Three days ago, April 5, was technically the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, but today, April 8, is the anniversary of the day we all found out about it. On April 8, 1994, the founder and frontman of the grunge band Nirvana was discovered in his home at 171 Lake Boulevard East in Seattle, Washington, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He’d been lying there dead for three days. His body was found by an electric company employee, who called an alternative rock station even before he called the police. Not only has the world never been quite the same since, but in a real sense the world is still mourning Kurt Cobain, and in some ways that are not entirely constructive.
Cobain’s death was nothing less than a watershed in American popular culture. You can make a very real argument that April 8, 1994 was the day the Baby Boomer generation realized that the world–of which they claimed ownership in a number of powerful ways–no longer belonged to them, but had passed into the custody of their children. On April 8, 1994, I was working as a clerk at a department store in Portland, Oregon. As the news rippled through the media, a number of people I encountered that day asked me, with evident bewilderment, “Who’s Kurt Cobain?” All of the people who asked this were over 35. Some were genuinely puzzled as to why their teenage and 20-something children were so deeply in shock at the news. Most Baby Boomers, in fact, simply could not understand the import of Cobain’s death except by analogy to the icons of their own generation who died in similar circumstances–Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin–and, a generation before that, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
The mansion where Kurt Cobain lived (and died) looks much the same 20 years on as it did in the early 1990s. The room he died in is called “the Greenhouse” but was evidently not called that by him.
Historians of music, culture and the social history of the late 20th century will debate until the cows come home what Nirvana and the grunge scene meant and how it impacted our society. There’s something deeply mysterious about the brilliance and resonance of Nirvana, a band that even in 1991 was difficult to explain exactly how they were different than other bands, but you knew they were different. But we thought we had a long time to figure that out. If Nirvana had the same career track as, say, Black Sabbath or the Rolling Stones, they’d have spent the ’90s putting out albums, in the 2000s major members would leave and they’d have frequent line-up changes, in the 2010s the old crew would reunite, they’d be doing reunion tour after reunion tour in the 2020s, and the twilight of their career in the 2030s would be the casino, Vegas and country fair circuit. The day Cobain pulled the trigger he took all of that away from us. Now all we have to puzzle out the legacy of Nirvana is the comparatively small body of work they left behind, which compounds the cultural mystery.
Then there are the rumors and theories. Our obsessive culture could not simply let Cobain shoot himself in peace (if you can call it that); instead we’ve spent the last 20 years bandying about scenarios, conspiracies, discrepancies, spurious documentaries and gruesome photos that may or may not really depict what happened, as if any of us had any sort of right to see them, which we don’t. There are more websites on the Internet devoted to rumors about Cobain’s death, and dark theories about secret murder and cover-ups, than there are about Nirvana’s music or Cobain’s interesting but tormented life. This is the unhealthy part of mourning. It’s somehow unsatisfying to us that Cobain chose to end his own life, ignominiously and alone, to put an end to the pain he was certainly feeling. In order to try to give meaning to that act–which was intensely personal–many people desperately want to rewrite the ending and make it larger, darker, more cynical and finally more meaningful than it was in real life. But isn’t what really happened–the suicide of a man who was brilliant and talented but depressed, a drug user, a sensitive person who (at least according to his suicide note) unmoved by the fame and accomplishment he achieved in his short life–already dark and cynical enough?
Having lost my own best friend to suicide, I can attest that it is a shocking act, and one that sparks a lot of uncomfortable reflection on the person who does it and the reasons why. We don’t want to believe that a person we love is capable of that, or don’t want to face knowing that they hurt so badly they felt that suicide was a viable option. Cobain’s suicide and the aura surrounding it have now made it impossible to listen to Nevermind or In Utero and not interpret what we hear through the lens of what happened to him, what he did to himself and why. We think, “What a shame that we lost him,” as if he belonged to us, as if he had some sort of obligation to go on entertaining us and making us think and feel as he and the other members of Nirvana had done for five short years. Suicide rarely makes sense to anyone but the person who commits it. A public suicide of a public figure–or, as Cobain was, a private person who uncomfortably found himself in the public eye–magnifies the uncomfortable questions and dark ruminations of the victim’s family and friends and instead projects them onto the screen of popular culture, which is ill-equipped to resolve or even understand them in the way that real people do.
Thus, Kurt Cobain’s death continues on, endlessly shared, endlessly recreated, never finished in our public consciousness. He’s been dying every day for 20 years now, somewhere on Earth, somewhere in somebody’s mind, or on your stereo or MP3 player, or in posters on the walls of dorm rooms inhabited by college kids who were barely born when he was alive. April 8, 1994 is a day that will remain curiously frozen in time probably forever. The only person who managed to complete that traumatic process was Cobain himself. Remember, he was dead for three days before we all found out; at least he had three days of peace.