20 years ago this week Kurt Cobain passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I remember the day I found out, after they found his body (April 8, 1994). It was a sunny day my freshman year of high school, and I was riding home on the school bus. I knew who Kurt was and I liked some of Nirvana’s songs, but I hadn’t dove deep into their music yet. Still, I felt sad. He was so young, 27 years old, the same age as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison when they died. All three were big musical influences in my household at the time, especially Hendrix and the Doors. As a young teenager, I thought it was a sign that he died at the same age, and he must be as influential and talented as those other musicians now long gone. That same summer my brother, Gregory, graduated from high school and I remember Nevermind playing at his party. I was slowly but surely leaning into this music I hadn't heard much of before and was enjoying it. That I would latch onto rock music shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who knows me.
I grew up in a home that cherished music. My parents had us listening to “the oldies” and Buddy Holly every three-hour car ride to visit our grandmother in New Jersey. Another early memory of being influenced by rock music was when my older brothers recorded a home video lip-syncing to When I’m 64 by the Beatles. I had four older brothers and they all had a diverse taste in music, but in addition to the Beatles and the Doors - Iron Maiden, Kiss, and Metallica posters were everywhere. Rock and roll music was a constant presence in our house.
Of course I had to go through my own phase of top 40 radio and boy bands (my first concert was Paula Abdul and Color Me Badd) before I reached my own personal discovery and love of rock and roll. It helped that I dabbled in some REM and Red Hot Chili Peppers in the early 90s. Then I began watching MTV and enjoying videos like Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden and Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana. However, it was Christmas of 1994 when Pearl Jam stole my heart with Vitalogy and I officially became a fan of the Seattle sound. Soon I added Alice in Chains to the mix as well. The powerful music of these four bands pretty much ruled my ears for the next few years. Their amazing mix of classic rock, punk rock and heavy metal could not be matched.
When I think about Kurt Cobain specifically, he seemed like the type of artist where the music always came first. He didn’t want to be in the limelight. When interviewed by the press he often would go into a character or make jokes to shine a light on the stupidity of fame and media. I also admired his conscience and dedication to social issues. I remember a quote from an interview that made me proud to be a fan where he said:
"At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us -- leave us alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."
As much as his dedication to people who were being oppressed made me admire Kurt and want to listen to him, the real reason I loved Nirvana’s music came down to the complete raw vulnerability Kurt put into every single performance. Even Nevermind, the most polished and produced Nirvana album, was wrought with Kurt’s ongoing demons. He could not hide himself from his fans. His music was a window into his soul. To be so honest and transparent, how could you not admire that?
The song Pennyroyal Tea, specifically the performance on Nirvana’s Unplugged, always moved me. Kurt suffered from chronic stomach issues, depression, and drug addiction for years. Although I was never as depressed as Kurt and never did drugs, I did relate to him because I suffered from chronic stomach issues from the time I was a young kid. When I was a teenager and my stomach was at its worst and my understanding of how to deal with it was the most shallow, just listening to a song like Pennyroyal Tea, and the lyrics “Lemon, warm milk and laxatives / Cherry-flavored antacids,” would help me remember I’m not alone in my pain.
As time has passed, I don’t listen to Nirvana as much as I used to. It’s so much easier to listen to bands that continue to make music (Pearl Jam), or bands with a larger discography (the Beatles), but every time I start feeling sentimental and turn on In Utero or Nirvana Unplugged, I’m thrown back to a time where I felt misunderstood, confused, and alone. I’m so thankful for having music to help me get through some of the roughest patches in my life.
In honor of Kurt’s memory and Nirvana’s amazing legacy as a groundbreaking rock band, I wanted to share my top 10 Nirvana songs (as of today – I’m sure if I did this list 10 years ago it would be different). If you’ve lived with your head in the sand for the past 25 years and haven’t ever heard Nirvana before, try starting with these significant performances (in no particular order):
It’s amazing how seamlessly Nirvana could go from a speed driven hard punk rock song like Territorial Pissings to a meditative ballad like Something in the Way, all on the same album. Their music was wide-ranging, but consistent.
I’ll leave you with the last song Kurt recorded, You Know You’re Right, another heartbreaker. Every single syllable… intentional… palpable… honest yet cynical… the way Kurt was known for writing, performing, living...
It’s been over 20 years since Nirvana last made music together and there still hasn’t been a punk rock band since to reach the same level of relevance, potency, and pure talent that Nirvana put out into the universe. Let us never forget the impact they had on the music industry, their peers, and fans. Their music is timeless and I’m certain it will continue to impact generations to come.
Please note all videos and photos are NOT mine, and just being shared for the purpose of this blog because music is meant to be shared.