There are defining moments for every generation, events that act as branding irons to sear these moments indelibly into our memories. For baby boomers, it’s the exact moment when they heard JFK was shot. For millennials, 9-11 is the defining moment. But for Gen-Xers, April 4, 1994 is the Day the Music Died – that’s the day Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
Nirvana, and Cobain especially, had become the figurehead of Seattle’s grunge movement in the early ‘90s. They’ve been credited for singlehandedly striking down the pomposity of ‘80s glam rock that dominated radio and MTV. In 1991, Nirvana smashed the ’80’s façade with punk angst and pop sarcasm. Essentially, Cobain committed genocide on hair bands, only to implode from the pressures of stardom in three short years.
Now, 20 years have passed since Cobain pulled that trigger, ending his life and effectively the Seattle movement. In his wake came a sense of unease, a series of entertainers’ strange deaths and a generation of people in an existential crisis. The music, books and movies that came after Cobain asked, “What the fuck?” Cobain had become a reluctant martyr for translating the world through ’90’s punk-colored glasses – anti-corporate, indie-everything, trailblazing, the self-effacing artist – these are the standards of Cobain’s legacy. But how much of this spirit still exists, and how much has become the persona?
Not to get too Elton John here, but in all of the translations of Buddhist writings, Nirvana literally means “blown out,” like to blow out a candle. How much of Cobain’s light still lingers 20 years after his flame was extinguished?
For the twentieth anniversary of his death, there’s been plenty of fanfare. His hometown of Aberdeen, Washington declared Feb. 20 (his birthday) “Kurt Cobain Day.” The town unveiled a creepy statue of Cobain shedding a solitary tear, and also added a road sign that reads, “Come As You Are,” as you come into town. Bavaria, a Dutch brewing company, premiered a beer commercial where Cobain is hanging out, drinking beer with John Lennon, Elvis, Tupac, and other dead rock legends on a hidden island paradise. Being released this week is a comic book tribute from Jayfri Hashim that illustrates Cobain’s entire career, from angry young man to angry famous man. And on April 10, at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside Kiss, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Cat Stevens and Linda Ronstadt.
But what about around here at our tourist-driven seaside hamlet? We rounded up a couple of local insiders that were around during Cobain’s heights – local radio personality for 96.1 WKZQ-FM and musician Mase Brazelle, and Joe Oesteich, who spent 25 years (from 1989 to now) as the bass player/co-singer of the Columbus, Ohio band Watershed. He wrote a memoir about his years with the band titled, “Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Oestreich also teaches at Coastal Carolina University and coordinates its Masters of Arts in Writing program.
We also stumbled into a crowd of millennials that weren’t even born when Nirvana’s breakthrough album “Nevermind” was released and asked them what they knew about Cobain and the band the changed the direction of mainstream music.
Tender Age In Bloom
For those of you who weren’t around or just missed it, here’s the five-minute history of Nirvana. A young angry man named Kurt Cobain from Aberdeen, Washington, sings and plays guitar. Aberdeen is cold and grey and depressing. He joins a band called Fecal Matter. Fecal Matter doesn’t stink, but they end up being flushed anyway. The young man meets a tall, goofy-looking bass player named Krist Novoselic. The angry young man probably says something like, “Hey, let’s start a band and change the world.”
Novoselic says, “No.” Then, hears him play and sing on Fecal Matter’s demo, and says, “OK.” They hang out with the Seattle band named the Melvins. They can’t find a drummer that sticks. They play shows where no one shows up, almost give up but don’t. They get more popular. They record an album in 1989 with Sub Pop records called “Bleach.” It sounds a lot like the Melvins. They tour.
On the follow up album, the band starts working with legendary producer Butch Vig. Buzz Osborne, the singer of the Melvins, says something like, “Hey, let me introduce you to this drummer from D.C. named Dave Grohl.” And Wham! “Nevermind” happens.
“Kurt obviously spoke to many people, but with all the post-Nirvana success that Dave Grohl has had with Foo Fighters, it's almost unfair to lay all the credit of Nirvana on Kurt,” says Brazelle. “They went through a number of drummers before they found Dave [Grohl], and it finally clicked. Grohl and Vig have as much to do with making “Nevermind” a great record as Kurt did. If you listen to the “Nevermind” demos online, they’re pretty rough.”
But the world doesn’t know what is coming yet. The kids listen to the same old ’80’s bands and rehashed hippie music and Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion I and II.” The world waits, but doesn’t know what it is waiting for. Wanting something new, they wait for Cobain to put together four power chords in a syncopated sixteenth-note strum. They wait for the guitar to settle to a whisper. They wait for Cobain’s terse voice to sing, “Load up on guns, bring your friends.” They wait for Cobain to play with words, “Hello, hello, hello, how low?” The song gets its title after a friend of Cobain’s spray paints, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit,” on his apartment wall, because Cobain smells like his girlfriend’s deodorant. The song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” becomes the sardonic battle cry of a generation.
“Nirvana was huge. I remember working in a restaurant in Underground Atlanta the first time they were on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and we brought a TV in and just ditched our tables when they played,” says Brazelle. “At the time, bands were already trying to sound like them and there is no doubt they’ve influenced and probably still influence a lot of bands.”
Seattle became a hotbed for signing bands. Videos are made. (Do they make those anymore?) Funny interviews occur. Photos are taken. More music is written. Shows are performed. Cobain marries a punk chick named Courtney Love and has a baby.
“I was a big fan of Nirvana, mostly because Cobain was always vocal about loving Cheap Trick, and I’m also a huge Cheap Trick fan,” says Oestreich. “Cobain would say something like, ‘I’m just trying to write a song as good as Cheap Trick,’ and all of ‘Nevermind’ was catchy three-minute pop songs with angst-filled lyrics.”
But then controversy ensues. Shows are cancelled. Cobain hates interviews. Cobain hates photo shoots. Cobain has a host of stomach problems. (But he always had stomach problems.) Cobain takes a lot of drugs. (But he always took drugs.) Nirvana’s third album “In Utero” is released. They record a really cool acoustic set in New York for MTV. An intervention for Cobain leads to a daring escape from rehab which leads to him missing. Private investigators look for Cobain. The world looks for him through a TV screen.
And I Swear I Don’t Have a Gun
Then, another man named Kurt says, “Hi, I’m Kurt Loder with a MTV News Special Report. The body of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain was found in a house in Seattle on Friday morning, dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head…”
Brazelle wasn’t a DJ when Cobain died, but oddly enough, he was on the radio when he first heard the news. “One of my old bands, Loudflower, had a show in Raleigh (N.C.) that night, and we were on the air doing an interview at N.C. State's radio station WKNC, when it came across the old school teletype,” he says.
“I'm pretty sure they were playing one of our songs at the time, so we weren't talking on air and our singer saw it and pulled it off the machine,” says Brazelle. “Of course, when we went back on the air the jock announced it. So it kind of put a damper on our interview. I think our singer still has the copy somewhere.”
Oesteich was 24-years-old. His band Watershed had just signed with Epic Records, just released its first EP, “Three Chords and a Cloud of Dust,” when he heard the news. He was “living with my band in a ghetto apartment in Columbus, Ohio. I’d just walked in the door, and everyone was gathered around the TV. Somebody said, ‘Cobain shot himself.’ And I said, ‘Really? what a pus,’” he says.
“I looked at it as a betrayal of everything I wanted at that time,” Oestreich says. “The success of Kurt and Nirvana was the goal for guys like us. It’s where we wanted to be.”
The world cries in disbelief. Musicians play songs for Cobain. Courtney Love reads Cobain’s suicide note over a speaker to a crowd of fans at a memorial. “MTV Unplugged in New York” is released and sells its ass off.
“After he died, you couldn't get away from it. That was in the height of MTV, every time you turned it on, there was a Nirvana video or Kurt Loder talking about it,” says Brazelle.
Other music releases happen over the years, including a box set. Books are released. Cobain’s personal journals are pilfered. Unfounded documentaries are made about murder conspiracy theories. The remaining band members and Love fight over Nirvana’s songbook and what to do with Cobain’s legacy.
But where are they today? Novoselic is a Seattleite and active in local politics. Grohl is a rock star front man with Foo Fighters and an upholder of all things rock ‘n’ roll. Love has had her ups and downs…more downs than ups, unfortunately. And the baby, Francis Bean Cobain, now 21-years-old, is the spitting image of her old man.
So I Can Sigh Eternally
But what about the legacy of Cobain, where does he stand after all these years?
Nirvana is everywhere. As we’re waiting to interview to Oestreich, a group of twenty-somethings are listening to “In Bloom” on a laptop in the CCU library. When we ask them the first time they ever heard of Nirvana, someone tells us they saw the video for that song “Seems like Team Spirit” on VH1’s “I Love the ’90s.” Another one tells us they love Flyleaf’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Jarele Finley, a 19-year-old CCU student says, “I first heard Nirvana on the game, Madden 2010. They were on the soundtrack, I’ve been blasting them ever since.”
David Segun, a 21-year-old CCU student says, “I went through a punk rock phase in middle school. ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and ‘In Bloom’ are still in my top ten favorite songs.”
And after the big drum roll in “In Bloom,” we ask them if they knew that Dave Grohl, the singer from Foo Fighters, was the drummer playing that very roll. They both look at us like we’re crazy. Segun says, “You're kidding me, that's nuts. That guy has been at it forever.”
Then we find Mystic Harrison, a 21-year-old CCU student who says, “My parents were Nirvana fans. I always knew about Kurt Cobain. I love his music, the grunge stuff, the acoustic stuff. No genre satisfies their sound because it changes so much.”
So, there’s obviously something about Nirvana that lasts. Myrtle Beach radio station WAVE 104 has put Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in rotation, which means it’s now considered classic rock. This puts Nirvana in rare territory, being able to be heard on at least five local radio stations at any given time. This is usually reserved for genre-transcending artists such as the Beatles. And even though Nirvana isn’t releasing any new material, the band’s music is still being played on current rock stations.
“It's been 20 years, everything gets old, and some become ‘classic,’” says Brazelle. “One of the funniest quotes I've heard was at a radio industry panel about keeping people ‘tuned in.’ They said, ‘By a show of hands, who here loves Nirvana?’ Of course, most of us raised our hands. Then they said, ‘OK, by a show of hands, who changes the channel when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ comes on?’ Again, most hands went up.”
“I can't speak for the other stations, but here at KZQ, we play every song on ‘Nevermind,’” says Brazelle. “Sure, we don't play some of them as much as the others. You still have to play the hits, but we realize the impact that album had and how most people you know owned or still own a copy and know every song on it.”
“Nirvana is definitely holding up their popularity,” says Ashtin Potridge, an employee of Kilgor Trouts Music and More in downtown Myrtle Beach. “As soon as we get any Nirvana vinyl in here, it’s gone before I can get it on the floor. We got the ‘Unplugged’ vinyl in here a few months ago, and someone bought it while I was still cleaning it up. We even sell out of “Bleach” on CD. It’s crazy. At the moment, all we have is the box set, a couple of CDs and a few Cobain T-shirts.”
But was it more than the music? The ‘80s were dominated by musicians who spent a lot of time in front of mirrors. Looking back at the biggest bands of that decade, it feels like crowds were showing up out of hero worship or musical masturbation.
“All of us in that generation grew up watching arena rock. We wanted to rock an arena,” says Oestreich. “Nirvana pushed backed from that. They didn’t want the fame, but it’s easy to say you don’t want it after you got it.”
Like the punk bands from the ’70s, the ’90’s bands from Seattle began to draw large crowds not for self-adoration, but more to form riotous rallying cries. Hero worship and musical masturbation still happened, but musicians weren’t primping in front of arenas. These new musicians looked as if they stepped out of the crowds and onto the stages. They were crowd surfing and talking to audiences without pretense or condescension. They quit singing about partying, and starting singing about issues or nonsense. The lyrics burned like intense journal entries. The music was sometimes ugly and malformed, sometimes catchy and eclectic.
“I don’t think Nirvana’s music was groundbreaking as much as the way they got famous was groundbreaking. They brought indie music to the mainstream,” says Oestreich. “They transformed the persona of the front man into an antihero. The front man was allowed to cower under the spotlight. Being famous wasn’t the goal. At least, some of them pretended it wasn’t the goal. And it opened the way for acts like Radiohead, bands with unassuming singers.”
But Cobain’s true success was beyond his years, and maybe unintentional and built into his music. Like his music, Cobain couldn’t be easily defined or pigeonholed. He made it cool to be a geek or gay or a feminist or the witty guy who hurts your feelings without knowing it or the guy who gets his feelings hurt by the girl without telling anyone or the guy who can’t always find the right words to say it or the….oh, nevermind.
The Choice Is Yours, Don't Be Late
Lester Bangs was a music journalist for Creem and Rolling Stone back in the ’70s. He’s probably better known as the guy Philip Seymour Hoffman played in “Almost Famous.” Nevertheless, when Janis Joplin overdosed on drugs in October of 1970, he said, “It’s not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that has become disturbing, but that it’s been accepted as a given so quickly.”
Joplin’s death was a month after Jimi Hendrix had choked to death on his own vomit, and Alan Wilson, the singer of Canned Heat, overdosed. About eight months after Joplin’s death, Jim Morrison would be found dead in a bathtub in Paris. All four of these rock stars were 27 years-old when they died. The demise of these four would be the true death of the enlightenment of the ‘60s. This would be the beginning of the 27 Club – a dark coincidence and cosmic joke for a large group of musicians who mysteriously all died at the age of 27. Cobain is also a member of this club.
“It’s a very weird coincidence that he died at 27 like those huge artists before him,” say Brazelle. “But it was a very different time than when Hendrix or Janis Joplin died. If MTV had existed when they passed would they have been as popular or vice versa? If Kurt was around back in the late ‘60s, would he have been a success?”
“Cobain gets the same pass that John Lennon does. He didn’t live long enough to make mistakes musically,” says Oestreich. “He made three great albums, so musically, he’s batting 1,000. Imagine what the world would be like if he would’ve lived long enough to make a cheesy Christmas album.”
After Cobain’s death Seattle bands didn’t dry up and blow away. Just like any music scene, there were levels, and the top levels are still very active in current music – Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains are all still making music. Even when Alice in Chains’ singer Layne Staley died of an overdose in 2002, and bassist Mike Starr overdosed in 2011. They still trudged on, although they may have been guilty of making a few cheesy albums along the way.
But in the three years after Cobain’s death, things felt very different. Just as Cobain had altered the direction of rock, rappers like N.W.A had redirected hip hop from glitzy dance floors back to the streets. So when Easy-E, one of the founding members of N.W.A., died of AIDS in March of 1995, you could feel a change in the winds. Then, all hell broke loose, when Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas in September of 1996. And six months later, Biggie Smalls was gunned down in Los Angeles.
The young and promising started to die off. Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon overdosed in October of ’95. Singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley drowned in Tennessee in May of ’97. And just for good measure, in November of ’97, INXS' singer Michael Hutchence died mysteriously of either suicide of autoerotic asphyxiation, ensuring the demise of any decent reunion of one of Australia’s best pop bands.
“After I had been in the business for about 10 years, I started to understand what that level of fame could do to you, externally and internally. What you had to do to maintain it,” says Oestreich. “Once you got into the record company machine, the machine tells you to be yourself, the machine tells you to not worry about anything but making music. But if your sales drop, they’ll chew you up and spit you out. But the record companies didn’t kill Kurt, lots of people survive just fine, look at Dave Grohl. He’s learned to use the machine to his benefit.”
In an age when information moves in milliseconds, and time is exponential scaled to the past, we could call the mid-‘90s (1994 to 1998) the dark-age of a decade, Gen-X’s disco period – the rise of boy bands and banality and bland. To get away from unpredictable troubled artists, record companies created acts that would smile big and sign autographs until their hands bled and agreed with the president and danced all night no matter the beat.
All in All is All We Are
A consensus of rock critics and media sources have tabbed Cobain as the voice of Generation X. But in Cobain’s suicide note, he calls himself an “experienced simpleton…emasculated, infantile complain-ee…a sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man…miserable, self-destructive, death rocker” and an “erratic, moody baby.” Grohl told New Musical Express Magazine (NME) in 2009 that “sometimes you just can't save someone from themselves…you kind of prepare yourself emotionally.”
“I do have a problem calling Cobain the poet of a generation,” says Oestreich. “I have a problem laying all that on his lyrics. I mean, I love the Foo Fighters. They’re probably a better rock band than Nirvana, but I’m not going to tell you they’re important. Nirvana as a band symbolized something. Kids rallied around it, believed in it.”
And Cobain used the stage he was given. He adamantly spoke out for gay rights. He was a proponent for women's rights and feminism, taking an active prochoice stance. He worked to tear down the macho persona of rock ‘n’ roll. He championed unknown or forgotten rock bands.
But Cobain was also a self-confessed, self-medicating drug addict. He showed signs of bipolar disorder and manic depression. He was a true dichotomy – a man split into two halves. One half was an icon worth aspiring to, worth being influenced by. The other half was a junky dead by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.