Twenty years ago today, the world learned of the death of Kurt Cobain. Postmortem examination has placed his final moments a few days prior, but it was on April 8th, 1994, that everyone fully grasped the extent of the Nirvana frontman’s inner struggles. Instantly, Cobain was anointed a musical martyr, a voice of a generation whose choice to take his own life meant that he exited this mortal coil in his creative prime, and therefore would be preserved as an idealized memory instead of sullying his reputation with erratic latter-day artistic detours or crass cash-in reunions. Even as the tragic news was first being digested, the sentiment that Cobain should be counted as one of the great icons of rock ‘n’ roll was in the air. Today it is accepted fact—he is one of those names and faces that a person charged with distilling the genre’s vast history into a ruthlessly abridged version would scan over and conclude, “This one, this one is worth remembering.”
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I first came into contact with GWAR when I was about 13 years old. This would have been about 1993 when my friends and I somehow came across a copy of GWAR’s album America Must Be Destroyed in the only record store in the small town in Northern California where I grew up. This was the high era of grunge, and the music that we were listening to took itself very seriously. Like so many young kids, we looked to popular music for examples of the kinds of people we wanted to be. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins suggested the possibility of channeling our feelings of awkward pre-teen alienation into something cool, or at least fashionable.
Lou Reed was one of those stranger-artists whose life, health, and death interested and affected me greatly. As I spent several years listening to pretty much nothing else but the Velvet Underground and, even more, Reed’s solo work (a duration of which a friend said to me, “God, that must’ve been depressing”), I’ve felt closer to Reed than perhaps any other artist, musical or otherwise. He just seemed to speak a language I wanted hear, simply and effectively.
There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true. There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this. It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Levon Helm passed away April 19, at the age of 71. The outpouring of grief following his passing was massive, and deserved—Helm’s music touched many lives through his long career. But in a way, it felt incongruous with his life: Helm’s life in music was a purer thing—it never felt like he was chasing celebrity or fame, it was just something that needed doing.
The best parts of Helm’s biography read like the stuff of legend: he famously quit touring with his Band bandmates on Bob Dylan’s electric jaunt in 1966 to go work on an oil rig, the kind of move that’s practically a Bruce Springsteen album in and of itself. But the beautiful thing about Helm’s life is that he carried it out without conceit, without a sense of self. Unlike Robbie Robertson, who likely would have actually written an album about quitting a touring group to work on an oil rig, Helm just did it, and then went back to playing music.