We Like All His Pretty Songs, But We Don’t Know What it Means: A Two Pals Debate Over Who Owns Kurt Cobain

binkleyI finally watched all of Montage of Heck. It is worth seeing for sure. If you don’t have a headache and you aren’t slightly insane by the end of it, you did not watch it correctly.

I was also thinking a lot about our conversation this summer about Nirvana and how pissed off you seemed that “Palina” and I would not budge on how influential and earth shattering Nirvana’s rise in the scene was‎ and how you don’t understand because you are slightly older than us. I still maintain this position but I can see how the latter would be irksome for you.

miloI only got pissed when you said I was too old. I definitely wasn’t. Lots of people my age agree with your assessment, and I was leaping about to Smells Like Teen Spirit in the clubs right along with them. At the time.

In hindsight, I just no longer buy the myth that has taken hold  that the 80s were one way and the ‎90s were the opposite and that Nevermind was the one big magic switch that flipped it. It’s too simplistic. The Pixies, for instance, we’re doing their thing in the 80s.

The band was big, no doubt, but the myth took hold because Kurt Cobain shot himself. If we’d watched him get old, Nirvana would simply be seen as a dominant player in a movement that once happened, not a revolutionary force.

binkleyYou were dancing to Nirvana, but you would have been 19 and out of high school (or a senior) when Nevermind came out. I was 16. That is a big difference in terms of what that is tapping into. It was more than dancing for a sixteen year old. Nirvana hit the confused angsty kids that weren’t smart enough to listen to the Pixies, which is way way more people than Pixies fans. Nirvana went mainstream. That might hurt their credibility but not their impact on youth and youth culture.  Elvis was influenced by a pile of people before he made it big too.

I still remember how distinctly different Smells Like Teen Spirit was than anything else I was listening to. I wasn’t even into that kind of music, it just tapped right into me. I relentlessly listened to Nevermind. Sure the suicide makes it all mythical. But I am not even talking about that. Smells Like Teen Spirit was a sea change. It felt different and all my friends felt it too. His death didn’t elevate that for me. I didn’t even really follow Nirvana after Nevermind.

Critics and observers can jump onto the mythology and you are right to say that it is blown out of proportion.  But, I don’t think you can deny he is a symbol for a movement change, regardless of the specifics. I would argue he was a symbol even before he died.  People were saying he killed hair bands way before he killed himself.

I really hate pissing you off and I hope I haven’t (because that hurts me to the core) but your perspective is of a university guy. For you this was just another very successful rock song/album among a sea of other amazing rock songs/albums that you could party hard too.  To kids my age, this was way more personal and that is how you start a movement.

miloHey, don’t worry about angering me; I’m fired up, but in a good way. Now, my retort:

Just what the heck do you think 20-year-olds were listening to in 1991 — Color Me Badd and Paula Abdul? What do you think was going on at university campuses?

I think you might have been old beyond your years because Grunge belonged more to my age group than yours. We were the prototypical Gen Xers at that time — the Singles/Reality Bites group. We were in our early 20s, supposedly adults, but working in coffee shops and restaurants and slowly realizing our lives weren’t going to roll along as smoothly as we thought they were going to; that success would not be as effortless for us as it had been for our parents.

The promise we received by coming of age in the sunny and prosperous 1980s was not coming true. Hence — angst, for which Grunge made a good soundtrack. We defined it, dude!

I always thought the “killed hair metal” thing was a little wonky. Late 80s/early 90s I was listening to Neil Young, Jane’s Addiction, Faster Pussycat, GnR, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Metallica. It’s all just hard rock, and it’s all pretty angry and angsty.

BTW — for the “death of hair metal” story, definitely listen to Drive By Truckers’ “Self Destructive Zones”. That’s what it’s about — and it’s an awesome tune.

binkleyI am flattered you say I was older than my time but the truth is if Nirvana spoke to people your age the way they did to kids my age, I would consider them younger than their time.

Nevermind was genius because of its brilliantly naïve reflections and ramblings from a confused, dark and twisted person with no clear concept of the world.  Kurt was singular because he had a strong artistic sensibility that was worth hearing (especially to 16 year olds). For us, Nirvana was about moving forward.  Like a big brother to look up to.  For you guys it was the same old same old. Maybe even a regression as a reaction to perhaps not wanting to grow up and be like your parents who, as you say, had it made in the shade.

You say it is a reaction to the eighties life, and you certainly lived in the eighties as a teen more than me.  But for me and kids my age, we were learning from him.  We had no idea of such things yet, but we were perfectly ready to hear it at 16. Kurt was just speaking your language.  Nothing new. The revolution came from us not from you.

We own Kurt Cobain!!!!!

milo

This is a fun and twisty debate because we are battling two distinct issues simultaneously:

  1. My initial assertion that the myth of Kurt Cobain’s “revolution” has been overblown and oversimplified over time
  2. Your assertion that I just feel that way because I was too old to get it at the time

This puts me in an interesting spot because any arguments I make on #1 could be interpreted to prove your point on #2.

But you remain misguided on #2. While I’m not sure who owns Kurt, I can assure you my fellow 20-year-olds in 1991 were every bit as moved as you young’uns were. We were on a scary precipice and had plenty to angst over. More so, I would argue.

But here’s what I will concede — others my age were feeling the Kurt love more than I was. Nirvana was pretty cool, but just another band for me. I preferred Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees and even Kurt’s wife. He was the most famous representative of a cool music scene, something that captured the zeitgeist for a brief time, but that was it. Then he took the coward’s way out. There were crunchy guitars and angry lyrics before Grunge (and there was Grunge before there was Nirvana), and there was plenty of cheesy music during and after it. What changed?

You say that Kurt showed people your age things you didn’t know existed. He led you. Really? I’m pretty sure you’d heard angry hard rock before you were 16. Nirvana’s legacy is the beneficiary of historical revisionism. I’ll bet if Eddie Vedder had shot himself in 1994, we’d be having this debate about Pearl Jam right now.

binkleyOkay, you conceded on something, so I will concede. I too did not get as swept away as others my age did by Kurt. But I did get swept a bit and significantly more than any other band of that time so I feel comfortable to lump myself in with the rest in an effort to keep my argument simple.

That said, I still maintain that Kurt is different and that you were too old and too musically smart at the time to appreciate his impact fully which has bled into your overall assessment of his impact on Rock lore. You lived it but I, my teen culture and a whole pile of bands after Nirvana emulated it.

In an effort to put this age thing to bed I need to hoist you by your own elderly petard. You are a keen smart man with a great sense of music and culture and social momentum but I really think you are missing the boat on this.

The twenty year olds had a lot more musical living than us 16 year olds. Many of us were listening to crappy pop or old Rock (that’s me), or whatever 10-15 years listened to (in “Palina’s” case it was New Kids on the Block). Despite the great bands you mentioned, mainstream music was getting stale at that time and everyone was feeling it. Guns and Roses came out with Use Your Illusion the same year as Nevermind and I tried to like it but I knew it was old and out of date. It didn’t speak to me and my generation the way it did to yours.  Funnily enough GnR broke up after that. I know you don’t want to admit GnR is a hair band but they sure as heck are. They may be the best most kick ass hair band going but they are a hair band no denying. And Faster Pussycat? Come on man. Sure lines are blurry and maybe not as black and white as I am describing but those bands were on their way out and songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit slammed the door right in their asses.

We 16 year olds needed something new and didn’t know how to find it. You twenty year olds knew what was out there, but we were tired of listening to our older brother’s music all the time.  Then Nirvana came along. For many, this was our entry into alternative Rock. Something more meaningful than what we were generally listening too. It was the starting line for us. Nevermind would have been the first real Rock album for many 16 year olds generally. You guys were already on mile 20 down the Rock road. You knew how to navigate it.  Grunge was a big switch for us and Nirvana’s mainstream success facilitated that.

The musical change is the genre of Grunge music.  Grunge culture was apathetic, lazy, disaffected, and pissed off.  You say Metallica, GnR, and Neil Young is angry and angsty? No my friend, not angsty like Kurt. Angst is hopeless. Kurt is hopeless. Axel Rose is not hopeless, he is just angry.

Your boat missing is evident in your band selection from two arguments ago (GnR, Metallica, Neil Young, Faster Pussycat, etc). These are more Metal than Grunge Rock. Also, The Pixies weren’t Grunge, they were Punk. You seem to be missing that Grunge element in your argument. Kurt Cobain was the high priest of Grunge Rock. That was the movement. That was the nineties. Sure Eddie Vedder was there and I felt a similar indefinable draw towards him when Ten came out. But Kurt and Nirvana were different because they didn’t care. They were infantile. I was infantile. You were a rowdy University student scared for the future. We weren’t thinking about the future. Kurt wasn’t thinking about the future. He was us and we were him.

The same teens that he touched from their mouths to their buts with Nevermind were that same teens that were shattered when he died. You guys moved on. Got wives. Got jobs. I purport that we wrote the articles and had the conversations that deified him. ‎We elevated him, rightly or wrongly. That is significant enough to justify his legend, I think. Despite the other bands that were doing it better or doing it before him.

That is all I got.

miloPal, we seem to be at an impasse here, so I have done what I usually do when I don’t know what else to do: research and find out what others have to say.

I spoke to someone your age, and asked if it was high schoolers or university students who made grunge “happen”. He said it was definitely high schoolers. Then I asked someone my age who said it was definitely university students.

So that was no help.

Next, I went on-line to see what the experts have to say about Nirvana, and I found a pretty compelling quote from LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn. I hold stock in this quote because he was writing in January, 1994 – prior to Kurt’s death – so it’s not tainted with historical reflection. He said:

“Without losing the punk-aligned fans that first embraced the band, the group now attracts everything from the collegiate hip to the mainstream curious to, encouragingly, a growing post-30 contingent that has discovered there is something in the band’s music that speaks to more than just the MTV crowd.”

So here’s what I now think in regards to the “ownership” of Kurt Cobain: we’re both right, but I’ll concede you’re slightly more right. Clearly – sad, disillusioned Kurt spoke to sad, disillusioned people of all ages; but reading between the lines of this quote, perhaps we can infer that “the revolution”, as you have called it, started with the kids.

I’m not sure why you kids were so bummed out, but let’s talk about that “revolution” you started. As I’ve said, Kurt didn’t invent cool, angsty rock – there was lots of that before he roared out of Seattle – but, as it turns out, he may have helped to kill it. Grunge is considered to have faded out in 1996. Do you know what came afterwards? Post-grunge (this is actually a thing). Here is a list of the most successful post-grunge bands: Nickelback, Bush, Creed and Matchbox 20.

Do you hear what I’m saying, Pal?

You have said folks your age owned the revolution. To which I say – you can have it. Or, perhaps more accurately, there was no revolution. Just a short-lived, fairly interesting music scene.

On a final note, I learned something else in my reading – a band that Kurt absolutely loved at the time was REM. Automatic for the People blew his mind. Here’s a quote from 1993: “If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written… I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”

Kurt had also predicted that Nirvana’s next album (an album that would never get made, of course — although you could consider Unplugged a harbinger) would be “pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album.”

I tell you this in part to needle you – you foolish REM hater, you – but also to make a point: what a damn shame that album doesn’t exist. Because I believe that would have been the best Nirvana album: an album that I would actually still be listening to today; an album that would have been more likely to attract new, young fans today than Nevermind can; an album that would have done an even better job of cementing Kurt Cobain’s legacy, without him needing to kill himself.

It’s a shame he didn’t give himself a chance to make it.

 

kurt house

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