Ten years ago today, I was in my English class when I heard the news. Kurt Cobain was dead. He had blown his head off with a shotgun.
The professor, who read Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison weeks before, allowed this news to seep in. She understood the significance too well. We didn’t. At least not then.
I remember a hush lasting a minute. The power chords shimmered through my mind. Nirvana, man. Kurt Cobain. “Floyd the Barber.” “We can plant a house, we can build a tree. I don’t really care. We could have all three.” The honesty of “Rape Me.” The secret track at the end of Nevermind. The Meat Puppets there during the Unplugged appearance. All gone save through the discs we spun.
Cobain hated being hassled. He hated playing stadiums. He was raw and angry and depressed and somehow sensitive. His voice sounded like a spatula scraping paint from a wall, the noise somehow filtered through a shaky Sennheiser, and committed to a reel-to-reel machine found in somebody’s basement. He was beautiful in his simplicity. Because he was the DIY punk inside us all.
Everyone knew Nirvana. Whether they had discovered the trio (then quartet) through the amazing Bleach, or had become part of the grand throng latching onto Nevermind. Nirvana had even obtained a strange legitimacy with the Weird Al Yankovic parody, “Smells Like Nirvana.”
But was Cobain the voice of my generation? Fuck no, I said back then. I was nineteen and cocky. And I was damned if I was going to let anyone — MTV, Ted Koppel, or any pundit trying to eulogize — throw labels around. We were the generation that had grown up during Reagan. We were the generation who knew that there wasn’t the house with the picket fence and the dog and the 2.2 children. There was no American dream. There was only a nation throwing its grandchildren into debt.
Cobain gave credence to our anger. We could crank up his music and feel the shimmering cesspool of suburban impoverishment. We could deny the existence of Motley Crue or any of the hair bands that came before. Because Nirvana was about something. The music was never overtly political, but it was sure as hell visceral.
I was in a garage band back then. And we all got together that Sunday and decided to pay tribute to Nirvana. It seemed the right thing to do. We played the songs and tried to make them sound as shoddy and slapped together as Cobain’s. But it was never the same. I screamed and grumbled into the mike. We all did. But it was never Kurt’s rage.
Nobody seemed to know the secret ingredient. But Nirvana somehow worked. Cobain was the rare voice who infiltrated both mainstream and underground circles. And, like it or not, he was the voice of my generation.