The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

April 11, 2014

Jeremiah Tucker: Kurt Cobain likely would have thrived in today's music scene

JOPLIN, Mo. — Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago this month -- April 5 to be exact.

I have no memory of the day he died. A friend asked me about this recently, and I said at that age -- I would've been 13 -- I was probably still rocking my cassingle of the Escape Club's "Wild Wild West." Needless to say, my middle school years were rough.  

I wish I had been cool enough to have a story about my deep adolescent connection to Nirvana and my pained reaction to Cobain's death. I vaguely remember the deejay playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at a middle school dance my mom made me attend and having to end the song early due to all the slam dancing, but that's about it.

A few months after Cobain died, I bought "In Utero" for my brother, and the next year I got super into Nirvana's "Unplugged" album. I know this because I have a vivid memory of buying Smashing Pumpkin's "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" and "Unplugged" around the same time in late 1994.

A year later, I was riding in the backseat of a friend's car one night, "Unplugged" playing over and over on the stereo, the girls talking about how cute Cobain was, and I remember thinking, "I've got to get a cardigan." We were coming back from a spook house on a country road, and we got into a wreck. I think "Lake of Fire" might've been playing at the time. (The car was totaled, but everyone was fine.)

So it's not as if I didn't eventually discover Nirvana's music or that it's not wrapped up with my teen years in the '90s. It's just I didn't get into Nirvana until after Cobain's death, which is eventually how the majority of people will experience Nirvana -- the recordings frozen in time with no promise of any future music from Cobain.

And that's a bummer. Of all the grunge acts of the '90s, I think Cobain had the best shot at shrugging off the scene's baggage.

The next album Cobain was supposed to make was a collaboration with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. I would've loved to hear that album. Cobain was a huge fan of R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People," and he was reportedly listening to it when he shot himself.

I also think the success of "Unplugged" might've pushed Cobain into some interesting directions. The idiosyncratic, country-inflected rock of the Meat Puppets, who played with Nirvana on "Unplugged," isn't that far removed from the alt-country movement that took hold in the mid and late '90s.

I could see Cobain having gone in that direction. He played in a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band as a teenager, so he was familiar with the overlap of rock and country.

That's what was interesting about Cobain: his range of influences. The man loved ABBA, for crying out loud, and even on "In Utero," supposedly his most vehemently anti-radio statement, he didn't abandon hooks. Nor did he object to Scott Litt, the producer of "Automatic for the People," coming in and sweetening up "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" for radio.

I think Cobain, like Radiohead, would've striven to remain relevant into the new decade, and I suspect he might have succeeded.  He kept his ear close to the underground, always mentioning less famous bands he admired. I would have liked to have seen how he responded to the garage rock explosion of the early '00s when bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes were blowing up.

He would never have been as popular or as much of a cultural force as he was at the height of "Nevermind," but then again, no rock musician was or likely ever will be.

Still, if Cobain could've survived another year, life would've gotten easier for him. Things changed quickly in the latter half of the decade. Pop became ascendant, people worried less about underground cred and "selling out," and the hegemony of the major labels began to collapse.

As the pressures of his suffocating fame receded, Cobain would have had more time and freedom simply to concentrate on music. It's a shame we'll never know what that might've sounded like.

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