Kurt Cobain – 20 Years Dead
Words: Gary Hannon
I remember the first time I heard Nirvana. It was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. I was instantly hooked. I was then lucky enough to see their first ever live TV appearance, when they performed it on the best TV show of that period, Channel 4’s The Word. Check it out, it’s still pretty amazing!
Listen to ‘Lounge Act’, from side B of Nevermind, loud. Wait for the third verse. This starts with similar lyrics to the first, but is much different, due solely to Kurt’s singing. It is pure rage, directed in a pointed, angry way at someone. Listen to that. That’s grunge. That’s also punk. But we’ll get to that later…
‘Lounge Act’ was about Tobi Vail, an ex-girlfriend of Kurt’s. Her bandmate in Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, who was dating Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl at the time, spray painted “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s wall, in reference to a female deodorant, which Tobi used to use. This graffiti inspired Kurt to write their biggest hit. They later described Teen Spirit as a Pixies rip-off (which it is). He sings that he can “still smell her on you” in the chorus of Lounge Act, a possible circular reference to Teen Spirit.
Nirvana did the Pixies thing – loud, quiet, loud – on a lot of their songs. This way of recording songs was nothing new, but the difference was that Black Francis was not very handsome. Kurt however, was extraordinarily handsome and he became the poster boy for a new genre of music which became a global movement. Their first album, Bleach, was on Sub Pop, a Do It Yourself punk label. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ changed all that. This was from their second album, Nevermind, which was released by Geffen, and distributed by Universal.
This was a re-birth of punk music under a new name “Grunge”. Kurt was at heart a punk, in an original, DIY way. However, crucially he was not an MTV version of punk. (Look at what “nu-punk” is nowadays – Green Day? Pop). When grunge became massively popular, it was no longer punk, but became a genre for the music executives to jump aboard and ruin. This was the ultimate downfall of Kurt. He hated that much spotlight.
It’s easy to read through Kurt’s lyrics and see a continuously tortured soul. ‘Milk It’, from their last studio album, In Utero, has the lyrics: “Look on the bright side is suicide”, and the song ends with: “Your scent is still here in my place of recovery”.
I had all of their albums and was a massive fan, when Kurt killed himself. He was originally due to play Dublin that day, but after a bout of depression, the tour had been re-scheduled. His group were not particularly good musicians or songwriters, but they wrote excellent, catchy songs, which captured teenage angst like no other.
“Our little group has always been
And always will until the end”.