Kurt Cobain, remembered 20 years later

By Elena Lopez

Messages left on a bench in Viretta Park along Lake Washington next to the home where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love lived and Cobain took his own life. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/MCT)
Messages left on a bench in Viretta Park along Lake Washington next to the home where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love lived and Cobain took his own life. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/MCT)

April 5 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of the front man of one of the most influential bands in music. Kurt Cobain left the world earlier than intended, but not before leaving something indelible behind him. Cobain’s band, Nirvana, busted out of Seattle with incredible force, creating a new image of rock music and leaving behind it a legacy. “Grunge” was a sound that had gained local popularity, but it was Nirvana that spearheaded the movement and spread it to all corners of the globe.

Sometimes nicknamed the “Seattle sound” in honor of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s roots in the Pacific Northwest, grunge was a sound that crept to the forefront of the national stage. In 1991, Nirvana released its second album “Nevermind,” a huge commercial success that opened the door for up and coming, young and aggressive bands like Pearl Jam. Distorted and full of feedback, the public was intrigued and enraptured by this new and exciting sound. “Nevermind” made it possible to commercialize alternative rock to the general public, opening the floodgates for numerous bands to follow.

Cobain did something no other singer or lyricist had mastered at the time. He stripped down his raw emotions, incorporated heart-wrenching pain into his lyrics and made it both marketable and relatable. His voice pulsed over the rage-induced havoc of the band’s music and beat the eardrums of every listener. No longer was the bombast of hair metal acceptable. Musicians were finally asked to push themselves conceptually and lyrically to produce a record with more meaning behind it, making every other band feel secondary to Nirvana.

Interestingly enough, Cobain felt severely burdened by the fame and notoriety that came with the success of his music. Many times in interviews he would mention the emotional strain it caused him, to such a degree that it struck many as bizarre for a celebrity to reject their fame so harshly. The honesty was fresh and relatable in comparison to the other rock gods, who seemed to their fans to be constantly floating on air. Cobain maintained a deep connection to his audience, creating a cult-like following. Tragically, Cobain was never fully able to cope with the fame he had gained so quickly. On April 5, 1994, he committed suicide at his home in Seattle, leaving behind wife Courtney Love and their daughter Frances to join the infamous “27 Club” with the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix; fellow artists who died at the tender age of 27.

Regardless of the tragedy surrounding his death, Cobain’s talent and influence is respected across the board. Modern day artists like M.I.A., Green Day and Blink 182 cite Cobain as an artistic influence on their work. Nirvana put out tracks that were taken in by listeners of all genres. Hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are” are both considered mainstream due to their pop hooks, but still maintain the hectic and crazed sonic experimentations of punk.

Grunge lost much of its driving force along with the death of Cobain, but he is survived through his endless supporters and those who were inspired by him. It seems nearly impossible to ask any alternative rock artist to list their inspirations and not hear Nirvana as part of the list. Rappers Jay Z and Eminem have both commemorated Cobain’s influence in their music, demonstrating that there is a respect for the tortured soul in a wide variety of genres.

Nirvana represented pure rock; the angst, the rage, the intensity and the havoc of it all. Without the slightly crazed ring-leader, Nirvana would have faded away quickly. When Cobain took his own life, he took away some of the magic from the genre, leaving it smeared and flawed, just as he was. He made sure to burn out before he faded away, allowing his influence to illuminate the way, and inspire artists to be as open about his insecurities as he was.

Elena Lopez can be reached at [email protected]