Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cobain - 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago this month, Generation X+ lost its avatar. Kurt Donald Cobain was a Supernova in a malcontent's body, a self-described "negative creep." He was a musical genius, not in the technical vein of a John Coltrane or the lyrical mastery of a Bob Dylan, but in his ability to see far into the depths, down to where the music of his day was heading, and to capture the moment and take the plunge. He was not the first Grunge artist, but he was the greatest. Sheepish and introverted by nature, when holding a guitar and backed by a bass and drums, his rage poured out of him like spitting blasts of hot lava. To hear him in his prime, you could not help but grit your teeth and clinch your mouth into a half grin as you put your own "teenage angst" on display. His dour philosophical being was summed entirely in the two most famous words he ever wrote: "A DENIAL!"     

Most musicians seek fame, or at least to make a living in music, which requires some measure of fame. In 1988, when whammy bars, teased hair, and dudes in tight leather ruled popular Rock music, it took an artist confident in his craft to forego the potential payday of Hair Metal for a micro genre known to few outside of King County, Washington. Cobain eschewed the bombastic conventional wisdom of his day and, four years after Nirvana's first gig, he found himself a platinum-selling artist on the cover of Rolling Stone. His genius was, in part, his ability to realize an unpredicted musical future that so few saw. 

It was hard for those of us in Generation X+ (the late Gen X'ers, born in the mid to late 70's) to wrap our hands fully around Hair Metal. The Sex/Drugs/Rock n Roll lifestyle Hair celebrated, in hyperbolic proportions, was hard to realize whilst living with attentive parents. We couldn't stay up all night partying with supermodels, like Axl Rose. Any of us, however, could be pissed, and that was the only credential for embracing Grunge. Re-watch the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In an hour of MTV three months before "Teen Spirit" broke, one would see busty women jumping into hot tubs built into the back of limousines while champagne sprayed everywhere, over-wrought guitar solos squealed like a reverb tooth drill, and some David Lee Roth doppelganger jumped around in sex-fueled chimpanzee mode. Not so in "Teen Spirit," where we see a dimly lit horror story gym full of pissed looking teenagers looking for a reason to mosh. Not even the Goth High cheerleaders get attention in this teen angst dreamscape. Unwashed hair falls down over bowed faces. Everybody's pissed. This was Grunge, and it was easy for Gen X+ to sink it's teeth into it. Overnight, the angry nerds and disenfranchised poets of the world went from zero to hero. (Barely five years later, the same nerds would take the business world from the suits as the Tech Revolution hit its early crest.)   

As frustrating as it was for my entire CD collection to become obsolete in a couple of months starting when Pearl Jam's "Alive" hit heavy rotation on Headbangers Ball,  it was exhilarating to watch the musical zeitgeist of the day get blown to bits and tossed out on the curb like four-day-old garbage. (Anybody want to buy a Slaugther CD?) This was the closest thing my generation (or any generation before or after) would see to the British Invasion. (Recall also that the Grunge Explosion coincided with the sudden and meteoric rise of Rap in the early 90's. Those were heady days.) No matter what one's views may be on the mertis of a revolution, it's cool to watch one.        

So, 20 years after Generation X+ lost its spokesman, how are we to view the man? Is this anniversary a reason for celebration? For me, it's more of a lament. Sometimes, we are so desperate for a voice or hero that, when we find one, we smother him until he cannot breathe. Such was the case with Cobain. He never wanted the spotlight that burned him so. If a generation of American youth hadn't held him up as the savior, if he would have simply stayed in the Seattle underground making artistically critical music that did not turn him into a pop culture sensation, he'd probably still be with us. Instead, a beautiful 20 month old child was left fatherless, another Rock fairy tale cut short. At age 27 , he'd played his last gig (sound familiar?). What if one of his stints in rehab had taken hold? What if he'd seen the Light? Could Cobain have served as an example, leading Gen X+ through the rage of its youth into a calmer, more sober, domesticated future? While he gave us a final hint (see below), we will never know. For all his musical genius, Cobain's life was a human tragedy marked by pain, addiction, and depression. Looking back, we can only hope that many who witnessed his rise and fall were inspired to avoid their hero's fate. The Music must be separated from the Man; we don't have to worship the latter to admire the former.  

Cobain's finest moment in my view was, ironically, his softest. Less than five months before his death, on November 19, 1993, Nirvana sat down for a session on MTV's Unplugged. Here we get a tantalizing 70 minute view of what may have been. We see a calm, self-assured Cobain, softly playing the music of his own heroes alongside stripped-down versions of his own compositions. The performance opened a window into his soul, and we get a portrait of the artist as a man that aged too fast. We see where a tired Cobain could go musically when the rage burned out and his underlying vulnerability was laid bare. The people in front of him were no longer an inconvenience; he smiled that night; come as you are. At the end of the set, when the time came to put an exclamation point on one of his life's greatest moments, Cobain reached into history. After a short life spent creating the New, he showed us his familiarity with the Old with a haunting version of the American folk standard "Where Did You Sleep Last NIght" (a/k/a "In the Pines").     
My girl, my girl, don't lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night.
It was in that pleading refrain that Cobain found his moment. For a man exhausted by the glare of a spotlight he came into unwittingly and learned quickly to hate, the inquiry resonated at some point far inside his being; a point we'd never know. Was the delicacy of this night a harbinger of things to come? Might Grunge have become Goth Folk, with Cobain leading the charge? We will never know. Instead, we are left to stand in appreciation of what this tortured artist gave us before his candle burned out, too early.     

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