Kurt Cobain at 50: Come As You Are, Stay As You Were

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By Allen Callaci

Pushing a squeaky shopping cart stocked with a dented box of Rice Krispies, a gallon of milk, and a tube of Crest toothpaste in the express lane at the local Stater Brothers is the last place one would expect to confront the passing of his/her youth. But as I roll the squeaking cart past the tabloids and packs of Juicy Fruit, there he is. His cobalt blue eyes are closed. The lower half of his face is covered by five o’clock shadow. His greasy blonde locks hide half his face as he leans into a mic and sings into oblivion. “Remembering Kurt Cobain: The Icon at 50” reads the cover of the latest commemorative issue of Life magazine.

I first heard Kurt Cobain and Nirvana 25+ years ago. Like so many disaffected others, I saw a part of my own reflection snarling back at me in their words and music—a reflection equal parts angry, fragile, frustrated, and overwhelmed. These days, I hear a painfully talented, damaged, and sickly kid who got tossed into the slow grinding gears of art and commerce and never pried himself free.

This is not aesthetically fair. It’s the art, not the artist. I know. For me, Kurt Cobain rests in a different place than the other troubled and damaged musical artists who left this mortal coil far too soon: Amy Winehouse, Gram Parsons, and Jimi Hendrix. Cobain remains the one musical artist whose music I cannot disconnect from his tragic fate. Decades after his passing, I still find myself going through at least one of the stages of grief every time I listen to Nirvana: denial, anger, sorrow and acceptance.

Nirvana Unplugged stings the hardest and I find myself returning to it the most. We connect with gut-wrenching performances and come back to them—the Catch-22 when it comes to all lasting art such as Nirvana Unplugged.

One day, I hope to play Nirvana Unplugged and hear something besides the sound of a punctured soul performing at a candle-lit, lily-covered wake. Twenty years after its release, I still can’t do that. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve listened to Cobain’s piercing, primal screams that end the Leadbelly cover of “In the Pines” from that performance. It still feels like touching dry ice each time the needle touches down. As the music spins, it never fails to generate an endless, nameless untouchable void as to all that was lost and all might have been if Cobain had remained with us. Perhaps he would have released a lo-fi collection of Leadbelly covers. Perhaps he would have become a visual artist. Or perhaps he would have gotten the help he so desperately needed and quietly retreated into the role of house-husband like his childhood musical hero John Lennon.

We will never know what he would have transformed into had he reached his 50. We will never even know what he might have transformed into had he reached 28. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray he will be forever ageless and timeless and trapped.

Come as you are.

Stay as you were.