In April of 1994, Nirvana frontman and grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 27 at his time of death. And though few things are as inexorable as time’s passing, it’s remarkable to think that today he would have celebrated his 50th birthday.
Fifty is something of a landmark age, and so today has seen a number of tributes to Cobain and his music. His daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, posted a simple but tender handwritten note on Instagram. Her mother, rocker Courtney Love, retweeted it.
As E! News notes, Frances was still a baby when her father died.
I never experienced Nirvana in their heyday. The grunge movement ignited when I was far too young to appreciate anything besides Disney soundtracks and the odd Blondie single. Years later, in high school, some of my friends discovered the band and developed posthumous crushes on Cobain. I never became a disciple myself, but every time I listened to Nirvana, their music cut bone deep. At first Cobain’s unflinching vulnerability, anger, and free-floating eroticism felt foreign in the most exciting ways. Now they are the traits I seek in rock music, the ones that render it, for me, emotionally nourishing. Cobain, together with Nirvana, bestowed that gift upon us before he took his leave.
As it happens, Robin Wasserman’s marvelous novel Girls On Fire—now out in paperback—offers an exquisitely visceral tribute to Cobain. Lacey, one of the book’s two protagonists, recounts the first time she hears Kurt on the radio, his voice piercing through the pot smoke haze as she kills time with her boyfriend, Shay:
Kurt screaming, Kurt raging, Kurt in agony, Kurt in bliss. ‘Fucking pseudo-punk poseurs,’ Shay said, and reached over to turn it off, and when I said, ‘Don’t, please,’ he only laughed. It took me another week to find the song again and then to steal a copy of Bleach and another few weeks after that to fumigate Shay out of my life, but that was the moment he went from mattering a little to not at all.
After that, it was like they say about love: Falling. A gravitational inevitability.
I’m not saying I go around doodling Mrs. Kurt Cobain on my notebooks or that I, like, ohmygood, imagine myself showing up on his doorstep in black lace panties and a trench coat. For one thing, Courtney would gouge my eyes out with barbed wire. For another, I know what’s real and what’s not, and real is not me fucking Kurt Cobain.
But: Kurt. Kurt with his watery blue eyes and his angel hair, the halo of stubble and the way the rub of it would burn. Kurt, who sleeps in striped pajamas with a teddy bear to keep him company, who frenched Krist on national TV to fuck with the rednecks back home and wore a dress on Headbangers Ball just because he could, who has enough money to buy and smash a hundred top-line guitars but likes a Fender Mustang because it’s a cheap piece of crap you have to abuse as much as you love if you want it to play nice. Rock god, sex god, angel, saint: Kurt, who always looks at you from the side, from beneath that golden curtain of hair, looks at you like he knows all the bad things scuttling around inside. Kurt’s voice, and how it hurts. I could live and die inside that voice...I wanted to crawl inside it, soft and razor raw at the same time, his voice cutting me bloody, warm and slippery and alive.”
Perhaps those of you who came of age in the 90s—and maybe even those of you who didn’t—experienced something similar to Wasserman’s Lacey.
For now, let’s wrap up with—what else?—some Nirvana. First, “Heart-Shaped Box”:
And secondly, because I can never resist bringing the Tori Amos content (seriously), her melancholy cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Share your favorite Nirvana tracks and covers in the comments. And don’t forget to pour one out for Kurt tonight.