Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Something in the way

From Buddy Holly to John Lennon, the first half of Rock and Roll history is littered with the bodies of super star musicians who died while still in their prime.

Since Lennon was gunned down in front his Upper West Side apartment building in December of 1980 that trend has subsided (Hip-hop has its own macabre history.)

There is one huge exception: Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who took his own life in 1994. Nirvana only produced three albums before Cobain died but the middle one, Nevermind, changed music and the music industry, ushering in the brief reign of grunge and popularizing an alternative rock radio format which still exists today. When Rolling Stone ranked the 500 greatest albums of all-time a couple years ago Nevermind clocked in at 17, the highest spot for any album released after 1980.

One of my most embarrassing failings as a music fan and, really, a person is not liking Nevermind when it came out in 1991. In my defense the whole thing was hoisted upon us: The immediate ubiquity of the single Smells Like Teen Spirit (and the song's video, so annoying then, so perfect now); Cobain's tortured rock star routine -- which came off as more contrived than it obviously was -- and the pond-scum colored flannel shirts and corduroys that I had no desire to wear or even look at too closely.

It wasn't until after Cobain died that I sat down and listened to Nevermind a few times and realized what a masterpiece I had overlooked. The album doesn't aim to be revolutionary. It's basically just a harder edged update of the tuneful, energetic punk rock The Clash and The Ramones rode to their own legendary status.

But what made it different was Cobain. He had an unique ability to mix pain and humor in his lyrics and singing that was, for lack of a better word, exhilarating. Cobain was also the master of the Gen X art of having a lack of seriousness about his seriousness.

Cobain hated being thought of as spokesman for Gen X, or grunge or anything. Some say these labels helped nudge him towards his violent suicide.

Kurt Cobain would have been 40 yesterday.

I like all the songs on Nevermind, but if I had to pick a favorite it's probably this one or this one or this one.


Anonymous said...

Seattle is still the best rock music scene in the country...and the smartest city.

JT said...

I thought we established Seattle isn't the smartest city in the country -- and that in fact somewhere closer to my heart is. And even if Seattle was, the distinction would soon be moving to Oklahoma City.