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VI. Dear Kurdt,

I use the ‘D’ because I consider you a friend, although I doubt you would consider me one. Perhaps I shouldn’t even say I consider you a friend. I do consider you, however. You have left quite an impression.

It's been eleven years since you've gone, and I am listening to Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York. I am experiencing several emotions because of it. Firstly, I feel sadness, because it’s likely you had your eventual outcome on your mind that evening, whether that really comes through in the performance or it’s just in my head, I’m not sure. Given how it all ended up, it’s easy to imagine it being so, and tends to make the listening heavier and sadder. Then there’s how funny the whole thing is, with the encouraging sounds and applause of an adoring audience, hanging on your every off-handed and exhaustedly casual word, and the detached give and take between yourself and the rest of the band. You are the ultimate rock star at that moment, and it’s clear that this puzzles, annoys and contradicts you and your very nature as a person. It’s perversely ironic and you seem to let that perversity flow out all around you through your singing, playing and speaking. I don’t think anyone so famous or successful has ever been so willfully blasÚ on a stage so big. And this only makes it all the more funny and effective, of course, spelling out the very confrontational ethic that catapulted you and your band to such absurd heights in the first place.

I am not a fan of punk rock, nor do I subscribe to its ‘anyone can do it’ philosophy, but in your hands, it makes sense, it works, and it is a highly entertaining and provocative art form. But then again, you’re not just anyone. Maybe it’s the burnt sugar sound of your voice, or the expert way you play slightly out of time and sing sometimes slightly out of tune. Maybe it’s the naked, yet subtle, almost humble, emotional power of your songs and the way they lilt and sigh with the band playing them so empathetically in this, one would initially think, foreign acoustic medium. Maybe it’s the way you impose your own inimitable style on everything you perform, no matter whose song it is, be it the Bowie tune, the Meat Puppets tunes, or even the Leadbelly. Like The Beatles, the second you performed a song, it was yours forever. No one else should ever sing “The Man Who Sold The World” again. You know Bowie must have been blown away and humbled. I certainly am. It’s as if you broke all the rules, made up some new ones, and demanded, just by the sheer volume of your talent, that everyone adhere. And everyone did. Whatever it is, it’s the real thing, it’s more than punk, and it lingers like a shadow long after the album ends.

I was upset when you died. I had been a fan for some time, although I wasn’t initially. I spent the ’80’s liking U2, Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, R.E.M. and Rush. I never liked punk rock music and I was never that into what would now be called the first alternative rock music, artists like The Smiths or The Cure. I had no idea who The Pixies were. I was your average pop rock kid. At first, I was confused and repulsed by you and your band. It was October of ‘91 and I was up late watching MTV on the little couch in the den, pretty numbed out by the general mediocrity of what was on, and suddenly, that scratchy guitar appeared in a dark, dank gymnasium. It was ugly and wretched sounding and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It caught me off guard. Then those huge drums thundered in and I thought it was some stupid heavy metal video. But the drummer didn’t look like a heavy metal guy. Nor did the slightly balding bass player, or the blond guitar player with his hair in his face. It was very strange looking, that video, and by the end of it, I wasn’t sure what I felt, but I was affected. It left an impression and I sat and thought about it for some time. Who was that guy? Why was his hair so dirty and in his face? Why was he wearing that green sweater and standing so hunched over? Was it a joke? Why was he screaming so much? What was all that slam-dancing about and why did the cheerleaders have big scarlet A’s on their breasts? The visuals and the screaming, especially, were frightening, I thought, and I was unnerved by it. I decided that I did not like it, and I had no idea what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” meant and I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t understand how a video like this got on MTV. I went to bed.

I was still thinking about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the next morning and I would continue thinking about it for the rest of the year. It upset me. I couldn’t decide whether that “hello, hello, hello…” thing was obnoxious and annoying, or funny and catchy. The images in the video were dark and unsettling, but evocative and memorable. The music was ferocious and seething with what sounded like pure rage. But the more I thought about it, another thought came into my mind. It wasn’t angry or obnoxious in the same way that a band like Guns ‘N’ Roses was. Or heavy metal music in general, which I was never into. It seemed a real and legitimate anger. Axl Rose and his band had hit it very big a few years before with their own angry brand of hard rock, and their videos were constantly on MTV, but Axl seemed very ‘rock star’ to me, empty and posing. Like most people I knew, I liked the big hits from their first album, but his voice was cartoonish and ugly, the newer songs were fake and formulaic, and the band had become bloated with success and decadence. It didn’t seem real. The blond guy in that new video seemed too strange to not be real. Nobody could make that up. It was too far out. The first of three switches went off in my head, and I thought, at the very least, that whether I liked that song or not, I was impressed by how different that guy was. He was his own thing, of his own making, and doing it his way, and that was impressive, given that, aside from Michael Stipe and Sinead O’Connor, nothing else on MTV at that time was anything like that, unless it was just so weird that you couldn’t even listen to it. It had been almost three years since U2’s Rattle And Hum album, and it would be another month or so before the release of Achtung, Baby, so there wasn’t much going on in music for me at that time. The memory of the drums impressed me as well. They were big, and real sounding, not processed. And the guitar was ultra distorted, but listenable. Really rocking, the more I thought about it. That song really rocked.

Later in the year, I was talking about you to my little brother, Michael, who was about eleven at the time. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s Nirvana!” He was always precocious and already a fan. He said, “They’re from Seattle and the lead singer’s name is Kurt Cobain. They’re the best band in the world next to The Beatles!” I chuckled, thinking him a na´ve little kid. Better than U2? Better than R.E.M.? The Rolling Stones? Led Zeppelin? The Who? He said, “Yeah, and they’re going to be huge this year.” I shook my head and said I thought it was a pretty cool song, but I didn’t know about all that. He said, “It’s gonna happen and they’re gonna be big. The guy’s a genius.” Now how would an eleven year old kid know anything about genius? He had been a major Beatle fan since he was three, so he knew great music. He also loved Prince, Michael Jackson and U2, Bruce and Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and The Stones, all of them. He knew what he was talking about, and I trusted him. It turns out he knew far more than me, because driving in my car later that day, I heard “Lithium” on the radio, and I nearly had to pull over just to concentrate on it. It was clear this was a major talent, someone descended directly from the music I loved growing up, someone who had heard the same things I had heard, and yet some other things I had not. The verse melody was surprisingly tuneful for a rock song, and I was reminded of John Lennon, not only in the humorous nature and simplicity of it, but in the sweet raspy-ness of the voice singing it. And then all hell broke loose in the chorus, which was just the voice screaming (again) the signature Beatle word, “Yeah!” Over and over it went, so much so, that again I asked myself, “Is it a joke?” It’s really funny when you think about it, I thought. This guy is screaming the word “Yeah” over and over against these really quirky guitar chords, which I think are the same chords as the ones in the verse. But it’s explosive and dynamic and the drummer is hitting the drums as hard as I’ve ever heard, and they’re crashing all over me! I’ve never heard music so obviously dynamic before. It’s quiet and menacing and then it’s loud and ridiculously over the top. It’s funny and scary, and you can really hum that melody. This is awesome! The second switch turned on in my head and I was a Nirvana fan.

I went back to Michael and told him. He said, “Yeah, they’re awesome. You should read the lyrics.” He had the “Lithium” single, and gave me the foldout that had the lyrics printed on them. “You can’t really understand what he’s saying totally, which is cool. Like Mick Jagger or Michael Stipe.” Precocious kid. I read through the lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” and I was again impressed. They were different and poetic, funny and sarcastic, almost as if the guy who wrote them didn’t give a shit about what he was saying. They seemed totally meaningless, and yet possessed any number of meanings if you wanted them too. Again, I thought of Lennon. And then I read the lyrics to “In Bloom” which I hadn’t even heard yet. The line that got me was, “Spring is here again/Reproductive glands.” The third and final switch went off and Nirvana became one of my all-time favorites. I went out the next day and bought Nevermind.

The first thing that grabbed me was the sound of it. It was like the biggest sound I’d ever heard on a record, even if it wasn’t. Led Zeppelin made records that sounded that huge, and Back In Black by AC/DC was Goliath-sounding, but this was something new. The more I listened, the more it sucked me in, very much like Rubber Soul and Revolver had done when I was a kid. Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Rush’s Moving Pictures, Prince’s Purple Rain, The Police’s Synchronicity. This was a new rock album that was as good as the favorite albums of my whole life to that point. “Come As You Are” was especially different, flaunting that murky, underwater guitar/bass riff and that arching melody circling around it with that nonchalant sarcasm that makes you want to keep listening more to that guy. The attitude was in-your-face confrontational and totally “I don’t give a shit.” The words, meaningless and meaningful at the same time, repeated over and over like a chant or a twisted kind of prayer, lost their sound as English to become pure, transcendent expression. Like what Michael Stipe had done, but to an absurd spiritual conclusion. The end of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the most mind-boggling example of this. The repeated line of “A denial…A denial…A denial…” became, the more it went around and around, what sounded to me like “Adenoy-ah,” the Hebrew word for God. It gave the impression of a soul screaming out to God in a voice overwhelmed by rage and pain. I still can’t listen to that song without being emotionally and spiritually. And yet also energized and liberated. And all this from a punk rock record.

Yes, it was punk rock, but really poppy as well, most notably in the hum-ability of the melodies. They were instantly memorable, and after many listens, only grew in quality and charm. I couldn’t believe how good this guy was. And his voice was special, as if I’d always known it. It had that immediate recognizable quality, like it had always been. Again, I was reminded of John Lennon, and what that voice had always done for me. And the drumming was about the best I had heard since the heydays of Neil Peart and Stewart Copeland. The power and size of it was reminiscent of John Bonham, but in a punk context. It felt like Rock and Roll reborn.

Which is why you got so big, I guess. And that made for quite the story, didn’t it? You didn’t want any part of it, you were just a punk rock kid from Washington state who grew up liking Creedence Clearwater Revival, Iggy Pop, The Beatles and The Sex Pistols. You got in a band with your only friend and you tirelessly toured the underground punk circuit of the late ’80’s, hoping to hear your Bleach songs on the radio. I got Bleach soon after it re-appeared and I didn’t like it very much. There are some hints of where you were going and what you were capable of, but not too many. It’s an ugly punk rock record by a guy who also loved Black Sabbath. The best thing on it is “About A Girl.” But I never knew my punk rock, so I had no point of reference for something as raw as Bleach was. Several of the songs did grow on me, mostly for their melodies, but the overall sound was hard to get with. I remember thinking “School” was funny.

In context, it makes sense, given the quantum leap forward that Nevermind was. It’s like you were saving it all up for one gargantuan orgasm and when you came, you came hard. The last rock record that had that kind of impact on a large scale was probably The Joshua Tree, but that was by a well-established act with several albums to their credit. Before that, it would have to have been Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix. Nevermind dwarfed Appetite For Destruction in every way, and I remember thinking this will be the end of Guns ’N’ Roses, and all of the lesser bands like them. At the time, MTV was littered with them, “hair bands” like Poison, Whitesnake, Great White, White Lion, and Warrant. They were popular, but boring and unoriginal. Nevermind buried them all. I remember being as excited about that as I was about the music itself. This was a pop culture revolution, something that almost matched the advent of The Beatles some twenty-seven years earlier. And just in time, because the period from 1989 to 1990 was as bad as it ever got in rock music. In 1990, amidst the dearth of any good music on MTV, and the gap between R.E.M. and U2 albums coming out, I commented to friends that if Rock and Roll was not dead, it was indeed stretched out on a respirator, fighting for its life. Whether you wanted to or not, or whether you cared at all, you and your band took Rock and Roll music off that respirator with Nevermind. And then all hell broke loose. You got everything you didn’t want. Or it seemed that way. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to knock Michael Jackson out of his hallowed place at number one, but I’m sure it freaked you out. It freaked everyone out. 1992 was pretty exciting.

Why didn’t you ever go to a chiropractor? The word was you were in constant stomach pain, and that you would curl up on the floor, and spit up blood and bile. I felt bad for you when I read that. And then you showed up on Headbanger’s Ball wearing that yellow prom dress, and then played that show on MTV with your hair dyed orange. I couldn’t believe how daring you were. It was the point of the whole thing, a big “fuck you” to everyone, and yet everyone thought it was great. And then the video for “Come As You Are” premiered, and it was even cooler than “Teen Spirit.” Your face couldn’t be seen until the very end on the grass, with all the water spilling out everywhere. You were swinging on that chandelier and there was a clear sense that it was free, out of control art, and that the artist was also out of control, and didn’t care. It was either brave or stupid, or both, but affecting. And at the bottom of it was the thought that you were in fact very much in control of what you were doing, that it was not just off the cuff bullshit. You knew exactly what was going on and what you were putting out there. Listening to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, I realized what you were doing and what you had achieved. You were the son of Plastic Ono Band but you had found a way to present that same kind of pain and exorcism in a way that was both original and commercial. Michael Jackson didn’t have a chance.

There was an article in the now-defunct Musician magazine about you later that year. I think it compared you to Hamlet. It wondered what you would do next. Would you be able to match Nevermind? Insecticide had just come out, and the writer said it was good, but not the huge statement you would be obliged to make in the wake of Nevermind’s unprecedented success and your crowning as the new savior boy-genius of Rock. It seemed a no-win situation. I felt confident the next Nirvana album would be great. There was some good stuff on Insecticide, especially “Sliver,” “Molly’s Lips,” and “Been A Son.” Again, I couldn’t shake off the Lennon comparison. These were very short, tightly constructed pop songs that just happened to be dressed up in punk distortion and temperament. The use of pure noise as an instrumental force was inspired in how deranged it sounded, and again, funnier with each listen. The pure nerve of it was liberating, like all great rock has ever been. And through all that noise, the melodies stuck in my head. I was excited for the new album.

I had read that you were annoyed with the exaggerated surge of success that came exploding out of Seattle in your wake that year. The ascendance of Pearl Jam seemed to really stick in your craw because they were really just a hard rock hybrid of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company dressed up as “grunge.” They weren’t pure or punk, and it pissed you off that they hit it on the tails of your breakthrough and ended up selling even more records than Nirvana. They weren’t the real thing, they were imposters, posers. By that time, I liked Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder, and I thought that he at least was genuine and an inspired singer/lyricist and passionate front man. Later, when I read the story of how you and he met backstage at the MTV Video Awards, I was again impressed that you had said you saw the same thing in his possessed performance of “Jeremy.” The artist in you saw the artist in him and you didn’t let ego or competition prevent you from expressing that. I never knew you, nor do I know you any better now, but I think that is the mark of a great artist and a humane person. There is no doubt Eddie Vedder thought the same.

There was a great deal of hype surrounding the release of In Utero. I read several articles about it and I got it the day it came out. It did not disappoint. In fact, being as ready as I was for it, I was pleased immediately, especially by “Serve The Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” and “Dumb.” It was harder-edged and more raw than Nevermind. It was louder and noisier. He‘s done it, I thought. He’s made the most aggressively noisy punk album he can make in the face of the biggest anticipation of a major label record this year. The nerve it took to do something like that with all the pressure there must have been to repeat the success of Nevermind is beyond my comprehension. What a standard to set, an example to follow. At the height of your success, you went out of your way to say a hearty “fuck you” to your record label, radio, MTV, and everyone else who was interested in your band as a money-making machine. Again, I was struck by the similarity to Lennon. He did the same thing with Plastic Ono Band in 1970, the year you were three years old. Only the bravest (and craziest) of artists do.

In Utero exploded out of the speakers, and before long, it was glued to my brain like Nevermind had been the previous year. Even the half of the record that was pure punk noise retained a strong melodic appeal. The ridiculous brilliance of “Rape Me,” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” the apocalyptic melt-down of “Scentless Apprentice” and “Milk It,” the absurd humor of “Tourette’s” and “Very Ape,” all heaped together on a record that debuted at number one and sold well over a million copies. I still shake my head when I think about it. But you were always a duality, Kurt. For as much as you were a true punk rock kid, with a solid ‘fuck you’ for anyone within earshot and a gob of spit for the MTV camera, you were also a child of The Beatles, and you could never allow yourself to put something out there without that pure pop genius running through it. Hence, we get the chipped diamond that is “Heart-Shaped Box,” the transcendently beautiful lullaby of “Dumb,” and what I think is all in all your signature song, the timeless, classic “All Apologies.” I could write a whole essay about that one song. But you know all about it. You know what you did there. I’m glad I got to hear that one. Somewhere, John Lennon was digging it as well. Maybe you’ve met him and he’s told you so. Maybe it’s just a silly fantasy of mine. Either way, “All Apologies” is as good as Rock ever got.

In late ‘93, I went to see Nirvana in New York City at a place called The Coliseum. The Breeders opened the show and did a perverse version of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” Then you came out with a statue of an angel behind you. The band had been expanded with Pat Smear on second electric guitar and you seemed pissed off from the word go. But it sounded good, and the band was tight and powerfully blasted through a good number of your great songs. I even moshed during “Come As You Are” and I must admit I felt the rush of the moment. I wanted to get near the stage to see you up close, and as the song swelled into the crushing bridge section of “…and I swear that I don’t have a gun…”, the entire place seemed swept up in a huge wave, rising and falling willingly, and the power of it surged through the crowd, exciting, joyous, and frightening all at the same time. I didn’t get very close, but I felt what seemed like a piece of your essence as a performer and artist, and the feeling has stayed with me to this day. That was the one and only time I ever moshed. In the middle of the show, you sat on the edge of the stage and performed a mini-acoustic set, which included the Leadbelly song and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam.” You were quite beautiful to watch, and I noticed that the crowd of mostly young kids seemed uninterested in the set. I got the feeling that they were only there to hear the “hits” and mosh as fiercely and wildly as they could. I then sensed that this had occurred to you as well and you were pissed off because of it. They had no idea what you were doing, no idea that you and the band had just performed an entire acoustic set for MTV the previous night, and that it would become your swansong and one of the finest, most uncomfortably intimate live performances ever recorded. In that moment, they didn’t deserve you. Many of them just walked out of there bleeding.

I am not going to say I knew you would die, even though it’s clear when you look at In Utero and the “Heart-Shaped Box” video. Even after the first time in Italy or wherever that was, I didn’t think you were actually trying to kill yourself. The lyrics of “All Apologies” are a literal suicide note, and the last light in your eyes definitely goes out at the end of the Unplugged show, but I was na´ve and I didn’t want you to die. I never thought it would happen. You were on the cover of Rolling Stone saying “Success doesn’t suck.” What a scam. You sure fooled David Fricke. I wonder what he thinks about that interview now. He sure got taken. I’m sure he thought he really knew you, that you were friends. He probably still thinks so. Rolling Stone deified you, the way they like to do, and it was fitting, although stupid and greedy as well. It was further insult. Make him even more what he is not and what he never wanted to be. I went over it again and again in my head. I didn’t understand why you didn’t just disappear, retire, get a cabin in the Washington woods and never be heard from again, like J.D. Salinger or Greta Garbo. That would have been the ultimate “fuck you.” But you were in so much pain, right? Why didn’t you just go to a chiropractor? Not as cool or chic as smack, I guess.

And now your legend grows like Hendrix or Jim Morrison or James Dean, your legacy is fought over and more money is made by all kinds of people, some of whom knew and loved you, most of whom could give a shit. “You Know You’re Right” was awesome. Many years ahead. It pissed all over everything else on the radio. I feel especially bad for Krist. Dave Grohl's done better than anyone could have expected, although I don’t think much of his stuff. It’s competent rock, and the videos are funny. He’s a great drummer. And Courtney keeps on stirring it up like few other hurricanes before her. I don’t know if that makes you proud or embarrassed. She’s a hailstorm all to herself. Like Stipe said, “A sad tomato, three miles of bad road…” There is a theory she had you killed. I don’t know what to think about that. It seems too strange to be true. But then, so does everything else about you, Kurt. You were too strange to be true. And yet, you were true. I think that’s the purest indication of how great you really were. I hope your stomach doesn’t hurt anymore. And I’m still not a punk rock fan.

April '05.

Bleach B-

Nevermind A+

Insecticide B

In Utero A

Unplugged In New York A

My heart is broke but I have some glue.