Author: Christian Stevenson



I’m not sure what it is exactly that drew me into Nirvana as a young kid back in the early 90’s, but it was in no small part due to the mythos surrounding its frontman, Kurt Cobain.

Let’s start with the big part: April 8th, 1994 – 30 years ago today.  It was a normal middle school Friday afternoon and I was in PE class with my friends Owen and Chris.  Suddenly the PE coach, who we never particularly liked, came into the locker room and made a beeline straight towards us.  He was clearly tickled pink about something and let loose with, “Your guy died! Your guy is dead!”, while laughing and pointing at the three of us.  Confused at who the coach thought was “our guy”, it didn’t take long for the news to break that he was talking about Kurt Cobain.

News indeed traveled quickly throughout the school – as we met up with friends in other classes, we all rushed to each other asking if they’d heard the word yet.  It didn’t seem real that he could be dead, there must be some misunderstanding.

However as we got out of school and were able to listen to the radio or turn on TV, it was undeniable that this was really happening.  It was headline news both on the local rock station and on MTV.  That afternoon I sat glued to the TV watching Kurt Loder’s updates as well as any other info I could glean from calling up my friends.

To my naive teenage mind, it didn’t make sense why he would kill himself the way he did.  A shotgun seemed extraordinarily out of character, as this was such a brutal way to go for a man who seemed so sensitive (this thought would repeat itself years later with Elliott Smith).  Yeah, there was aggression in his music but not brutality.  It also didn’t make sense why someone who’d become rich and famous would have any issues that were so insurmountable that they’d lead to him killing himself.  Especially with a wife and young daughter.

While I knew he had a reputation as being a drug user, I didn’t know the full scope and thus it didn’t occur to me that he would have died of an overdose (little did I know about the Rome incident).  I was also naive to the mental health aspect, beyond the press musing that he was oh so troubled based on his song lyrics.

To say it was shocking is an understatement.  This was the first time I really had to face the reality of suicide as more than just a vague concept.  I remember teachers, parents and other authority figures being worried about copycat suicides.  The whole thing was such a big deal that even my grandmother became aware of it.  She talked to me shortly afterwards to explain her thoughts on how suicide is the ultimate form of selfishness and that it only harms the people you leave behind.  Her pep talk was well intentioned, but she didn’t need to worry… it was never once a thought in my mind.  In fact, knowing he resorted to escaping his problems in such a way made me like him a little less, maybe even hate him for a time.  But I suppose that’s part of the mythos – I might’ve tried to hate him but I couldn’t NOT be intrigued.

Like countless others across the world, I felt that I could relate to Kurt – that somehow he and I were alike.  We were both on the scrawny side, blonde, skinny, sensitive, artistic, maybe a little different than the rest. He spoke to a certain type of young man, one who was weary of macho jock posturing, who was dissatisfied with the status quo and wasn’t afraid to be a little weird or unconventional (even if only to piss everyone off).  My acts of defiance and run-ins with the “grownups”, as Kurt liked to say, were pretty small scale – skateboarding where I wasn’t supposed to be, growing my hair out, learning to question authority, things like that.  But I felt symbolically linked with him.  When he did things like call out racism, misogyny and homophobia, it informed my own sensibilities.

Of course after some time, I moved on past Nirvana and got into other music.  It wasn’t until the 30th anniversary of Nevermind approached that I reconnected with the band.  Allowing myself to reconnect with the teenager still lurking in my brain, I became a fan all over again.

There’s always speculation over what would have happened to him and the band if he’d never killed himself.  Personally, here’s what I like to imagine:

  • Michael Stipe successfully gets Kurt to agree on the collaboration they’d been discussing, this helps rejuvenate him and he has a productive 3 weeks but the album/tracks are never released.
  • Having detoxed from drugs and in a better place thanks to Stipe, Nirvana gets together to record for their next album, but after being unable to decide on a producer they call it quits instead.
  • Dave Grohl still splits off and forms Foo Fighters, while Kurt, Krist and Pat shuffle around doing odd projects with bands like the Melvins and Daniel Johnston.
  • Kurt, having previously asked J Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr) to drum for Nirvana, asks him to play drums on a side project he’s working on; J turns him down again.
  • Pat ends up joining Foo Fighters afterall.
  • Krist executive produces a documentary for the 20th anniversary of Nevermind.
  • Kurt releases a book of paintings, photographs and mixed media which includes a CD — a 52 minute noise collage with no track names.
  • Kurt and Courtney divorce when he gets clean. Kurt gets custody of Frances.
  • Having not released any new music for many years, Kurt becomes more focused on his paintings and poetry, but secretly self-releases a solo album under an alias.

So it begins…

Ollie is started to really get into music, which delights me. Here’s a few anecdotes:

Besides music from meme videos on Youtube, his favorite song is what he calls the “yeah yeah yeah song” — Nirvana’s “Lithium”. He’ll ask me at random to play it, then sings along to the chorus. If I ask him a question, he’ll sometimes respond – in key – with “yeah yeah yeeeeeeaaah”.

He says he wants to play the drums. I showed him a video of the drummer from Don Caballero playing solo, and he watched the whole thing, transfixed. His comment afterwards? “How can one person play all that?”

Dinosaur Jr gets played a lot in my house. Yesterday I was watching one of their videos and Ollie asked “how come he’s barely singing?”

Tonight he asked me if drummers play the same way each time, and how can they remember it all? I told him how drums are a vital part of the song and then found a drums-only video of “Lithium” to see if he’d recognize it. He did! This led to us watching a bass-only version, then a guitar-only version, and a vocals-only version. He was fascinated how it all comes together.

After watching those videos he said he wants a drum kit for his birthday. Then paused for a beat and said, “or maybe a glockenspiel”.


Random Musings

As much as we crap on digital, there was something special about transitioning from 35mm film to my first DSLR in the early 2000’s. The ability to see my photos immediately was amazing. Playing around with all of the options was fun. There was this feeling of experimentation that was very freeing, now that the cost and number of photos per roll was no longer an issue.