DUST IT OFF: The death of Kurt Cobain…20 years later

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. As someone who lives in a city 200 miles away from Seattle rock city, it still affected us. I was a part of the local punk/”alternative” music scene, and the networking aspect of it all pre-internet was great. Bands came into town, I’d talk with and/or interview some of them, I reviewed their music, I wrote for The Rocket, and while the scene here had existed for years before Nirvana blew things up with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in September 1991, it felt like it came out of nowhere. Almost by an unspoken default, it meant every band in the Pacific Northwest was going to perform and record as if they were going to make it, even if making it meant simply doing your best in your region state, or part of the country. A lot of artists had taken advantage of the Seattle buzz by moving into the city, even though they didn’t quite know or understand the city’s quirks. It happened, it changed music and while people like to think those 30 months were small compared to The Beatles or Michael Jackson, the truth is it affected us, and for the better.

I had just woke up on that Tuesday morning and a high school friend of mine knocked on my door as he was driving around down, doing his job. He goes “hey, did you hear Kurt Cobain died?” I didn’t, I had just woken up. I turned on CNN (back when turning to CNN was the first thing we did upon hearing breaking news from someone) and there it was. A crowd of people were close to his home, there was a growing memorial at the Seattle Center, and police were at his home. Apparent suicide. All of us knew that Cobain had issues with drugs so I had thought maybe he died due to his use of it, the news was fresh so I couldn’t make a guess nor did I want to. Something happened, and all we could do was wait it out.

For me, I had been involved in the local music scene for four years and his death seemed to change what was going on immediately. Maybe it coincided with a lot of kids heading to college, moving away, or just being tired of it. I know when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit MTV, that brought in an all new audience of people who wanted to recreate their “Teen Spirit” mosh pit experience. This included wrestlers who wanted to go to shows just to practice their wresting moves, being completely aware of slamming and mosh pit etiquette. For them, it was about getting into a crowd and beating the crap out of everyone. At times, the shows seemed to be like after basketball game gatherings, which may have tipped off the punks and headbangers, but for the most part, everyone stayed within their own circles. Cobain’s death seemed to lessen the excitement, as if everyone at one time said “there’s nothing more for us, let’s do something else”. His death also coincided with the fact I had been only three months into my new job, I actually had something to do other than go to Taco Bell at 1 in the morning and eat a box of fake meat and stale tortilla shells.

Did I love Nirvana’s music, of course I did, and I’d like to think a lot of us in the Pacific Northwest saw Nirvana as just a band, as “one of the bands”, as “one of us”, the outsiders. We saw the list of bands who were slowly making it to major labels, wondering how Soundgarden got signed to A&M, patiently waiting for Mudhoney to finally get noticed. Then Mother Love Bone was signed and again, “when are Mudhoney getting signed?” Bleach (Sub Pop) was a great album, and I loved it because Melvins drummer Dale Crover played on it. As a huge Melvins fan, if Melvins were on it, I loved it automatically. Then again, Melvins weren’t doing too many side projects just yet, that would happen over a 25 year period. I was someone who enjoyed the fact that Coffin Break had a new album, loved when Gas Huffer released new music, wondered when The Accused would come out with something new. England noticed the Seattle music first, whether by making music or forced publicity but it didn’t matter. The fact that we saw Mudhoney, Tad, Soundgarden, and Nirvana being appreciated by the British press was awesome, as the Seattle music scene was now as popular as the Minneapolis scene, the Bay Area, and all those other alterna- pockets.

I then remembered a Seattle publication done by Dawn Anderson called Backlash and for their last issue, the cover story was on Nirvana and within the graphic bubble was the word “Bye”.

It was meant to signify the end of Backlash but it and the accompanying article felt different. I learned that Nirvana were hard at work on a new album, which was exciting but no one could have guessed what kind of impact it would make. No one. The world were still neck deep in Guns N’ Roses love, and while GN’R were decent, it seemed someone needed to kick music in the balls. It was already happening with hip-hop, as 1990 was a time of uncertainty for rappers, who wanted to prove the music was not a fad or trend, so it seemed there was an unspoken movement by everyone to just up their game. It didn’t feel like that with the rock bands, but there was an obvious battle between hard rock and the more aggressive stuff. Metallica were about to release the album that would finally make them pop stars, and then you had the outsiders who wanted to show why being punk meant more than just safety pins and spikey hair, that there was a true love of music involved along with a huge chunk of sarcasm to keep themselves and everyone else going. I think that’s what I loved about the rise of the Seattle music scene as well, that we understood the sarcasm and edginess. For the most part, the meteoric rise was part of a joke that didn’t have a punchline, or if it had one, we were all living and enjoying it. It was more an in-joke, a bit of “can you believe people outside of here are liking us?”

Then in a matter of a few years, Hammerbox were signed to A&M. Mudhoney finally got signed by Reprise. Melvins, my almighty Melvins, were signed to Atlantic. Anything and everything that came out of Seattle was now grunge, the music of the lamestain, even though the bands were far more diverse than the mainstream wanted you to believe. Grunge was the heaviness, sure, but grunge was so much more and in truth, a silly name that perhaps captured the spirit of the silliness, the sarcasm, and the in-jokes many bands and scenes carried with them. The movie singles captured a bit of that too, maybe some of it seemed forced but I think the sarcasm and in-jokes are all in there, from working at Pay-N-Save to the early morning band discussions. It showed things were fairly normal and still “in the neighborhood”, and it wasn’t that people wanted to keep people out (although that was felt by many Seattle locals), it was just people waned to maintain what was already within. Seattle wanted to remain Seattle, when coffee appreciation was still one of many “Seattle things”, and people loved to rock. Seattle Rock City.

Cobain’s death made a bit of that disappear. Major labels no longer had something buzzworthy or at least, they wanted to move on to cash in on the next hot trend. It had Seattle, it exploited it, it made old flannel shirts that you could get at Goodwill for five bucks become fashionable clothes for $150 at Target. Despite what the mainstream exploited, the neighborhood qualities of the scene and the bands stayed strong. It also meant bands had to work harder again, but hardworking Seattle bands? It has always been a part of the territory. It didn’t become an issue of “Kurt Cobain died so that other Seattle bands could live”, that’s borderline martyrdom that he never wanted nor asked for. Seattle’s creative community had seen a number of people die in the early 90’s, from Andrew Wood to Stefanie Sargent, Steven Jesse Bernstein to Mia Zapata, which lead to Cobain. Everything seemed to affect us, and I mean “us” in a broader sense than just Seattle, We were always in the shadow of Seattle but loved it when it was acknowledged, even when they thought everyone else was podunk. Cobain understood this all too well, for he was raised in a podunk situation. He found different interests, found different people, and realized early on he had to express himself differently and elsewhere. He made it out, and that was a success story. His music was a success story. We can staple everything else to his legacy, to make him holier than thou or whatever, show the pity and reveal the sadness but we’ll never really know. What most of us know is what he left behind musically, lyrically, and through his performances. He left behind a young girl. He also left behind fans who simply wanted to say “thank you for your music”.

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