Now and Then, Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Death of Kurt Cobain

[24 September 2009]

By Kirby Fields

Kevin was tall, over six feet, with blonde hair that flowed past his shoulders though it was thinning by our senior year. His dad had died before I met him, and he never spoke of him except once to say how one time during a tornado his dad had grabbed a camera to take pictures and how he and Kevin had marched down the middle of the road looking for the best shot while everyone else was scrambling to take cover and shouting what’s the matter with you, are you crazy at them. Kevin’s dad was a photographer, and Kevin himself was a graphic artist. He’d make pencil drawings and silk-screened t-shirts. One year, I bought a bulky leather jacket from him for $100 for my birthday. He was the first person I knew who had a chain that connected his wallet to his jeans.

By virtue of being the only two people in our class who rode skateboards, Kevin and I were thrust into a friendship, which was okay. Even without the bond of skateboards, we would have had the bond of music. For as much as I like music, I’ve never been one of those people who stayed ahead of the curve. I don’t have the time, the energy, or the money to keep my ear to the ground. This means that I rarely discover bands on my own. Instead, people introduce them to me. And Kevin was a trusted source. He was right about Ministry and 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, less so about Fugazi, right again about Bad Brains. I knew he knew his stuff, and I respected the hell out of him. So when he came into my room, flashed the CD, and said “Dude,” I was ready for something special.

*****

My dad tells a story about reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a boy. He so loved the book that the thought of finishing it was too much for him to bear. Twenty pages from the end, he put it down. Refused to read. Waited for the perfect time. That uninterrupted hour for just him and Scout and Atticus and Jem to sit down and wrap things up. Finally, weeks later, he found it—under the shade of a tree in a secret part of the only park in Bethany, West Virginia, or so I imagine—and when he eventually did close that back cover, he couldn’t stand being without. He couldn’t stand being without so much that, book in hand, he went to, yes, Bethany’s only library where he held up the book and announced to the woman in the stacks: “I want another book just like this one.” The woman, on cue, replied, “Son, there are no other books like that one.”

That was how we felt about Nevermind. We listened, we listened, and we listened some more, and when, in years past, the needle would have worn through the grooves, we took it to the record store, held it up, and said “More!”

*****

It was really Butch Vig with whom we fell in love. Vig would go on to cofound Garbage and to produce seminal albums for the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Helmet, L7, Sonic Youth, and, most recently, Green Day, but the first paragraph of his obituary will mention only one album by name: Nevermind.

In one of those Behind the Music specials that aired on MTV in an infinite loop in the days/weeks/months after Kurt’s death, Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player, talked about walking into the studio the day after a recording session. They strolled in, heard something thumping over the speakers, and started bobbing their heads to the beat. “This rocks”, Novoselic said. “Who is it?” “It’s you,” Vig replied. It was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

For all the talk about grunge, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has a pretty clean sound. It’s slick and ultimately has less in common with the small DIY stuff that Cobain so adored and more with other anthemic stadium-rockers like “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Enter Sandman.” Indeed, I often have to remind myself that Butch Vig is not Mutt Lange is not Bob Rock.

But these are the observations of a hundred listens. At the time, our only thought was this is the coolest fucking thing I have ever heard in my life ever.

I’ve long been jealous of my older friends who experienced original listens of Revolver, The Basement Tapes, What’s Going On, and Horses. That sense of being there where there meant the promise of something more.

This time, we were the ones who were there.

*****

There was a stretch when Nirvana was the soundtrack for our Friday nights. No, check that. There was a stretch when Nirvana was our Friday nights. Cans of beer on Jeff’s front porch, the speakers in the window, music getting louder as the night got later, rowdier. One night, Patrick was running around the room, jumping up and down to the beat—the Pogo by a guy who had never heard of the Pogo—and he leapt up and clipped his head on the top of the door frame, right above his left eye. He required six stitches. Another night, Dave fell down the stairs and broke his arm. He may have been trying a trick on his bike. I’m not sure. He asked us to mums the word at work the following week, because he didn’t want it getting around how out of control he had been. Might ruin his chance at advancement at the toy store where we all worked.

These were dangerous days, girl-less days, as you might have guessed, and more emotionally open than any of us had ever been with other men. Dave had gone out wilding the summer before in Carthage. He smashed a car window or two, some headlights. He told it to us in the waning hours not with any sense of bravado but almost as a kind of confession. We absolved him with our silence. Jeff and I especially not knowing what we were doing with our lives. He—already with the stigma of divorce; me—every choice by default. Long walks to Parr Hill Park, beer hidden in cupped hands when the cops drove by, talking about our dads. 

*****

It’s a fair question—What does any of this have to do with Nirvana, really?—and I hope you’ll forgive an answer that smacks of justification even to me, but as anyone who has ever deeply loved an artist knows, the experience of actually listening to the band itself is often the least of it, and those first days after you are introduced to a new record are like falling in love, when not only the thing itself but everything around it takes on a heightened significance.

Thus, certain bands function as a kind of carbon dating of your life. The Sex Pistols/PIL Era, the Pink Floyd Era, the Bob Dylan, the John Lennon, the Jim Morrison, skip ahead to the Public Enemy, the Guns N’ Roses, the NWA, the Radiohead, the Miles Davis, the Patti Smith.

It’s a rare blessing when the era in one’s life actually conforms to the era of a band’s prime. Rarer still, and sadder, when the era in one’s life conforms to the entire life of the band. This was the case with Nirvana.

We followed them, more or less, from birth to death.

*****

It was mid-day and I was where I usually was during mid-day: asleep.

The phone rang.

My bed at the time didn’t have any frame. Just box springs and a mattress on the floor.

I answered it. It was Matt Triplett, my least pop-culture infatuated friend.

“Kurt Cobain died.”

“What?”

“He committed suicide.”

“Fuck you.”

“Turn on the TV.”

*****

I remember the through-the-window photograph most of all. He’s wearing sneakers, which is both in character and odd. And jeans. And a shirt that looks like the one he wore at the MTV Music Awards when he showed up with that bowl-cut hairdo and allegedly got into a fight with Axl Rose backstage.

Anyway.

You can tell he’s dead, because who would allow himself to have his picture taken while lying on a tile floor?

I saw them once, at Kansas City’s Memorial Hall...

I saw them once, at Kansas City’s Memorial Hall, which seats about 3,000 (I’d guess). I went with Kevin, his girlfriend-later-wife whose name I got wrong in an earlier version of this essay so I dare not try again, and Heath, who I was never cool with for the stupid reason that he dated one of my high school girlfriends before I did but who ended up being really cool nevertheless.

Here’s the funny part: I almost didn’t go. I almost didn’t go because I had an early class the next day. That’s right—I almost passed on seeing Nirvana because it was a school night.

Mudhoney and the Screaming Tress opened up, and I thought what pull this guy has.

Between sets, Kurt came out by himself and everyone went ape-shit. He stepped to the microphone and asked if [Name I Can’t Remember] was in the house. Everybody cried here, here! He said I’m serious is [Name I Can’t Remember] here? He wasn’t. Kurt then said, “Well, if you get here tell such-and-such I just want you to know I wasn’t kidding.”

They opened their part of the show with “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Right when the drums kick in, some guy came tearing from backstage and did a stage dive, landing about six rows deep.

I’ve always suspected that that was the guy Kurt was looking for. That he had met him the night before and told him he could open the show with a dive.

*****

Cobain’s death was the greatest thing to happen to MTV since Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller.” They went into full-on Kennedy Assassination mode. David Fricke (from Rolling Stone) was live looking like a long-lost Ramone and saying things like “he really was the closest thing this generation had to a John Lennon.” He also said something like, “Parents, don’t write this off as some crazy rock star. This is your kids.”

I forget who was on the scene, but MTV News had a team mobilize to the house itself. They interviewed people who had gathered outside. Predictably, there were candles and flowers. Courtney Love herself roamed the grounds. She visited with the mourners, a self-ordained punk rock queen comforting her people. She seemed a little too in her element. Live Through This had been released four days before. She told one person at the scene to “buy my record, it’s a really good New Wave record.” He nodded that he would.

*****

The thing is that all of that stuff above—about drinking beer on Jeff’s front porch and Patrick cracking his head and Dave breaking his arm—I can’t remember if that was before or after the suicide. The whole period is such a blur. I know we had the bug with Nevermind, but I also know that we were thrashing about to “Scentless Apprentice” (none of us believing that it was written by Dave Grohl, the drummer of all people) and that was In Utero, which was closer to his death than it was to Nevermind.

Part of my confusion is that the frenzy I recall is more akin to what we felt after his death than it was to what we felt before. We were always fans, but after he died, our passion reached an obsessive level. This time, it manifested itself in an intense scrutiny of the lyrics.

The specter of death was everywhere. I argued long into the night that “Drain You” was about abortion (I was wrong). The line “... rather be dead than cool” from “Stay Away” suddenly felt prescient. I had a whole thing worked out about “Verse Chorus Verse,” a top-three Nirvana track from the No Alternative collection, whereby the “He” of the song was God and the various actions he performed were the ways He toyed with us (poking holes in a jar, covering us with grass). When Jeff and I realized that the chorus included the line “... you’re in utero,” we damn near crashed his car.

I’m telling you, I know how it sounds—I really do—but this is what it was like.

One of us rushed out and bought the soundtrack to the Beavis and Butthead movie because it had a Nirvana song called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.”

We were putting together a puzzle that already had all of the pieces in place.

*****

At the Kansas City show, they played “Rape Me,” the opening of which sounds a lot like the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The crowd went crazy. They settled down when they realized what it wasn’t.

Later, he played the opening jingle to “Teen Spirit” for real this time but then stopped. Then played it again, then stopped. Then he left the stage.

Novoselic said, “You’d better play that one or they’re going to be really, really mad.”

They did.

At the end of the night, the band all switched instruments—Novoselic on drums, Grohl on guitar, and Cobain on bass. Then they made a racket. They just beat the shit out of everything, broke stuff. Cobain lined up at one side of the stage, Grohl at the other, both with instruments strapped around their necks. They ran toward the center and slammed into each other. The clatter was deafening.

Finally, after 15 minutes of chaos, two-thirds of the band left the stage. Cobain took a non-broken guitar, coaxed from it a piercing sound, and propped it up against an amplifier, which guaranteed that the pierce would be sustained.

He walked center, said, “I’m going to leave this here until everyone goes home. Good night.”

As we, herd-like, shuffled from our seats, the sound of the guitar droned loud and true.

*****

So I’m at a party, an after-party actually, chatting with a couple I didn’t know very well. I had met them earlier that night, and they seemed cool. They had a kid. They may have been the first people I knew who had a kid. It was definitely weird that they had a kid, and we were drinking in their house at three in the morning.

I was prattling on about God knows what, and at some point, the conversation turns to Cobain, and I say “Oh my, what a tragedy! Our generation’s John Lennon! You know that song ‘Drain You’ is really about an abortion?” and so on and so on ad nauseam (and I do mean nauseam).

Well, at some point I finally (and mercifully) shut up, and I turn to the guy—the husband, the father—and I say to him something that I said far too infrequently in those days. I said, “What do you think?”

“About what?”

“About the death of Kurt Cobain.”

“He had a daughter, right?”

“Yeah. Frances Bean.”

“Then I think it’s fucked up.”

And that, as they say, was that.

*****

Now, I’m the one with the kid, and it’s not only weird when people drink in my house at three in the morning, it’s unheard of.

I didn’t need to have a kid for the “He had a daughter” line to land, but doing so certainly drives the point home.

I’ve followed what there is to follow of Nirvana since those frenzied days. I dug “You Know You’re Right” well enough to call my wife in from the next room to check out the video and to make it my first 99-cent purchase from iTunes. Tellingly, I bought the posthumous box set With the Lights Out used, and I was disappointed by it even then. I’ve stayed away from the published journals and notebooks not because I believe them to be a money grab, but mostly because I’m not really interested in that kind of thing.

The truth is that I don’t even know the date on which his body was found. About once a year, I bust out From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. I suspect it’s around the anniversary. I may not know the date exactly, but it’s in my blood.

Over the years, I’ve felt angry, deprived, and indifferent about the loss of him.

But then I listen with open ears to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I hear a line like “And I forget just why I taste / Oh yeah I guess it makes me smile.”

A line that was written before Butch Vig or Kansas City or Frances Bean.

No matter how much anger I try to muster, I hear a line like that, and I just feel sad.

Kirby Fields writes and lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. When he isn’t working, he spends time with his wife and son.

Kirby Fields lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. When he is not working or writing, he enjoys spending time with his wife and son.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/111717-now-and-then-smells-like-teen-spirit-the-death-of-kurt-cobain/