“Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.”
Perhaps there wasn’t a single moment signifying the shift in generation more precisely- down to the millisecond- than when Kurt Cobain pulled the trigger on his Remington Model 11, 20-gauge shotgun moments after writing the words “peace” and “love” as a valediction at the end of his suicide note. Whatever time there was between Cobain writing those words and Cobain pulling the trigger exists in a vacuum, like the blank spaces in-between comic book panels; a tree alone falling in the woods; stillness and nothing.
Whatever time there was between Cobain writing those words and Cobain pulling the trigger were the only moments in Cobain’s adult life where he existed without imposition. Cobain was free to be meaningless. If expanded infinitely, like the sustained keystroke of an endless soundscape, Cobain could have lived in that moment forever; outside of time and space.
Instead, Cobain was torn apart by forces beyond his control- he existed as more than the sum of his parts; he was more than a person; more than a musician; he was more than a rock star and more than an icon. Cobain was branded as historically significant, for reasons both genuine and self-serving, and even if the weight of historic significance felt considerably lighter in the twentieth century, he was constantly negotiating terms with this designation- even when alone.
Born in 1967, Kurt Cobain was one of the first official members of Generation-X. The first true suburban generation; the shopping mall generation; the first ripe for consumer exploitation by the emerging neo-liberal world order. Cobain would later help characterize the generation, unwittingly providing better targeted advertising, for these corporate overlords: naïve and vain; sound and fury; stupid and contagious.
Generation-X had their emotions commodified and sold back to them in a slick and digestible package which they parleyed into an identity that they took for authentic; an identity that only mattered until they outgrew it. They published ‘zines and raged against machines until they became middle-managers. None of it was meant to be taken too seriously- it was just a different way to party.
Cobain died before reaching suburban enlightenment- where the four-bedrooms and luxury car soften the blow of dead idealism; or act as proof that your parents were right; that your tongue ring and tribal tattoo were not, in fact, who you really were. Cobain died a sinner, with a feeling of guilt so real that it would sicken him at night.
When Courtney Love brought her new Lexus home to their Seattle castle, Kurt had her return it. Owning a Lexus was too public an act of indulgence. Cobain was hoping that returning the proof that he wasn’t actually part of the underclass, whom he wanted to believe made up the cool, indie-rock conscious members of his audience, would be evidence enough that he consciously rejected his own success- Kurt’s salvation.
Maybe word would travel by mouth, and through newspaper gossip columns, that Kurt wasn’t like the other men at his age, in his tax-bracket, who drove luxury cars unabashed; that Kurt was an economy car driver, by choice- by choice, like the cool, indie-rock conscious members of the Nirvana fanbase who were also self-consciously living in working class poverty, just like him. Poverty as just another low-fi aesthetic, like intentionally shitty album covers or vocals deep in the mix.
This is what Kurt wanted to believe and none of it was actually true.
Kurt Cobain viciously cut the head off Axl Rose to become the King of Rock.
Released in 1991, Nirvana’s sophomore effort Nevermind is their best album. I like knowing that my saying this would bother Kurt. Further, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Kurt’s finest work- and anyone pretending that it wasn’t; that it isn’t the apex of the band’s style in composition, riffage, lyrics and tone is as deluded as Kurt was. The entirety of Nevermind, as most emblematic with “Teen Spirit,” exists as a crossroads between Kurt’s indie-rock sound, as seen in full bloom on the band’s debut Bleach (1989), and slick, big budget, radio friendly, unit shifting design.
The fact that this was achieved deliberately– a conscious choice made my Cobain- derailed Kurt’s historically significant career in rock music and, worse, sparked a domino rally-like effect that caused everything that came after Cobain pulled the trigger. This deliberate choice in sound, as dictated by Cobain- overwhelmed in a moment of weakness; agony in the Garden of Gethsemane- caused every bit of Hell that followed.
Cobain was unhappy with the initial mix of Nevermind, as handled by producer Butch Vig and began shopping around for someone outside of the project to handle a new mix. Cobain passed on Scott Lit, known for his work with REM, and Ed Stasium who was a well-known punk rock producer. Gritty and understated was not the sound Cobain wanted. Instead, the band chose Andy Wallace- who had just produced Slayer’s most commercial work Seasons in the Abyss (1990). Cobain wanted Nevermind to be loud and obliterating.
Lucky for anyone writing thousands of words tying together the suicide of Kurt Cobain to the end of history, the Cobain estate’s cash-in fire sale has made Vig’s original mix of Nevermind available on the gaudy SUPER DELUXE version of the album- a tell that those left behind have no respect for whatever Kurt Cobain was… but Vig’s original vision, dubbed the Devinshire Mix tells the story more clearly than any other source.
Vig had made Nevermind sound like any other alterative-rock album of the era- a noticeably thinner approach than the final release. After all, Nevermind was not intended to sound like heavy metal; Kurt Cobain liked to think of Nirvana as second wave punk rock, or post-punk. Had the original mix been released, Nirvana would have fallen just under the mainstream radar, with a few music videos on 120 Minutes and a modest summer tour. Vig’s mix was understated and tasteful.
Wallace’s mix, officially released, carried a sound that someone familiar with what was in rotation on MTV in 1991 would have been familiar with. Wallace took Cobain’s post-punk, indie rock and gave it a heavy metal sheen. The mix was both smoother and louder; the drums hit harder; the guitars buzzed even more. A teenager receiving Wallace’s re-envisioned Nevermind would feel comfortable with this new vision of suburban hard rock- it was familiar enough– while it delicately pushed boundaries making a Slayer concert t-shirt feel lame and dated. It was this version of Nirvana- this mix of their sound- in tandem with the perfect visual representation in the form of the “Smells Like Teen Spirt” video, that changed the rock music landscape overnight and squarely placed unlikely rock star Cobain at its forefront.
It’s popular to say in retrospect that Kurt didn’t want the new mix; that Kurt always hated it; that it was ordered by asshole, money-hungry record company executives who didn’t understand delicate artistry. Maybe rock journalists didn’t want to upset Cobain at the time- allowing him to give whatever line he felt appropriate, as long as they got a pair of VIP tickets and a few minutes with the king of shreds and patches… but nearly thirty years later, it’s become something of a modern myth; an alt-rock religion; like protecting the good name of Harvey Dent; a mystery that doesn’t need closer examination; one that could just be…
Cobain felt conflicted with his compliance in accepting the Wallace mix of Nevermind– the dark part of his soul screamed with guilt inside his Seattle castle… He desperately wanted to believe he was of unified mind in hating it, and resenting everything that came with it, but, of course, none of that was actually true.
Rock journalism is a concept that is inherently silly. At the time of Nevermind’s release, journalists were ex-hippies who compared every new rock record to the Beatles and Stones- making immutable, perfunctory top-20 lists each year where they voiced faux-disappointment in the current class of rocker’s failure to live up to the greats; this is what reading Rolling Stone was like in 1991. These journalists were not unlike your friend’s dad, with his collection of Sabbath and Zeppelin vinyl, who’d watch MTV with you on long summer afternoons just to shit on the “garbage that passed for rock music these days.”
These same journalists branded Kurt Cobain as the voice of his generation, and historically significant, as a back handed compliment. Yes, they liked Nirvana- recognized that Cobain had shifted the mainstream paradigm of hard rock- but found a way to do so while protecting their own aging sacred cows. Cobain could be great, but part of his greatness lie in the implicit acknowledgment that his greatness was lesser than what had come before- an acknowledgment that someone like Axl Rose would never concede; at least out loud. But Cobain, with his natural inclination to be recessive, built this acknowledgment into his music.
The joke about “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song which Cobain grew to detest so much that he began leaving it off concert setlists- a mortal sin in modern rock- is that it tastes great but is less filling when compared to the transformative pieces that came before it. It has a beautiful aesthetic but shouts nothing; the perfectly lit Ikea showroom with thin-walls and blank books.
Cobain’s lyrics are stupid, and the degree to which this stupidity was a meta-narrative is debatable. Cobain was the voice of his generation, because, as rock journalists saw it, he epitomized the generational decline from their own. Generation-X was loud and stupid, and Kurt captured that stupidity in lyrics like “Oh well, whatever. Nevermind,” because he was either part of a generation of idiots with nothing to offer or he was willing to sell out his own- admitting that Generation-X was a batch of entitled losers. It didn’t matter because it served its purpose- Boomers were smarter, had better music and hotter summers; they could pat the heads of their younger siblings with scraggly hair and busted up equipment, but their brand of rock will always reign supreme. Case closed.
Kurt Cobain’s designation of historic significance was packaged with strict terms-of-service: that he would maintain the rock-and-roll world order and never usurp the greats. Cobain took these journalists at their word and struggled with the weight of suddenly thinking he was very important.
Cobain’s coronation of historic significance by self-important journalists in 1991 was a contrived soundbite; myth-making to sell rock magazines; it wasn’t actually true.
Kurt Cobain took all of this shit too seriously; he died racked with guilt and shame. In January 1994, three months before pulling the trigger, he recorded Nirvana’s final song- what stands as one of their best- the haunting “You Know You’re Right.” The question, of course, becomes- who was Cobain talking to? The most troubling options seems to be himself.
Like the other members of his generation, Kurt took his ideals seriously- signing his final valediction “peace” and “love”; perhaps ideals he felt he irrevocably betrayed. Unlike other members of his generation, he didn’t get the fuck over it. He took these ideals seriously, because taking ideals seriously was all Kurt Cobain knew. Kurt Cobain died violently because ours is a world that’s become painted in blood when faced with disappointment.
With the crack of a shotgun, Kurt Cobain announced the arrival of the next generation- and, in death, became their Christ figure.
Kurt Cobain died a millennial.