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‘In the sun I feel as one’
– Kurt Cobain, All Apologies.
The dog was siting in the backseat and I had just driven in from the country to drop the kids off at school. I was driving the return route home by the prison on Mulgrave Street, out onto the Tipperary Road, when I spotted a girl, maybe in her late teens, wearing a Nirvana smiley t-shirt, walking nonchalantly into towards Limerick City. It was a serendipitous moment in the sense that I had been thinking of Nirvana that morning. I was thinking that April of 2019 would mark the 25-year anniversary of Kurt’s death. I could sense it in my self. Somehow I didn’t need to think, I just knew.
Most of my parents’ generation recall where they were when the news of JFK’s death broke. Every adult I seemed to meet growing up knew exactly where he or she was when he or she heard of the assassination. It got me thinking of NEWS events in my lifetime that have similar symbolic status. I can remember the exact moment when I heard of 9/11. But I also remember when and where I was when I heard of Kurt Cobain’s death. The memory is burnt into the memory of my early adult life. I was eating in Scotty’s Deli in Galway with my mother. I remember my mum saying, without really knowing how much it would mean to me on a personal level, that Kurt Cobain had died. I was shaken. I nearly fell over when she said ‘read about it in the paper in my bag.’ I picked up the Irish Independent from below the table and read an article that transformed my utter disbelief into unwanted knowledge. I didn’t want the information to be true. I didn’t want to believe what I read had actually happened.
My introduction to Nirvana had three seminal moments: a friend passing a set of headphones to listen to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on a Sony Walkman outside a garage in Tuam; in an apartment bedroom in Bavaria mesmerised by the just purchased In Utero (wondering why reviews didn’t reflect my view); sitting in Scotty’s in Galway on 10th April `94 and hearing ‘Kurt Cobain has died.’ Each of these moments can be recalled with absolute clarity, like they had happened yesterday.
On the morning my mother relayed that Kurt had died she had rung the apartment to say she was coming to town for the day and would bring me for something to eat. At the time I was an undergrad arts student in NUIG struggling to balance academic and recreational pursuits. I was coming off a hard sesh, as they say today. I had been clubbing into the early hours that morning. The first year on leaving school had coincided with the emerging club scene in Galway and I was drawn into it like a lot of NUIG students at the time. For a time I listened to nothing but mixes of various forms of dance music; from Primal Scream to Sasha. It was only when Nirvana released In Utero as the follow up to Nevermind that rock ‘n’ roll came back into my life again.
In Utero widened the perception of Nirvana from kings of grunge rock to lyricists and musicians that transcended categories of judgment. Its release also changed the perception of Kurt as an artist. The first iteration of Kurt Cobain I had grown to know was as a grunge rocker, the slacker who defined a movement not unlike Punk. Grunge was an attitude of disdain towards mainstream culture. It was angry. Then there was druggy associations that marked an apparent lack of ambition. Nirvana broke to become the world’s biggest band in 1991 and Kurt quickly became a cartoon rock star; a disgruntled disaffected addict bordering on a rock n’ roll cliché. The media gorged on this image of disgruntled apathy. Yet, all the time, it was difficult to square the cultivation of ‘grunge’ as a hatred of life, with Kurt its no. 1 star, with the vulnerable near-poetic genius that would emerge in the years between the release of In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York. But this is what I felt was more and more apparent. For my admiration of Cobain the artist grew in response to In Utero as I watched a softer, astute Kurt emerge; an artist that MTV Unplugged – released posthumously – made increasingly visible. I listened over and over again to songs like ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ at the end of a long hot summer spent working in Bavaria in ’93, in awe at the multi-layered brilliance of Kurt’s lyrics. The grungster I admired from a distance with Nevermind became more than a common ally; a soul mate and friend: a writer, who first and foremost, I could bracket along with Dylan, Paul Simon, and the great lyricists that litter the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Kurt Cobain became my own personal gateway into the history of popular music.
The Unplugged sessions were recorded in New York in November 1993 but the album recording wasn’t officially released until November 1994. The intervening months shed some light on the final days of Kurt’s life but the album and MTV show crystallised the significance of the ‘loss.’ It wasn’t just Kurt who had died but the sense that rock ‘n’ rock as an alternative, outside the forces of commodification and corporatization that was, is, and always has been, its point of attack. Kurt knew this; he was tormented by the sense that he and his band had sold out. That he called the first song on In Utero ‘Serve the Servants,’ was surely an attempt to lyricise the self-torment he felt in this regard. As Mark Fisher points out, Nirvana marked a point when capitalism, in the form of the music industry, gorged on its own internal critique; big corporations began to package bands like ‘Nirvana’ that criticised them in their songs. Capitalism began to feed off its own resistance. By the mid 90s nobody thought it strange a band called Rage Against the Machine were on Sony Records.
That such a proposition was unimaginable in the 80s – when ‘indie’ music meant independent of big corporations and bands that signed to major labels were shunned – is hard to grasp now, given the incessant commodification of all things alternative. Even ‘grunge,’ when defined as a rejection of commodity culture (the dress sense of t-shirts, Converse runners (now owned by Nike), and ripped jeans personified this sense of resistance to commodity culture), soon became a ‘look,’ with high street stores quick to sell the ‘look’ back to the young aficionados of the movement. Kurt Cobain was far too smart, too aware of these cultural machinations, not to dwell on them. Nirvana started as an archetypal underground band, and many of the references made on MTV Unplugged – whether in the cover songs or t shirts – make reference to a subterranean history of underground sound that the band identify with; The Melvins, Frightwig, The Vaselines; from Glam though to Punk and New Wave.
Surprisingly, however, the band’s cover of David Bowie’s lesser-known masterpiece ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ a song about selling, is the most iconic, the most incredible performance from the Unplugged session. In light of Cobain’s suicide the following April, it is a song that rarely fails to elicit goose bumps in me. Was Kurt so torn by fame and notoriety, so confused by the spotlight, that he hated himself for it? Did he turn to Bowie, the consummate artist of multiple identities, to express this? Was he looking for some guidance on how to survive fame? When Kurt sings ‘for years and years I roamed, I gazed a gazeless stare, we walked a million hills, I must have died alone’ it is easy to retrospectively posit the imminent sign of death, the death of the greatest rock star of his generation in his home. But the truth is everyone dies alone and death is what singularises us. The image of Kurt Cobain, having shot himself in the head, and the note that read ‘rather burn out, don’t fade away’ still tarries with the angelic figure who performs acoustically in New York. MTV Unplugged still captivates because a man who would shoot himself seems genuinely at ease. Cobain’s future death seems out of kilter with the image of him performing. His future death seems out-of-kilter with the life force accorded his stage presence.
I don’t think I ever disagreed with anyone about Nirvana’s Unplugged. It is probably the only record that came out in my lifetime to have received universal acclaim from my friends and peers. Even those who hate grunge, who regarded Nirvana as antithetical to their tastes, give ground on Unplugged. It is as if, no matter what side you’re on, you can recognise greatness when it stares you in the face. But the music doesn’t explain everything. I also think there’s a deep-held recognition that when Kurt Cobain is in the right environment – and maybe this extends to every human being – he flourishes. The universal sense of approval given to Unplugged helps foster a belief that this artist might have lived if he had been allowed to prosper in that environment. The tragedy is that the world couldn’t cater for him. The man who sold the world didn’t want to do the selling. Unplugged is therefore a testament, as performance and event, to the image of an artist in their proper environment.
It was Monday the 10th Sept. when I drove home, having taken notice of the girl in the Nirvana t-shirt, the moment I thought back to that morning in 1994. What I came to admire most about Kurt Cobain was the emphasis he gave to those who were subjugated and had no voice: from the rape victims he empathises with on ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Polly’ to the heroin addict on ‘Dumb,’ and to the manic depressive on ‘Lithium.’ Many of the issues Kurt Cobain dealt with in his lyrics, from sexual violence and mental health, are more relevant now than ever. But perhaps what is most relevant is he committed suicide. On the day I sat down to write this piece – a piece that I’ve wanted to write for quite some time, – it suddenly dawned on me that I was sitting down to write on National Suicide Prevention Day. Maybe there was no serendipity at all. Maybe I started thinking about Nirvana, saw the girl in the t-shirt, not by chance, but because Cobain’s death was playing on my mind on a day suicide plays on many minds. Suicide Prevention Day suggests, in its title, suicide can be prevented. And maybe it is easier to make the case suicide can be prevented when we hold in our hands a document of a life force: the unplugged Kurt Cobain performing six months before he died; relaxed and at ease with his audience and fellow band members.
It is, in this regard, life that I think of when, nearly twenty-five years later, I think of Kurt. His presence on stage in New York that evening in November stays with me above all the images of Kurt Cobain: relaxed, at ease, being who he most wanted to be. As a document of a time Unplugged confirms Kurt Cobain’s intrinsic greatness and his eventual demise. That so many people listened to the album in the aftermath of his death, and used it as a benchmark to confirm the greatness of his life, is perhaps a sign that he didn’t really want to die. Instead, the world just simply got the better of him.
This article is dedicated to all those the world got the better of in Ireland in recent years, and the friends and families they are left behind.