Friday, April 02, 2004

Ten years gone: The legacy of Kurt Cobain

—Originally published 4.2.04

On April 5, 1994, Nirvana lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, at just 27 years old, shot a bullet through his head. His body was found three days later in his Seattle home.

It didn't matter much to me at the time, but a decade after his death, I'm wondering what might have been.


When Cobain committed suicide, all objectivity regarding his band's place in history went out the window. Right or wrong, he immediately assumed rock god status, right next to Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Keith Moon, and any number of others who let their addictions get the best of them. "It's better to burn out than to fade away," Neil Young wrote in "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" -- in the judgment of history, that definitely applies to a rock-and-roll resume.

Nirvana is another of my "most overrated bands of all time." They were so posthumously praised, starting with the wall-to-wall coverage following the discovery of Cobain's body, it's nearly impossible for anyone to honestly assess the band's career.

Here's my criteria for being overrated: When asked, "What are the five best albums in rock history," whichever five albums pop into your head without thinking about it, those five artists are overrated.

Two of those albums were probably recorded by The Beatles, who are (of course) No. 1 on Rolling Stone Magazine's new list of "Immortals: The Fifty Greatest Artists of All Time," joined by the likes of other overrated acts likes The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Hendrix and, yes, Nirvana at No. 27. (Cobain's picture is on the issue's cover, on newsstands now.) This is just the latest in a long, long, long list of rock and roll "best of" lists. I hate them all, because all the same people are always in all the same slots.

This is not -- let me repeat, NOT -- to say those bands aren't among the greatest ever. In no way am I demeaning the accomplishments of The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, etc. It simply means their greatness has been so drilled into our heads by five decades of music critics, we can't possibly -- heaven forbid -- pick anyone else for these stupid lists without feeling a twinge of guilt.

I'm just like you: Included in my all-time top five are Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and U2, all of whom made the "Immortals" list and are also considered overrated by many.

But, sick as it may be, those that die dramatically are at another level. Most weren't around long enough to have what would be considered a full career. They burned so intensely for such a short time, though, they wash away criticism. (Go back and read Rolling Stone's review for Nirvana's landmark 1991 album "Nevermind," which received a meager three stars.)

I've rewritten my own history with Nirvana, too. I shied away from the band in its heyday, due to the overwhelming press of media hype combined with my friends' devotion. I don't remember when I first listened all the way through "Nevermind," but it was only a few years ago. Returning again to the Nirvana catalog the past few weeks, I realize we're in dire need of another Kurt Cobain -- someone with that perfect (and hard to find) mix of talent, indie sensibilities and mainstream appeal.

When Cobain died, the Seattle invasion was soon to follow. Pearl Jam remains one of the few survivors from a group that also included Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, among others. Now Billboard's Top 10 Modern/Alternative Rock tracks include bands like Nickelback, 3 Doors Down and Puddle of Mudd -- all Seattle-sound hacks. Nirvana and Pearl Jam may have shunned the popularity they experienced in the early '90s, but at least people were listening to good music on the rock airwaves again.

In the late '70s, punks like The Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Clash put the hurt on bloated bands like Kansas and Boston, and a revolution was born. In the same way, the Seattle sound from the early '90s put '80s rockers like Motley Crue, Poison and their copycats out to pasture.

Ten years after Cobain's death, we seem to be back at the cycle's low end. As a result, several stations nationwide are changing their formats to "classic alternative," meaning essentially mixing in cuts from the Seattle bands with some of today's better songs that don't get played on mainstream radio.

I take it as a bad sign the music I listened to as a 13 year old is already being called upon to salvage the airwaves. I thought the so-called "garage rock" of the past few years may be the answer, but I don't know if that movement will leave any lasting impressions. Much as I love The White Stripes, the bands who really make a difference seem to take elements from the past and move forward into something new; the Stripes, Hives, Vines, Strokes, etc., may have revived a great genre -- and done so splendidly -- but we should be looking ahead, not back.

Hopefully there's some kid out there right now, sitting in his room, banging out lyrics and hooks that will turn the music world on its ear once again.

And hopefully he'll live to see his 28th birthday.

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