unforgiving, and didn't pay the bills quickly enough. Whether the artist is a musician, a writer, a painter, an actor, or an expert in some other discipline, there is usually a driving force behind their artistic ambitions. For many artists, it's an emptiness or a burden inside of them that is fulfilled or relieved by creating something. Selling your work, performing your composition, and pleasing your patron are all incidental aspects of being an artist -- it is the actual act of creating that fills any emptiness and brings flashes of happiness to the artist. Artists lose themselves in their work because the world they are creating is more appealing than the world they actually have to live in. Returning to the real world is often a startling, unpleasant experience. Since it's nearly impossible to always be creating something, it's not a surprise that many "tortured artists" turn to substance abuse to fill that emptiness once they are back in the real world.
Kurt Cobain's struggles with drug addiction are well-documented, and his death came several days after he checked himself out of rehab in Los Angeles and flew back to Seattle. Cobain had significant amounts of heroin and Valium in his system when he died, and his drug abuse certainly contributed to his problems. With Cobain, however, there always seemed to be more. The complexity and depth of Cobain's personality will likely never be fully understood, but there was always a sadness and sensitivity to him. Cobain could be genuinely funny and charming and possessed a peculiar charisma both on-stage and in interviews, but those parts of his personality were always shadowed by an apprehensive sadness that seemed to linger around him. There was a visceral anger to Kurt Cobain, and anybody who ever heard Cobain sing could almost feel the pain he was in. What was perhaps Cobain's greatest performance is also the most haunting. In November 1993, Nirvana taped an acoustic performance for MTV Unplugged
and Cobain's primal scream towards the end of a cover of Lead Belly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night
is one of the most emotionally-charged notes recorded by a musician. Cobain wasn't performing that song; he was possessed by it. No matter how many times one hears that song, listening to Where Did You Sleep Last Night
remains a stirring emotional experience.
When Nirvana's MTV Unplugged
concert aired, we didn't realize it was one of the final times we'd see Cobain perform on television, but looking back, can we imagine it any other way? Cobain was 27 years old when he died -- the same age as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse when they died. Can you imagine any of them growing old? Are you able to envision a 47-year-old Kurt Cobain on tour as if he were a member of the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith? Is it even possible to picture Kurt Cobain combing his gray hair? I can't see it. To me, that's like trying to think of Tupac Shakur at 40 years old -- softer around the middle, more of a wise old poet than mercurial gangsta. Like Tupac, Cobain didn't advance far in age, but even in their 20's they were both equipped with old souls. The unique wisdom that both musicians possessed made a genuine impact on the generation who were teens during that time. That generation -- my generation -- was fortunate enough to have two monumental music icons to look up to, but, sadly, we also had to watch our heroes die before they reached 30. Nothing quite makes a generation grow up more quickly than dead heroes and disturbing national tragedies like the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11.
The world was too much for Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur was too much for the world. Cobain took his own life, and Shakur's many battles with others cost him his life due to violence. Yet, there are many other musicians who seemed to go out like Kurt Cobain and, as Cobain wrote in his suicide note (paraphrasing Neil Young), felt "it's better to burn out than fade away." For many of them, their downfall was drugs: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Sublime's Bradley Nowell, Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, and more recently, superstars such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
It's easy for us to consider their blessings -- the money, the fame, the adoration, the respect, the talent, the ability to build a legacy and be remembered forever -- while overlooking the many burdens that come along with superstardom. What we often forget is how dominant fame becomes in the life of a world famous rock or pop star. It is inescapable and although artists certainly seek recognition and hope to be a success, many of them are simply seeking respect and the ability to continue making music or writing books while attempting to live a normal life. When that becomes impossible -- especially when a celebrity is known around-the-world -- life becomes a burden. That's when alcohol and drugs become an escape from reality; a chance to withdraw, even if only for a few hours or a couple of days, might seem like the only time the star can feel protected from the glare of the spotlight. Sadly, we see far too often what happens when a star withdraws further-and-further away from their career and into addiction. In Down In A Hole
by Alice In Chains, Layne Staley -- who battled a severe drug addiction and died in Seattle exactly 8 years after Cobain and 12 years ago this week -- hauntingly sings a line that fittingly describes the struggle that people like he and Cobain face: "You don't understand who they thought I was supposed to be/Look at me now, I'm a man who won't let himself be.
The final irony for these icons who die young or unexpectedly is that they neither burn out or fade away. Kurt Cobain couldn't bear to keep living, but because of how he died, he'll live forever. Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Winehouse, Nowell, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. aren't shooting stars who disappeared over the horizon; they are frozen in time. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they won't age, they won't go on a half-dozen retirement and comeback tours, and they now have living legacies that are bigger and more durable than their mortal lives ever were. Cobain will always be 27 years old, Tupac was always be 25 years old, and their music won't be diluted by years-and-years of questionable additions to their discography. It is interesting to wonder if Kurt Cobain -- always sensitive about being considered a "sellout" and protective about staying "pure" as a musician and artist -- realized that when he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled a trigger to end his life, he simultaneously flipped a switch to ensure his immortality.