Kurt Cobain was a Neil Young fan. This is evident not just in his music itself, though Cobain’s predilection for pushing pretty, catchy pop melodies through hellacious amounts of guitar distortion is ripped straight from Shakey’s playbook.
No, the truest and most blatant connection between the Crown Prince of grunge, and its Godfather, is Cobain’s almost perfect embodiment of that most salient and Romanticized Young line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” It’s one of the all-time great rock lines, one that sums everything essential and dangerous about rock music and encapsulates that most classic of pop struggles, the desire to be immortal balanced with the fear of lost relevancy.
Cobain straddled that divide better then anyone. He was openly contemptuous of his fame and his fans and absolutely acidic towards those who would have him as the voice of his generation. He was deeply troubled and suffered from both depression and crippling stomach pain. He was prone to absolutely toxic relationships and consistently addicted to something or other. Despite it all, this dorky, skinny, greasy-haired geek from Seattle was able to compose anthem after decade defining anthem, songs that really did speak to a generation of disenfranchised kids looking for someone or something to tell them what was cool.
And just like any good legend, on the precipice of his prime, at what we could assume was just the start of what would be a game-changing career, Cobain punched his own clock. On April 4, 1994, Cobain took enough heroin to kill himself twice over, and when it didn’t do the job as quickly as he’d preferred he put his Remington Model 11 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. An air conditioner repairman found him the next day.
If Cobain had been any other junkie eating his shotgun, this story probably wouldn’t have made the Seattle Times. I’ve heard culturally astute people my own age reduce Cobain to nothing more than a patchwork quilt of his musical influences with nothing ideologically interesting to say and no real talent beyond the capacity to die pretty and on time. With all do necessary reverence and respect, this is not entirely incorrect.
Musically, Cobain accomplished what Elvis before him and Eminem after him did. He took music with edge and danger and made it palatable to middle class white America, codifying that music as the defining pop outlet and making much money in the process.
The difference, I think, is that Cobain’s tortured, “doesn’t wanna be famous” attitude was more than just posing and posturing. He was legitimately a man with issues, self-created and otherwise, whose only emotional catharsis came via his pretty, pretty songs. His popular sensibility was too instinctual for him to ever be confused with the musicians he idolized, the hardcore punks and the college rockers who recorded some truly game-changing music in the 80s.
The genre Nirvana has come to typify is commonly called grunge, characterized by Wikipedia as containing typically “a sludgy guitar sound that uses a high level of distortion, fuzz and feedback effects…The music shares with punk a raw sound and similar lyrical concerns. However, it also involves much slower tempos, dissonant harmonies, and more complex instrumentation.” Grunge, as a rule, is awful. That last little bit isn’t actually in the Wikipedia article, though I think it’s important. Barring the occasional single by Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, the entire movement was a barrage of dreck. Nirvana made it safe for these bands to rise in prominence, but it was not of them.
Whereas most grunge bands took their cues from 70s classic rock, Nirvana owes much, much more to bands like REM and Hüsker Dü than to bands like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen.