Kurt Cobain – The Magic That Was

-Sayantan Bishnu

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Neil McCormick writes in the Daily Telegraph: “Twenty years ago, the body of Kurt Cobain was discovered, dead by his own hand in a brutal act of self-destruction, immediately launching Nirvana’s tortured leader into the pantheon of rock’s most iconic and tragic stars. His name burns now alongside Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and John Lennon in the front rank of rock martyrs, enduring symbols of twentieth century electric guitar music’s primal power, mixing the elixir of youth with the endless silence of death in a terrible bargain, the devil couldn’t have bettered.”

Kurt Cobain was a sallow, wasted sad-eyed beauty possessing a voice that ached with hoarse pain, as if every note wrung out of him was a matter of life and death. He exuded pure, raw emotion, never attempting to hide his angst from his audience. He was an honest performer, so to say. On September 1991, Nirvana came up with their second album-NEVERMIND. Their previous album, “BLEACH” had received mixed criticisms – it was the precursor to the modern grunge genre. Although the emotion of anger loomed in the songs of “BLEACH”, it showed great promise – especially for the lead singer, the man at the helm Kurt Donald Cobain. “NEVERMIND” is perhaps the greatest, the purest and perhaps the most thrilling rock album ever made. It soon topped music charts all over the world and Nirvana had found its place among avid music buffs and music fanatics all over the world. Kurt Cobain was gifted with a unique voice – you couldn’t point out any particular emotion and say, “The song…I think Kurt is trying to be melancholic here.” His voice was divine, possessing a raw, grungy texture. It was a montage of emotions – and these emotions were dark and torturous. Melancholy, ennui, anger, lust and passion – you could feel them scattering everywhere when he sang, like shrapnels off a bomb.

“People laugh at me because I’m different,” said Kurt Cobain, “But I laugh at them because they all are the same.” I’m just an amateur when it comes to discussing about music but the stride to be “different” was clearly prevalent in each of Nirvana’s songs. It seemed that Cobain had a hard love for experimentation – he experimented with music, with the subjects for his songs, with his lyrics. At first, the lyrics of Nirvana’s songs may seem nonsensical and hilariously absurd, but the meanings of the songs can be understood by their execution. As famed Indian rock star, Rupam Islam told in one of his interviews, “The songs have to be understood by their delivery. You can’t sit with a pen and paper and ponder over for hours about what Kurt wanted to say”. “NEVERMIND” topped Michael Jackson’s, “DANGEROUS” at number one on Billboard Charts. When “NEVERMIND” reached number one, Billboard proclaimed, “Nirvana is that rare band that has everything: critical acclaim, industry respect, pop radio appeal, and a rock-solid college/alternative base.” “IN UTERO” was Nirvana’s last album and possibly the only one that wasn’t up to Kurt Cobain’s satisfaction – he regarded that the album was not “perfect”. Nevertheless, it topped the Billboard 200 chart on September 1993. Time’s Christopher John Farley wrote in his review of the album, “Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn’t gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana.” That Kurt Cobain’s imagination was flawlessly perfect, could be best understood from the incident – when Kurt wrote “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRITS”, as a direct product of the lewd comments from his friends. “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRITS” ranks among the greatest rock songs of all time and the anthem for Generation X.

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In his later life, Kurt became a victim of heroin addiction. On April 8, 1994, Kurt was found dead at his Seattle home with a self-inflicted shotgun to his head. Cobain’s rhythm guitar style, which relied on power chords, low-note riffs, and a loose right-hand technique, featured the key components to the band’s songs. Cobain would often initially play a song’s verse riff in a clean tone, and then double it with distorted guitars when he repeated the part. In some songs the guitar would be absent from the verses entirely to allow the drums and bass guitar to support the vocals, or it would only play sparse melodies like the two-note pattern used in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Cobain rarely played standard guitar solos, opting to play slight variations of the song’s melody as single note lines. Cobain’s solos were mostly blues-based and out of tune, which music writer Jon Chappell described as “almost an iconoclastic parody of the traditional instrumental break”, a quality typified by the note-for-note replication of the lead melody in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the atonal solo for “Breed”. When asked about their musical education, the band states that they had no formal musical training. In fact, Cobain says: “I have no concept of knowing how to be a musician at all what-so-ever…I couldn’t even pass Guitar 101.”

Kurt Cobain influenced the future generations of musicians all over the world, including the grunge Bengali band, Fossils. For Kurt believed in honesty and sincerity to his audience and he knew fully well in his last days that he was heading into an abyss-and his imagination was slowly crumbling away as was his songwriting ability. Everett True said in 1989, “Nirvana songs treat the banal and pedestrian with a unique slant.” Cobain came up with the basic components of each song (usually writing them on an acoustic guitar), as well as the singing style and the lyrics. He emphasized that Novoselic and Grohl “have a big part in deciding on how long a song should be and how many parts it should have. So I don’t like to be considered the sole songwriter.” When asked which part of the songs he would write first, Cobain responded, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I guess I start with the verse and then go into the chorus.” Cobain usually wrote lyrics for songs minutes before recording them. Cobain said, “When I write a song the lyrics are the least important subject. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all.” Cobain told Spin in 1993 that he “didn’t give a flying f***” what the lyrics on Bleach were about, figuring “Let’s just scream some negative lyrics and as long as they’re not sexist and don’t get too embarrassing it’ll be okay”, while the lyrics to Nevermind were taken from two years of poetry he had accumulated, which he cut up and chose lines he preferred from. In comparison, Cobain stated that the lyrics to In Utero were “more focused, they’re almost built on themes”.

Cobain didn’t write necessarily in a linear fashion, instead relying on juxtapositions of contradictory images to convey emotions and ideas. Often in his lyrics, Cobain would present an idea then reject it; the songwriter explained, “I’m such a nihilistic jerk half the time and other times I’m so vulnerable and sincere [. . . The songs are] like a mixture of both of them. That’s how most people my age are.” For the Generation X, Kurt Cobain was a messiah whose every word had been plundered and parsed. As he wrote in conclusion to his suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I wonder what would have happened had lived on-possibly the present teens would have realized that classic rock is more than just “a vintage pursuit.”

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