It wasn’t until late in the day yesterday that I realized that it was the 15th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. I remember exactly where I was when he died: I was Billboard’s talent editor and the rumors started floating in early that afternoon. If I remember correctly, this was pre-email, so it didn’t spread immediately. MTV’s Kurt Loder broke the news nationally that the Nirvana leader had killed himself.
As any journalist can attest, when you hear news like that, you put your own personal reaction on the back burner and go into news mode. We just happened to have one of our L.A.-based reporters in Seattle and we got dispatched her to where fans had already started a makeshift shrine for Cobain. Very quickly after his death, his widow, Courtney Love, released an audio statement to local radio, her voice full of tears yet unshed.
There was no distance between the end of Cobain’s death and the start of his legend. It happened instantaneously in a way that was still slightly rare then, but we see often now, such as when Heath Ledger died last year. In the short time it took to take his own life, he went from revered-yet-troubled musician to tortured, legendary genius.
Australian commentator Clive James once said that a person has to die before their time for their legend to begin: he was referring to folks like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or JFK, but he could have been talking about Cobain. It helps if they’re beautiful and die in some awful, unnatural way. He was only 27 when he committed suicide and was still gorgeous. Plus, his huge, blue eyes looked haunted in every photo. It was as if his pain still radiated at us, long after his passing.
But the bigger question is how has the music fared in the years since his death? The answer is exceptionally well. You’d be hard pressed to find a credible list of must-have albums that didn’t include “Nevermind.” It is a classic, regardless of how Nirvana’s story ended. “Bleach” has also held up well, “In Utero” a little less so (although I still love “Heartshaped Box” and “All Apologies.”) The blood and guts that Cobain (and bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl) seemed to leave a little of on stage every night are still there in the music. The raw nerves of a misfit who didn’t fit in no matter how many millions of albums he sold are still exposed. Every time I hear “Rape Me,” it hits me like a jagged jolt of electricity.
As with anyone who dies while his career is still on an upward trajectory, there’s no way of knowing what would have happened if he hadn’t have died. Unlike a lot of Nirvana fans, I love Grohl’s Foo Fighters and I’d hate to think they would have never been formed.
Nirvana’s legacy continues. Later this year, Original Recordings Group will release remastered versions of “Nevermind,” “In Utero” and “MTV Unplugged” on audiophile-quality vinyl.