John D. Luerssen on Kurt Cobain
By John D. Luerssen
Nirvana FAQ available here
Although I’d much rather think of my new book, Nirvana FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990’s as a celebration of the band’s achievements timed to coincide with the trio’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, I have been fielding questions about my thoughts on Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which took place 20 years ago this week.
I remember Friday, April 8, 1994 – the day an electrician named Gary Smith discovered his body – pretty clearly. By mid-afternoon, Kurt Loder was on MTV reporting the news and I sat stunned, choking down a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich on my couch in the small apartment I shared with my fiancée, now my wife. As Rolling Stone writer David Fricke – who had previously interviewed Cobain – spoke live in the studio with Loder about Kurt, I slid a blank tape in my VCR and recorded it.
I hadn’t looked at that tape for nineteen years until last spring, when I found it while I was cleaning out my basement. At the time I was in the throes of writing my third entry in Hal Leonard’s FAQ book series (I am know writing my fourth, The Smiths FAQ), I watched a few minutes of it before I turned it off and threw it out. It was a sad piece of rock history that I had little desire to relive.
Last week I had the same reaction as the media got ahold of unreleased photos from the scene of Kurt’s suicide. Here’s a cigarette butt. Here’s Kurt’s heroin kit. Man, what a drag.
As troubled as Kurt’s life had been, there was also a ton of humor and a lot of joy in his existence as I have chronicled in the pages of Nirvana FAQ. Cobain was a world class wiseass, who once told an interviewer that Budweiser “tastes like piss,” goaded Axl Rose by calling him an “obnoxious idiot” in the media, called Andrew “Dice” Clay a “stupid f–k” and stood up to chauvinist jerks whenever he could. Ultimately, he became a champion of gay rights who endorsed individualism.
He also proudly exposed the bands he loved, like the Vaselines, the Breeders, the Melvins, the Butthole Surfers, Jad Fair and Teenage Fanclub to a wider audience. The day after Kurt wore his Daniel Johnston t-shirt on Saturday Night Live, I went to Vintage Vinyl in Fords, New Jersey to seek out his music. I had gotten there too late. Johnston’s catalog had sold out.
On top of all of this, Cobain penned one of the most memorable hard rock songs of all time with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When interviewers tried to praise him for the effort, including Fricke in a 1994 interview before his passing, Kurt dismissed it as “such a clichéd riff” and admitted he nicked it – in part – from Boston’s 1976 classic “More Than a Feeling.” It was one of the rock bands he discovered through his father’s subscription to Columbia House in the late 1970’s.
When I think about Cobain’s legacy, I always think of and beyond his catalog to his willingness to push boundaries. He absolutely loved to break balls. Even when he couldn’t speak, he’d find a work around. Of course we all remember Nirvana’s April 16, 1992 RS cover, in which he famously wore the homemade t-shirt that read “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” He was, and remains, one of a kind.