Freddie Gibbs, Laura Jane Grace and More Remember Kurt Cobain
You don’t need an anniversary to remember Kurt Cobain. He’s there in any teenager’s fumbling first attempt at guitar, in that new band that’s just so distinctly ‘90s. He’s woven into the ethos of music, of society — from high school outsiders to high fashion. Still, it’s worth noting that the world has been missing Kurt for 25 years now — longer than some of his most ardent fans have been alive.
The Nirvana frontman died by suicide on April 4, 1994, leaving behind a scant discography that has since become iconic: from 1989’s caustic Bleach to 1991’s radio-ready Nevermind to In Utero, which was somewhere in between. To honor that slight but impactful output, TIDAL spoke with a variety of artists about their experiences with Cobain.
Read on for words from Freddie Gibbs, Laura Jane Grace, Robert Glasper and more.
Kurt Cobain showed me you could find success doing your own thing and breaking the rules. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ used to get me geeked for my football games. I listened to it on the bus. Grunge was a vibe. I was probably the only nigga in Gary listening to that.
Laura Jane Grace, Against Me!
I grew up in a military family and lived in Italy until I was 12. In Italy, we didn’t have MTV or anything like that, so when we moved back to the States, I got thrown right into the world of MTV, where they were playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’
We moved to Florida because my parents were going through a divorce, so I was depressed and I had just said goodbye to all my friends. I remember spending a lot of time sitting there in my grandmother’s La-Z-Boy watching MTV. That video was so different from anything else that was on TV. I remember being transfixed by that, and, at the same time, not fully understanding it. That’s my first memory of Nirvana.
Kurt had an element of provocateur to him and the rebellion was there — it was furthered in a way I had never seen it done before. He was against the very system that was making them famous: railing against record companies and not wanting to be a rock star but, at the same time, being a rock star. I don’t think I had seen that done before. Kurt was enigmatic.
When he passed away, I was in eighth grade. I walked home from school every day and hung out with a group of friends before my mom got home from work. The first thing we’d do when we got home was grab snacks and turn on the TV and smoke pot. I remember walking into the living room, turning on the TV and really dramatically lying down on the ground to process the news.
Against Me! made two records with Butch Vig. Butch made Nevermind. That was 100% the reason why we wanted to work with him. That connection — that was a dream. For years, I was managed by Danny Goldberg, who was Kurt’s manager, too. You can’t help but have a moment of self-reflection to your 13-year-old self.
When you’re a kid, that was who you wanted to be. I wanted to grow up to do that. I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to be Kurt Cobain. I wanted to have my own Nirvana and change the world.
One of the most recognizable and independent-sounding bands I’ve ever heard… ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a song that transcends race, culture and boundaries of any sort.
When Nevermind came out in 1991 — along with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — I was only five! I didn’t have siblings growing up, but I had a lot of friends with older siblings who listened to Nirvana, so naturally I got hooked on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’
I guess I never really paid attention to Kurt’s writing or choice of melodies as a teenager until I started writing my own songs; that was when I really went back into listening to all his songs. He had really great melodies and he was able to paint a picture without being too literal.
In an interview I read, Dave Grohl mentioned that Kurt had always focused on the melody, and they always wanted their songs to be as simple as possible. That’s an important lesson I learned from Kurt’s songwriting. That is what music is about: making something that you love and also taking into consideration if it is connecting with people melodically and lyrically, even when you’re in pain.
It’s a little sad realizing this after a few years of his passing, but you learn to appreciate great music — the kind of music that will stay with you forever — and Kurt did that with a lot of people.
Tank, Tank and the Bangas
I was the kind of teenager who liked to listen to all types of music and chill out with my weird poetry friends. I didn’t like to a part of the loud, very popular crowd, because they didn’t seem like my kind of people. I liked wallflowers, but wallflowers who knew that they were flowers.
I first heard about Kurt when I got into poetry; I heard his name in a lot of poetry slams. Poets would reference him when talking about things that were big and magical and serious. They would mention him like ‘KURT CO-BAIN.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’
I remember watching MTV and seeing the crazy difference between [everyone else they played and] someone who really looks like they don’t give a fuck about teen spirit, but they know what they need it in order to survive. So that’s what the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video was to me. To see these cheerleaders and to see Kurt in the middle of it truly like, ‘Whatever, nevermind.’ That’s exactly what it felt like.
That was the one that did it for me. And cover of Nevermind! Was that a toe or a penis? I didn’t know what was going on in the world.
It was an extremely beautiful time. I know he didn’t want to be the one to lead this revolution. No artist actually wants to be the person to be the face of revolution. That comes with so much responsibility. All you really want to do is make music and if someone happens to hear it and love it, you’re grateful. But when they ask you to be the face of an entire generation, that’s when all types of things come up that you did not expect.
There is no one like you. There is no one like Kurt. That’s where your power is. Because there’s no one like you. And the impact that he made is the impact that he made. And that’s the type of impact that I’d like to make. One that stands alone. I’m not going to compare myself to his music or his life to anyone. Because it was individual. It was his to live, his to make and even his to take. So I wouldn’t compare him, and I would like to be incomparable as well.
Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard Nirvana. I was at the roller skating rink. The year was 1991 and I was really into roller skating and my first job was working at that rink. I was making a turn around the long part of the rink and all of a sudden I heard [sings the guitar intro to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’]. And I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I skated over to the railing and just stood there, holding on to the side, just listening. A week later, it was on MTV.
As I became an obsessed fan, I learned more about Kurt and the issues that he stood for: women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, always looking out for the underdog. That spoke to me. He put a huge emphasis on authenticity. That really affected me hard. I got an education just by watching him and the way he carried himself.
When he passed away, I wrote a letter to him and went outside that night into my backyard and lit a white candle. I had a whole ritual for Kurt. I burnt the letter and I buried it. Even though I never knew him, he spoke to me.
Brian Newman, Jazz trumpeter
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were a big influence on me as a young musician. I always loved rock & roll, but the huge sound they got out of a trio was truly inspiring. His songs were so well written. From the fantastic bass lines to the lyrics, the band just had something new and different. My dad loved classic rock and it was always on in the house. To hear something like Nirvana at a young age was so different yet still had the heart of rock music. Mr. Cobain was such a remarkable person and his music will live on forever.
Abby Weems, Potty Mouth
I always think about how so many Nirvana songs are really simple and catchy, and how it seems really counterintuitive for someone like Kurt to write songs like that because he was such a dark and conflicted person. But that’s why they could get away with it without sounding corny, it was unexpected.
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