Whenever someone asks me, “What’s one performer that you wish you could have seen live before they died,” Kurt Cobain is always near the top of my list. I was nine-years-old when Kurt killed himself and it would be another three years before I’d discover and fall in love with grunge. I don’t remember what the world thought of Kurt at the time he died. But growing up, you couldn’t escape how we idolized him, and how we still do. Plain and simple, there was no one like Kurt Cobain.
We idolize him for his vulnerability and how raw he was. For how he helped pioneer grunge and how important that genre will always be to an entire generation. As a kid, I loved grunge because it wasn’t clean, and it spoke to something inside of me I didn’t know was there. For people who feel as if they aren’t like everyone else or like they aren’t sure where they fit in, to have a genre of music speak to you in a way that acknowledges your differences while giving a huge middle finger to the status quo was liberating. It was affirming. It helped you feel like if you didn’t belong anywhere that was ok, and in that sense, you finally did have somewhere to belong.
The same thing that bleeds through the veins of underground punk electrocuted grunge to life and evolved it into what Nirvana shared with a mainstream audience. In a time when the world was fresh off of the 80s’ new wave, hair bands and pop, having someone like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana rise to the surface set the scene on its head. We often are mesmerized by things we can’t classify, understand or explain and that’s exactly what grunge brought to light.
Lyrically, vocally and musically Kurt was a boss. When it came to how Nirvana was going to make music he knew exactly what they needed to do and how he wanted to do it. Music arrangement, visual and lyrical support — Kurt had ideas for it all. Kurt could be likened to The Door’s Jim Morrison when it came to his poetic style of writing, his presence, and charisma. He was also a passionate artist. And it was through all of this, that he was also able to inspire those around him. If you know anything now about Dave Grohl (Nirvana’s 5th and final drummer) and how he runs Foo Fighters, you can easily see Kurt likely nurtured that side of him as a musician in his younger years and how he carries that into the music he makes today. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We would not have the Dave Grohl we have today without Kurt Cobain or his death.
Nirvana as a whole was birthed from underground punk, but it’s the fusion of all of their other loves and musical nods that made Nirvana what it was. One of Kurt’s favorite bands was R.E.M. Every member of Nirvana loved The Beatles and had an affinity for pop melody. They loved classic rock. Kurt led the charge in taking his favorite things about these genres and molding it into something the world had never seen. He combined it with the honesty of his demons and his personality and he used it to set the world on fire. It gave misfits a home. It made other musicians step their game up. And it left an imprint on music that is still felt and heard throughout generations. And yes, even jokingly inspired all of that flannel.
To remember him, I’ll leave you with my favorite performance of his: a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from the “MTV: Unplugged” set. Pro Tip: That entire set is iconic, so I’ll leave another performance up there, too. What did Nirvana/Kurt Cobain mean to you? Leave a comment below.