James Montgomery of MTV News remembers the loss of the idealism of youth.
Kurt Cobain: The Death Of The Scruffy Noble
Nirvana frontman represented the honor that came with never compromising, whether he liked it or not, in Bigger Than the Sound.
By James Montgomery
Fifteen years ago today, an electrician named Gary Smith was sent out to a gray clapboard home near Lake Washington in Seattle to install a security system. What he discovered, in the greenhouse above the garage, would change the face of rock and roll forever. It was the body of Kurt Cobain.
The Nirvana frontman had been missing for several days, after fleeing a rehab facility in Los Angeles. His mother, Wendy O’Connor, had filed a missing-persons report with Seattle police, advising them to look in Capitol Hill, where Cobain may have been attempting to score drugs. In actuality, he was already holed up in his Lake Washington home, in the greenhouse above the garage, where on the morning of April 5, he removed his hunting cap – which he wore when he didn’t want people to recognize him – tossed his wallet on the ground, wrote a one-page suicide note to an imaginary childhood friend named “Boddah” and ended his life with a 20-gauge shotgun blast to the temple.
Three days later, sometime around 9 a.m. PT, Smith discovered Cobain’s body. He called police (and a local radio station), and then there were the breaking-news bulletins and the vigils and the questions and the tears. And then it was all over.
Not the remembrances or the hand-wringing or even the speculation about Cobain’s death, mind you … that all continues to this day, in voluminous tomes and box sets and documentaries and the like. Rather, April 8 marked the end of an ideal, of a movement. That sounds hokey, but if I’ve learned anything in the 15 years since his exit, it’s this: When Cobain left, he took a lot more with him than just Nirvana.
This isn’t another piece meant to codify Cobain (or his band) or measure the length of their musical shadows. Suffice to say, Nirvana released three studio albums, and all of them rip. And Cobain possessed a growl that could crumble walls and a wail that could cut glass (to say nothing of his songwriting or his underappreciated sense of melody). Everyone knows this. Nirvana were probably our Beatles. Cobain was probably our John Lennon. Let’s move on.
What I want to talk about was everything that Cobain symbolized, whether he liked it (or most likely didn’t). He was hope, he was heft. He was the everyman, the end of the rock star, the punk dream realized. He had made it, and he was going to lift people up with him. He was cynicism and venom. He represented idealism and truth and the honor that came with never compromising. When he lived, rock music had importance, it had vitality. It was very possible that his songs could change the world. There was a scruffy nobility to him.
Of course, it is entirely possible that he was just the right man at the right time. Nobody represented the idealistic (and, at the same time, nihilistic) ’90s like Cobain did. But if you noticed, when he died, all that idealism, all that hope, all that import seemed to die with him. The very idea that a band (or a man) can change the world with music now feels beyond laughable. We have become scarred and jaded. A lot of us are no longer willing to believe in the power of a guitar or a lyric, because Cobain took that with him 15 years ago.
And that’s sad, because no matter what Cobain was, no matter what he symbolized or who he inspired, he was ultimately just a man. He had demons that proved too strong and too numerous, and they ganged up on him and dragged him away. And that taught us a lesson: Don’t deify, because you’ll just end up betrayed. We’ve spent 15 years doing the complete opposite – we no longer build up, we tear down. We don’t believe in things. We no longer strive for truth or subscribe to any particular ethos. Probably because we’re afraid to.
Two years ago, on the eve of his 40th birthday, I interviewed a host of people who knew Cobain well and asked them what he’d be doing if he were still alive. They said he would’ve retreated from public view (perhaps to a desert, as Butch Vig surmised); made deeply personal, decidedly anti-commercial music; and despised the way our society had turned out. I tend to agree with all that. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to imagine Cobain alive today … at least not the way we all remember him. He just wouldn’t fit. He couldn’t.
I was in 10th grade when the news broke. I remember watching Kurt Loder read the emerging details of Cobain’s death on TV, and I remember watching the vigils in the Seattle Center park, and I remember being very sad. At the time, I think it was because of the loss of our great and noble leader and the shuddering of an entire generation. Now, I realize it was because a little piece of me died that day too.
I lost the idealism of youth. And the idealism that comes with plugging in a guitar and playing it very loudly (and very badly). That’s never going to come back, either. Probably for any of us.