Kurt Cobain: The Man and the Legend

Image credit: Marcela Arancibia via Flickr

Kurt Cobain would have turned 50 yesterday. Frontman of the flagship band of Generation X, Cobain was hailed as the spokesman of a generation. A non-complicit icon of alienation and disenchantment, the immensely talented but troubled musician was celebrated as the pioneer of ’teen spirit’ in all its apathies and disaffections.

Cobain was victim to a continuous, all-consuming struggle to reconcile the enormous success of Nirvana (and the inevitable commercialisation processes) with his underground roots. He ruminated to no end over worries of the corrupting force of fame and the subsequent prospect of ‘selling out’, believing his message and artistic vision to have been misrepresented by a consumerist media set out to portray him as the tortured voice of an anxiety-ridden generation; a role that he neither requested not wanted. Cobain complained in ‘Serve the Servants’, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”: he knew what he was selling and how it was being consumed.

The simple barre chords of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ were the first I, just like hundreds of garage bands across the world, learnt to clumsily play on my electric guitar, and the 1 min 18 intro to ‘Aneurysm’ will forever transform this middle-class Cambridge student into a headbanger with a bass-face that looks a little more like a gurn. Ultimately, however, it’s Cobain’s fervent lyricism that paints the true picture of the complexity of his character and reminds us of the inevitability of the not-so-coincidental simultaneous death of grunge and Kurt Cobain.

Before the commodification of teenage angst in the ’90s, Cobain was crafting songs about restlessness, disillusionment, hopelessness and, fundamentally, mental illness. ‘Lithium’ offers a harrowing exploration of crippling insecurity and introversion: “I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head / I’m so ugly, but that’s OK ’cause so are you”, while the fragility of ‘Dumb’ - “I’m not like them, but I can pretend / … The sun is gone but I have a light / The day is done / But I’m having fun” hints at the emotional numbness Cobain experienced. Ultimately, the more relatable of Cobain’s work has proven to be the most popular, with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ being cited by PPL as the most played Nirvana song with its frustrated, explosive riffs and revolutionary lyrics.

Nirvana’s acoustic set at MTV Unplugged in December 1993 offers a glimpse of the direction Nirvana could have taken. Raw, stripped and vulnerable, Cobain was positioned centrally with a chair, an acoustic guitar and his music. His chilling renditions of ‘Something in the Way’ and ‘All Apologies’, showcased his extraordinary capacity to communicate the incommunicable even through the most basic of mediums, but in their nakedness also serve as a reminder of the Kurt that the director of Montage of Heck, Brett Morgen, tried to portray: “the man, not the legend.”

Cobain’s rendition of the traditional American folk song. ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ was extraordinary. As The Atlantic critic Andrew Wallace Chamings described, "For the final line, 'I would shiver the whole night through,' Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word 'shiver' so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word 'whole' and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that’s hard to describe: He opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity. Then he finishes the song."

Kurt Cobain was an ingenious musician who inspired me to pick up the guitar and offered me an outlet in my own years of teen angst. "What's alternative? What's counterculture? What's cool? Who knows? Who cares? If chasing cool is important to you, you're an idiot!", Kurt said in a 1991 interview, exhibiting the apathy-laced misery which appealed to so many. It is important that we remember, however, that the Kurt Cobain narrative transcends mere youth rebellion, and is underpinned by a normal man’s struggle with mental illness. 

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