Two decades after the Nirvana front man’s self-administered demise, we reflect upon the grunge icon’s hallowed legacy. And as it turns out, he probably doesn’t deserve any of the reverence.It’s an illogical statement, I know, but I’ll say it anyway: I’ve more or less always been a pretty big fan of Nirvana, but at the same time, I’ve always detested Kurt Cobain.
Yes, as a ‘90s child, I’ve always fostered a certain affinity towards the “Nirvana sound,” if you will, but I never really bought into Kurt’s retroactive deification, either. From a musical standpoint, Kurt was clearly the least talented of his bandmates, and his faux-philosophical, anti-Guns N Roses, new-new-wave, ultra-liberal shtick more or less opened the floodgates for a million, billion wusses like Trent Reznor and that crybaby from Radiohead to make miserable, woe-is-me alternative the default setting for mainstream rock to this day.
Here, on the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s suicide -- or, depending on how much of a crackpot you are, the date Courtney Love either killed her husband or hired somebody (but not that dude from The Mentors, of course) to do it for her -- I believe it’s a most opportune time to reflect on just how overrated Kurt Cobain was, on every conceivable level.
First and foremost; Kurt Cobain was a shitty guitar player, a fact that doesn’t keep him from routinely being ranked on top 100 all time greatest guitarist lists, you know, just ‘cause. With a voice that sounded like dual recordings of Edward Furlong’s screaming outtakes from “Terminator 2" and Pepe Le Pew doing a drunken karaoke ballad, Kurt’s “signature” singing style was similarly a less-than-impressive display. It may not have been as imitated as the “Vedder Voice,” but seeing as how easily fourth-rate alt rock acts like Seether and Puddle of Mudd were able to faithfully recreate that soulful Cobain howl, I think it’s safe to say we weren’t dealing with an all-time crooning legend, either.
As for Cobain’s music, I think the entire Nirvana discography is horrendously overrated. Cobain himself absolutely hated “Nevermind” and “In Utero,” considering the first to be an overproduced turd and the second a reluctant compromise between him and the record company. All in all, the band was responsible for perhaps only one and half truly decent albums -- the beautifully unpolished “Bleach” from 1989 (a grimy, under-produced classic that stands out as the band’s one truly uncompromised release) and the glorified B-side collection, “Incesticide” -- and before you give that one too much credit, just recall that half that album more or less consists of cover tunes, which is also a criticism you can lob at the band’s much revered “Unplugged” set, too.
For a composer that’s frequently hailed as the voice of a generation, Kurt’s lyrics were suspiciously cryptic, disjointed and largely apolitical. Whereas Bob Dylan at least referenced social issues in his “decades-defining” songs, Cobain’s lyrics were really just a grab-bag of fragmented poetry pieces, seemingly tossed together at random. In fact, he actually said that’s how he wrote his songs, on numerous occasions. For an alleged voice of an entire decade, old Kurt’s music had astoundingly little to say about anything at all.
As far as the much-acclaimed “Nirvana sound,” by now, we all know it was mostly just a restructuring of classic rock tunes -- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is basically just “Louie, Louie” and “More than A Feeling,” only played faster and shittier, while even early Nirvana tracks “Spank-Thru” convey a certain Credence Clearwater Revival-esque vibrato. Cobain’s adulation/imitation of the Pixies is well-documented, so there’s really no need to drudge up how much of the Nirvana discography is derived from “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle.” However, I’ve always thought the Nirvana’s “iconic” sound was actually more of a rip-off of Steve Albini’s post-punk outfit Big Black -- just take out the synth and amp up the distortion, and you’ve more or less got “Nirvana” before there was a “Nirvana.”
And of course, how could I talk about Kurt Cobain’s revolutionary “creativity” without talking about the second-most iconic track off “Nevermind?” A song, by the way, that is a direct rip-off of the Killing Joke song “Eighties,” which itself is a rip-off of The Damned’s “Life Goes On.”
Compared to the glut of Seattle-area bands, I still find it weird that Nirvana, out of the deluge of groups, is the one that gets the most credit for kicking off “The Grunge Revolution.” Yeah, “Nevermind” is said to have been the turning point, but a lot of people tend to forget that both Soundgarden and Alice in Chains’ big mainstream breakthroughs were released long before Nirvana’s 1991 opus. And any number of bands -- from The Melvins to Green River to Mother Love Bone -- could rightly lay claim to pioneering the “grunge movement,” years before Nirvana was even a fully-formed idea in Kurt Cobain’s noggin. The theory I’ve developed over the years was that the Grunge Takeover had always been something of a ploy by David Geffen and his kindred to supplant the dried-out hair rock movement, and Nirvana was just the right act at the right time to get all of the engineered publicity to turn the tide; with enough mass marketing and enough sound mixing, really ANY of the Seattle area bands could have had a “Nevermind” sized breakthrough. Clearly, Cobain’s ascension as pop icon had a whole hell of a lot more to do with luck than it did talent...and most certainly, ambition.
And what about Kurt Cobain, the individual human being? Well, for starters, he was bold-faced hypocrite, the kind of soul that liked to champion himself as a defender of women’s rights when he himself admitted to once molesting a developmentally disabled girl in his youth. His notebooks were filled with hateful diatribes against “jocks,” decrying their meat-eating dispositions, when Kurt was responsible for intentionally killing cat when he was a kid. He routinely mocked the macho excesses of the hair metal movement, even though he was pumping lethal drugs into his veins habitually and publicly priding himself on his own sexual conquests, too. And the ultimate tragicomic punch line to the Cobain life story? After literally making a fortune regurgitating the same-old, same-old “my parents are sell-outs and the break-up of our family royally screwed me up” drivel, he then proceeded to become a sell-out himself who voluntarily decided to break up his own family by blowing his brains out.
A lot of people like to speculate how Cobain’s music would’ve progressed had he not played the shotgun clarinet that fateful spring morning in King County. Odds are, he probably would’ve progressed down the Metallica path, abandoning the tried-and-true Nirvana sound for something a little more radio-friendly. Legend has it that the never to be “last” Nirvana album was going to be a stripped down, mostly acoustic, “Automatic For the People”-inspired detour, which is exactly the kind of thing you hear before a band starts playing half-hearted, bland-ass music that clearly indicates the outfit’s lack of good ideas anymore. The “In Utero” studio follow-up, as such, would have likely been Nirvana’s “Monster” -- a critical flop that signified the slow, boring downfall of the formerly influential and inspiring.
Of course, that scenario skirts perhaps the most important aspect of who and what Kurt Cobain was, and that was a sad-sack junkie. In reality, any fantasizing about what Cobain would be up to “today” is just pointless, since had Cobain not offed himself when he offed himself, he no doubt would’ve been dead before he turned 40, anyway. Perhaps the allure of Cobain is that he had the good sense to kill himself at a time when it was still fashionable and attractive -- going down at one’s peak is a hallmark of the legends, while disappearing into a decade of drug dependency, only to resurface as a bloated, O.D.’d corpse five years after last releasing an album just makes you Layne Staley.
What is Cobain’s lasting legacy, ultimately? Well, for one thing, he made suicide and flannel shirts fashionable -- at least one of which is still considered en vogue at the moment. And his stardom went a pretty long way in “normalizing” heroin addiction as a common occupational trait among rock stars. Musically, he’s probably the most culpable party responsible for the rock and roll industry’s shift away from good-time, nostalgic party and driving music to music more befitting anti-depressant-fed teens that paint their nails black and cut themselves on the third floor of their suburban mansions. Yes, he was responsible for eliminating the grandiose vapidity of Guns N Roses from the national consciousness, but nobody really brings up the fact that all Nirvana really did was replace it with a more nihilistic form of grandiose vapidity.
At the end of the day, though, I suppose Nirvana had some good songs, and if given the option of listening to a decade of bands that sounded like Silverchair and Oasis or a decade of bands that sounded like Trixter and Firehouse, well, shit, the answer ought to be downright obvious. But all of this retroactive mourning and retroactive reverence -- now stemming from youths who weren’t even born when Cobain made the choice to end his own life -- that he gets?
Well, that’s just stupid, and unfortunately, contagious.