Friday, January 14, 2011

1995: Cobain Obituary

Believe it or not, it's been nearly twenty years since Nirvana burst into the zeitgeist of the first Bush Administration. These were my first impressions after Kurt Cobain's passing.

They just replayed Nirvana's appearance on MTV's "Unplugged," the show where rock'n'rollers prove that they're "real" musicians. It's kind of like the career retrospectives of the great abstract impressionists, which always include a few early, representational pieces, to prove to the skeptics that even though a master of balance, composition, color, tone and dynamics, the subject was also capable of figurative renderings, so it's not actually something your ten-year-old kid could have tossed together.

Of course I was not surprised to see the band were as skilled at harmony and subtlety as they were at creating an overwhelming "wall o' sound." Nevertheless I felt his loss more acutely, seeing him perform a wider range of material, and his gift for melody, while never hidden, was certainly enhanced in that setting.

Along with acoustic versions of Nirvana hits, Cobain sang songs by Hank Williams (chilling) and David Bowie, and invited another band onstage to perform a few tunes of theirs, which he sang. The Meat Puppets, two brothers from Arizona, have always struck me as one of the more idiosyncratic punk bands: anarchic and ragged, but said to be admirers of the Grateful Dead. By the time I got around to buying one of their albums (based in part on an enthusiastic blurb from Cobain on the cover) a decade of evolution had left few punk traces, and it sounds like something that would fit in just fine on KPIG.

His admiration for the Puppets gives a hint of how Cobain's career might have developed if he had lived. MTV reported that he had spoke of breaking up Nirvana, and expressed a strong desire to make music with a new close friend, Michael Stipe of REM. Cobain was said to have regarded REM as a model for surviving a career in the music industry. They've allowed themselves to evolve gradually, always keeping it fresh and interesting for themselves. The thing is, their success came to them gradually, not overnight as it did poor Kurt. But hearing of a possible Cobain/Stipe collaboration gave me the same sinking feeling as when I heard Jimi Hendrix had been planning to record with Miles Davis.

Now his music is frozen in time as a ferocious roar, the way James Dean will eternally be an angst-ridden adolescent, based on a three-film career. Nevertheless, in his short and troubled life he has left an impressive legacy, which has three aspects to it.

Musically, Nirvana took the visceral power of heavy metal and divorced it from the macho posturing which virtually defines the genre. They married that to the cathartic passion of punk music, and fused it all with Cobain's gift for melodic pop hooks. What emerged was instantly recognizable as something new, though of course there's nothing new under the sun. Nirvana was neither the first or the last to fuse those styles, but, not unlike the Beatles, they popularized sounds that others had pioneered, and in so doing changed the world of music.

Lyrically, Cobain has been compared to John Lennon by more than one writer, but they're talking about a specific period in Lennon's life: the stark, confessional tunes that appeared on his first post-Beatles album, "Plastic Ono Band." As Lennon did on that album, Cobain ripped open the scars of an abused childhood and a broken home, creating songs which are sometimes uncomfortable in their intimacy. Again, he was by no means an original at this (he drops a homage to Leonard Cohen into one number) but on his last album took it to a sustained level which was quite breathtaking.

Socially, Cobain leaves hundreds of young bands, and many older ones, in his debt. The breakthrough of "Nevermind" in 1991 changed rock as much as anything since Dylan went electric. It also gave Kurt the absurd "voice of his generation" label that he hated as much as Dylan did. In fact, he explained his last album "In Utero" as, in part, an unsuccessful attempt to alienate his audience the way Dylan did successfully with "Self Portrait," et al. But by selling ten million copies of "Nevermind," putting it on the same lofty plateau as Carole King's "Tapestry," the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack, "Frampton Comes Alive," and Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Nirvana did something none of those other albums achieved. They proved to the record industry weasels that they really didn't have a clue about what kids wanted, much as "Easy Rider" opened Hollywood wallets to a whole new generation of filmmakers.

As Kurt Loder put it, when punk music first emerged, the music industry tried to dress up and co-opt whatever it could, and kill off the rest. But the spirit of rebellion in that music inspred a whole generation, the way rock'n'roll first did in the fifties. And when one of those inspired kids turned punk into something that could stand up to Whitney Houston and Garth Brooks on the sales charts, the weasels had no choice but to embrace a crazy-quilt of new unique voices, which we are all the richer for.

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