Not Fade Away


  • Romance At Short Notice
  • Tuesday, 17 Dec 2013

It would be tempting to say that anniversaries are a gift to journalism, because they allow us free reign to dredge the past for nostalgia. But there's something very human about commemorating the dates of weddings, or birthdays. Or deaths.

Kurt Cobain died in April 5, 1994. Nirvana's Unplugged in New York was televised on Dec 14, 1993. These dates mean nothing, and everything, in the way that all dates do. I bought that album, like millions of other people did. I listened to it, I watched it, and I wish I had more insight to offer than some vague flabbergasted waffling over the fact that two decades have since passed.

In early November – there's another date for you – my brother and I made a pilgrimage of sorts, to Cobain's house. Cobain has had other houses, houses in which he was born, houses in which he lived; this was the house where he died. It's in a fairly posh suburb, with picturesque Lake Washington nearby. Seattle had donned its fall coat, and the lush greens and yellows and reds distracted somewhat from what was an essentially morbid trek.

The house is surrounded by a fence now, and joggers, and people out walking their dogs. All the trimmings of suburbia, of normalcy. Viretta Park, right next door, was small and damp and unspectacular, its most notable attribute being two benches that have been appropriated by Nirvana fans. Their wood is scarred with 20 years of messages of support and dubious assertions. One bore an offering of freshly picked mushrooms, neatly arranged next to an unlit candle.

I was 12 when Cobain shot himself. He was 27. I don't understand how I'm somehow older than him; it seems unfair and unbelievable and a sickly sort of wrong.

Come April next year, there will be a deluge of articles about Cobain's death. I will largely try to avoid them, and I will largely fail, even if I don't want to read more articles like this one in The Atlantic, which begins by saying that Unplugged in New York hasn't been evaluated independently of tragedy and then proceeds to assert that it's impossible to listen to the album without invoking death.

I don't pretend to know or understand Cobain, but at times, I convince myself I can appreciate his frustrations. He hated being labeled the voice of a generation – imagine discovering that you're capable of self-discovery through music, only to be anointed Bono by an establishment that doesn't quite get you. He despaired that success came at the cost of counterculture. Critics and journalists ignored his sense of humour in a quest for deeper meaning.

All these things make Unplugged in New York not just a brilliant record, but one that overflows with some classic Cobain contradictions. It's an unplugged album played through an amp. Its aggressively obscure set-list avoided most of the band's hits, and ended up spawning new ones. It is intimate and impersonal, beautiful and bleak – and for a record so associated with death, it is remarkable that it sounds so defiantly alive.

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