April 9, 2014

"We'll never get to hear how the band might have developed; the analogy would be if John Lennon had died not in 1980 but in 1965."

Wrote my son John, yesterday, April 8th:
Nirvana released only three proper studio albums. In an interview near the end of his life, Cobain was critical of the band's soft/loud formula and talked about wanting to branch out stylistically. He was disappointed that the band up to that point had emphasized the heavy side of that formula instead of a poppier, Beatley side.... They should have done so much more. But they changed the direction of rock music in the few years they were around. I realize that other bands have a better claim to inventing grunge. Nirvana was to grunge rock as the Beatles were to '60s rock, or as Mozart was to the Classical style, or as Bach was to Baroque. They didn't invent their style. They perfected it. Cobain was the first to admit that he mostly ripped off a lot of other bands to make Nirvana's music. I'm so glad he did.
I appreciated that John was commemorating the date we learned that Kurt Cobain had killed himself, his body having lain dead, undiscovered, for 3 days. As I wrote over there, the date we heard the news matters deeply:
To me, it's the effect on people like you that is so significant. For the music that you and other young people loved to have suddenly taken on the meaning of the rejection of life -- that was terrible thing (in addition to the loss that you describe, to know that you would never hear more, never have the experience of hearing what would have evolved from what you already had made part of your mind and your life through love and attention).
John was 13 at this point, and he recounts hearing the news that day on MTV, in a report that used the phrase "a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." He turned to me for an explanation, and I said "That means he killed himself."

38 comments:

J Lee said...

Similar sentiments were expressed a generation before about how things would have developed if Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens hadn't died prematurely.

Ann Althouse said...

"Similar sentiments were expressed a generation before about how things would have developed if Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens hadn't died prematurely."

But Holly and Valens didn't off themselves.

It hurt a lot for those who were around at the time to know they'd never hear what would have happened, but they didn't choose not to find out what was down the road death stopped them from traveling.

And their music wasn't transformed into meaning this is the product of a mind that wants to be dead.

That's an awful thing to do to the music that young people are deeply bonded to.

surfed said...

All bands knick what other bands do. Guitar palyers borrow what other guitar players do, so on and so forth. EVREY guitar player has knicked Chuck Berry...

Pasted below is a link to Crowded House on the Late Show performing "It's Only Natural". Here's what the Beatles possibly would have sounded like if John hadn't been killed and he and McCartney had matured together as son writers... and funny enough (if that's a term I can use) from about the same time framethat Mr. Kobain ended his life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYydSFDVFDo

madAsHell said...

and talked about wanting to branch out stylistically.

The musician's threnody.

Robert Cook said...

I thought Cobain and Nirvana had some talent, but they were hardly the "Beatles of the grunge generation" or Cobain a latter day John Lennon as has been ridiculously asserted. Actually, They were average, at best. They didn't do anything that others before them hadn't already done. I saw them at Roseland here in NYC on their last tour, only because a friend of mine had an extra ticket and he invited me. They bored me.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Yes, I did a similar post on the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, pointing out how much was lost and how much of a continuing influence he's had on music in the past 55 years.

Ann Althouse said...

John's old Buddy Holly post shows how even those who were not around to have experienced him alive and then suddenly dead have feeling about losing what he might have produced had he lived.

But they have no lived experience of believing there would be more, wanting more, then having their hopes and expectations crushed.

That's the importance of the Cobain death to those in John's generation.

Boomers might cite Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison as comparable, but really they were not. They were all seen as in decline for quite a while before they died.

Gahrie said...

But they have no lived experience of believing there would be more, wanting more, then having their hopes and expectations crushed.

Everybody goes through this at one point...its called life.

EDH said...

If Cobain didn't kill himself I think Nirvana would have broken up, at least as a creative force of new music.

Cobain was miserable. Grohl probably felt hidden behind the drums. Novoselic was out in left field.

"Better to burn out than to fade away."

Mark said...

Funny, I was 24 at the time and thought Cobain was from my generation. Turns out he belonged to the grade schoolers, not the people who lived their college days to early Nirvana and grunge. Who woulda knew?

Biff said...

Given the recent discussion about suicide here on the blog, there might be some interest in a post that appeared a few days ago at Psychiatric Times. It was written by a physician who has struggled with her own depression and suicidal thoughts, and there are many aspects of it that are similar to my own fight against severe depression. I thought that some of her tips for recognizing symptoms in others and for how to speak about depression with a sufferer could be useful: "What Depression Does to Our Minds When it Attacks"

mrs.e said...

"That's an awful thing to do to the music that young people are deeply bonded to. "

People can be narcissists. It's a hard, unpleasant, grown-up reality.

Rae said...

I was in college when the while grunge thing hit. I think Nirvana's contemporaries, Pearl Jam and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden in fact made more of an impression on the music scene - even before Cobain suicided.

There's a lot to be said for sticking around, and continuing your craft for decades.

Brando said...

It's impossible to really predict. Look at the Rolling Stones--had they all died in a plane crash in 1980, we'd all be wondering what sort of great music they would have made for the next couple decades. Now, we actually know the answer--none!

Likewise, Nirvana could have had the lasting value of U2 or Foo Fighters, or it could have gone the way of Hootie and the Blowfish or Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Brando said...

"Boomers might cite Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison as comparable, but really they were not. They were all seen as in decline for quite a while before they died."

How long is "a while" though? If a musician has a slow year or two, there's easily room for a strong second act.

betamax3000 said...

RE: "Nirvana released only three proper studio albums"

and

"Boomers might cite Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison as comparable, but really they were not. They were all seen as in decline for quite a while before they died."

Not many songwriters or bands have more than three good albums in them. Perhaps Cobain saw his decline coming. Heroin as unkind to him as it was to Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin. Come out with different music to have the feral fans turn on him before on to The Next Big Thing. One-Trick Pony exposed. Opening for Nickelback. Watch his old drummer conquer the world without him. Watch his old drummer write the 'Beatley' songs. That damned Eddie Vedder. Grunge Nostalgia weekend on the radio. Radio won't play the new songs. Remembers when Talking Heads were the Biggest Thing, then a few years later were thought of rarely, if at all. Late-night texting with Michael Stipe. Lots of late-night texting with Michael Stipe. Ill-conceived duet project. Decides painting is his true love. Makes terrible paintings. Realizing that when the kids turned on Jello Biafra they literally beat him up, broken bones: committed fans. He owed it to us to watch him become a has-been. It was all a dream of some crazy kid from Nowhere, Washington. More heroin.

Marshal said...

They didn't do anything that others before them hadn't already done.

This is just false. Their music, especially lyrically, was so compelling it broke the stale radio status quo which had dominated for most of a decade and revitalized music for a decade. The Beatles didn't invent their chords either, so the criticism makes Nirvana more comparable on that issue, not less.

Amexpat said...

Boomers might cite Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison as comparable, but really they were not. They were all seen as in decline for quite a while before they died.

Not sure if Hendrix should be in that list. I think it's likely he would have made some amazing, innovative music if he hadn't died. Miles Davis, in his book, wrote that he was planning on doing something with Hendrix before he died..

persiflage mahal said...

"Boomers might cite Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison as comparable, but really they were not. They were all seen as in decline for quite a while before they died."

Decline as record-selling machines or decline as artists? Either way Joplin and Morrison were probably done, but Hendrix could have had 40 years of growth as a creative musician in front of him.

Henry said...

What if the number of original songs in a person's head is limited. And no one knows, least of all the artist, when that list will run out.

Brian said...

"That's an awful thing to do to the music that young people are deeply bonded to. "

Dissent: Nirvana's music was terrible, their popularity a ridiculous fad. If Cobain hadn't shot himself, he'd have spent the last twenty years wasting away into Loserville like, say, Jani Lane. In such case the late-stage Gen-Xers' youthful enthusiasm for Nirvana would be every bit as embarrassing as our older siblings' enthusiasm for Warrant.

Cobain's suicide may have dirtied up his fans' relationship with his music, but it also secured that relationship; the self-murder is what makes lifelong Nirvana fanhood perversely respectable.

Henry said...

Music could have benefited from an old Charlie Parker too.

Paul said...

"Boomers might cite Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison as comparable, but really they were not. They were all seen as in decline for quite a while before they died."

Hendrix in decline? Jesus stick to law lady. You constantly make a fool of yourself when you talk about music. At least you're not alone though. I can't think of any topic where ironclad proclamations are so thoroughly wedded to profound ignorance.

William said...

It's important for an entertainer to know when to make his exit. Michael Jackson would have had a much more illustrious career if he had chosen to overdose shortly after the Thriller work. Same thing with Elvis. How much more poetic and moving would his oeuvre have been if he had died thin and yearning instead of fat and bloated.

John Lynch said...

We wouldn't be talking about Nirvana at all if Cobain hadn't killed himself.

I remember Nirvana being on MTV 24/7 until I got tired of it and stopped watching. Hype hype hype.

Also, for all the talk about the lyrics when no one actually says what they were- they're nonsense. That was intentional- nonsense lyrics sung quiet-loud-quiet.

Matt said...

There's this clip of Nirvana on Headbanger's Ball where Kurt Cobain is wearing a dress and he and his bandmate go on an extended series of jokes about prom. Out of context, it's funny. Knowing what I know now, it's poignant.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" should be a funny song, with a riff stolen from "More Than a Feeling" [!] and absolutely ridiculous lyrics ("a mosquito, my libido"). Even the video should be pretty funny: grunge cheerleaders. But it's not, because of the suicide.

You could list a million examples of Cobain and Nirvana's strange sense of humor. Cobain's suicide ended the whimsy. Now everything from Nirvana is the musings of a tortured soul, instead of the antics of a slightly silly musician.

Scott M said...

Ah...the grunge days. Love 'em. Still do.

I was in the Air Force at the time and I distinctly remember an officer and I talking about music one day. He was a huge Beatles fan and was deriding my choices; Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, etc, telling me that nobody would ever know who they were 20 years later.

LOL, indeed.

Scott M said...

But Holly and Valens didn't off themselves.

Very true. A similar loss, cataclysmic inside grunge, but nowhere near Cobainesque outside style, was Layne Staley's OD death.

I have to admit that I felt personally robbed, just a bit, when that happened because I had never managed to see AiC live and was planning on it for later that year.

Greg Hlatky said...

Far more tragic than a dead druggie is Sibelius falling silent for 30 years and destroying his 8th Symphony.

As for your comparisons to Bach and Mozart, let's see if anyone even knows about Nirvana in 200 years.

Ann Althouse said...

"Funny, I was 24 at the time and thought Cobain was from my generation. Turns out he belonged to the grade schoolers, not the people who lived their college days to early Nirvana and grunge. Who woulda knew?"

What is the size of a generation? When I hear Barack Obama called a Baby Boomer, it sounds wrong to me. He was born in 1961, 10 years after me.

But what music is most in your psyche? I don't think it's what comes out when you are in college, but more what came out when you were in middle school… or as we called it in my day, junior high school.

The Beatles came out when I was 13, in 1964. The kids who were in college then were more attuned, I believe, to the Elvis era. I'd say the prime years that marked the most meaningful music for me were 1965 and 1966. For John, that period of his life was very important musically, as he explains. That when he started playing guitar and participating in bands.

So those are 2 reasons why I think your comment is off:

1. The size of a "generation."

2. The current music belonging more to 13-year-olds than to college students.

Ann Althouse said...

Jenny said when she was just five years old…

Scott M said...

The size of a "generation."

Doubt we'll solve that here, but it's always been my understanding that the Boomers were born when the troops came home, call it 45-50 and that Gen X'rs are the children of Boomer parents.

Anthony said...

Yeah, 'grunge' was already making something of an impact, like pebbles in a pond, but Nirvana was a big rock that got tossed in. It shook up the rock world because it wrenched it back from the overproduced and somewhat comical hair bands of the 1980s and gave it back to a distorted guitar, bass, and drums with catchy and infectious melodies. I love what it did to music. I doubt we'd have the breadth of artists we have today had they not made as big of a splash as they did.

KEXP out here in Seattle did a day's worth of Nirvana-related music last Friday and I loved it. I preferred Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots to Nirvana (can't stand Pearl Jam) and thought Cobain was often a first-rate a**hole, but I'll grant them pride of place in rock history.

BTW, I'm 52 so my teen years were with Led Zep and Rush and Styx, and my college years were in the heart of early MTV.

John said...

Why are Richie Valens and Buddy Holly always the only ones mentioned as dying in the plane crash?

What about the Big Bopper? He's chopped liver? Chantilly Lace? Oh, baby you know what I like.

Let's all take a moment to remember him, shall we:

http://youtu.be/4b-by5e4saI

As for what might have happened if they had not died on the plane, we do have an example: Waylon Jennings. He was supposed to be on the plane but backed out at the last minute and rode the bus instead.

He had a long and glorious career in music. I am a big fan.

Of the four, I think Waylon was by far the most talented, though it may not have been apparent on that fateful night.

John Henry

CatherineM said...

To the bashers, Nirvana will be the first to tell you they didn't originate their sound, it was the Pixies. They were just the first to HIT and then the record companies were all about getting all of those bands in Seattle signed.

Yeah, Nirvana would have had separate solo projects (Grohl was already working on what would become Foo Fighters), but they matter because that opening riff of Sounds Like Teen Spirit woke people out of their Hair Band stooper (and I mean radio programmers) that there was something else out there.

Because of Nirvana, bands like the Melvins and the Pixies got noticed too.

Mark said...

"2. The current music belonging more to 13-year-olds than to college students."

When bands do songs like `Rape Me', I don't think they are teenybopper material. Maybe you relate that to early Beatles ... I sure don't.

I think that many of those who mythologize Kurt Cobain come from this younger cohort however you name it - but I know the show I went to [and other grunge shows I saw] were at 21 and up venues who were full of fans.

When I think of the fans, I think of the people who were at those shows - not the people who were tucked into bed in their parents house at showtime.

Those fans also saw Pearl Jam, Soundgarten, other grunge all during its prime ... and carry their Nirvana show around as just one of many great concerts they saw of that genre. Given actual experience hearing these bands, I think there is less of a pillar for Kurt Cobain who is respected and loved but not turned into the only musical voice of grunge.

He was only one voice, and while they put on a good show I remember the Pearl Jam show from a few months later more than I do the enjoyable Nirvana show I saw at First Avenue.

Ann Althouse said...

"Those fans also saw Pearl Jam, Soundgarten, other grunge all during its prime ... and carry their Nirvana show around as just one of many great concerts they saw of that genre."

Hey, I drove carloads of adolescent boys to those concerts back then. And I had the bands in my basement too. So your idea that grunge music was for the 21-and-up crowd doesn't fit the reality I saw at places like the Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee.

Ann Althouse said...

And is putting Pearl Jam first the best way to show what a grunge fan you were?