I don’t remember Kurt Cobain dying, which is strange, because I was 10 years old at the time.
I remember Cobain living, and I remember him having lived, though. I could tell a very illuminating story about being eight years old and watching “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on TV and being changed forever, being absolutely stunned by what I had seen. It would be a true story, too, except it would leave out the parts where the same thing happened with Pearl Jam’s “Alive” and Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” and Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.”
Back when video stores rented out CDs, I insisted upon one trip to Video-Ezy that we rent Nirvana’s Nevermind, and I dubbed it on to cassette. Then I listened to it over and over and wrote pre-teen proto-grunge songs of my own that were surely interminable, characterized by glum lyrics and descending chord progressions. It was the first time I’d heard that the world could be personally awful. (The music or the misery — gold help me if I start channelling Nick Hornby.) I don’t remember when the refrain from “Come as You Are” became quote-unquote ironic.
Later in 1994, or maybe 1995, we would visit my cousins Briony and Christian. Briony was my older cousin, in that she had a month on me, which she would never let me forget. On this vacation, my actual older cousin, Christian, Briony’s elder brother, had Become A Teenager and part of this would mean that he would stay in his room while Briony and my little brother and I did fun kid stuff. But sometimes Christian would invite me into his room — me, not my little brother or his little sister — and we’d listen to Nirvana and he would play for me his copy of Live! Tonight! Sold Out! and ask me to share in his awe of the now posthumous Kurt Cobain. Because I admired Christian’s maturity, I tried to do so, but I sort of didn’t actually like Nirvana that much, meaning I still liked some of their tracks a lot, but also that I didn’t want to spend all this time watching songs I didn’t know being played by a man in a dress.
In high school, my best friend belatedly discovered Nevermind, and I loved Nirvana through him. He and I and another friend would go to skate nights and debate which of the holy grunge boy triumvirate of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, or Pearl Jam best expressed our teenage angst. I would waver on this question, but even then I think I preferred the back half of Nevermind; like The Joshua Tree, the side without the singles is the more interesting one. One time we asked the DJ to play “Territorial Pissings” and he did. I’m sure this was awful for nearly everyone except us.
Kurt Cobain taught me how to play guitar, and how I do is modelled after him. As well as Green Day, I guess. Blink-182. Punk riffs with some blues musicology added post-facto.
Today I think I like In Utero best of all, but Kurt Cobain made three very good albums with his band, and even the Nevermind singles, riven into my mind, can still astonish me. He could be marvellously gnomic and concise, and now I am an adopted Washington kid, I like the quite specific hints of Evergreen State trash you hear in the band. It’s probably the flotsam I most often return to: “Been a Son” or “Verse Chorus Verse” or whatever. But “Teenage angst has paid off well; now I’m bored and old” is a hell of a way to kick off an album. (Hayley Williams might have matched it on her most recent.)
That is, twenty years is a strange anniversary, because I remember the life and the afterlife, but not the death. Kurt Cobain has always been dead; long live Kurt Cobain, and etc.