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 their 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 5 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 plus years ago. Like so many disaffected others at the time I saw a part of my own reflection snarling back at me in their words and music. It was a reflection that was equal parts angry, fragile, frustrated and overwhelmed. I no longer see a part of my own reflection when I listen to Cobain and Nirvana. Try as I might the primary thing I hear these days when listening to Cobain is a painfully talented, damaged, and sickly kid who got tossed into the slow grinding gears of art and commerce and was never able to pry himself free.

This is not aesthetically fair. It’s the art, not the artist. I know. But for me, Kurt Cobain rests in a different place than the other troubled and damaged musical artists who have left this mortal coil far too soon such as Amy Winehouse, Gram Parsons, and Jimi Hendrix. Cobain remains the one musical artist that I cannot disconnect their music from their tragic fate. He’s been gone several decades now and yet 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” is the one that stings the hardest. It is also the one I find myself returning to the most. The more gut wrenching a performance is to watch or listen to the more we connect with it and come back to it. This is the Catch 22 when it comes to all lasting art such as “Nirvana Unplugged.”

I would like to one day be able to play “Nirvana Unplugged” and hear something besides the sound of a punctured soul performing at a candle lit, lily covered wake. Its’ been over 20 years since “Nirvana Unplugged” was released and yet I still have not reached that point. 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.