Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Kurt Cobain, 15 Years Gone

The first time I heard of Nirvana was in August of 1991, while I was finishing a summer internship at Atlantic Records. Regina Joskow, a very wonderful woman and publicist at Atlantic who had been incredibly kind to me, certainly kinder than she needed to be to any summer intern, came up to me and asked with the utmost seriousness, “Ben, have you heard the new Nirvana?”

When I told her I hadn’t, she told me that I needed to – at once. Her manner was that of a Jewish mother, who, when told her guest hadn’t eaten anything all day, demanded that they sit down immediately so she could feed them. She told me that the album’s name was Nevermind, and later that day, she had procured a cassette copy of the album for me. (Pre-release cassettes were commonplace in those pre-Internet days, as we didn’t have to worry about leaks, etc.)

I loved the album immediately and got that it was going to be big. The power of the album was apparent immediately – the quality of the songs, the emotional authority of Cobain’s voice, the monstrous swing of Dave Grohl, and importantly, the humor embedded in the DNA of the lyrics.

Back in school that fall, I watched as the album’s buzz grew and grew; from a small, in the know crowd to something much larger. I missed Nirvana’s New York show at the Marquee that September, but it was talked about like the Second Coming – and people meant it when they raved about it.

I knew that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on it’s way to phenomenon status in mid-December while at a Guns N’ Roses show at Madison Square Garden. Soundgarden opened, and during the interminable two and half hours waiting for Guns N’ Roses to go on, a DJ spun the hard rock hits of the day, loudly, while a video screen flashed images of attractive young women, which inspired the crowd to demand of them, “Show us your tits,” which most of the women obliged, happily or not.

But when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on, the crowd erupted as though the band itself was there – and the tit flashing stopped. 20,000 people sang along, and I was stunned. Sure, by then the single was huge in rock circles, but this was something else entirely – this had crossed over to a hard rock audience, and the ferocity of the response was overwhelming. This was an anthem – a hard rock fusion with punk that resonated like classic rock, transcending the fragmentation that had been afflicting the rock scene for years. I turned to the person I was with, another aspiring music bizzer, and said, “I don’t believe this.” About 5 or 6 weeks later, the album overtook Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to become the number one album in the country.

I was a fan, a pretty big one. The band had their detractors, but I knew they had staying power. As grunge and alternative exploded in the wake of Nirvana’s success – Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chains and more, it was obvious to me that Nirvana – musically, substantively and emotionally - was head and shoulders above the rest of them. Pearl Jam may have been marketed as the Rolling Stones to Nirvana's Beatles, but I didn't think they were even worthy of the comparisons. (And I still don't.)

My assessment was confirmed with the September 1993 release of In Utero, which, from the opening notes of “Serve The Servants,” stunned me with its overwhelming power, its hypnotic and unforgettable melodies and the soul of Cobain’s vocals. I listened to the album incessantly, loving the dark rawness of it. It felt like a modern version of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; filled with pain and anguish that was immensely personal, but with the skill of the writing and the transcendent quality of Cobain’s voice, utterly universal.

I saw the band play the New York Coliseum (now the Time Warner Center) in November of 1993 with Shonen Knife (one of those completely uncommercial bands that got a major label deal because Kurt liked them) and the Breeders, who were exploding with “Cannonball.” The show careened by triumphantly, ninety minutes of great song after great song, diamond hard rock that transcended the burden of the classic. My love deepened.

By then, I was working in the record business full time. I had just started at Elektra Records, and was in charge of shipping Elektra’s promotional and commercial “product” to the staff across the country and to radio stations. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the business, but I was learning the nuts and bolts of the record business, and I was happy. The industry was transforming – the energy of the Alternative wave that Nirvana had ushered in was still cresting, and young people who had been involved in the alternative/indie scene early on were now taking big jobs at the major labels and management companies. It was an exciting time.

Friday, April 8th 1994 was a quiet afternoon in the Elektra office. The office hummed softly with the anticipation of the weekend; it seemed as though people were avoiding conversations so they could slip out of the office as soon as possible. I caught up on some paperwork. Around 2:30pm, I overheard someone yelling across the hall that Kurt Cobain had been found dead, an apparent suicide. I plugged them for information, and they told me that he had been found that morning, and that it was all over the radio in Seattle. A woman I knew from Gold Mountain Management, Nirvana’s management company, came into the office, breathless, and when I inquired about what had happened, she confirmed Cobain’s suicide and said, “Ben, whatever you hear, it’s ten times worse than that.”

I wasn’t shocked. Cobain had attempted suicide about six weeks previously while in Rome, and the gossip surrounding him and Courtney Love was all bad. But as the news began to seep in, I found myself getting more and more upset.

I turned the radio on to WFMU, an influential college station, and people were calling in. I had expected the tone to be reverential, but what I heard instead was snark. “Nirvana just ripped off the Pixies,” one caller said snidely. Another caller remarked that it wasn’t a big deal at all, and asked the station to go back to its regularly scheduled programming.

I seethed. It was one of my first experiences with indie snark, and it enraged me – first, because of the musical ignorance involved, and second, because of the emotional callousness displayed. Assholes, I thought, and I turned off the radio and went home, playing “All Apologies” over and over, getting mightily sad, and mainly staying in that weekend, watching the coverage on MTV, and listening to Nirvana, Plastic Ono Band and Nebraska. Cobain belonged in that continuum, I thought then (and still do), and it made the loss cut very deep.

I wrote something that weekend about Cobain, a piece I’ve long since lost. But I do remember writing something to the effect of, “Whatever innocence this scene had (and I think it had a lot) is lost forever.” And I was very right – almost too right – about that.

After Cobain’s suicide, there was a retreat – in both music and the marketplace. What seemed so possible in 1992, 1993 and the first part of 1994 - that any great, left of center band could be big and become impactful beyond their own cult, was a possibility that diminished, seemingly overnight. Alternative, once the domain of Nirvana, became the domain of hacks like Better Than Ezra and Third Eye Blind. Indie went back to being for the cult and the cult only. For me, a music lover who loved when good music and the music I loved became popular, it was a very dispiriting time.

Courtney Love’s band Hole played the Academy very shortly after Cobain’s death, and it was one of the rawest, most chaotic shows I’ve ever seen. It teetered on becoming a circus, but when Love when into “Asking For It,” the room hushed. As she sang the song’s coda, “If you live through this with me/I swear I will die for you” over and over, building it, drawing it out and screaming it, the crowd experienced a moment of standing in her soul, of being in her misery and pain, and it remains one of the most powerful and unforgettable moments I’ve ever experienced at any performance.

For me, Kurt Cobain’s loss still hurts. I can’t help but wonder where his music would have gone, what turns it would have taken, where rock might be, even today, had he remained. In thinking of him and the impact of his suicide, I cannot help but think of Nietzsche: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

It’s no wonder that the most popular band on rock radio in late 1994 and for all of 1995 became…Hootie and the Blowfish.

Download: Nirvana - "Serve The Servants"
Download: Hole - "Asking For It"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Ben. It brought back allot of memories.

ambersun said...

Hi again

A very well written and emotional article.

Kurt Cobain's death was a tragedy for so many reasons.

I remember when 'Teen Spirit' came out and then all the popularity.

Thank you for sharing


Anonymous said...

Powerful post.

In all honesty I had a hard time connecting with Nirvana until recently. I never understood the "hype" or the power of his influence, but I see it very clearly now.

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone (except my wife who was probably listening to fucking Jodeci) remembers where they were the first time they heard Nevermind and also where they were the day they found out Kurt had taken his life. The experience of hearing Nevermind for the first time is etched in stone like it was yesterday. It was in my college dorm room, and I can clearly remember playing the first 5 songs on the album over and over. As if they were on some imaginary loop. Its power remains astonishing and undiminished by time. And for me personally, In Utero even more so.
Nirvana ushered in the modern day version of the classic rock trifecta that followed.
Alice In Chains (who actually broke BEFORE Nirvana), Soundgarden and Pearl Jam have more metal and classic rock in them than they ever get credit for.
Kurt's void to this day has yet to be filled. But as Ben says, for that that moment in time in the mid 90's it seemed like anything was possible musically. In Bloom indeed.

belles forever said...

i guess we did indeed fall on black curt

whiteray said...

Nicely done. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Keith said...

Great article. I really enjoyed it. It's hard to believe it's been that many years now. I remember the first time I ever heard of Nirvana was actually the first time I ever saw the video on MTV. I was definitely intrigued by this very different song and video from what else was out there. It's such a tragedy that his life and career were both cut so short.