Not quite 20 years ago, Kurt Cobain, frontman and primary songwriter in the popular American rock band Nirvana, died. His death wasn’t heroic. It was terrifically ugly. And it was, inarguably, avoidable. To what extent nobody will ever know because Kurt isn’t around to offer anyone the opportunity to find out. He committed suicide, with a shotgun. He was 27.

What Cobain left behind was a broken family, a daughter who’d never know her father separated from an ever-expanding mythology, a riddle of questions unanswerable, three complete studio albums with Nirvana, and that’s about it. Those are the facts. Romanticising his death is ridiculous. NME realises as much, ostensibly at least, with its cover this week – a cartoon realisation of Kurt based on a popular poster of the man and band from the early 1990s, with the singer sporting thick-white-rimmed shades (I had the same poster on my wall as a teenager) – stating that it was “always about the music”. Forget the drugs, and the gun, it proclaims. Except, you can’t. The drugs and the gun are so tied up with the music that they’re impossible to ignore.

“And I swear that I don’t have a gun / No I don’t have a gun.”
‘Come As You Are’, 1991

“Come on over, and shoot the shit.”
‘Aneursym’, 1991

“My heart is broke / But I have some glue.”
‘Dumb’, 1993

And so on.

Kerrang! also features Kurt on this week’s cover. “Kurt speaks,” it claims. Well, he hasn’t for 20 years, but go on. “His life in his own words.” His life, towards the end, was one of pain: of agonising stomach cramps, chronic bronchitis and scoliosis. Kurt was a tiny man, just five-feet-seven. He weighed under nine stone. Type these details into the NHS’s BMI calculator and it’ll tell you Kurt was at the low end of the healthy range for an adult male of 27 – close to underweight, but just shy enough to sit in the green. Of course, such an assessment doesn’t factor the man’s steady diet of heroin. Large quantities of the drug were in his blood at the time of his death: sometime on April 5th, 1994.

Nothing above is unknown. Kurt Cobain took drugs. He might have done so to curb a pain he felt that he’d carried for years prior to realising he could self-medicate with illegal substances. He might have done so for other reasons. But drugs didn’t kill him. A conspiracy didn’t kill him. Courtney Love didn’t kill him. Myriad factors, consistently unhappy ones, combined to convince him that death was the solution to his ills. He tried rehab, and left. He married, and had a child. He left them. He worked beside two of the best friends he’d ever made in a band adored the world over, a band that achieved a resonance with a public in a way that so few do. He turned his back on that, locked himself away, and took himself away.

The only things that can be written, anew, on the life and death of Kurt Cobain are the memories you hold within yourself.

Personally, Nirvana meant a lot to me when I was 12, when I was 13. I taped copies of ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’, ‘Bleach’ and the ‘Incesticide’ collection, from my friend, who himself had taped them from originals owned by his older sister. Later, I’d buy them on CD, but CDs were expensive in the early 1990s. I pored over those tapes. I played them late at night when I was meant to be asleep, ducked under my duvet, on a fake Walkman my granddad had bought me for Christmas, one with a puny bass boost function and no rewind, the kind you got from Argos for under £12. They were crackly and ultimately got chewed up and spat out and ruined. The blank tapes I’d used were just as cheap as the player – they weren’t built to last. Yet when I hear those same songs today, I hear all the imperfections from those tapes – the moments where the dubbing went awry, when a song would warp and curve because of the poor cassette it was so rudely forced onto. Nirvana mean no less to me today than they did, I just don’t play them so often. I bought other records – several because of associations with Nirvana. I own thousands of records, and get to write about some of them, largely because of just three that I did not even part with money for until after their main songwriter was dead.

The songs were – remain – imperfect, too. Yes, there’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Imagine the 1990s without it. Imagine rock without it. Impossible. It’s one of the greatest singles in the popular music canon, rich in life and possibility. A mop head, a mosh, cheerleaders, a close-up of lyrics coated in spittle. Iconic. That it spoke to the disaffected is but a fraction of the story of its success – more importantly, it spoke to everyone, every playground faction, every pool-shooting pub-goer, every parent driving home to the sounds of their kids’ shoddily recorded record collection after football practice. It’s still the song that starts an obsession in the absolute beginners. But ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is an exception, an outstanding beacon of brilliance in a catalogue that’s strong, indeed, but as inconsistent as that of any band with just the three long-players proper to their name should be.

And listing a bunch of favourites and misfires here is pointless, because everyone has their own preferences. I’ll just say that I really like ‘Aero Zeppelin’, a co-write between Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic. But it’s neither of those guys’ contributions that do it for me. It’s the drums, played at the time by Melvins’ Dale Crover. Oh baby, when they tumble I just wanna keep rolling with them. At 1.22. At 1.27. At 1.32.

And so on.

Fame came hard to Kurt. That’s a fact borne by reams of documented evidence. What came earlier in his life was suicide: a great-uncle of his, and later another uncle, both took their own lives when Kurt was a boy, in 1979 and 1984 respectively. The child inside us all speaks in singular ways, private and silent. Who knows if these experiences played a factor in Kurt’s own suicide? He’s still not around to ask. He hasn’t been for some time.

I think we’ve all written enough now, for another year. Play a tribute, perhaps. No need for any more in print. Remember what you want, how you want. Nothing in the music press, in the headline-hungry media hive mind, is going to tell you what you don’t already feel. It wasn’t always about the music, not by any substantial stretch of the wildest imagination. If it were, the music section shelves of WHSmith would look rather different right now. But right now, the music is all anyone’s got.

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Photos are copyright of Charles Peterson. You can see them up close, along with many others, at the exhibition Experiencing Nirvana featuring numerous shots by Peterson and fellow photographer Steve Double, hosted at Proud Camden, London, until May 11th. Information here

Related: read an interview with Pat Smear, Nirvana’s fourth member at the time of touring ‘In Utero’
Related: read Clash’s review of the 20th anniversary edition of ‘In Utero’

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