Number One in heaven
Kurt Cobain killed himself a year ago next week. But Nirvana's singer still exerts a powerful influence on his peers. Nicholas Barber reports on a year in the afterlife
Sunday 26 March 1995
A year ago next week, the 27-year-old lead singer/guitarist/ songwriter of "grunge" gods Nirvana, was found dead in his home in Seattle, Washington. He had shot himself in the head, leaving behind a wife and 20-month-old daughter. Amazingly, the British media had to spend more time explaining what all the teenage fuss was about - nothing much, many concluded - than paying tribute to Cobain's talent.
Anne Robinson was "thoroughly irritated by the humbug of his suicide note", but decided that Cobain's farewell message was "quite clever" because it "caused albums of his horrible music to be snapped up hungrily by grieving fans". Bernard Levin pronounced that Nirvana's albums Nevermind and In Utero hardly matched Brendel's rendition of Beethoven's sonatas. He added: "It would be pointless as well as unkind to tell those 10 million followers [Nevermind had sold 10 million copies] that they will have forgotten him in a year or two." Pointless, unkind, and wrong. In the Independent, David Lister commented on the generation gap that this patronising treatment exposed, and contrasted the British media with the American: Cobain's obituary made the front page of the New York Times. But even in America, most adults failed to appreciate the Nirvana phenomenon.
"I was really impressed that the New York Times did that," says Anthony DeCurtis, features editor of Rolling Stone magazine. "I remember going to a party the next night, where most of the guests were in their thirties and forties, and they were saying to me, `Who was that guy on the cover of the Times? Should I be getting his records?' But kids were already wearing T-shirts with the obituary printed on them. It became a signifier of something. It was their way of saying, `Look at how important this is.' Quite beyond Cobain's individual gift, he had become a site of cultural contention." By July, Cobain's suicide note - or a forgery of it - would also become a T-shirt decoration.
In the note, Cobain describes the "the frustration, the guilt" he felt over no longer enjoying the process of music-making. He had never enjoyed fame, and no one could have anticipated the stratospheric heights of Nirvana's success. When their second album, Nevermind, came out in 1991, it merited a one-paragraph review in Q magazine. Geffen, Nirvana's record company, pressed 50,000 copies. The album has now sold 11-and-a-half million.
In January 1992, Nevermind reached the top of America's Billboard chart, a feat unprecedented for an alternative group. Previously, the only way for hard rockers to be so popular had been to don Spandex trousers and play heavy metal, with its "sexist innuendoes and pseudo-satanism", to quote Dave Grohl, Nirvana's drummer. "Now late-night TV shows like Letterman and Jay Leno have [the alternative rock group] Pavement on them," says DeCurtis. "Before Nirvana, that would have been unheard of. Even REM would have had a hard time getting on Johnny Carson. That may not seem important, but these shows have millions and millions of viewers. There's been a 180 degree change, and Nirvana were responsible for that." A revolution had taken place, and, a year after Cobain's death, it's still happening.
On Friday 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain's body was discovered by Gary Smith, an electrician. "At first I thought it was a mannequin," he said later. He called his boss, who in turn phoned the local radio station, KXRX. Their DJ announced the news at 9.30am, and by mid-afternoon, Seattle's record shops had sold out of Nirvana albums.
By the following day, Nirvana's management company was already receiving requests for the film rights of Cobain's life story. Since then there have been numerous rumours of a film starring Brad Pitt, or, even less likely, Evan Dando, singer of the Lemonheads. These stories have proved groundless, but there is no doubt that the film will appear, sooner or later.
On Sunday 10 April, a memorial service was held at Seattle Center's Flag Pavilion. Thousands of fans attended. "It was really important in helping Seattle get through this," says Pat McDonald, of the Seattle Times, "but the gloom is still around." The crowd heard a tape on which Cobain's widow, Courtney Love - famous in her own right for her band, Hole - read out most of Cobain's suicide note, arguing with it as she went. On the same day in Britain, Nevermind leapt from 99 to 46 in the charts, and In Utero from 136 to 77. To his credit, Geffen did not "do a Freddie Mercury": no single or Greatest Hits was rushed out. Nirvana's Unplugged in New York was released in November, and has overtaken In Utero to sell 6.8 million copies. There has also been a video, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, which powerfully illustrates the boring, old joke that fame had become for Cobain.
On 11 April, the first of several "copycat suicides" took place, of a 28-year-old fan in Seattle. He had been to the memorial service the night before. Other fans took advantage of a telephone counselling service set up by MTV. The letters pages of the British music papers, NME and Melody Maker, have been crowded with letters from distraught fans ever since, some of them expressing suicidal guilt. Steve Sutherland, editor of the NME, says: "It left a huge scar on the landscape. From the readers' point of view it was devastating. We've attempted not to dwell on it, but it's the most destructive event these kids have ever encountered."
Rarely does an issue of the NME go by without an interview in which a musician voices his or her feelings on Cobain's suicide. "It was one of the most devastating moments in the history of rock music," says Sutherland. "The whole scene stopped for four or five weeks. Now, there is hardly any band that can't take that event into consideration. Everybody's changed, from Elton John to the Stone Roses to Blur. The matter of trying to justify your existence in showbusiness by proving that you're suffering, all that has gone. Because if that's what you're trying to prove, you either follow Cobain or you don't.'' Anthony DeCurtis says that American music has lost its standard bearer. "Willingly or not, Nirvana was that." It sounds like a feudal country whose king has died, I say. "I think that's right, it's a good analogy."
There has been a steady stream of musical tributes. Sinead O'Connor, who remarked that Cobain's death meant that she didn't have to commit suicide herself, covered the Nirvana song "All Apologies" on her Universal Mother album. Pearl Jam's Vitalogy crawls with allusions to Cobain. "Let Me In", on REM's Monster, was written, "for and about" Cobain, as was the title track of Neil Young's latest album, Sleeps with Angels. In his suicide note, Cobain quoted Young's song, "Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)": "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Young announced that he would never perform the song again. The traffic has since gone in the other direction. Matthew Sweet's new album 100% Fun takes its title from something Cobain said in his suicide note: "The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun."
Courtney Love has been dealing with her grief with her usual decorum. Her band, Hole, have resumed touring, despite the drug-related death of their bass player, Kristen Pfaff, just two months after Cobain's suicide. Love has taken up residence in the gossip columns: romping in a hotel room with Evan Dando, while a friend took photos; punching the singer of the Wedding Present, David Gedge, for the crime of knowing Steve Albini, In Utero's producer and not Love's favourite person; ranting about Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on the Internet; and telling hecklers at a recent concert to shut up until they had "washed your husband's blood from your hands".
In May 1994, the first retrospective book was published: Never Fade Away: The Kurt Cobain Story, by Dave Thompson. This year's Cobain, by the editors of Rolling Stone, is a more dignified tome. Bootleg tapes of Nirvana's last concert and unused tickets for the European tour they had scheduled are fetching good prices. In October, one of the guitars Cobain smashed on stage was valued at £6,000 by Christie's. A statue of Cobain was to be erected in Aberdeen, the coastal town near Seattle where he was born. The plan was aborted when Krist Novoselic, Nirvana's bass player, threatened to smash it to pieces.
Cobain's family, management, and the surviving members of Nirvana have set up a Kurt Cobain fund for local school pupils with "artistic promise regardless of academic performance". Grohl has formed his own band, Foo Fighters. Novoselic is writing a book - not about Nirvana. Together they plan to sift through tapes and compile a Nirvana live album. It will sell millions.
It's easy enough to ignore funds and statues and books, the odd suicide, a few depressive songs and millions of depressive teenagers, but really the quiet revolution is still going on. As Nils Bernstein, the publicist of Nirvana's original record company, Sub Pop, said at the time: "His death is an ongoing event." 8
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