It has been exactly 19 years since Kurt Cobain, one of the most influential musicians of the modern era, committed suicide. To many music lovers all over the world 5th of April is the saddest date in the calendar, a day of deep regret for the premature death of a smart and sensitive person who also happened to be an outstandingly talented and charismatic artist.
Unfortunately, this is not a picture of Kurt that most of people recall. Scandal-craving media liked to portray Nirvana frontman as a morally bankrupt junkie who perished of his own indulgence. As it is the case with almost every simplification or exaggeration, this highly marketable image, although essentially unfair, contains a grain of truth. In the last two years of his life, Kurt was, indeed, a full-blown drug addict. It is also unquestionable that the rocker’s tragic death occurred more or less in consequence of his long-lasting affair with opiates. Still, self-proclaimed guardians of morality never cared or were able to notice that beyond the whole drug-related confusion there was a living and deeply feeling human being. An exceptionally worthy one, for that matter.
A lot of drama in Kurt’s life was based on his critical approach to the reality. Kurt was a great observer. He had an ability to spot and intelligently process all the absurd of the contemporary world. As every true artist, he paid considerably more attention to the dark side of life than to its glittering surface. His sarcastic sense of humour was a perfect expression of this attitude. Ironic and sharp-witted, Kurt loved to play with words and took a lot of pleasure in manipulating their meanings – a skill he employed brilliantly in his songwriting.
Although often regarded as distant and inaccessible, he was in fact a very shy and quiet person who, once approached, revealed himself amiable and sincerely interested in a conversation, especially if it concerned his biggest passion – music. When the subject appeared, he immediately opened up, his eyes shining with excitement. For, as much as an artist, Kurt was an avid music fan who appreciated every chance to promote his favourite bands. That is why he devoted considerably more time in interviews to talking about the albums he loved than to discussing his own musical achievements. A compulsive list-maker, Nirvana frontman covered uncountable pages of spiral notebooks with personal charts and track listings for mixtapes he either made or thought of making. In most part, they consisted of very obscure American, British and even Japanese bands. If not for Kurt, such acts as The Raincoats, Vaselines or Beat Happening would probably never have reached wider audience.
Kurt’s excellent musical taste paired with his magnetic personality enabled him to accomplish something most of rockstars can only dream about: he opened people’s ears (and hearts) to vast array of sonic possibilities and thus ignited in them true love for music. Thanks to him, some of the early 90s youth, alienated by the synthetic junk that major labels tried to push down their throats, discovered a completely new musical universe they could fully relate to. “Music is ENERGY. A mood, atmosphere. FEELING,” Kurt wrote in his Journals in 1988. And this is exactly what his band was all about – the power of raw emotion.
At the end of 1993, soon after MTV Unplugged, a show regarded as the peak of his live performance, Kurt arranged to record some new material with several musicians not directly related to Nirvana, among others with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Sadly, the collaboration never came into effect. In his last words, Kurt confessed he had not felt “the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music” anymore. Ironically, just a few weeks before taking his life, he recorded a home demo of Do Re Mi, a beautiful and touching song which, according to Eric Erlandson, the ex-guitarist of Hole, could have formed part of Kurt’s “white album”. It turned out to be his musical testament.
In one of the interviews, Michael Stipe talked about his attempts to reach to Kurt shortly before his tragic end. Several months later he wrote a song dealing with pain and regret of not having been able to save one of his best friends from self-destruction.
Among great artists who paid a musical tribute to Nirvana frontman are also Patti Smith and Neil Young whose words “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” Kurt quoted in his farewell letter. “I was heartbroken when he committed suicide,” Smith told Seattle Weekly in 2010. “I loved Nirvana … [My husband and I] felt so badly. We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some positive effect on him.”
Frequently called “the spokesman for his generation”, Kurt was probably the last true romantic of rock who openly ridiculed internal mechanisms of the music industry. In his wildest dreams he would not have imagined what was about to come, but he opposed the trend, even being perfectly aware that the game had already been lost. Although physically absent, Kurt lives on through his amazing legacy which, despite the current musical climate, retains its tremendous force of appeal and continues to affect and inspire people of all backgrounds and cultures.
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