This weekend marks 20 years since the death of Kurt Cobain. The caustic Nirvana frontman, troubled fuzz-boxed minstrel and figurehead of America’s disaffected suburbanites was found dead in his Seattle home on 8 April 1994. Addicted to heroin, plagued by an undiagnosed stomach condition and fiercely paranoid, he had taken his own life three days prior.
Leaving behind his wife, Courtney Love, and his one-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, it was an unqualified tragedy. But it appeared to both his most devoted, angst-ridden fans and worrisome conservatives – who had watched the rise of grunge and its favourite son with a heady mix of concern and disdain – as a darkly fitting footnote. He had become the rock martyr to a generation of broken youth.
The tributes that have been written to Cobain in the past few weeks have attempted to dodge the morbidity which surrounds his memory. The cover of this week’s NME is adorned with a cartoon of the unmistakable, Nevermind-era Cobain, with stripey t-shirt and white oval shades, next to the words: ‘Forget the drugs and the shotgun: it was always about the music.’ In February, the unveiling of a statue of Cobain in his hometown, complete with a single tear rolling down his cheek in a mawkish nod to his troubles, was slammed across the internet.
But, try as we might, it’s impossible to separate the man from the music. Cobain was widely hailed as the last great rock icon – someone whose life, work and time coalesced to form one totemic legend. Any claim that pop music, in and of itself, can attain some level of immortality, as if, like the great works of antiquity, we can easily separate the work from the man and the myth, is ludicrous. Popular culture is always intertwined with the conditions, and often the person, that helped create it and make it cool. The question, two decades on, is what do we make of it all; of Nirvana, Generation X and Cobain himself.
The slacker generation marked a clear decline in rock youth culture, the point at which all that once made it vital, exuberant and exciting collapsed. Generation X was not about young teenagers railing against an unjust society; it was about teenagers cutting themselves off from it and sneering at all the bigoted sheeple. On the day that Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna famously spray-painted the words ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on the walls of Cobain’s flat, giving birth to the name of an anthem, Cobain, Hanna and a gaggle of their mates had been out spraying ‘God is gay’ on religious centres. In the scrawled liner notes to Nirvana’s 1992 compilation Incesticide, Cobain wrote: ‘If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.’ Of course, it’s unlikely many Nirvana fans were card-carrying bigots or fundamentalist Christians – but that didn’t matter. Teenage rebellion had given way to putting the fucked-up world to rights in the confines of your box bedroom.