“Kurt Cobain is dead”. Disc jockey Jay Gilbert, then of Cincinnati’s hard rock station WEBN, was how I learned of Cobain leaving this world. I was sitting in the front seat of my Dad’s car, one of my younger sisters in the back. I don’t know what was said before the announcement of Cobain’s suicide and I don’t remember what was said after. I do remember sitting in silence with my Dad and sister as “All Apologies” played, none of us knowing what to say or think. We just sat there in silence, the car in park and listened. Kurt Cobain was dead. Twenty five years later to the day, it still brings up a lot of feelings and I can still remember that day all too well, the memory burned into my mind for the rest of my days.
The 1980’s were a time of excess, greed, over the top style and flamboyance and fucking spandex. On the surface, it was a party with this false allusion that everyone was doing great and this 1950’s sense of American idealism had returned after the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s had threatened that way of life. Ronald Regan had supposedly turned back the hands of time values wise, all while technology and big business were taking us to heights never seen before. The problem was not everyone shared that same perspective. There was an entire subculture that felt angry, that saw the world’s problems, the corporate greed that was suffocating the working class and if that wasn’t bad enough, these false allusions of grandeur and optimism had even taken over the music scene and was sponsored by Aquanet. This subculture felt voiceless, yet little did they know that their voice would come from the least likely of sources and have an impact that will be felt for years and years to come.
Nirvana arrived on the national scene just as the tipping point was occurring. The false optimism and desire to party was ending and a sense of anger and resentment was strong. Music had long been a source of cultural rebellion and nothing could be more rebellious in the hair metal culture we lived in than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song that shocked many with its sound and captured the hearts and minds of those that felt on the outside looking in. Nirvana was ushering in grunge, a stark contrast both in terms of look and sound to what had been popular previously. Gone were the anthems about needing nothing but a good time and in their place, distorted guitars and songs that depicted the angst felt by many. The cultural rebellion this time wasn’t Bob Dylan or anti-war songs, it was being lead by the guys who wrote poetry in high school instead of playing football and who saw corporate greed for exactly what it was and weren’t afraid to not fall in line.
Much like a Jimi Hendrix or a Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain’s career was so short looking back on it. When you think of how iconic Nirvana’s albums have become, it makes it feel like their time in the spotlight was much longer than what it really was. Nevermind, the album that catapulted them to stardom, came out in 1991. In Utero, their third and final studio album, came out in 1993. Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Its staggering to think how short of a time they were around and the legacy they have even today. On November 1st, 1994, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album was released, the first of several posthumous releases and its considered by many, myself included, to be one of the greatest albums ever released. Less than six months after his passing, Kurt Cobain gave his fans his final gift, perhaps the best of all.
For fans of both Cobain and Nirvana, it wasn’t just what they symbolized in terms of change that drew us to them. The connection ran much deeper than that. There was this relatability, a feeling shared by people who discovered the band both when they came out and those who discovered them long after Cobain’s death. That relatability can never properly be described with words; it’s a feeling, a connection, a sense of understanding and belonging. I can listen to any of their albums that I choose, any song and get into a headspace of being comforted that there are people like me in the world. People that share my fears, that aren’t always happy, that feel outside of society’s loop. The emotion conveyed by Cobain’s voice isn’t technically pretty by musical standards but it was real and I’ll take real over anything else, any day of the week. Cobain bared his soul to the world. He became the voice for people who felt voiceless and we will always love him for that.
In the twenty-five years since Kurt Cobain left this world, much has been made about his death. There are many whom still to this day don’t believe that he committed suicide but was rather murdered. That’s a subject I don’t care to address here but what we do know about Cobain is that he long suffered from depression and substance abuse issues.
When I think of Kurt today, I do wonder what it would have been like had Nirvana stayed around longer and put out more albums. I think about what they would be like in today’s political climate. What message would Kurt have for the world in 2019? More than that though, I think about a man who was suffering. I think about a man who was beloved by millions, had reached the pinnacle of his profession, had a daughter he was obviously enamored with and yet that pain inside him was still so real that he didn’t want to live. I think about all of the change he ushered in musically and culturally and how even in death, he should be a symbol for the very real concerns mental health bring. No matter how much I loved his music in my formative years or even to this death, Kurt Cobain was a man who hurt badly.
Today, on the twenty fifth anniversary of his suicide, I would like to pay homage to a man who had a profound impact on both myself and the world by remembering that no matter what people have on the surface, they can still suffer from depression. Mental health issues don’t discriminate. I don’t know how to solve the world’s problems and I don’t know how to get people the help they need but I do know how to be a friend. I do know how to listen, how to give a hug or simply just sit there with someone. The world has changed since Kurt left us. Our faces are buried in our phones. Technology has replaced human interaction. In many ways, it’s harder for those suffering today. I want to honor a man who gave me and the world so much by looking up more. It’s the least I can do.
I’m going to sit in silence for a few minutes and listen to “All Apologies”, just like I did twenty-five years ago today. You can join me if you’d like.