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Cobain’s Refrain 

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Kurt Cobain despised hero-worship, tributes, anniversaries and just about anything that smacked of knee-jerk, conformist idolatry. So this isn’t a tribute. Then again, because the Nirvana songwriter and frontman found tributes and hero worship so troubling, his memory is worth some sort of free-style commemoration. So let the blasphemy begin.

“Yesterday’s following was nothing more than a tool in every individual’s need for self-importance, entertainment and social rituals,” he wrote in his spiral notebook journals. Aside from turning out side-winding phrases that still seemed spot-on precise, Cobain wrote some great, skull-cracking tunes.

He put a shotgun to his chin April 5, 1994, so this April 8 column is a good three days late of the 10th anniversary of his suicide. So much for timing. A friend who moved to Seattle told me it’s considered cliché to talk about the guy. There’s really no purpose to remembering his death, unless we want to remind ourselves that suicide is for cowards fond of soaking their suffering in the stench of romance, or that people quit life in such a manner because they don’t want to play by anyone’s rules but their own. And, as Bill Frost, City Weekly’s music editor, asks, “What’s the news flash about the guy—is he still dead?”

Fair enough. Even though Frost isn’t one, every baby boomer I know puts on a dismissive shrug when Cobain or Nirvana land in conversation. “They sure as hell weren’t as good as the Beatles!” True enough. The Beatles went from the innocuous pop of “A Hard Day’s Night” to the sound-collage experiments of “Revolution Nine” in little more than four years. As someone who came of age in the ’80s, I could just as easily point out that The Clash progressed from the rough-nosed punk of “White Riot” to the subdued, tableau-like grandeur of “Death Is a Star” in less than five years. Nirvana produced two studio albums in the space of three years, both of which sound roughly the same.

All of this misses the point, however. If all writers compared themselves to Shakespeare, no one would put pen to paper. Ditto for songwriters and The Beatles. You might want to remember Nirvana, if you care to remember them at all, for what the band might have done had Cobain carried on. Most fans give in to the romance of his suicide. “He was so fragile and sensitive that he couldn’t stand to see mainstream society, which he despised, enjoy his music.” Yeah, success confuses people who aren’t ready for it, or so we’re told. The heartier brand of Nirvana fan, among whom I proudly count myself, thinks of all the great songs he surely would have written by now had he lived. Look back on Cobain for the same reasons we reflect on Malcolm X or Robert Kennedy. We think of all the creations and possibilities that died with them.

If columnists wanted to break true ground, we’d write these sorry epistles nearer the man’s birthday, Feb. 20, 1967. But, of course, we’re just a bunch of lemmings moving in lockstep. Either way Cobain, God bless his soul, would hate us for it. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

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