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 In terms of commercial success, global presence, artistic influence – Hip Hop superseded rock music.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.