Notebook: Nirvana, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Seattle state of mind
Ask my generation of Seattleites about the day Kurt Cobain was found dead at the age of 27, and you’ll get a similar reaction, according to editorial writer Jonathan Martin.
ASK my generation of Seattleites about the day Kurt Cobain was found dead at the age of 27, and you’ll get a similar reaction. Two decades recede in a blink, and you are back to Friday, April 8, 1994.
I heard the news as I walked into the creamsicle-colored walls of The Daily of the University of Washington. I was news editor and admired how the student newspaper ground on, no matter what. But Cobain’s suicide had the place seized up, with sobbing, then drinking and an endless loop of “Bleach.”
Nirvana’s induction this week into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a given, according to music critics, because the band changed the course of pop music by infusing punk nihilism into the Billboard charts. As bassist Krist Novoselic has said, “Nirvana didn’t go mainstream — the mainstream came to Nirvana.”
Nirvana changed Seattle, too. The trio was a relatively brief fireworks show — 924 days between the release of Nevermind in September 1991 and Cobain’s death. But the attention lavished on Nirvana and its grunge-era peers made Seattle a clichéd state of mind. For a city with a simultaneous inferiority complex and vast self-regard, the magazine covers, the heavy MTV rotation of songs and movies like “Singles” were vindication.
It was a great ride, and permanently baked music into the cultural identity of Seattle. But the intensity of the spotlight can melt the very thing it regards. The thrift-store finds of
impoverished musicians became absurd “grunge fashion,” with $1,400 cashmere sweaters mimicking Cobain’s moth-eaten cardigan. Cobain himself melted into heroin addiction.
I’m glad the city hasn’t had a moment like that since. The Puget Sound is best when its geographic isolation forces a turn inward for innovation and creativity. It is no coincidence that Nirvana was from Aberdeen, or the Screaming Trees from Ellensburg. Nor that Bill Gates and Bill Boeing planted close to home.
Spending a recent morning at the EMP Museum exhibit on Nirvana, I was struck by the improbability of the band’s meteoric rise. Cobain and Novoselic cycled through drummers and band names. Novoselic attributes the band’s early sound to a guitar donated by a friend’s dad ... which Cobain smashed. They had a rocky tour of Europe opening for the band Tad.
But then the music plays, and Cobain’s earnest rasp fits like a puzzle piece over Novoselic’s base and Dave Grohl’s drums. The lyrics are alternately opaque and poetic. The guitar hooks grab.
And I’m suddenly back in my room in college in the fall of 1991, as a friend walks in with a CD and the murky chords of “Come As You Are” begin to play.
— Jonathan Martin