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Heart-Shaped Noise: The Music and the Legacy of Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain made sure that if his life was going to end up on record, you got it as he lived it

Kurt Cobain

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18th, 1993

Frank Micelotta/Getty

Sometime during the months leading up to the recording sessions for Nirvana’s last album, Kurt Cobain wrote a song called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” It was a phrase he used a lot at the time — ever since the band’s Australian tour in the winter of 1992 — as a backhanded response to people who kept asking him how he was doing. Cobain thought it was so funny he wanted it to be the title of the album.

“Nothing more than a joke,” Cobain said of the song and sentiment, grinning through a thick haze of cigarette smoke as we talked in a Chicago hotel room last fall. “I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. ‘He isn’t satisfied with anything.’ And I thought it was a funny title.”

Eventually, the gag wore thin. Cobain changed the title of the album first to Verse Chorus Verse (a dig at cookie-cutter songwriting and his own fear of the rut), then to In Utero. He also yanked the original song — a short, dour punker — from the record on the eve of release. As if to prove how little it all mattered by then, he gave “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” to those cartoon boobs Beavis and Butt-head; Cobain’s joke ended up as the opening track on the otherwise witless LP The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience.

It now appears there is more truth in that song than Kurt Cobain ever cared to admit.

Or is there? In the wake of Cobain’s tragic suicide, his Nirvana songbook rings long and loud with the clamor of dark prophecy: “You can’t fire me, because I quit” (“Scentless Apprentice”); “Everything is my fault/I’ll take all the blame” (“All Apologies”); “Monkey see monkey do/I don’t know why I’d rather be dead than cool” (“Stay Away”); “One more special message to go/And then I’m done, then I can go home” (“On a Plain”).

But as a man of riffs and letters, Cobain was a sly dog who rarely stooped to the obvious. He was a master of grim metaphor and droll sarcasm who delighted in shock treatment and false trails and then obliterated his tracks with industrial-strength guitar distortion and a corrosive whine ‘n’ bark that rubbed even his best hook lines raw. Nothing in Cobain’s music was ever quite what it initially seemed; his best-known song was named after a deodorant. And he must have had a damn good laugh over all the critics — including this one — who tripped over that self-mocking opening couplet from “Serve the Servants”: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.”

Because he wasn’t bored. Not by music, anyway. In his suicide note, Cobain despaired that his muse had flown south for good. Yet even during those last black days, he refused to surrender without a fight: trying to record new Nirvana demos, initiating a project with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.

The blood, come, phlegm and venom splattered all over Nirvana’s albums, especially In Utero, were hard evidence of a young man torn by extremes — and still finding release, if not exactly sense or salvation, in the verse-chorus-verse fallout. Kurt Cobain made sure that if his life was going to end up on record, you got it as he fucking lived it.

I miss that already. Cobain’s music was a noise of purpose, not just vengeance, and rock & roll voices like his are not easy to replace. It was a noise of inclusion, too; when Cobain became successful, he dragged his peers and heroes — the Melvins, the Breeders, Meat Puppets, Half Japanese, the Raincoats — kicking and screaming into the spotlight. Cobain was also driven to find life beyond the punk-rock gravy train. MTV may have rerun Nirvana’s Unplugged performance into the ground during that first weekend after Cobain’s death, but the heavy rotation did not cheapen the promise and determination implicit in his dramatic acoustic recastings of “Come As You Are” and “Pennyroyal Tea.”

Cobain’s suicide is a defining moment in rock & roll for all the obvious reasons. As loath as he was to admit it, he was the first superstar of both the new punk and the new decade. He was also the first to check out permanently. Like the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and the other members of “that stupid club,” as Cobain’s mother uncharitably put it, his passing marked the end of an innocence — a greater communal euphoria that erupted when Nirvana’s Nevermind tore a hole through the Billboard album chart at the end of 1991 and broke the death grip of mainstream ’80s pomp and bloat on rock & roll. For those three and four minutes apiece, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are” and “Lithium” made commercial-rock radio sound alive, like a weapon again. Hearing those songs now, we can’t help regretting how little Cobain shared in that euphoria. The parallels between Cobain’s life and that of John Lennon — who died when Cobain was only 13 — are downright spooky. Both came from broken homes, fought drug addiction, wrestled with the mixed blessings of success, entered into controversial, sometimes contentious marriages and carried the excess baggage from their troubled childhoods well past adolescence into adulthood. Like Lennon, whom he admired, Cobain spoke and wrote freely about his troubles and dreams without fear of ridicule or censure.

But Lennon was murdered; Cobain took his own life with a violent finality that ensured no turning back. Lennon, even during the most convulsive years of his career with and without the Beatles, reveled in the power of his celebrity, using it to press his own agenda. Cobain never figured out how to make stardom work for him. After years of writing in bedrooms and playing in shitty little punk-rock bars, Cobain was blindsided when his music and his band suddenly became public domain. He saw “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song he’d written in blatant emulation of one of his favorite groups, the Pixies — reduced to a cliché, the sing-along anthem of Flannel Nation. A line he’d written in dry jest, the kind of thing you’d say when you burst into a really boring party, became a slacker totem: “Here we are now, entertain us.” By the start of Nirvana’s 1993 fall tour, Cobain could barely bring himself to play the song with any enthusiasm. On the night of our interview at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, he didn’t play it at all.

Yet rock & roll has always operated according to a premise of shared ownership — “Hey, baby, they’re playing our song.” Even Cobain was charged in the beginning by the need for belonging. He once remarked in a radio interview that the first song he ever learned to play was AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” arguably the definitive male-bonding headbanger of the early ’80s.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is that kind of song, a lethal us-vs.-them blast of guitar crackle, strip-mined voice and brilliant reel-’em-in hooks (“Hello, hello, hello, how low?”). Let us also not forget how bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl nailed that big-bang chorus to the floor. It only takes one song to define an epoch — or at least mark the starting line: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “The Message.” “Teen Spirit” sent Nevermind into platinum orbit, broadcasting the dark side of the ’80s Reagan-Bush gold rush — dysfunction, disenfranchisement, diminished expectations — with an almost contradictory vitality.

That was — and still is — the key to grunge: a music of black celebration rooted in the brutish white blooze of the early ’70s, revved up with the chain-saw aggro of late-’70s punk and charged with an exorcising ferocity that is eternally teen-age and, when you get down to it, as old as the blues. The death, dope, sexual frustration and general ennui graphically documented in so much Seattle rock was real; so was the grasping for transcendence. The roaring hook line of Mudhoney’s classic 1988 single “Touch Me I’m Sick” was like a badge of honor, a kind of radiant scar tissue. And when Pearl Jam played “Jeremy” — a song whose video is about teen suicide — in New York a week after Cobain’s death, Eddie Vedder took pains to tell the audience that “living is the best revenge.”

Frankly, if Cobain had never written and recorded another song as good as “Teen Spirit,” his legacy would be secure. In fact, he left behind several that were even better, including “All Apologies” and “Pennyroyal Tea,” from In Utero, and “About a Girl,” a raw droning beauty from Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, Bleach. Underscoring the word games and thunder-crack riffs that cold-cocked young America in the punk-rock winter of ’91-92 was a depth of honesty, commitment and willing sacrifice that only a mosh-pit fuckwit could possibly miss.

If there is one line that sums up the power and candor of Kurt Cobain’s genius (to hell with false modesty now), it’s in the first verse of “Heart-Shaped Box”: “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” sung in a bruised but determined yelp over desultory strumming — just before the chorus blows your windows out. There’s also the naked pleading of “Come As You Are” — note the extra, lamentory turnup in the word memory (“memor-e-e-ah”) — and the low, throaty urgency of “Dumb,” with its wounded-cello groan and striking image collision of lovesick prayer and drug communion (“My heart is broke/But I have some glue/Help me inhale/And mend it with you”).

Never mind all the standard-issue babble about Generation X. There was nothing blank about the way Cobain articulated his broken dreams and wrapped up his discontent and, by extension, that of his audience, in roughshod song. When the shit hit the fans, they knew it for what it was — the plain truth.

Going by the numbers, Cobain didn’t leave a lot of officially released music for us to obsess over: three Nirvana studio LPs, a catchall collection of the band’s odds ‘n’ sods (1992’s Incesticide) and enough leftovers — B sides, live tracks, BBC sessions, compilation tracks — to fill, at best, another album and a half. The essential facts of how Nirvana came together and managed to record Cobain’s songs for posterity are also laughably out of proportion to the nuclear impact the band and its records had on young America.

Bleach, a potent document of Cobain’s rapidly evolving songwriting, was recorded for $606.17 and sounds like it. The booming catharsis Nirvana aspired to onstage was funneled by Jack Endino’s shoestring production into a gray, implosive roar that suited the abrupt, argumentative tenor of the songs. That is, with the notable exception of “About a Girl,” whose roughly sketched Beatles-via-R.E.M. charm forecast Cobain’s later stabs at scarred, low-volume balladry in “All Apologies” and Nevermind‘s “Something in the Way.”

Even Nevermind (exit drummer Chad Channing, enter Dave Grohl from the Washington, D.C., band Scream) was hardly an extravagance by the standards of most major labels. The total cost of the record was $135,000, including producer Butch Vig’s fee (subsequently renegotiated). Still, Cobain later complained that he was “embarrassed” by the album’s production, particularly the light-AOR-metal glaze that mixer Andy Wallace laid on the tracks (and which, no doubt, contributed to its massive sales). Nevermind was, Cobain said in Michael Azerrad’s Nirvana biography, Come As You Are, “closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk-rock record.” So much for the alternative revolution.

In Utero — plaintive, primal, petulant, pop-y, sometimes all at once — was the sum total of everything that went haywire in Cobain’s life after Nevermind. The three-way fracas between Nirvana, the media and producer Steve Albini over whether Geffen would release the album (allegedly because of In Utero‘s schizo, hard-sell personality) lasted longer than the actual recording sessions: a two-week blitz, with most of Cobain’s vocals done in one day. The whole thing turned out to be a nonissue anyway: In Utero debuted at No. 1, and Nirvana embarked on their first full U.S. tour in almost two years, with Cobain declaring in these pages that “I’ve never been happier in my life.”

I can’t help thinking now that Cobain scammed me in our interview that night in Chicago. It was, he figured, something that his fans wanted to hear even if he didn’t believe it. But I also can’t help thinking that when he said it, at least he wanted to believe it, that he hadn’t yet given up on finding a little nirvana of his own. More than anything else — the gigs, the videos, that interview — the image of Kurt Cobain that will stay etched in my mind is the sight of him at the MTV Unplugged taping, solo, bent over his acoustic guitar, pouring everything, the good, the bad, the ugly, into “Pennyroyal Tea.” For at least those few minutes, he took on the demons by himself and won.

Rock & roll’s finest moments inevitably come from its most troubled geniuses. Unfortunately, the troubled geniuses are the ones who find it the hardest to go the distance. May Kurt Cobain finally rest in peace. May we never forget how much we lost — and how much he gave up — to find it.

In This Article: Coverwall, Kurt Cobain

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