I’ve been asked repeatedly – as work colleagues, friends and loved ones watched me lose a year of life to scribbling or tapping away furiously at Dark Slivers and the supporting data and notes – “why do you love Nirvana so much? Why do you care so much about Kurt Cobain?” My answer in essence is that the love of something has very little to do with the object of that love; love doesn’t float in the air to be inhaled and returned. I was ready to love music at that point in life and by chance, luck, whatever, Nirvana was the group discovered. For some people out there maybe it was NWA or Public Enemy, maybe it was the Summer of Love rave scene in the U.K. or some other manifestation of the surge in dance culture, for others perhaps Pearl Jam hooked them far more…Its all good. In my case it was Nirvana, there’s no qualitative judgement required, it just was.
I was on a school trip, shared a room with the older crew who were along as supervisors, ended up running a group after my supervisor decided that trying to strip out of his trousers to his cycling shorts was a great idea while still riding the bike. It was a bit of a growing up experience basically. On the boat home from France the guy opposite had tapes tucked in a hat on the chair, I fished through, found his Nirvana tape (Nevermind one side, Bleach the other) and was hooked. He was surprised I hadn’t heard of them but genuinely I’d never even heard of Nirvana.
Then came the coolest family holidays. My mum rocks at coming up with cryptic clues – so each year, at Christmas, there was always a treasure hunt in the afternoon and this particular year my parents had decided to really bust the bank and ship the whole lot of us to Florida while we were all still young enough to enjoy it (heck, I’d go now! Disneyworld is FUN and I don’t care who says otherwise!) We went in 1993 and they decided to do it one more time in 1994. So, Kurt Cobain’s demise came tied to this absolutely wonderful and happy time – it’s like in a genuine top-quality comedy where the laugh is greater because of a moment of sadness or vice versa, that a heightening of emotion in one direction makes the opposite emotion even more intense. It gave the timing a significance, last day in Florida equals day they announced Kurt Cobain was dead – coincidences matter because they bind things together, particularly in a young mind.
It was my first real experience of death. I had no memory of older relatives dying, so this was the first time I’d felt engaged by the loss of another person – maybe the first time I was old enough to comprehend the idea that someone had gone. The fact I’d bought, that very morning, the final Nirvana album I didn’t already possess – I can’t recall if it was Bleach or Incesticide but I genuinely do remember forcing my parents to stick Incesticide on the car stereo during that vacation, an odd choice given I never made them listen to Nevermind. Naturally, having no idea how to react, one just makes up an approach from observations of the world around – typical kid – so my reaction was to institute a daily Nirvana listening plus a fairly permanent layer of black clothing. I admit though I never bought or owned a Nirvana t-shirt, it seemed ostentatious and fake as if declaring my allegiance to other people was the important bit, it felt like trying to gain reflected glory. Hate the idea.
Shifting schools was another real upheaval – guess it was my turn to have a teenage blues phase. I snapped out of it eventually but music was a good way of gaining a touch of credibility with the already settled social cliques of school (no criticism of either school, schools are just like that.) It formed a good social glue and a declaration of taste before the audience wanting to figure out the new boy. Naturally Cobain’s disaffected ennui fitted the mood beautifully – I’m sure it had never even occurred to him that everyone feels a bit divorced from things sometimes and that he’d soundtracked and expressed it to perfection. I had a bit of a ritual of listening to a Nirvana song (at one point a whole side of an album) each night before bed – think it helped me get good sleep too, music before bedtime, a recommended relaxation technique. At university it didn’t work quite that way, it was more a differentiator than a unifier – but it did put me nicely in contact with my dear Norwegian punk musician friend who I’ve lost contact with but still retain a huge love for, that’s nice.
Behind all of that, Nirvana provided a starting point, a genuine Ground Zero when it came to my interest in music. I could draw you a graph showing how one discovery led to another, all leading back to Nirvana. Sonic Youth and Swans are the most important bands in terms of the connections I then made, but coming to love SY started via Nirvana and Swans came from SY in turn. I also spent years loving how special it felt tracking down and locating Nirvana rarities. It gave the music a value, a sense of miraculous discovery each time I hauled something off a shelf and got to consider whether I was looking at a new song or just a misnaming. To indicate how deep that enjoyment went I’d sadly like to confess to having a recurring dream where I’m at a record fair picking through a stack of Nirvana bootlegs riddled with unknown songs (yes, I even invent song titles in my head to fit the dream – each one coming with a subtitle explaining the song’s meaning or origin) and working out whether to buy one, or two – if they’re worth £10 each, whether I could swap something else back and get an extra one…This is seriously something I dream 5 or 6 times a year and have done for over a decade.
Are there other reasons I adore the band and Kurt Cobain? Hell yes. My preference, when it comes to ‘heroes and idols’ has never been for stereotypical perfection, it doesn’t inspire me at all. I’m inspired by conflicts, by individuals who achieve much despite flaws, or who were simultaneously great and flawed at the same time. That felt more human, less like admiring a marble statue and less of an unattainable propaganda image. Kurt Cobain fitted perfectly. People think of his life as a depressing one…I never did – his suicide made me appreciate how great and valuable my life was, how much luck I had been given in so many ways. It also made me appreciate the power I had, that if he could do all he did despite the burdens he carried then what excuse did I have? Plus the music was (and is) a comfort, like a well-worn and familiar jumper. Oh, and did I mention I really enjoy the music too? Plus I genuinely admire him, in a world where people seem less and less able to even imagine not wanting money, money, more money, that he stood on top of the world and said no. It’s still the rarest thing, someone who had won over the world to such a degree to hand it back despite all the pressure, the nay-sayers, the criticism he was bound to receive – he went his own way. That’s strength, that’s a true willingness to focus on what one genuinely believes. He told an industry that it was faking and lying and he didn’t want to take part. Brilliant.