Yes, it’s been over 20 years now since Nirvana played their last show, and if you’re old enough to have been there, go ahead and take a moment of silence to mourn your lost youth. Given the relative paucity of raw, authentic-sounding guitar rock these days, it’s tempting to romanticize the nineties as halcyon days, but that kind of nostalgia should be tempered by an honest accounting of the tedious flood of grunge-like also-rans the corporate labels released upon us after Nirvana’s mainstream success. In a certain sense, the demise of that band and death of its leader marks the end of so-called “alternative” rock (whatever that meant) as a genuine alternative. After Nirvana, a deluge of growly, angsty, and not especially listenable bands took over the airwaves and festival circuits. Before them—well, if you don’t know, ask your once-hip aunts and uncles.
And yet, there is another narrative—one that holds up the band as rock redeemers who broke through the corporate mold and, like the Stooges or the Ramones twenty years earlier, brought back authentic anger, danger, and intensity to rock ‘n’ roll. That Nirvana became the corporate mold is not necessarily their doing, and not a turn of events that sat at all well with the band. Their last show, in Munich, 1994 (see it in part above), “was anything but immaculate,” writes Consequence of Sound, a fact “almost tragically fitting.” As if presaging its leader’s decline, Nirvana’s final concert went from strained to worse, as Cobain’s voice faltered due to bronchitis, and the venue temporarily lost power. “Undeterred, they continued acoustically, but ended up cutting what would’ve been the seventh song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” the track that launched a million grunge garage bands three years earlier. With tongues in cheeks, they open—at the top—with The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” (and a few bars of their “Moving in Stereo”). Surely both an homage to a great ‘80s band and a punk deconstruction of major label radio rock of the previous decade.
In a foreboding remark after the power went out, bassist Krist Noveselic quips, “We’re not playing the Munich Enormodome tonight. ‘Cos our careers are on the wane. We’re on the way out. Grunge is dead. Nirvana’s over.” The remainder of the tour was canceled, and Cobain went to Rome, where he overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne and temporarily fell into a coma. One month later, after a failed rehab stint, he was dead. Almost immediately afterward, a cult of Cobain sprung up around his memory—as much a triumph of marketing as an act of mourning. T-shirts, posters, tribute albums… the usual mass culture wake when a rock star dies young. What saddened me as a child of the era is not that the band’s last tour petered out, or even that Cobain fell apart under the familiar pressures of fame and addiction, but that in death he was turned into what he hated most—an idol. But if the worshipful merch of twenty years ago seemed tacky, it was nothing compared to t-shirts selling just weeks ago with Cobain’s suicide note printed on them. (These have since been pulled due to complaints.) And while we may someday hear the demos of Cobain’s planned solo record, we might also have been treated to something else—“our next record’s going to be a hip-hop record,” joked Noveselic. Now that would have been a novelty. Instead we got these guys.
Watch The Last 48 Hours of Kurt Cobain on the 20th Anniversary of the Musician’s Suicide
Kurt Cobain’s Home Demos: Early Versions of Nirvana Hits, and Never-Released Songs
The First Live Performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
I never understood the fuss about Nirvana. Still don’t. I always suspected there was a need for someone to be hyped, and they fit the bill. That’s as good as they ever were. Need proof? Just re-read what you wrote: ”And yet, there is another narrative—one that holds up the band as rock redeemers who broke through the corporate mold and, like the Stooges or the Ramones twenty years earlier, brought back authentic anger, danger, and intensity to rock ‘n’ roll.” Peeuuw! That mentality falls right into the marketing meat-grinder of popular culture consumerism. The “sale” of music because it represents some romantic myth and image of teenage angst is, as it always has been – a hoax, and to continue it boggles the mind.
Additionally, while I am neither a fan of Nirvana or Kurt Cobain, I am embarrassed and insulted for him when you say: “…in death he was turned into what he hated most—an idol.” That is utter crap. In the post-Woodstock (maybe, even earlier) popular music environment, no one picked up a guitar, formed a band, recorded anything and did a tour without thinking about their own “rock immortality.” To believe otherwise is criminally naive, at best. The “purity of artistic expression” boat sailed long, long ago. Shame on you for insulting Cobain, my intelligence and yourself!
Finally, while I applaud you for having taken a shot at your choice of “these guys,” they were to easy a target. Cobain’s former bandmate-turned-superstar is a more plausible and deserving target of ire.
You probably are a nice person and mean well, but you began with praise of a redeemer, and then lamented his alleged denial of wanting idolization. Let me know if he was a prophet so I will know whether it’s safe to make satirical cartoons of him or not.
This is a very agitated misreading of what I wrote. You mistake my summary of the “redeemer” narrative for an endorsement. It’s total spin. I no more believe that story than I believe that Kurt Cobain didn’t want to be a rock star. I don’t think, however, that he wanted to be a cult figure and corporate marketing tool. I agree with you–that’s pretty much what the band became. And that’s more or less what I say above.
While I concede that my comment may have had the air of a vituperative curmudgeon, I can’t say that, if there was spin, there was much at all. However, if your reply succinctly summarized your intent, then I really must agree with you.
As far as Cobain is concerned – he made his deal with the devil. It’s only a matter of time before his estate whores him posthumously as the shill he, perhaps unknowingly, agreed to be. The industry sucks and we have allowed music to be reduced to commodity.