by Keidra Chaney
February 20 was Kurt Cobain’s birthday. He would have been 47 years old. I didn’t realize it at the time but I commemorated his birthday by reading a bunch of articles about him in a Rolling Stone anthology. Most of them I read when they were originally published, but for some reason i felt compelled to read them all again in one fell swoop, a history of life, a career, an artistic statement. It moved me.
I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about Nirvana. They aren’t even my favorite Seattle band. As a teen metalhead I gravitated more to Soundgarden’s Sabbath-y riffs and the dark harmonies of Alice in Chains. I still listen to both of those bands more casually than Nirvana. But Nirvana was special to me, in a different way. I connected personally to Kurt in ways that I both admired and made me uncomfortable. You could check off a list: extremely introspective and borderline socially phobic in high school, weird kid that got picked on a lot, struggled with depression, scoliosis, and chronic pain issues (for him, it was his stomach issues, for me, headaches) from a young age. Hell, we have the same initials, which I didn’t think about until years after his death. There was a lot we didn’t have in common, of course,besides the obvious race and gender differences, I had a comparatively stable middle-class family life, and grew up in a big city, rather than a working-class small town. but a lot of the internal similarities were there.
I always had lot of great empathy toward Kurt, so much of his songwriting came from a specific, ugly place – a place where physical pain and emotional pain connect; I can hear it particularly in his vocal performances in In Utero, his wailing seems to come directly from his gut, like it was being torn out of him. And I got it, even as it made me uncomfortable. Recognizing that place personally was not quite a source of solace for me, but at least helped me to feel a sense of kinship.
In the years after Kurt died I stayed away from Nirvana for a long time. It wasn’t deliberate. Nirvana was hard to listen to. It made me nervous, it brought up too many uncomfortable memories and feelings from my teens and early 20’s, when I internalized a lot and didn’t really have much confidence or an external creative outlet for my feelings or a way to sort out my physical and emotional pain.
Now Nirvana exists in this hallowed, exalted place – like The Beatles for some, and it’s a bit weird to me. Nirvana isn’t even a band anymore, it’s a legend, the songs don’t exist to be heard,to be felt, but to be dissected, analyzed. They are like a museum artifact, a chapter in a history book. Kurt’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington decides to commemorate him with a weird, creepy statue with a single tear running down its face. You see Dave Grohl talk about recording Nevermind in the documentary Sound City and even he gives Nirvana this nostalgic sheen, of this magical time of rock piling in a van to record a once-in-a-lifetime album. “Rock and roll, man!”
But then I read these old articles and all of it comes back, just how mundane a lot of their story was: The usual discord between band members (the rarely referenced second guitarist, the revolving door of drummers) the inconsistency of the live shows, Kurt’s mood swings, his acting out, his petty feuds with Pearl Jam, just how much his physical pain fueled his addiction that fueled the music. Much of that gets erased out of the mythology of Nirvana, which often happens with myths.
Reading those articles brought back not just the memories of those stories, of the person *I* was then, and how lucky i was to have the music to connect with at a time when i was sorely in need of it. Those memories don’t feel magical though, or nostalgic. A lot of it still feels ugly and sad. But to be reminded of just how mundane, and tough, and non-legendary Nirvana’s story is, even with their grand legacy, helps me to go back to the music itself and appreciate it for what it is and what it’s meant for me – and that’s healing and inspiring in the way that way that only music can do.