Remembering Kurt Cobain's death 20 years later
There are some moments you don’t forget. I remember exactly where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain had died.
I was sitting in my cubicle at Billboard’s New York office at 1515 Astor Plaza. I was the magazine’s talent editor. It was Friday, April 8, 1994.
Holding his script in front of him and showing little emotion, MTV’s Kurt Loder broke the news to the world around mid-day. Cobain had died three days previous on April 5, but his body wasn’t discovered until the morning of April 8, alongside a shotgun. MTV practically turned into a 24-hour news station regarding Cobain’s death, showing clips and interviews with Nirvana over and over. It owned the story. This was a story for the MTV generation, not the main networks. Local radio stations served as outlets for fans to call in and express their sorrow, anguish, and shock.
Though it’s only 20 years ago, this was before we all had the internet or email. By sheer luck, one of Billboard’s Los Angeles-based reporters, Carrie Borzillo, just happened to be in Seattle to cover SubPop’s 6th anniversary. She called in to the then- Los Angeles bureau chief as soon as she heard the news and was our very capable boots on the ground, covering his death, as well as going to Riverfront Memorial Park for the spontaneous vigil that happened as news spread.
I’m reminded of how much has changed in two short decades, especially in the news-gathering cycle. Since it was Friday, that meant that the weekly edition of Billboard had closed Thursday, been printed overnight, and was on its way to subscribers on Friday. We were totally out of the game. That was before billboard.com, so any reporting wasn’t going to come out until a week later. Plus, Billboard was a different animal back then, still very much focused on the music business. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I looked up Billboard’s coverage last night and saw that Cobain’s death did not make the front cover (the news would have been too old) and the main news story focused on how all four Nirvana albums had leapt back up the charts following his death. On the jump, on page 102, was Borzillo’s sidebar about the private and public memorial services, and how radio responded. (Borzillo’s book about those events and the band, “Nirvana: In The Words of The People Who Were There,” has been reissued to commemorate the 20th anniversary, with a portion of the proceeds from the signed copies going to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.) The magazine's higher-ups didn’t seem to understand the seismic magnitude of what had occurred. (Even though I’d left Billboard by the time Michael Jackson died in 2009, the magazine drafted me back to assist with coverage and his death was covered much better, thoroughly and respectfully).
What I remember in the days immediately following Cobain’s death is that there was a very real fear that there would be a rash of copycat suicides. Unlike with Elvis Presley’s or John Lennon’s deaths, this one affected a much younger demographic, as if Cobain had shattered our dreams as well as his own. Of course, Presley and Lennon were older and, while they were still making music, both of their musical legacies had been established years before their deaths. With Kurt, it felt like something still developing and full of possibility had been ripped from us; it felt like something had been irretrievably broken.
Cobain represented the misfits, everyone who felt like he or she didn’t fit in, and that pain came through in the music. There was a jagged vulnerability that ripped through the songs and a sad sweetness that inhabited Cobain with an almost ghostly presence long before he died.
I’ll admit that I was more of a Pearl Jam fan than a Nirvana fan in those days, but I was always drawn to Cobain. Part of it was that he didn’t hide how haunted he was by his own demons and his frequent bouts with depression. Not to be too fatalistic about it, but it felt like we wouldn’t have him around for too long, especially after he overdosed and slipped into a coma in Rome one month before he killed himself, and then checked out of rehab early. Some people just aren’t meant to grow old; they’re too gentle and sensitive to handle life’s cruelties. Or maybe, given his horrible upbringing, he’d already experienced too many of them to go on.
Last night, I also looked back at what I wrote in my weekly Billboard column in the issue following Cobain’s death and it was mainly about how Nirvana’s music was able to ease the pain for so many of its fans, but, ultimately, not able to relieve Cobain’s own suffering. Plus, I wrote about how quickly the deification of Cobain had begun, citing Clive James’ PBS series on fame and its thesis that whether it was Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Lennon, or now Cobain, the idol must die for the legend to be born. I never interviewed Cobain. I’ve subsequently interviewed Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters’ founder Dave Grohl several times and Nirvana frequently comes up, but more as a historical foot note than a major topic.
"In Bloom" came on the car radio earlier this week and, knowing the anniversary was coming up, the line about "he likes to shoot his gun, but he don't know what it means," seemed to take on added weight. But otherwise, the song, like so much of Nirvana's music sounded as fresh and razor-edged as when I first heard it.
I see teenagers now who weren’t born when Cobain died, wearing t-shirts with his face on them and I wonder what it is that they are relating to: Nirvana’s music? His tortured soul? I think it would make him laugh if they’re wearing the shirts to appear cool, but then he’d probably be happy if he could help them feel like they fit in in some way and made them feel more a part of than less than. But maybe they're hearing the vitality in the music too, even after all this time.
A lot of critics have speculated what Cobain would be doing now musically if he were still alive. I have no idea and couldn’t even hazard a guess. Maybe that’s because his death seemed so final to me, so much of a full stop on his life and his creativity, but, thankfully for him, also his pain.