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10 YEARS AFTER KURT'S DEATH, WE TAKE A (SEMI)IRONIC LOOK BACK
I STARTED THINKING ABOUT Kurt Cobain for the first time in a long time in the strangest place possible: a nude beach in Miami. I had dropped my top and was shyly attempting to conceal my goods with a borrowed copy of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy. It’s a book about loss, about family, and (though it’s omitted from the Hugh Grant Hollywood version of the story) about Kurt’s death. His suicide mirrors the struggles of Hornby’s main characters and, eventually, brings them together in their pain.
It’s bizarre to think that Nirvana, a band so revolutionary and fresh when I was in high school, is played on the classic rock station now. Kindergarten kids who were singing along with Sesame Street when Kurt died in April 1994 listen to him today because he, like Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious, now belongs to the pantheon of Dead Rock Gods. It’s been a decade, but in this tacky era of American Idol and Britney/Madonna spit swaps Kurt’s persona and music seem more vital than ever.
So here are my reasons why Kurt still matters, good and bad. Because Kurt would have thought bullshit rock journalist tribute essays (ahem, the April Spin) were lame, anyway.
1.Because he sang off-key…and it was OK. Full disclosure No. 1: When I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit I was convinced Nirvana was a one-hit wonder. And when I finally broke down and bought Nevermind, I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. It took me a while to realize that Kurt’s warbly, scratchy voice was really something groundbreaking, something that cut those operatically trained hair metal pussies off at their knees. The guy was practically mumbling most of the time, but his lyrics were incredible — and he had us all straining to catch every word.
2._ Because he was tortured._ I don’t mean because he killed himself. Suicide is a selfish act and, frankly, I’m glad Courtney Love called him an asshole after he died. But let’s face it: The guy was screwed up. Like, Van Gogh-caliber screwed up. At least he had the good sense to pour it into his art.
3.Because he was an unintentional style icon. There were no celebrity stylists telling him not to shave, to wear Jackie O sunglasses, to dye his hair red. While other Seattle scenesters threw on flannel shirts, stopped showering and called it fashion (Eddie Vedder, I’m looking at you), Kurt had a certain panache. Which leads us to….
3 1/2.Because he made Ricki Rachtman cut his hair. Headbanger’s Ball was never, ever the same.
4.Because he gave every headline writer the crutch phrase “__s Like Teen Spirit.”_ The ’90s deodorant that inspired the song’s gag is long gone, but somehow the phrase has become part of the lexicon of hack journalists who don’t know Frances Bean from a coffee plant. Just this week — again, the anniversary of Kurt’s death, people — Slate.com titled its horrific “Dear Prudence” column “Looks Like Teen Spirit” without a hint of irony. And the letter to Prudie, you ask? It was about some 15-year-old who wears her clothes too tight. Reality TV has fried our brains and it’s official: No one in the media has a sense of tact anymore.
5.Because, even dead, he is still far cooler than his bandmates. Foo Fighters, Shmoo Fighters. What is Dave Grohl doing now? An ’80s metal tribute side project. Yeah, let’s all throw up the horns. Meanwhile, Krist Novoselic is making bad music and failed runs for public office. And that’s only when Courtney isn’t taking them both to the dry cleaners for every last penny of Nirvana’s royalties. Excuse me while I yawn.
6.Because he screwed with the press. Kurt? Curt? Kurdt? The man was a fact checker’s worst nightmare. While most “rock stars” have been trained by their publicists to be pleasantly docile in the presence of journalists and save their immature little antics for the other 90 percent of the time, Kurt was a perpetual loose cannon. My favorite was when he switched Smells Like Teen Spirit to play the far more abrasive Lithium at the 1992 MTV Music Awards, making show producers scramble like ants with their asses on fire. And now our biggest TV scandal is Nipplegate? For fuck’s sake, people.
7.Because, 10 years later, it’s actually hip if cheerleaders have tattoos. Enough said.
8.Because he loved Courtney. Chicago über-producer Steve Albini always despised Courtney Love because she nearly ruined Nirvana’s recording sessions for In Utero, just with her sheer volatile presence. But to Kurt, she was a peroxided muse in a baby doll dress, a loudmouthed ying to his quietly introspective yang. They had passionate sex, made out on the cover of Sassy and had a gorgeous child together. More importantly, they made fun of Axl Rose together. Most importantly, he loved her with a near vehemence.Letterman-crashing and Wendy’s breast-suckling incidents aside, it’s always been clear that Courtney is not an easy woman to love. So (my skewed logic goes), if a man like Kurt could fall for a woman like Courtney, there’s hope for all of us crazy bitches.
9.Because he found beauty in simplicity. Generally speaking, most music writers are terrible musicians, so it shouldn’t come as a great surprise when I tell you that [Full disclosure No. 2] I play guitar about as well as Meg White plays drums. But the day I discovered Nirvana was also the day I realized I could chuck my Aeolian and Dorian guitar scales out the window and flip the Yngwie School of Rock the metaphorical bird. The four chords that begin Teen Spirit are still some of the most satisfying I’ve ever played: basic bar chords and a full-fledged string assault I could scream over without inhibition. And that’s exactly what I did, on a regular basis, all four years of high school. Looking back, it actually smelled more like teen catharsis. That time spent playing Kurt’s music alone in my bedroom helped shape who I am today, and how I connect with others who’ve used music as an outlet for social disconnection. I’d like to think it’s his real legacy. And for that, thank you Kurt, wherever you are.
a.p. friday (nope, not her real name) pays her bills by interviewing self-centered rock stars and reviewing their crappy albums. oh, and she misses kurt a lot.