“Yeah, I was run out of town. They chased me up to the castle of Aberdeen with torches. Just like the Frankenstein monster. And I got away in a hot air balloon. And I came here to Seattle.”
Kurt Cobain, 1992
Nirvana means a lot to different people. To some it means “inner peace” and “contentment”, to some “an extinction of passion, hate, lust and delusion” and to some “transcendental happiness”. To me the word instantly brings to mind a sweaty, druggy and manic band from Seattle, Washington. Nirvana, formed in Seattle, is perhaps all of the things the word brings to mind and more.
It would be fair to say that the band I listened to first and which has haunted me till this very day is Nirvana. There I was, a clueless fourteen year old, sitting thousands of miles from Seattle and years from the band’s primal point, in the music room (compulsory) at my boarding school in Ooty, India when I sneaked into my music-teacher’s private collection and put on Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York, simply because I was bored and was intrigued by the name of this record. Until then, I was brainwashed alike my friends and school-mates into listening to the Backstreet boys, Michael Jackson, Boyzone and other horrible music. The thing about India, a decade back, was that the only international music that came across was selected by stupid MTV VJs who chose to simply bring to the Indian market all the chart twaddle from international territories. The result was that in the absence of choice or direction, most dedicated music fans were sadly discussing and singing along to “Words”, “I’ll never break your heart” etc. Of course, that has all changed now. What was worse was that in my boarding school, this trash was further filtered so as to skip “obscene” artists such as Michael Jackson and Spice Girls. Hence, my musical puberty never hit until that fateful day when I was sitting alone in that room and played Nirvana. As soon as the chilling tones of The Man who sold the world and Come as you are settled on my brain, I got goose bumps and pins and needles and suddenly I had found what I was looking for, not just all my life before but in my life to follow. The music of Nirvana had completely swallowed me. As soon as I got home that Christmas, I got all their albums and did some research on this melodic ghost in my ears. I was quite sad to find that Kurt Cobain, the singer/guitarist of the band and its leader of sorts, had committed suicide two years before. Nevertheless, I voraciously listened to them all around India; in cars, taxis, streets, trains and planes. It seemed to me that I had found my own nirvana even if Nirvana had broken up following Kurt’s suicide. I guess that’s the beauty of music; it creates waves in the pond of the world and the ripples can be seen for eternity.
Kurt Cobain by Christopher Sandford is a biography on the musician. When I first picked it up as a young music fan completely in awe, I was gullible enough to believe everything the book told me about Cobain. It said that Cobain was a serious cross-dresser, had nearly raped a woman and was constantly doing drugs. I later found that this was mostly false. The book was been hugely accused of fabricating a lot of Cobain’s life and including information taken from wrong or susceptible sources.
Cobain was a disturbed individual, there’s little doubt of that following his suicide and his general behavior on stage. But there was a reason for this disturbance in his being. Cobain grew up in a small town and was forced to comply with the mindset of these village-folk. He was a very expressive child and was reportedly fascinated by music and musicians even at a young age. This fascination was bound to turn into ambition which is quite painful when you consider that he had the nature but not the nurture. Aberdeen was not supportive of modern influences and fads. Add to this the fact that his parents were divorced when he was quite young and you have a broth of wrath. Cobain turned hostile and made this hostility clear at school, jobs and around town. ‘In Aberdeen, I hated my best friends with a passion, because they were idiots,’ he said in an interview. When Cobain got tired of working as a janitor and sleeping under bridges (Something in the way), he decided to move away from this town and its limitations. This is the part of the book that chiseled itself on my mind forever. It depicts Cobain as finally making the decision and taking the only road out of town in a car. On the way, he asks a friend to join him into an excursion out of small-time America. When the friend declined, Cobain reportedly laughed and stepped on the gas and didn’t stop till Seattle. I love this part. It portrays to me the hunger for a future that Cobain possessed, the unflinching, if sad, decision to leave the past behind and dive headlong into the future. It is this dive that I loved the most about Cobain.
Little need to said about Nirvana’s influence on not just modern-rock and music but popular culture and fashion as well. Their first album, Bleach, was successful to some extent and was widely received in the UK. However, it was only with the second album, Nevermind, that the band set themselves in history. The album was the American take of Never mind the Bollocks, albeit with an originality and anger that shocked the world into submission. Suddenly, the genre ‘grunge’ was on everyone’s lips and music-collections. Bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins all followed later. Grunge fashion was covered by Tommy Hilfiger and the like. ‘Smells like teen spirit’ went on to break record after record. Nirvana became the official band of the Generation X, a generation with no heroes or gods and a fistful of fury against corporate values.
Kurt Cobain, however, wasn’t all that impressed with himself. He had this success in mind the moment he had left Aberdeen but to find it so easily and be labeled as ‘spokesman for a generation’ was a little hard to accept considering he knew that he had drug-habits and was constantly under the watch of the press. He observed and found that his popularity and music had extended to the very people he had always despised. Jocks, sexists, racists, homophobes and yuppies were all lapping up his music due to the MTV influence and were hypocrites who never understood the true expression he was expressing. This resulted in increased drug-use and complete breakdown even under the wing of his wife, Courtney Love (‘the best fuck in the world’).
Sandford’s biography does attempt to bring this small-town rebel who had transformed himself into a global phenomenon with the simple aids of a guitar and a never ending scream. And it also discusses how it was that such a brilliant, loved and successful musician like Cobain happened to turn a gun on himself on the 5th of April, 1994 and became a martyr to a generation already lacking its heroes. Nevertheless, it does not do too good a job because of its fabrication of something that needs to be true and well-researched. Nevermind. Frank Zappa once said, ‘rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.’