“You can’t fire me because I quit.”—Nirvana, “Scentless Apprentice”
“I just wish I knew whether he won or lost,”—Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, the day after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, as quoted by Kim Neely in Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994
For a momentous occasion to advance to “generation-defining cultural touchstone” status, it has to pass the “Where were you when?” test. It’s not an easy test; only the big three of modern American history—the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Sept. 11—get passing grades. (Though only in an ethnocentric sense.) If you were alive when these events occurred, you’re supposed to be able to instantly recall with photographic detail what you were doing at the exact moment you first heard about them. Even a distant or mundane personal encounter with a universally felt experience tends to come back shrouded in thick layers of tragic-heavy significance whenever it’s conjured up. On the morning of 9/11, I woke up on my living room couch with a wicked hangover and still dressed in my clothes from the night before. It was like every other morning of my early 20s, and yet this was meaningful. I wasn’t just sleeping off a long work night of drinking. I was yawning and dry heaving through one of the darkest days in my nation’s history.
By the “Where were you when?” standard, Kurt Cobain’s suicide either doesn’t qualify or my memory is truly fucked. I know I remember finding out about it on a Saturday morning at school while waiting to get on the bus for a forensics tournament. (Extemporaneous speaking—yeah, I was pretty good.) Cobain’s body was actually found the day before, along with a can of Barq’s root beer, some towels, the shotgun with which he killed himself, and half of his $100 supply of Mexican black tar heroin. (He injected the other half before pulling the trigger.) I must not have watched any television the night of Friday, April 8; if I had, I would’ve known where he shot himself (in the greenhouse behind his home), who found his body (an electrician hired to install security lighting), and which CD was playing on the stereo when he died (R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People).
A fellow forensicator whose name was Josh or perhaps Trevor told me about the suicide. I don’t remember what he said exactly; I just recall thinking that he had to be joking. People were always kidding around about Kurt Cobain killing himself. Even Kurt Cobain cracked wise about his image as a shoulder-slumping, wrist-slashing depressive; he once wrote a Nirvana song called “I Hate Myself And Want To Die,” and released it on 1993’s The Beavis And Butt-head Experience. In hindsight, this seems important; at the time, it was just goofy.
In a way, my initial reaction to Cobain’s death was appropriate, because I had thought Nirvana was joking the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” two and a half years earlier. My life with Kurt Cobain was bookended by instances where I didn’t get what he was trying to say. But soon after I realized that the news was true, that Kurt Cobain really was dead, I became the poster child in my town for young Nirvana fans trying to come to grips with the tragedy.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I started writing a regular column for the teen-oriented “Get With It!” page of my hometown newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent. I was the de facto spokesman for Northeastern Wisconsin teenagers, and I felt it was my duty to address the untimely death of the spokesman for the grunge generation. Unfortunately, just like every grown-up pundit yapping on the subject in the media, I had nothing profound to offer. So, I did what newspaper columnists have done since The Boston News-Letter: I went maudlin, likening Cobain to rock stars of old that had died at any early age, and imagined them “sitting up there in rock ’n’ roll heaven”:
I’m sure Morrison is up there, as is Hendrix. Cobain ought to fit right in with those guys. After all, they have a lot in common. They all became big stars very quickly, creating music that would help define their times. They all created headlines and controversy with their reckless actions and their “to hell with it” attitudes. They were all killed before they got done saying what they had to say, and doing all the things they had to do. And, tragically, they were killed through actions of their own while they were still in their prime.
Admiration for Cobain’s “to hell with it” attitude aside, the thrust of my post-mortem was reassuring parents that kids were not going to be lining up to blow their heads off en masse in response to his death, a major (and overblown) concern in the press at the time. “Anyone thinking of doing this must realize something: Kurt Cobain’s death is perhaps the strongest argument against suicide imaginable,” I wrote with all the gravity that accompanies the heavy-handed prose of Appleton’s most respected 16-year-old columnist. The day my story ran, one of the local TV news channels came over to my house and interviewed me for that evening’s telecast. My mother was very proud; I just obsessed over how my complexion looked.
In my defense, it was a tall order for anybody to make sense of Cobain’s suicide. Cobain never seemed like a guy built to go the distance, but his suicide still seemed incredibly senseless and shocking. He had obviously wasted his talent and vitality as an artist, and yet his death undeniably made Nirvana’s criminally small body of work seem all the more singular and towering. His career seems oddly perfect—all killer and no filler, all because he murdered it.
In the aftermath of Cobain’s death, the world was left with three unanswerable questions: 1) Why did Kurt Cobain kill himself? 2) Was his suicide preventable? 3) How would things be different if he hadn’t killed himself? These are the questions I still come back to, 16 years later, while trying to figure out what, if anything, Kurt Cobain’s death is supposed to mean. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
Unanswerable No. 1: Why did Kurt Cobain kill himself?
Kurt Cobain did leave a suicide note, of course, which was conveniently emblazoned on T-shirts worn by the world’s dopiest Nirvana fans in the months after his death. (He also left a private note for his wife Courtney Love and child Frances Bean.) After sorting through the misspellings and knowing Freddie Mercury and Neil Young references, Cobain’s note seems frustratingly (though perhaps inevitably) muddled. Addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah, Cobain’s final words read like the first draft of a press release. (Love called it a “letter to the fucking editor.”) When Cobain writes about the lack of joy he felt in his stardom, he’s clearly addressing Nirvana fans more than his loved ones. (“I can’t fool you, any one of you.”) Even at the absolute lowest point of his soon-to-be-terminated life, Cobain was still image-conscious enough to anticipate how his suicide would be perceived in the media. “The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man!” he writes derisively, more about his public persona than himself. “Why don’t you just enjoy it? I don’t know.”
Two things strike me while reading Cobain’s suicide note. The first is his reluctance to truly open himself up; he doesn’t touch on the drug addiction or troubled home life that must’ve contributed in some way to his decimated mental state. Instead, he begins by writing about how “all the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses” have “proven to be very true,” because “sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage.” These were stock public statements coming from Cobain; he could’ve just cut and pasted one of the many interviews he gave about his distaste for the spotlight (or directed readers to side two of In Utero) to save himself the trouble of writing it out one last time in hastily scribbled longhand.
Later, he implies that lifelong depression and alienation, more than his disenchantment with fame, drove him to this desperate act: “I have it good, very good, and I’m grateful, but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful towards all humans in general.” It makes me wonder if Cobain’s problem with success is that it didn’t change his life enough. If you’re given everything you could ever want—a wife, a daughter, a home, financial stability, mass acceptance for your art—and you’re still unhappy, well, that just about sinks any possibility for redemption, doesn’t it?
The other thing I’m left with is how young Cobain seems. He had turned 27 just about a month and a half before his suicide; he was 11 years older than me when he died, which made him old enough for me to look up to but also young enough that his worldview still seemed applicable to mine. Now that I’m six years older than Cobain, he’s no longer a person with whom I feel much kinship. He’s just a confused and immature guy in his mid-20s that hasn’t given up the pleasurable misery of parsing his childhood traumas. He reminds me of the person I used to be, before I grew up a little and gained some perspective on life. Among the many things Kurt Cobain threw away was the opportunity to cringe over how stupid he could be when he was young.
Unanswerable No. 2: Was his suicide preventable?
The fact that Cobain did kill himself probably means that the answer is no, especially considering that he appeared suicidal on at least two occasions in the weeks leading up to his death—on March 3, when he overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol while on tour in Rome, and again on March 18, when Courtney Love called Seattle police after Cobain holed up in his house with a gun and a bottle of pills. Still, I’d like to believe that Kurt Cobain could’ve been saved by using an old basketball strategy, where the loser extends the game by committing fouls and calling timeouts, allowing for every last resort to play itself out. If anybody could’ve used an extra timeout, it was Kurt Cobain.
On March 30, Cobain checked into the Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles. The staff at the rehab facility wasn’t aware of Cobain’s prior suicide attempts; had administrators known this, they might’ve kept a closer eye on him. But they didn’t, which allowed Cobain to sneak over Exodus’ 6-foot-tall fence and hop a plane back to Seattle. In the end, it was far too easy for one of the world’s most famous rock stars to disappear for a long enough period of time to permanently erase himself from the world. If somebody could’ve just kept him alive long enough to make him see that he could walk away from Nirvana and all the baggage that came with it without destroying himself, things might’ve been different.
It’s a nice thought, but it seems painfully facile as I listen to MTV Unplugged In New York. Nirvana recorded the live album at Sony Studios on November 18, 1993, less than four months before Cobain’s first suicide attempt. When Nirvana’s Unplugged episode aired in December 1993, it seemed weird that so many of the songs were covers. But after Cobain died, it made a lot more sense: Funerals often feature favorite songs of the deceased.
In light of Cobain’s suicide, MTV Unplugged In New York was commonly heard as the work of a man committed to the idea of being dead as soon as possible. I know I’m not the only one that hears Kurt Cobain performing his own burial rites whenever the record plays. It’s not just a matter of the music’s close proximity to Cobain’s death; the suicide simply brought what was already there into greater focus. According to Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography Of Kurt Cobain, the Unplugged stage was decorated in lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier at Cobain’s suggestion. “You mean like a funeral?” Unplugged producer Alex Coletti asked. Exactly.
Cobain begins MTV Unplugged In New York with two Nirvana classics, “About A Girl” and “Come As You Are”—a very tasteful, if predictable tribute to the man’s life and legacy. Then there’s a hymn, The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” that’s irreverent and yet also appropriately churchy-sounding, followed by a eulogy in the form of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” where Kurt casually explains that he’s actually already been dead for a long time. Then he plays that long, droning guitar solo; listen closely and you can almost hear his spirit rising from the body.
After that there’s a series of famous (but not too famous) Nirvana deep cuts—“Pennyroyal Tea,” “Dumb,” “Polly,” and “Something In The Way.” (Playing one of Nirvana’s big hits would dishonor Kurt’s final wishes.) Then the Meat Puppets arrive to play pallbearers on “Plateau,” “Oh Me,” and “Lake Of Fire,” ushering the dearly departed to a dark place that sounds like the opposite of heaven but still oddly comforting, like a home away from home. Kurt addresses all those that have gathered one last time on “All Apologies”; he assures everybody that he takes full blame for what’s about to happen. When he finally gets to Leadbelly's “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” you hear him starting to dissipate. At the end, Kurt screams about shivering the whole night through. Suddenly there’s a lump in my throat; I’ve heard this song at least 600 times, and yet the lump always reappears in time for this part. My cheeks are hot, my eyes sting. I feel like I could throw up. Kurt gets to the final line, takes a shallow breath, and bellows “—night throuuuuugh!” A few banged-out guitar-strums later, he’s in the ground, lost forever.
Unaswerable No. 3: How would things be different if he hadn’t killed himself?
Chuck Klosterman wrote a funny piece in 2004 for Spin titled “What If Kurt Cobain Didn’t Die?” that contemplated the path Cobain’s life would’ve taken in an alternate universe where he didn’t blow a hole through his head. In Klosterman’s version of history, Cobain divorces Love, puts Nirvana on extended hiatus, releases an indifferently received solo record, and battles depression and drug problems with varying degrees of success. I have no idea how accurate this fictional scenario is, but I suspect that it’s strangely spot-on. It sounds like the slowly descending career arc followed by many aging rock legends who have lived long enough to be taken for granted. Even if Cobain had made it to middle age, it’s fair to speculate that the most important work of his life had already been created. If we believe Klosterman, the world didn’t miss much.
Because Cobain was given larger-than-life immortality in part because of his tragic demise, there was an almost immediate impulse to demystify him. A few years after Cobain died, I was talking to a friend about Nirvana and how Cobain’s death had affected me. “Oh, you’re one of the mourners,” she said with just the right amount of scorn to make me feel like an enormous tool. It’s not like I knew Kurt Cobain personally or something; he was just some famous guy, so what was I so upset about?
When Cobain entered the pop arena, he represented the possibility for fury, truth, weirdness—anything!—at the center of culture. At least that’s what I believed. But when he killed himself, people like me just looked like suckers. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” invading my hometown Top 40 radio station felt like an unimaginable sea change in the way That Things Are Supposed To Work, his suicide confirmed that nothing had really changed at all, and I was sort of a nitwit for believing that it did. Getting scolded for having the gall to actually be mournful about this just added insult to injury.
The perception is that Cobain’s suicide represents the momentum-shifting Billy Batts moment in the history of popular ’90s alternative rock. In Goodfellas, the murder of Billy Batts (played by well-traveled ass-kicker Frank Vincent) by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro signals a tonal shift from the swinging times of ’60s mafiadom to the pitch-black and cocaine-fueled hell of crime life in the ’70s. Exhilaration turns to apathy, and honor becomes a cheap joke. Similarly, Nirvana’s abrupt demise seemed to point toward darker times ahead. In reality, the emergence of bubble-grunge bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox already suggested that ’90s alt-rock was rapidly becoming a closed circuit; where a record like Nevermind had once been an instrument of personal awakening to underground culture, which opened a whole other can of worms about what was and wasn’t valid in the media’s tidy representation of society, STP’s Purple (its own merits aside) merely pointed back to all the CDs you had purchased in the past few years. The word “alternative” had the idea of otherness hardwired into its definition, but by 1994, “alternative” had been codified into its own set of sounds, attitudes, and clothing styles. Searching beyond the borders was discouraged. It was the beginning of the end, if not the end.
It would’ve likely played out that way even if Cobain had lived. But that doesn’t negate the perception that the excitement that came with grunge’s takeover of mainstream rock died along with him. Cobain’s suicide symbolized the crippling and devastating malaise that was starting to set in—not just in the mainstream rock audience, but among the bands as well. In all the grunge-related books and magazine articles that I’ve read, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil has provided some of the most insightful and heartfelt commentary on this. A towering hulk of a man whose dark-hued features are covered with an awesomely Satanic beard, Thayil proves the old truism about the scariest-looking guy in the band also being the most soulful and sensitive. He felt Cobain’s loss as much as anybody.
“When Kurt did that, it just permanently changed my perception about everything we’ve done for the past few years,” Thayil told Rolling Stone’s Kim Neely in 1994. “And I don’t mean just me. I mean our band, and all of the bands from here that play with each other and support each other and watch each other’s shows. It just seemed to metaphorically put an end to everything.”
For Soundgarden, 1994 should’ve been a new beginning. Exactly one month before Cobain’s body was found, on March 8, Soundgarden released Superunknown. It was the album of the band’s career: It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, went platinum five times over, and finally established Soundgarden as a commercial force on par with the other big Seattle bands. More than that, Superunknown was a monumental hard-rock record, a psych-metal masterpiece that expertly applied gonad-rattling heaviness to pop hooks that were cryogenically engineered to pluck your pleasure centers while drawing a little blood in the process. Jack Endino once described grunge as having “all the ingredients of classic ’70s rock, with maybe a little bit of ’80s punk rock attitude thrown into the recipe,” and nothing exemplifies this better than Superunknown. It’s the genre’s defining album. If grunge has any aspirations to musical greatness, Superunknown should be Exhibit A.
While the band’s music has aged exceptionally well, Soundgarden is remembered today for appealing mainly to knuckle-dragging mooks. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is Audioslave. Chris Cornell’s post-Soundgarden band sounds superficially like Soundgarden—mostly because of Cornell’s distinctive King Shit Of Fuck Mountain vocals—only Audioslave is far more bombastic and totally sucks. We might as well lump Cornell’s undistinguished solo career in here as well, though I’d rather not say much else about it. While it should be noted that making a terrible album with Timbaland that literally nobody in the galaxy enjoyed will tarnish your musical legacy, and that committing unholy acts on the carcass of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” will make even staunch Soundgarden fans embarrassed for you, I’d prefer to spend my time talking about how Cornell, at his best in the ’90s, was a powerhouse singer and the most underrated songwriter of his generation. I am here to praise Chris Cornell, not to bury him.
To explain the other reason why Soundgarden doesn’t get the respect it deserves, let’s talk for a moment in the parlance of contemporary indie rock. In the ’00s, no indie-rock band put out material as consistently strong as Spoon. Britt Daniel steadfastly refused to write even one clunker on Spoon’s records, which were released every two or three years to an audience that was impressed, then amazed, and then slightly bored by how Spoon never made an artistic misstep. This consistency proved to be a double-edged sword. Spoon was both highly respected and yet not passionately adored. Almost everybody that followed indie rock seemed to like Spoon, but never as much as bands not necessarily expected to be brilliant. It was only when you looked back over the course of several years that you realized that, holy shit, Spoon was one of the best bands of its era.
The same was essentially true of Soundgarden. It was just such a solid band that it was easy to overlook how good it was pretty much any time it stepped up to the plate. By the time of Superunknown, Soundgarden had been together for 10 years and had already made classic albums with 1989’s Louder Than Love and 1991’s Badmotorfinger. It handled career hurdles that Cobain could never reconcile with relative ease, leaving legendary indie label SST for A&M Records and then touring the world with Guns N’ Roses. Soundgarden was a band in a true sense—Cornell was the singer and chief songwriter, but everybody made important creative contributions. (And Thayil, the stoic guitar player, was arguably the most recognizable band member.)
With Superunknown, Soundgarden showed it could push its music forward while being more pop-friendly than ever. From 1994 to 1997, Soundgarden successfully transitioned from the supersonic slime of its early records to being a crafty and highly productive radio band, turning out a series of unbeatable singles—my favorites are “My Wave,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Blow Up The Outside World,” and “Burden In My Hand”—that were instantly catchy while remaining focused on eternally belching riffs.
More than any other Seattle band, Soundgarden seemed best equipped for a long career of multi-platinum records and balls-out stadium shows. And yet, three years and one day after Cobain’s dead body was discovered, Soundgarden followed suit and did itself in, releasing this terse statement to the press on April 9, 1997:
After 12 years, the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members’ future plans. They’d like to thank their fans for all of their support over the years.
Apparently, in-fighting over the creative direction of the band during the making of 1996’s underappreciated Down On The Upside was to blame; Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron wanted to push beyond Soundgarden’s usual molten molasses, while Thayil argued for staying true to the band’s roots. Anybody who’s ever heard a Soundgarden record will tell you that this dichotomy defined the band’s winning formula—experimentation and melody grounded in the muddy waters of the River Styx. That Soundgarden turned its core strength into a destructive creative disagreement suggests that this was a band looking to be smashed to smithereens once it hit the big time.
After steadily rising through the ranks, Soundgarden lacked the drive to maintain the rock-star status it had achieved. By the time Soundgarden reached the mountaintop, the view had already been ruined. Soundgarden returned to Lollapalooza in 1996, four years after doing the festival with pals Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; this time the band ended up squabbling with co-headliner Metallica over tour payments. At the final Soundgarden show in early ’97 in Hawaii, the excitable Ben Shepherd threw his bass down and stormed offstage while Cornell chanted, “We’re better without you.” The thrill wasn’t only gone, it had moved to an undisclosed location under an assumed name. Soundgarden had become the kings of grunge at the precise moment that grunge had burned itself out. “You barely had time to sit there in the afterglow,” Thayil told Rolling Stone’s Neely. “It was like, boom, the light was out.”
I don’t want to put all the sins of ’90s rock on Kurt Cobain’s corpse. Soundgarden had a good run, staying together for a dozen years. (Not counting the recent reunion, though it’s unclear whether it will stick.) Soundgarden probably would’ve broken up regardless, and alternative rock most certainly was on the road to being diluted well before Cobain died. Kurt Cobain was not a martyr, and I’m not going to dehumanize him by turning his life and death into a crushed velvet painting.
But I’m also not going to let Nirvana be reduced to a load of hype signifying nothing. Yes, I was one of the mourners. Kurt Cobain's music made my life better, opening me up to new worlds that enriched my existence immensely. I’m extremely grateful that Nevermind came into my life when it did, because I was a lonely kid that really needed something to connect with. Just because I’m fortunate enough to no longer be 13 years old doesn’t mean I’ll ever set aside my gratitude for what Cobain once gave me, or my grief for where he ended up.
I can only speak for myself (and possibly Kim Thayil) here; maybe you didn’t give a shit. But to me, you’re goddamn right Kurt Cobain fucking mattered.
What Happened Next? The originators of grunge were in decline in 1995, but grunge music was alive and well thanks to a new crop of bands that attempted to make up for their lack of roots with lots of hooks and angsty attitude. I’ll look at the rise of bubble-grunge—also known as post-grunge or “scrunge”—and how it paved the way for the popular modern rock of today.