Let’s pose a counterfactual; instead of committing suicide in April 1994, Kurt Cobain had survived — what might we expect his life to have looked like since then?
Looking at the most likely scenario, the answer, tragically, is “dead of an overdose.” Kurt Cobain overdosed on numerous recorded occasions, his addiction seems to have reached extreme levels and — as shown by his reaction to the intervention his loved ones staged in March — he had no desire to quit whatsoever.
So we need to make another assumption, that Kurt had either solved or at least been able to manage his drug addiction — what next? Firstly, it’s hard to see Nirvana continuing given the actions Kurt had taken that year with tours abandoned, Lollapalooza refused, barely showing up to the band’s last recording session and making no effort to collaborate with Krist or Dave. It’s impossible to tell if the name Nirvana would have continued in the absence of two of its core members, the Guns n’ Roses approach, or if we would have seen a solo Cobain. As a side-note that would make it likely that the Foo Fighters would never have written My Hero either — a genuine loss to the roll-call of Foo Fighters’ highlights. I have no doubt Dave would have proceeded onto his own impressive career.
As for his musical direction, Kurt gave statements about his future sound at the end of Azerrad’s Come as you Are. While most assume that we were about to see an acoustic statement of some kind I think it’s more likely we would have seen an even noisier, less mainstream Cobain moving away from the verse-chorus-verse model. The man was chronically nervous regarding his guitar playing (read Charles Cross’ account of the Unplugged performance) and it’s unlikely he would have been willing to be seen musically naked. Remember after all that you can count acoustic songs on Nirvana’s albums on one hand — it seems an unlikely approach, or at least not without the protection of a full band. The band had been creating noisier punk compositions in every session after Nevermind (the quiet moments; All Apologies, Pennyroyal Tea and Dumb were all written before Nevermind came out) so it’s about whether that trajectory would have continued. The 1994 demos that apparently exist are a poor indicator given all the evidence of Cobain turning his acoustic homework into electric efforts.
Certainly it’s unlikely Kurt would have been touring much at least for a while. 1992-1994 had been Nirvana’s quietest years since 1988 in terms of live shows — it doesn’t look like something he had any interest in doing at that point. With no financial impetus pushing him onto the road there seems little reason for him to put himself through it. We might be looking at a spell akin to John Lennon’s retirement from music during the 1970s or Axl Rose’s retreat into private studio experiments from the mid-nineties onward. That’s certainly a possibility; a quiet Cobain life trying to mend things with his wife, painting, ignoring the press and his own management — most of 1992 all over again in other words.
The next Nirvana releases don’t seem in much doubt. Pennyroyal Tea would have come out as planned in April and wouldn’t be commanding the stratospheric prices it does today. Kurt Cobain had initiated work on Live! Tonight! Sold Out! Some sort of video release would have been likely if he ever finished the work required. I can imagine pressure from the record label to release the Unplugged performance but whether Kurt would have permitted a record with the MTV name front and centre…It’s uncertain. With no Lollapalooza tour it’s unlikely we would have seen the mooted supporting EP.
One direction regularly pointed out is the potential for collaborations with other artists — Mike Stipe being the name that comes up regularly. There was indeed a real possibility of Kurt sitting in on R.E.M’s session for the Monster LP. Then again, he’d already rejected the opportunity in March so, for it to happen, would have required a persistent and patient Mr. Stipe and a changed attitude from Mr. Cobain. In a future post we’ll look more closely at collaborations but for now let’s simply note that a spell of exploration and learning in the company of others could have provided the new paths Kurt seemed to desire. Again, there’s no evidence.
It’s also highly likely that Kurt would not have been immune to the tail-off in rock music as the nineties progressed. As a wider background trend the music world was about to enter a phase of worshipping DJs prior to hip hop establishing universal dominance of music charts. Whatever career Kurt/Nirvana had forged beyond 1994 is unlikely to have maintained the multi-million sales they’d enjoyed briefly. As a comparison, remember how big Pearl Jam were. Pearl Jam outsold Nirvana in the mid-nineties then increasingly vanished despite being one of the big survivors of that era. Hole, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Soundgarden — they all saw declining interest and disrupted times. Kurt Cobain was a superstar but he wasn’t God and he wouldn’t have been immune to what was happening around him.
The hope would have been, however, that Kurt persisted with music and became one of the small core of elder statesmen able to have careers through several decades; think Neil Young, Bob Dylan, David Bowie. All had to weather a spell in which they were out of favor before returning to a state of grace. Music seems to be a generational thing with one age group reacting against that which came before. Hard as it is to imagine, Kurt would have lost his halo and it would have required some above average work at ten, twenty years distance to spark the ‘return to form’ headlines.
What can certainly be said is that a major spell of song-writing was needed. In Utero had used up most of Kurt Cobain’s leftovers (as well as Dumb, All Apologies and Pennyroyal Tea it’s also possible to say Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Tourette’s and Sappy were all pre-September 1991 songs.) There’s talk that he reprised Opinion and Talk to Me in 1994 but no evidence. Some new versions of unreleased old songs may have filled the gap for a while but as far as can be told Kurt wrote only two songs in 1993-early 1994. He would have needed far more.
The key issue with this kind of thinking is that past trends do not indicate future events. Kurt Cobain left few indications of future plans, perhaps because he simply didn’t see one. Fun to consider though isn’t it? One definite prediction is that Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t have as many Cobain or Nirvana profiles; without the tragic ending there wouldn’t be the same urge to commemorate and also our idol would have failed, at some point, he would have failed. It’s easy to worship a man who never grew old or un-photogenic. It’s rare to see as much attention given to a man in his forties with an expanding waistline, first wrinkles, drug-user damage visible on the face.