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20 Years Ago Today, The Passing of Kurt Cobain: A Reflection

by Tim Donnelly on April 08, 2014

My pants, shirt and head are drenched from the rain and sweat. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. My breath could kill a cat and I’m freezing.I approach the front door of National Video, where an MTV News staffer runs straight at me. She has a crazed look in her eyes and shoots the messenger with, “What fucking took you so long?”

Looking square in her bulging eyes, I gave her the crazy Irishman death look, turn my back and begin to walk away when I am stopped in my tracks by the news authority of Generation X, Kurt Loder. His sober delivery and matter of fact-ness was never clearer when he said:

“Hi, I’m Kurt Loder with an MTV News special report. The body of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain was found in a house in Seattle on Friday morning dead of an apparently self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Police found what is said to be a suicide note at the scene but not yet have divulged its contents. Cobain, who was 27, had reportedly been missing for several days.”

Loder went on to say that an electrician found Cobain’s body and before calling the police, he called a radio station to say that he found Cobain dead.

Shocked, exhausted and on the verge of tears, I stepped out the door onto the sidewalk, leaned against a pole, lit a cigarette, took a drag, closed my eyes and started to think. Elvis overdosed. Lennon was assassinated. My generation’s equal blew his head off. Whoa. Despite the methodology, fame killed Cobain, just as it did Elvis and Lennon.

I identified with Nirvana from the jump thanks to Matt Pinfield on my local alternative radio station 106.3 WHTG. In the last week of August of 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released to radio and by Halloween, my first copy of Nevermind was worn out.

Getting sneaked in the backdoor at Roseland for their November 15, 1993 blowout two nights before they filmed their seminal version of MTV Unplugged is still one of the best nights of my life.

The passion, balls and angst was as much me as it was Kurt Cobain. We were the same age, from places that lacked employment opportunities and had a mutual love for the melodies of The Beatles and the power of The Ramones. Slow-fast-fast-slow, I got what Cobain was saying from the get.

Perverse delight enveloped me when I remembered all of the times that we would walk into a commercial fishermen bar in my hometown or a tourist trap in Times Square and play “Territorial Pissings” and “Rape Me” on the jukebox. Nothing can provoke a bar to the precipice of anarchy like Nirvana, or fill a car with greater road-rage-worthy anthems.

I pushed myself off the pole I was leaning on and made my way back east of 42nd Street, where every building was closed for the long gentrification process, spelled out on the marquees of the boarded up theaters where there were now messages of inspiration, change or thought provocation.

On a former porn palace it read: “What Urge Will Save Us Now That Sex Won’t,” on another, “Men Don’t Protect You Anymore.”

Lonely, gray and emotionally compounded by my immediate environment, the tears began to fall.

But I looked up at a 100-year-old blighted building with a decrepit marquee that made perfect sense to me in that moment, “Use What Is a Culture to Change It Quickly.”

By the time I got to 43rd Street I had blocked out all of the noise and insanity around me. I was somewhere else when I entered 1515 Broadway and stood silently on the up escalator, looking down, not making eye contact with anyone.

When I got back to my office, my producer was waiting for me, thinking that I had just arrived for work.

“What are you just getting here?”He asked. “Why are you wet?”

“You have no idea.” I said.

None of us knew what kind of changes the entire planet was to undertake after Cobain’s death. Looking back at that day 20 years later, it’s safe to say that everything changed. At 27, he didn’t give himself or his art a chance to be the agent of change or be the man he wanted to be by age 47.

It is 20 years later. And it is still so fucking sad.

Postscript--The weekend in Boston was a mess, Pearl Jam in their first show since Cobain’s passing,was historic. One of the greatest, rawest performances I’ve ever seen. Mid-show, a Masshole of the female persuasion put gum in my (then) full head of hair. By the time of my hazy return to work on Tuesday, my head was shaved and wouldn’t you know it, it never grew completely back.


Tim Donnelly is a contributing editor at Relix. Over the years he has written cover stories on Pearl Jam, Trey Anastasio and Bonnaroo.

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