I. The Sun-Times and Tribune’s handling of Kurt Cobain’s suicide–stories on page three, next-day follow-ups, little else–severely underplayed the news. The coverage in the New York Times was more appropriate: story and picture on page one, a total of nearly 50 inches of copy, headlines, and photographs, and another long appreciation by Jon Pareles on Monday. Cobain was the most important figure in rock music since Johnny Rotten and before that Dylan. Others–Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Madonna–have sold more records, of course, but their celebrity is greatly dependent on artifice, and of those four only for Madonna could a case be made that pop music might be different had she not existed. Cobain was a once-in-a-generation performer. The kids whose world changed around them because of him knew this; ordinarily it’s a newspaper editor’s job to know this, too. This is why young people don’t read dailies anymore.
That said, even the Times misstated his influence. In strictly commercial terms his de facto role as leader of the grunge movement–the Times’s take on him–does matter: Nirvana sparked a selling spree of about 25 million fairly similar sounding records within 30 months out of a town the size of El Paso. But Cobain did two other things that were more important. He vindicated the commercially failed punk music of the late 70s, reasserting the primacy of anger and attitude and the importance of personal expression in white rock music, and in the process created a new image of what a rock star ought to be. Enormously principled, open-eyed, and humble, he boosted bands he liked and respected, viewed his own stardom with a loathing cynicism, and, almost alone among contemporary rock stars, refused to condescend to his audience. Second, Nirvana’s sales yanked the music industry significantly leftward–a process that benefited not just grunge dweebs but any offbeat band with something original to say. Some will sneer at a movement that puts Evan Dando on the charts, and certainly Nirvana wasn’t single-handedly responsible for it: the dignity with which R.E.M. has conducted its career was an important influence on Cobain himself. But along with MTV and the architects of rap, Cobain helped create the cacophony that is 90s pop, as diverse and vibrant a panorama as the music has seen in 30 years.
II. Comparisons to other dead rock heroes began immediately, with John Lennon leading the pack. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s a way of putting the event in perspective for an older generation. But it should be noted how inappropriate comparisons to Lennon are. Lennon was a serious wit who had a long and extraordinary career, actually played the game of celebrity for much of it, and was martyred at its end; Cobain had awesome demons, was a tyke by contrast, and died much differently. Comparisons to lesser lights–Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, or, most frequently, Jim Morrison–are merely quaint. If you have to explain Cobain’s death to someone, tell ’em to imagine a brittle Dylan blowing his brains out just after Another Side but before Bringing It All Back Home–which is to say just before a star horrified by the revolution he sparked trumped it dazzlingly. Those with a blandly objective interest in the event’s historicity will note that there may never have been a rock tragedy like this before; the only precedent might be the death of Buddy Holly, who though not quite as pivotal as Cobain certainly broke ground (in both songwriting and record production), displayed enormous talent in an extremely truncated career (two years), and died even younger (at 21; Cobain was 27).
III. Cobain was a curiously unpopular rock star. The extremes to which he took his music in order to express himself were closely paralleled by the degree to which he tested the patience of the people around him and the good will of many fans. If it’s true, as has been reported, that Cobain was the object of a last-grasp “intervention” by family and colleagues, it seems likely that his last days were as unattractive as only those of an addict and a deeply depressed person can be. At the same time, Cobain was in the business of being a pill; he was revulsed by much of his mass popularity, for a time went out of his way to lose fans, and directly challenged the stupid and contagious behavior of modern rock youth. If Eddie Vedder had died, the streets would be filled with distraught kids tearing their hair out. Vedder detractors are almost exclusively among the rock intelligentsia; he would never antagonize someone who might buy his records. Cobain, by contrast, made a good part of his base audience uncomfortable.
IV. What the points above have in common is the theme of alienation. Cobain grew up apart, lived apart, died apart. The most apt memorial to his concussive existence was the very distance between him and the world. If he hadn’t been so talented, if he hadn’t been so alienating; if he’d sold even more records, if he’d soothed his fans’ insecurities rather than exacerbated them; if newspaper editors could sense the shock, the loss, of his death, well then: he wouldn’t have been Kurt Cobain, a nothing, a true star, and dead meat the day he was born.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Marty Perez.