I’m writing today, as many others are, on the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. For many around my age (34), it was a significant moment–one of those nodes you trace your appreciation of life through. I even planned to write a novel in which a young chap of… oh, let’s say 14 had just awakened to “good” music through Nirvana only to realise as his enthusiasm rises that this icon has killed himself. Then I read Nick Hornby’s About a Boy and decided I needed a different dramatic arc.
But it’s true: I owe my love of good music to Nirvana. And Aerosmith, to be honest. Pearl Jam captured my soul and my passion, but it wouldn’t have happened without “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Before that, I had been a techno-hip-hop enthusiast, following my dedication to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Anything with electric guitars was obviously heavy metal, i.e., music my brother liked, and therefore worthy of rejection tout court. (Oddly, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet evaded such classification, but that could be because of my Aunt Barb. Or maybe I liked the thought of one small patch of common ground between me and my brother.) I was the first in the family to have a CD player, and the first CD I got to go with it was X-Tendamix Dance Mix ’92, a lively compilation from our friends at MuchMusic. I would go crazy, dumb-dancing in the corner at school dances while all the other kids lined up, boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other, and met in the middle song by song to hold their rigid hands against the appropriate waist or shoulder, bobbing back and forth like zombie buoys in an ocean of crappy music.
And I was pretty happy with that, until the first high-school dance at Dover Bay when I was in Grade 8. It was a poorly attended dance–this was a brand new school, and I was on the ad-hoc council charge with fomenting “spirit.” The 30-odd of us who turned up hugged the walls a lot (so much for that) but I was finding the dance music kind of annoying. Then the DJ put on “Teen Spirit,” and while everyone else kept hugging the walls, I kind of ambled over to a corner and began swaying about to the bass line. When the pre-chorus kicked in with Cobain’s flange-drenched two-note chime, I started spinning about like a helicopter, arms aloft with my eyes shut. I don’t know why: it just felt right with the music. And then the chorus proper began, and I started to jump. I would hesitate to call it “moshing” as there was no one to “mosh” with, and I risked impaling myself on the stack of plastic chairs at the side if I got too crazy. But getting too crazy seemed to be what this music was about.
It changed my life. Synthesised musical sounds, fake drums, and boy-girl love lyrics seemed way less important. My friends and I used to dance around the pool table in one of our basements, shaking our heads along with “Tourettes” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Not long after that, we picked up guitars and learned to play. We started a grunge band, with messy guitar sounds, deliberately opaque lyrics, and anger that wasn’t quite truly ours. I remember writing one set of lyrics and asking our bassist to come up with “some chords that don’t fit together.” He got what I meant instantly, and produced a “Lithium”-like progression to go with them. (The song sucked. I don’t think we even finished it, let alone performing it.)
When Cobain died, we discussed heroism and mortality, fate or determinism and of course drug use. That summer, my brother and I went to the interior of BC with a family from our church to paint another church that was peeling in the sun, the congregation of which was really too old to get up on ladders and do the job itself. Hanging out in the back of the camper with this couple’s teenage daughter, we talked about it in heavy, serious tones. “Nirvana used to be my favourite band,” she said. “Now that he’s killed himself, I guess it’s pearl Jam.” She held my hand a bit that week, which I thought was pretty awesome, but she kind of ignored me after we got back home. Oh well, whatever, never mind.
There’s plenty of worthy cultural reflection, from people who were a little bit older and more perceptive back in 1994. This is a good one. The only other thing to do here is post a song. This one was my favourite: when my brother got Incesticide, he told me the song was about Cobain’s suicide wish: “He’s saying, ‘Die with me!'” he told me, in that I-dare-you-to-contradict-me-or-tell-Mom-what-we’re-listening-to way. When I bought the album myself, I saw that the song title was “Dive,” and it reminded me how unobservant some people (my brother; but all love, seriously) are. Pick this, pick that, yeah.