No Evidence: The Ongoing Career of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana

Uncertainty is a beautiful thing. Legends are created not through predictability, but through blank white space into which a reader/viewer/fan can inject wish fulfillment, a gap in knowledge allowing fans to participate and have some degree of ownership over the question of ‘what might have been?’

It’s hard, after twenty years of sainthood, to rewind the clock to ’94 and realise that there’s nothing in the Nirvana story making Cobain’s ‘legend’ status inevitable. That isn’t to say that it wouldn’t/couldn’t have happened without his death – but there’s fair reason to suggest that untimely death was crucial.

Firstly, the commercial picture. Remember the premier bands of the early-to-mid-Nineties? Pearl Jam, while garnering more respect than they acquired back in the day, haven’t had a multi-platinum album in the U.S. since 1994’s Vitalogy. Soundgarden’s multi-platinum sales  for Badmotorfinger and Superunknown stalled in 1996. Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple (1994), Hole’s Live Through This (1994), Alice in Chains Jar of Flies (1994) Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) – the heyday of the grunge/alternative bands ended not long after Cobain’s death. The torch passed to a new generation, bands like Green Day – Red Hot Chili Peppers are the only other enduring success story.

The question is whether Cobain’s death played a role in the deflation of the enthusiasm around the ‘alternative nation’ or whether it would have ended anyway. That’s open to debate. Most musical movements, however, barely last half a decade before losing the masses. Tastes change. The ‘cult of the new’ demands something fresh.

Secondly, in terms of musical trends, Nirvana’s rise was the final act not only of punk but of the dominance of the guitar in popular music. Rock n’ Roll had overtaken Jazz as the world’s premier musical form sometime in the early Sixties just as Jazz had usurped Classical. The mid-Nineties saw Hip Hop become the world’s most crucial and effervescent creative form. In terms of commercial success, global presence, artistic influence – Hip Hop superseded rock music. Rock is now where Jazz was in 1970 – full of life, new twists and strains springing up, but no longer visible to mass audiences. Nirvana may have survived as one of the world’s biggest ROCK acts – but one of the world’s most important creative entities? Nope.

Thirdly, the rise of the Internet shattered the music industry. Numerous critically respected rock acts passed back to indie labels as part of a mass clear-out in the early 2000s. Most of the rest didn’t renew their contracts or weren’t given the choice of staying with a major label. That isn’t as important as it used to be but sales are no longer what they were for most artists. Measurements of ‘career longevity’ show that bands aren’t surviving as long, aren’t staying in the spotlight as long. Everyone is smaller even if the smothering of social media, Instagram, Twitter, whatever with certain attention seekers makes some characters seem bigger than they really are in terms of commercial power.

That brings us to Nirvana as an entity – there’s very little indication whether Nirvana would endure. The opposite is true also, there’s no indication that Nirvana was definitely over. Everything happened too fast in 1994 for any final conclusion to be drawn. In many ways ’94 was a repeat of ’92 with tour cancellations, overdoses, Cobain vanishing from the public eye, future plans in the calendar but no certainty, casual studio visits but no big intentions. With that in mind it’s impossible to say whether, with Cobain’s survival, there may have been a new Nirvana album in 1995, 1996, 1997 – or whether Nirvana were done and the era of Foo Fighters was about to begin.

In terms of Cobain’s album-ready material, by his own admission the cupboard was threadbare. Most finished studio works had been released or long abandoned. That doesn’t mean there might not have been some revivals – half of In Utero was filled with songs from before Nevermind – but there’s no indication of him feeling much affection or use for songs like ‘Old Age’ (given away), ‘Sappy’ (already released in ’93), ‘Clean Up Before She Comes’ (abandoned in the late Eighties and never attempted in studio.) His new material in ’93-’94, true songs as opposed to jams like ‘The Other Improv’, consisted of two tracks; ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘You Know You’re Right’. It doesn’t mean he was done, Cobain was fully capable of writing songs at speed – but he would have been starting almost from scratch. Attempts to fill imaginary tracklistings with old leftovers are fun but fly in the face of the care and attention Cobain paid to the music he put out – who knows?

As for direction; it’s a mystery. Acoustic? Vague statements and a home demo of ‘Do Re Mi’ provide little support for that idea. The opportunity to work with members of R.E.M. also doesn’t suggest an acoustic route given R.E.M. were busy working on ‘Monster’ – one of their most amped-up records (heck, it even had room for Thurston Moore to bust electric on it.) Electric? Well, ‘You Know You’re Right’ was Nirvana-by-numbers (though cool!), messing around with new effects boxes earlier in ’93, all the jams and noisy tracks created in late ’92/early ’93 – it could all suggest Cobain’s sound heading back toward the heavier sounds of pre-pop Nirvana…Or it could be nothing. Preparation for a new album was already well behind:

And that’s the reality of it all. A 48 year old Kurt Cobain would not be the zeitgeist owning figure of the mainstream that he was briefly in ’92-’93. That ground, in 2015, would still be owned by Kayne West, Young Thug, Nikki Minaj and others. The likelihood is the path of Nirvana would have followed that of all the other multi-million sellers of the early Nineties – there’s no reason for Nirvana to be the one band immune to the shifts in music culture and commerce. That doesn’t mean that a fully functioning Cobain wouldn’t have continued as an effective underground force…

…And that’s where the fun is. Anyone can choose whether they feel Cobain in 2000, 2000, 2015, would have been a strung-out yet occasionally great Johnny Thunders figure; or an eternally productive and collaborative Thurston Moore; or a forgotten death in a squalid room like Layne Staley; or just a respected circuit player like Mark Arm or Eddie Vedder.


10 thoughts on “No Evidence: The Ongoing Career of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana”

  1. Despite the pointlessness of playing ‘what if…’ my unequivocal conviction has always been that had he survived he would have quickly become a musical elder statesman. Even if he never composed another song, his body of work could stand on its own (as it has – unfortunately – had to do), but of course the creative well would have filled again in no time – he wouldn’t have been able to stop it, except by killing himself.

    I’ve always imagined him becoming a composite of John, Paul and Bob Dylan – a musical Superman if you will, that anyone and everyone would have been dying to collaborate with. Kurt had McCartney’s melodic chops and Lennon’s knack and curiosity and lyrical adventurism – I am grafting Dylan’s disdain for those that want to know how the sausage is made onto him just for fun (that might be wishful thinking – I actually don’t know all that much about Dylan).

    The alterna-losers you list as generational contemporaries – not one of them had anywhere near Cobain’s chops when it came to songwriting, hence the reason they haven’t lasted in any serious culturally relevant way. Thurston Moore couldn’t write a pop-lick with gun to his head. Soundgarden? Please. They don’t belong in the same document alongside Nirvana, never mind the same paragraph or sentence. Pearl Jam is a paint by numbers exercise in sanctimoniousness and over-eagerness to please. Maybe the closest in terms of natural ability when it comes to melodic composition would be Billy Corgan, but he’s so humorless and has such a high regard for himself nobody can stand to be in the room long enough for him to finish a song.

    Only a few artists have that same ‘timeless’ quality that Cobain had: Beatles, Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Brian Wilson, James Brown. Kurt didn’t have a choice. He was one of the greats. Some people are just born with it. The others you list just don’t stack up.

  2. great points nick and also Future Pilgrim in reply. A clear distinction needs to be made between commerical success and creative output/recognition and notoriety/ creative merit . So that’s 4 distinct categories there. This makes it’s a more complex discussion. And anyway, just because you’re popular doesn’t mean you’re not crap! (Think – Green Day and RHCP)
    to throw in – i could well imagine Kurt seeking to embrace his independent status as he became progressively overwhelmed by everything the mainstream forced upon him. He could have forced the issue further and further, retreating into more anonymous colloborations or doing a daniel johnston. I suppose once famous always famous though – it would be hard for Kurt to play to 100 people in a club ever again unless it had no windows that could be broken and doors guarded with an army.
    apparently Thurston Moore gave up his new project because people kept identifying it with sonic youth (sonic older, as I call them) – he can’t exactly go backwards
    I recall Nick discussing Hip Hop as the new music force and linking to Jay Z discussing in some bullshit book he ‘wrote’ how ‘they’ all had to wait while grunge had its day. As Nick pointed out, the ridiculousness of this assertion is the idea that commerical success should be the sole yardstick for an artist, a movement, a culture
    To be semantic as a side point i find it funny that people even refer to hip hop as some zeitgeist thing. There’s little to no hip hop around in the mainstream. It’s rap and bad attempts at r & b. The true hip hop artists hated rap and rappers. They considered it a misappropriation and exploitation and were clear to distance themselves from it. It was a crude misshapping of MCing and nothing more. Hip Hop means B Boy or B Girl. Totally different to rap
    i suppose it’s very hard to delineate and make categories this late in the game, unless we look back a little
    I URGE you to watch the movie PLANET B-BOY – it’s a documentary – and PLEASE bring all your respect to the viewing experience. Be silence, don’t watch unless you won’t be disturbed for two hours, don’t watch with anyone whom will talk or disturb you. Pay attention. It’s special. Really really special. Please. It’s REALLY REALLY REALLY good
    It’s on the youtubes although you may prefer to find it on netflix or somewheree

  3. Just discovered this blog, and glad I did. This is the kind of mental musings/masturbation I’ve done for years.

    In the mid 90s I got heavily into Nirvana bootlegs and I discovered what was for me a curious and terrible secret, at least to me: how come In Utero was half written before Nevermind? And then I remembered his disappearance, his health problems, addictions, etc. and I realized that he was depleted. Sure, he was still capable of writing some incredible songs; Heart Shaped Box was hatched and written in ’93, and holds up as one of his best songs and best performances. But as you said, there weren’t closets of chestnuts at all, and almost no indication that he had some secret direction up his sleeve.

    All of that said, over the past few months I got reinterested in Nirvana (or reobsessed, as the case may be) and I began reading tons of articles, reviews and interviews from those days (thanks online archives and databases!), and I am struck with the hindsight of twenty, almost twenty five years, that the way he and Nirvana were spoken of back then was of an entirely different quality than the other Seattle bands. Yes, it may have been a lot of hype, yes, the press also got into the intensity of Eddie Vedder – but compare the things they said about Nirvana, and the things they said about Kurt Cobain! Him, his voice, his guitar, his hooks. They compared Nirvana to the Sex Pistols, they said it was the pinnacle of the punk revolution, they said he is speaking for a generation. This stuff actually happened and you can go back and read it in case you aren’t sure your memory is accurate. 48 year old Kurt Cobain may or may not have grown up into a vital music force, a new version of Neil Young, a fallen coulda been like Johnny Thunders, a living John Lennon – who knows? But could the culture have completely forgotten that for a time they thought he was larger than life, that they put him on a pedestal, that he was seen as the *real* thing? Well, maybe. But I suspect that even if it did, even if he dried up in ’94, but lived, twenty years later the culture would have again began reminiscing about it all and what it had meant in a way that it never could or will for Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Axl Rose…

    1. Future Pilgrim, Matt, Old Dad – an apology for not having come to these comments sooner, three sets of highly articulate and deeply readable thoughts all of which I’ve enjoyed. I guess there’s nothing really I can add – regardless of assessments of Cobain’s gifts, truth is that the MoH soundtrack is being slated currently, so someone’s ‘talent’ isn’t the only thing that maintains their reputation. An alive and well Kurt Cobain would be facing a very different critical reception to what immortality permits him. I feel you’re right, that I can’t imagine him being ‘forgotten’, but I can imagine his significance shrinking. Johnny Rotten was a far more revolutionary force in music and it’s taken until now for him to receive a degree of ‘elder statesman’ respect after a couple of decades of criticism. Ah well!

  4. I apologize if this has already been discussed (I’m probably going to work my way through the archives), but Nick, have you ever posted about the, shall we say, degeneration of Kurt’s guitar chops over the years? I don’t mean deliberate attempts to play deconstructed or to not care. Know what I mean?

  5. I’ve mixed feelings on the topic but believe Kurt’s catalog of material as well as the history we know do answer some questions.

    #1. There’s an appetite 20+ years after his death for his material. I think that appetite is here wether or not he kills himself and sustains the test of time even after the alt rock movement dies. The results of an album after the alt movement would’ve suited Kurt just fine. No longer the uber mainstream he’d no longer be attracting the crowds he complained about. His audience wouldve dwindled into the more likeminded people he wanted to perform for. A cult of sorts.

    2. The cupboard likely wasnt entirely empty of material. I think Kurt was a manic depressive individual much like Hendrix. Capable of soaring brief inspirational moments and devastating lows as illustrated in the quiet/loud quality of so many pieces he wrote.

    How’s that significant? Much like the article says, if the moment struck he could hammer out a masterpiece in 20 minutes. In addition, his sheer volume of art in various media reveals a mind that never ceased to create. How many journals filled to the brim? How many sculptures? How much visual art displayed in just a brief sneak peak of MOH? It seems realistic to believe his musical endeavors would be no different. Like most muscians he likely had lots of bits and hooks remaining to be pieced together for material. They were incomplete songs and thoughts left to be hashed out.

    If nothing else (and i know i may be crucified for suggesting it) there was someone hidden away in the band with a tremendous volume of music to lean on. Grohl. Scentless apprentice was the first real combined song writing effort for Nirvana and Kurt liked it enough to put it in an album. Personally, i love that song and it proves Kurt was willing to use another’s material and make it his own. I’m not suggesting a finished product between Kurt and Dave would sound much like Foo. Only that it wouldve given him more to lean on and craft if desperate.

    Frankly, before reading this article I had no ideal many of the in utero tracks were written about the time of nevermind or beforehand. Regardless, I wonder just who decided the cupboard was empty? Is it a quote from Kurt? It means almost nothing to me. I’ve watched a number of interviews with him and he was always self deprecating and elusive when pressed. Who could ever tell when he was being genuine?

    And what were his contract obligations for albums? Empty cupboard and 1 year to write an album. Problem. 2-4 years to build an album and it’s less of a problem for him. What im getting at is it’s all relative and mostly a non issue for me.

    #3. His albums evolved and no 2 were alike. Bleach, Nevermind, in utero, incesticide, and unplugged were drastically different. They show a maturation and adaptive quality that would’ve continued. I think given the opportunity, Nirvana wouldve continued breaking new ground. Sure, they were due for a bad album at some point ,but i’ve no problem also believing they would’ve followed it up with a cult classic after the alt rock demise. How can you listen to territorial pissing and where did you sleep last night believing Kurt wasnt maturing? There’s a significant leap between the two and assuming he had nothing left to offer is asinine.

    1. Much agreement. We’re in agreement on my initial point – that Cobain’s fame was already visibly in decline in 1994 and he wouldn’t be the huge figure he is in death. On the point about empty cupboards – the reference is only to what he has left behind (very little even partially developed material written after 1992) not a comment on whether, if he got clean and bothered, he could/could not have done something else. Really, comparing TP and WDYSLN? is an odd approach given the latter is a cover song he had been singing since 1989 and therefore is a perfect example of someone looking backwards not forwards. A better comparison might be to look at MV or Milk It and compare those to TP.

      1. “Really, comparing TP and WDYSLN? is an odd approach given the latter is a cover song he had been singing since 1989 and therefore is a perfect example of someone looking backwards not forwards.”

        In hindsight your likely right…my comments were intended more for the spirt of each song and being as how WDYSLN was the last song I know of that he performed it appeared a good contrast to an uptempo firey TP.

        The unplugged set signaled a new direction for me…maybe that’s contrived due to his suicide? I dont know.

      2. Definitely not wanting to suggest there couldn’t/would never have been new directions. Unplugged, alas, is a difficult one – it wasn’t a Nirvana album. It was a format imposed by a corporate TV channel. Not a ‘new direction’, just something Nirvana conformed to in order to fulfill an obligation. That’s part of the intrigue though – there are hints that suggest many directions next but nothing concrete or unequivocal. Which is kinda nice isn’t it? Mystery is good! 🙂

  6. Kurt would have lost the masses, but still kept intrigue.

    He was mega famous because he was super unique and truly a genuine individual with many crazy, sick and interesting things going on in his head.

    Each song almost stands on it’s own as an entry in a journal of a person exploring different emotions and feelings in the most strange and abstract way but yet still so vague that it literally applies to everything you think about yourself and the world. Contradictions that capture the manic nature of life, musical aesthetics that tear you apart inside only to bring you back together in sullen resolution.

    Unlike other bands like you mentioned or even other musical geniuses like Thom Yorke or Ian Curtis one alive, one dead, whom despite obvious individuality and great knack for ideas they were still never raised out of the context of their band.

    Nobody gives a fuck about Chris Cornell out of Soundgarden or Layne Stalley out of AIC, and on the flipside Ian Curtis is sort of revered as this tragic hero but a lot of his music lacks the pop sensibility necessary to boost his music up to a product consumed by many. Even a band like Green Day as great and mainstream as they are, nobody gives a fuck about Billie Joe as an individual.

    Kurt however had it all. Great music, a interesting perspective, a good look, a kick ass band who were just as irreverent as he, all things people liked about Nirvana directly reflected Kurt, not some image of rock godness or pop star perfection. Kurt was always discussed in the context of the reason why people cared about that group. Yeah the rhythm section was dope, but its those words and that guitar which make his music like nothing else that had been recorded before or since.

    Like said before, some people are just blessed to be in the right situations all through life that have led them to be transcending figures who are sought for more than just music, but inspiration, guidance, mental ease. People like John Lennon, 2Pac, Marley, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, McCartney had ways of saying directly what everybody was thinking in brand new ways, they were a mouthpiece for masses and were elected to stardom. Unfortunately most people who are raised to this level are no longer around to ask for reference but looking at John Lennon and his post-Beatle career is a good indicator of what kind of life Kurt may have lived had he made it to 40.

    On a side note: We also have to realize the personality he already had coupled with the fact that he died make for his unprecedented posthumous popularity. Death plus talent doesnt arbitrarily equal mass cult following and consumption. The same people who wear a Nirvana shirt cause it is trendy would still wear it if Kurt was alive.

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