Nirvana legacy endures 20 years after Kurt Cobain's death

Washington band to be inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer

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His howl was born under a hazy Washington sky, a melodic angst that wailed around the world.

And 20 years ago on April 5, Kurt Cobain's voice was silenced by a shotgun turned on himself in his Seattle home. It was a sudden end for not only the tormented 27-year-old who had become a reluctant spokesman for Generation X, but his band Nirvana.

To many, Cobain was a tortured talent beyond compare, to some, a loathsome junkie to be shunned.

If you go

• What: “Come as You Are: The Legacy of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana,” a panel discussion about the enduring legacy of the band.

• Where: Experience Music Project Museum’s JBL Theater, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle.

• When: 2 to 3:30 p.m. April 6.

• Cost: Free, first-come, first-served.

Nirvana's songs — full of rage, wit, defiance, intimacy — sparked a fiery musical revolution that burns in the hearts of not only Cobain's generation, many who continue to carry a torch for the band, but those in generations before and after.

He was rock rebellion exemplified.

The Washington band's legacy will be further cemented Thursday when it is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside fellow 2014 inductees, including Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Hall & Oates and KISS. It's an honor few would have expected when Nirvana first exploded on the Pacific Northwest independent music scene in the late 1980s.

Cobain's shadow remains, unfaded by time.

Lessons on grunge

In Camas High School teacher Sam Greene's History of Rock class last month, teenagers studied how Nirvana and other "grunge" bands fit in the lineage of popular music. None were born before Cobain died, yet Greene said many regard his band as one of the best ever — just as their teacher does.

In the class, groups of kids compared the cultural impact of The Beatles-led British Invasion in the mid-1960s to Nirvana's breakthrough album "Nevermind" in 1991, a recording seen as a death knell for the popular, but mostly vapid, hair metal bands that topped the charts in the late '80s.

"I have some students who are ga-ga for Nirvana," Greene said. "They are kind of like their Beatles. For many of them, they look at them like I looked at John and Paul growing up.

Teens React to Nirvana

"That's the timelessness of it," he said.

Greene is 45 years old, so he's the right age to have been able to see Nirvana in 1991 when they opened for Dinosaur Jr. at the Melody Ballroom in Portland. He still has that concert ticket, displayed like a trophy outside his classroom.

"I didn't really know who Nirvana was. My impression was these guys have a sound, they've got something that's unique, they've got a lot of energy and they could be a big deal," he said. "It's one of those things I look back at now and think, 'wow.' I didn't realize how special that moment was going through it. In retrospect, I feel honored, or blessed."

Vancouver Fire Department firefighter-paramedic Mark Bennett worked for a small ambulance company when he was assigned in 1992 as a medic at a benefit concert at Portland Meadows to oppose an anti-gay Oregon ballot measure.

"It was an absolute surprise to get there and realize Nirvana was playing," Bennett recalled.

After the show, parts of which are now viewable on YouTube, Bennett went backstage and spotted Cobain holding his newborn baby.

"I thought, 'what a horrible time to bug him,' but I thought I'm never going to get this chance again," Bennett said. All Bennett had on him for Cobain to sign was a bandage.

"I said, 'Would you mind signing my bandage?' He said, 'As long as it's clean.'"

The other Nirvana members walked up at the same moment, so Bennett also got their signatures. He still has the bandage, and keeps it as a cherished memento to this day.

"That bandage isn't going anywhere. It's sentimental to me," he said. Despite 22 years passing since that concert, Bennett said the music still sounds just as fresh as it did that night.

"To me it doesn't sound dated," he said. "I have a 9-year-old who likes it, she likes Nirvana."

Fresh, raw sound

Nirvana's sound was centered from the raw power of Cobain's squealing guitar and forceful voice, Dave Grohl's muscular drumming and Krist Novoselic's supportive bass. Its "loud, quiet, loud" dynamics — a description derived from fellow alternative rock legends the Pixies and often used to describe Nirvana's cathartic song structures — struck a chord with an audience hungry for rock that was more sincere and dark than the "let's party" vibe of the preceding heavy metal scene.

Cobain's lyrics — at times bewildering, but still engrossing — fit well in the swirl of distorted guitar riffs and melodic breaks, exemplified best in their biggest hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

"As much as people say 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is the cliched song to like, there's literally nothing out there that sounds like that," said John Doyle, the 20-year-old singer/guitarist for Camas pop-punk band Medium Size Kids.

He and his band are devotees of Nirvana and what was once called the "Seattle sound."

"A lot of people say about Nirvana, 'they just whine and make noise on their guitar' … it's not true," said Medium Size Kids drummer Shane Moffett, 20. He bought "Nevermind" in middle school and still plays it in his car to this day.

"The lyricism was great, Dave Grohl is fantastic, Krist Novoselic is an incredible bassist. And sure, Kurt wasn't the greatest guitarist of all time or the greatest singer, but it wasn't really about that. It was about him wanting to do what he wanted to do."

Cobain's demons — a well-known drug addiction, his troubled upbringing in Aberdeen and other suburbs, and a chronic stomach condition — were fodder for his craft. As was a love of music, his relationships and memories of youth. It was music derived not only of anger, but of a broad spectrum of the human experience: anguish, regret, love, fear.

"I'm so happy, 'cause today I've found my friends, they're in my head. I'm so ugly, but that's OK, 'cause so are you, we've broken mirrors," he sang at the start of "Lithium" one of the many hit singles from "Nevermind," Nirvana's second album that sold more than 30 million copies around the world.

Forever Nirvana

Just as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is honoring Nirvana 25 years after its first commercial recording, in recent years the band and Cobain have been memorialized in a number of ways. These days they are not only rock superstars, they are icons.

Cobain's widow, rebellious rocker Courtney Love, has apparently warmed to the idea of a musical based on his life, which she recently told music magazine NME was "very likely," despite sticking her tongue out at the idea in the past. A few years ago she, and his band members, were irked about how his likeness was used in "Guitar Hero 5," where people could use fake guitars to control his digital doppelganger and play not only Nirvana classics, but songs by Bon Jovi and Duran Duran — music that probably never made the cut in Cobain's record collection.

In the band's home state, an exhibit at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses," has become "one of our most popular exhibits to fans worldwide," said museum spokeswoman Anita Woo.

Nirvana - All Apologies (MTV Unplugged)

This year in Cobain's childhood home of Aberdeen, Mayor Bill Simpson, 73, helped organize a birthday celebration for their most famous, and controversial, resident. Cobain would have been 47 on Feb. 20, and about 280 people came out for the festivities.

The words "Come as You Are," the title of the second single from "Nevermind," greets visitors just under the "Welcome to Aberdeen" sign at the entrance to the small town.

"I was troubled by people saying 'don't honor him because he was a druggie,'" Simpson said. "My whole thing is what he did for music, what Nirvana did for music. I'd put them with The Beatles, I'd put them with Elvis. I'm proud of being able to honor him."

Simpson has done nearly 50 interviews with global media about Cobain in recent weeks, which he said is a testament to the continued passion people feel for the artist.

The town still gets travelers from across the world, who visit Aberdeen and the small Kurt Cobain Landing memorial near the Wishkah River as a pilgrimage-of-sorts to pay their respects.

Nirvana fan Jaime Dunkle, from Portland, would love to turn Cobain's small childhood home into a museum. It's a huge quest that hasn't yet gotten far off the ground, though her interest has received national press in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. So far, her fundraising page has only brought in $1,405 toward her $700,000 goal.

"A lot of people go to Aberdeen to sort of see through his eyes," she said. "That's why I went there. I wanted to see what he went through and try to feel what he felt."

Even though Cobain died 20 years ago, his voice is still being heard by new audiences.

Music Millennium owner Terry Currier believes Nirvana's music will continue to be heralded for a long time.

"You can't explain a phenomenon like that," Currier said from his Portland music store. "That music is speaking to a particular group of people and they all feel it the same way.

"Hopefully you'll see vinyl record stores in 50 years and there will be a Nirvana divider card in there and there will still be kids that are going to want to search out Nirvana."

Nirvana's legacy

Nirvana museum