Perfect Sound Forever

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain- Hero or Zero?

by Billy Bob Hargus (November 1995)

"A lot of people were really upset that I compared Cobain to John Lennon. But if you just look at their upbringing, their rough childhood, the way that they wrote and sang from their heart, the way that people reacted to their music then you see it." - David Fricke

"Kurt Cobain will not be remembered as the John Lennon of his generation. He will be remembered as the Sid Vicious of his generation- a loser." - John McLaughlin, The McLaughlin Group

A few years ago when the music of Richard Wagner was first played by a symphony orchestra in Jerasulem, there were violent protests during the show. Even before a note of music was played, people were outraged that a known anti-semite was having his music performed in Israel. Some things never change. No matter how strong a performer's or a listener's feelings, it's hard sometimes to seperate an artist from his music.

Of course, Cobain was never accused of being racist much less an inspiration for Nazis but there is still the same confusion of the man himself and the music he made.

Kurt Cobain the person, as McLaughlin said, was a loser on par with Vicious. Constantly strung out on drugs, erratic, irresponsible to his loved ones, friends and band, all that was missing was an O.D. He was somewhat more chronic though in that he decided to purposefully end his life, leaving a wife and child behind. This is pretty cowardly, not matter what you want to consider about how the "pressures of stardom" were getting to him. With his resources, he could have easily "dropped" out of the merry-go-round of tours, interviews and media coverage that his life had become. Indeed, plenty of entertainers opt for this for the same reason- they don't want all the bullshit that fame entails: Dylan and Lennon for instance. Rather than trying to deal with it or taking a different path, Cobain just decided he couldn't handle it, ever. There is nothing brave or noble about that.

All of this of course says nothing about Cobain the performer, singer, guitarist, bandleader. What really hurt a lot of people, myself included, is that he had left behind a pretty remarkable musical legacy, leaving little doubt that he had plenty more to say and do. That's why just thinking that John Lennon is gone is so painful even today.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of course. Like Lennon, Cobain was seen as a hero and reluctant spokesman. Once Nirvana broke out, it was like the Sex Pistols or the Beatles all over again- a fresh rock and roll band emerges through a waste-heap of prepackaged music and people respond like crazy. "Alternative" suddenly became mainstream- the major labels had a feeding frenzy of small bands and independent labels. Not just MTV but the radio and the charts responded and there you had a phenomenon. Even as the dust still clears and settles now, it seemed as if Cobain had been the force behind all of this even though he couldn't have imagined such a thing when he started.

Indeed, he made it a point to stay "alternative" even as his band made videos and did interviews. As trendy as you might think doing an "MTV Unplugged" show, you may never see Metallica, Soundgarden, Iggy Pop, Motorhead doing one- they're all about sonics, not songs. Cobain also avoided a Newsweek cover story, which Pearl Jam gladly took, to appear in Details instead. You may also remember that Cobain was the one who made it a point to try to make previously unsalable commodities such as Half Japanese (who opened for Nirvana on their last tour), the Raincoats (who had their whole catalog, long deleted, rereleased on a major label), the Jesus Lizard (who split a single with Nirvana for Touch and Go) and the Meat Puppets (who joined Nirvana for their MTV Unplugged show) into household names. He even hired the unsalable Steve Albini to produce a follow-up to the band's breakthrought album and went through battle after battle with his record company to have the record come out the way he wanted. In the end, of course, Cobain was still a rock star.

Of course that term is kind of meaningless today. People like Lennon, Dylan, Hendrix, Morrison once fit right in with that but who would you call that today in the newer bands? Cobain was the closest thing that a lot of younger rock fans had. In addition, the fact that Nirvana made it surely inspired plenty of other bands. He knew all of this too and that never made things any easier. Who would want that much responsibility?

What's more is that no one else has been GIVEN that responsibility as of now. Imagine if the singers in Oasis, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Soul Asylum, (or even the whole bands themselves) were untimely snuffed out. Rock fans would be "bummed out" for a time but that would pass pretty soon. Excepting Bono, Michael Stipe and maybe Henry Rollins, the death of a star today would ellicit shrugs and groans before the move would be on for the next big thing. Stipe, Bono and Cobain are reverred and idiolized by many for their music and what people think they stand for- basically, the power of music to be something more than an ad jingle or background music to do the dishes or screw. No one would be insane enough to want something like that but that's what happens nevertheless. As with Lennon and Dylan before them, Bono and Stipe have wisely chosen to speak for nobody but themselves and stay under wraps whenever appropriate thus inspiring more mystery and worship. Maybe then Cobain's biggest problem was that he didn't understand or know how to play this game.


A few days after Cobain shot himself, there were reports of teenages around the country flooding suicide hotlines. Of course, they were probably upset by the loss of a hero but they probably also looked to him as a role model or fellow traveller and wondered if he didn't have the right idea.

Like the angered classical music fans in Jerusalem, these unfortunage youngsters didn't get the point. Though Cobain made pains to be found as a suicide victim, he probably had no mind to tell anyone that he did the right thing. Usually suicides in the entertainment business happen to stars on the downslide. The only other example in music I can think of is Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Even today, scads of bands and listeners worship him. Like Cobain, he despaired and decided on suicide, just as his band was on the point of conquering the USA after having conquering the UK. (Lennon, Hendrix, Buddy Holly, of course, had no control over their demise). So there's where the great loss is- the silencing of a talent that had much more to say and a "hero" that many looked up to, still at the top of the game.

If history is going to judge Cobain as McLauglin or Frick does will all depends on who's telling the story. The rock magazines and books will treat him as a deity while the mainstream press will see him as a pathetic casualty. Both will never stop to consider the story that the other tells has some validity to it and in the end won't get the real story of what it might have meant.