A Vulgar Picture: 15 Years After Nirvana


I’ve talked about Kurt Cobain before in my post on the Mountain Goats’ “Love love love.” And really, there isn’t too much more I could add to my recollection of what happened on that April 8th.  But this April 8th is a little bit different… Or at the very least, my heart is telling me that it is.  Fifteen years ago, I went through everything I wrote in that last post. (1)  Something fell out of the world, and I never imagined that it would ever be right.  When I saw R.E.M. play “Let Me In” on their last tour, I found myself riveted – stuck in perfect stillness (with the exception of a sense of falling slowly).

This morning, I put on Unplugged in New York and listened from start to finish for the first time in a long time.  Once upon a time, it used to give me the chills (of the less-than-comfortable sort).  The record, as I’ve said before, is one of the very best I’ve ever had.  It’s the sort of thing that makes you stare, and I never really imagined that the sting of what was lost could ever be separated from it.  I couldn’t get past the oddness of it: the rawness, the vulnerability, and that little-too-coincidental funerary imagery.  It was not what I expected from a record.  It just felt like an ending.  A beautiful, rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light sort of ending, sure, but something final nonetheless.

But the wind and the sunshine, this morning, said that the weight was gone.  And so it is.  For at least the first ten years, most people I knew who were Nirvana fans seemed to either genuinely express a profound sadness over Kurt’s passing, or they seemingly felt obliged to act sad.  It was simply too gauche to say “Oh, Kurt?  Yeah, well, whatever…”  Now, many people have forgotten April 8th, and the idea that he was going to be to us what Kennedy’s assassination was to our folks is all but gone.  (Which, I guess, tells you something about Kennedy and how times they are a-changing, huh?) For me, I remain gripped by the memory of that day – it was, after all, the first time someone like Kurt had ever exited my life prematurely. (2) That’s the kind of thing that a person just doesn’t forget, you know?  But now that things are a bit more muted, and it seems that another generation inhabits the spaces that Kurt and I once did (and probably you, too)… well, I have to say that it feels both liberating and strange all at the same time.

I often think of the Smiths song “Paint a Vulgar Picture” when I think of Nirvana.  That line: “What makes most people feel happy, leads us headlong into harm.”  For some reason, it just captivates me.  I wonder strange things: Did Courtney hire ninjas to kill Kurt?  What would Nirvana sound like now? Did I help to kill Kurt the day I went diving through the closet for my first flannel?  These are stupid things to think, and they sort of distract from the point. (3) The simple, obvious point that I’m still waiting for it all to make sense.

April 8th reminds me of Kurt’s passing, and it also makes me think about all of the other people (and there have been at least two dozen) that I’ve lost over the course of my life.  Every death leaves you with a pile of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions.  But most deaths don’t leave you with music to last a lifetime, and a memory full of dirt and innocence.  So now, with the night creeping in, and the memory of a drowning loss faded, but not forgotten, I choose to listen for the sake of the sound.  As it was, and as it will always be…

Here are some videos that come to mind today.  How about you?  Anything special you think about (if anything) on a day like today?

  1. It’s weird to realize that it was nearly the midpoint of my life.  Man, I am getting old… [Back]
  2. I have since felt the same sadness over Heath Ledger.  True story: The end of Brokeback Mountain (which I only saw after his death) made me stare at the screen for two minutes, and then cry like a little kid with a skinned knee… [Back]
  3. Not that this ever stops me, or anyone, from going over them in detail, of course… And I do wonder (as, it seems, does Billy Corgan) about responsibilites of fans to performers… [Back]

2 thoughts on “A Vulgar Picture: 15 Years After Nirvana

  1. Kurt’s death really was the half-point of my life. I am thirty now. I’ve been listening to Nirvana all week. I have to say, I think about what happened that day a lot more now than I did when I was fifteen. As a Pearl Jam fan, I wonder if I’d have had the same reaction had it been Eddie Vedder…

    • For some reason, that makes me remember Eddie Vedder’s introduction for R.E.M. at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said that he would’ve given anything to have had Kurt on stage instead of himself. Hm. Also, the night that the news broke, Blind Melon played “Change” on Letterman, and Hoon dedicated it to Kurt. That song and that day have always been linked for me, and so I’ve been listening to it a bit more this week…

      I think that I think about it more now, too, but it’s a much different kind of reflecting than it used to be. A lot of my sadness seems to have turned into a general nostalgia for that time… that is, when it hasn’t transferred to a new type of sadness: the misery that comes from learning that your teenage years are now replayed on “classic rock” radio stations…

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