When I found Nirvana, it was 1996 and Kurt Cobain was two years gone. But he lived on in my Discman.
These days, in the wake of the 20th anniversary of his death and Nirvana entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cobain’s voice remains in my being. It’s lodged deep down alongside the pangs of young heartbreak and the freedom felt by exploring my city with a carful of friends for the first time.
For a teen in the 1990s, Nirvana was everything.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, Cobain’s “little group” — distorted and revealing, sarcastic and sincere, passionate and furious — was for me. Each spin of a Nirvana CD, particularly “Nevermind,” engaged my mind in ways I hadn’t quite felt before. It was not background music; the raw power was enveloping. A “Teenage Riot,” to quote fellow alternative rock icons Sonic Youth, blasted in my ears. The world was mine.
With headphones on — staring out the backseat window on a family trip or in the back of class pretending to study — the noise of adolescence temporarily faded when Cobain sang of “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.”
I didn’t know what he meant. But somehow, at the same time, it felt like I did.
This wasn’t my parents’ music, it wasn’t what we performed in band, it wasn’t the bouncing pop played during car commercials. When I discovered a new song, I devoured each riff, every snare roll, and reveled in the feeling that I was a part of something important by the mere act of listening. When I tried to learn guitar, the first song I butchered was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Finally, I felt like I’d found music that was all mine.
But it wasn’t all mine. My experience was shared by many millions, spanning cultures and generations. Cobain, a 20-something punk rocker from a Washington lumber town, spoke to more than me. The world heard his scream.
This truth was reinforced while I was reporting a story about the legacy of Nirvana two decades after Cobain’s death at age 27 (“Forever Nirvana,” April 6, 2014). Many I talked with were touched in their own way by the music — each story personal, yet linked in spirit with other fans who were shaken by the “Seattle sound” of the early ’90s.
There are songs, and there is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There are bands, and there is Nirvana. There are rock stars, and there was Kurt Cobain.
Some will dismiss him as a suicidal junkie (indeed, anguish and addiction were his demise), but to reduce such a talent by dwelling on his downfall is wrongheaded.
The proof of his importance was, and is, how the music connects with people. How it connects with the teens in Camas High School’s “History of Rock” class. How it connects with the 73-year-old mayor of Aberdeen. How it connects with me. And on and on.
When I drive home, I’ll plug my cellphone into my stereo, search for Nirvana on Spotify, crank the volume and feel, yet again, like I can take on the world.
Because the music lives. It’s real.
Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.