Music

The day our pop star died: Kurt Cobain’s death, 20 years on

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

This Saturday is the 20th Anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. We asked local musician Jimmy Osterholt to share his response to the news, and the years since.

On April 5th, 1994, at his Seattle home, Kurt Cobain was found dead of an apparent suicide. The front man of the then famous, now legendary grunge band, Nirvana, was discovered by an electrician, a shotgun lay beside the body. He left behind a wife and daughter. He was 27 years old.

Early the next morning, in Sioux City, Iowa, my buddy Tyler came to my door looking stricken. It wasn’t unusual for him to stop by unannounced – we had been spending most of our time together since we had met earlier that year. The only unusual thing was the bummer face. Before I had time to ask, he offered the answer. Kurt Cobain was dead.

The news had surfaced the day before, but we were 14 years old and typically not consumers of the evening news. We were even mostly immune to the efforts of MTV News, as our interest in the outlet fizzled between airings of Liquid Television and Headbangers Ball.

Neither of us knew what to do with this information. On one level it was just some junkie pop star who had offed himself. What difference should that make to us? Cobain had a drug habit that had threatened the band and spooked his family. He had recently gone missing from a rehab center. Then he was found dead. That’s one of the pop star routes, isn’t it?

But on another level it felt like something significant had happened. We couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but there was something unsettling about the fact that this particular junkie pop star had killed himself.  Maybe it was just that we were young and this was the first time this well-worn trope had played out in our lives. This was the first time our pop star had offed himself.

I was 12 years old when Nevermind, Nirvana’s breakout sophomore record, exploded on the scene. Propelled by the album’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind was a record that in many ways defied categorization. The guitars were gnarly and heavily distorted, but it wasn’t exactly metal. No song was comprised of more than 4 power chords, but it wasn’t punk. Nirvana was identified with the grunge scene because that’s what was happening in Seattle at the time, but they sounded almost nothing like Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. That kind of novelty – not to mention the vulgar, counter-cultural attitude of the Cobain brand – was a bewitching (if befuddling) drug for kids like Tyler and me.

Cobain wrote songs with titles like “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” and lyrics like “I’d rather be dead than cool.” He seemed to consider it a form of dark humor. He thought it was funny. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the guy who wrote those songs had demons that would someday get the better of him. The trouble was that we liked those songs so much. We listened to them loud and memorized the lyrics from the (often-necessary) liner notes. I thought (and still think) that “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” was totally the standout highlight of the motion picture soundtrack to The Beavis and Butthead Experience. But why? What did those songs have for 14-year-old me?

In the 6th grade my parents had me checked into counselling. My mom had (perhaps aspirationally) started me in the middle school on the preppy side of town, where I had exactly zero friends – not that I actually had friends on the West side, but at least there I knew the score. My teachers had noticed that I had been personalizing my homemade, grocery-sack book jackets with large text that read “I WANT TO DIE.” This was a year before I met Tyler and 3 years before Nirvana would release “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.”

I don’t know why I wrote those things. I remember thinking it was kind of funny. The unwelcome attention of teachers meeting with parents and parents meeting with counselors was enough to put a stop to it though. I felt awful for spooking everyone so much. I don’t remember ever having earnest suicidal thoughts. But the evidence was there. I had written those things.

Trying to figure out what to do with the news of Cobain’s death that Spring morning, Tyler and I went for a walk. I think we had never considered the possibility that Cobain’s grim poetry pointed to the actual emotional state of a real person. They were just lyrics. Just scribbles on book jackets. Now it seemed apparent that those lyrics said something real about their creator. Is it possible that they said something about their fans as well? About us? We may have lacked the emotional sophistication to put it to words, but I think we felt it.

Tyler was from a suburb of Seattle so Cobain was a relatively big deal to him. He had moved with his parents to Sioux City the previous year. He went to the Catholic high school and should have been a nice preppy kid. Instead we spent our time listening to thrash and industrial records. Tyler introduced me to Nirvana and and the rest of the Seattle scene.

As Tyler and I walked with the news, I want to say that we asked hard questions, that our conversation explored how Cobain’s death impacted our understanding of the world and our own mortality. But we were 14. Most of what we knew about mortality we had learned from cartoons, where no one ever really dies. We probably talked about Ren and Stimpy.

Looking back, 20 years on, I’m full of questions. What albums might have been but will now never be? Would Cobain ever have done a solo record? What would that be like? Would he ever have taken up synthesizers and gone all Thom Yorke? What would it have been like to have seen Nirvana? (Neither of us had.)

But, more importantly, I wonder what happened to Cobain. When did the grim lyrics stop being doodles on paper sacks and start becoming a shotgun under the chin? Cobain and I had both put pen to paper and written the words “I want to die.” Why did that become real for him and not for me?

Tyler and I eventually made it to his place. We listened to CDs in his bedroom. We jammed. He had a Gibson SG and a Fender practice amp; I’d plunk out bass lines on his old nylon-stringed classical guitar tuned to drop D. Tyler was my first bandmate. We called ourselves Rive, a word we learned playing Scrabble, (meaning to tear or split with violence), and we played exactly zero shows ever. Our drummer lived in Alaska, which meant that for the 11 months of the year that he wasn’t visiting his family in Iowa, it was just me and Tyler.

This is where I learned to collaborate. Playing in a rock band is a wildly different animal than playing in high school jazz bands and orchestras – the creative process hinges not on technical ability or even creative energy as much as it does on trust. I would bring some little idea of mine to the table, pretending to be as nonchalant as I can manage, like it’s no big deal, like I could take it or leave it – just in case he thinks it’s boring or cliche or dumb – but secretly believing it to be the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever created, and hold my breath. He would do the same. Graciously, our critical instincts were still in their infancy, and most of our ideas made the cut. He would respond to my parts and add his voice to it. I would do the same. Our ideas were augmented and sharpened by the ideas of the other. I think that all worked because we trusted each other enough to reveal our ideas, our selves, in the first place. That’s still true in the bands I play in today.

I think that must have been true for Cobain and his bandmates. Their signatures are still audible on those records. Dave Grohl’s flashy, metalheaded, heavy-handed beats and Krist Novoselic’s busy, melodic, wandering bass lines are as present  in the music as Cobain’s words. I think that’s because they were collaborators. They had that trust that Tyler and I felt jamming in his upstairs bedroom. They were friends. What happened to that trust in Cobain’s last days? Heroine is a shitty drug. Was it powerful enough undermine those relationships? Or was there already a tear or split that left him isolated and vulnerable?

I don’t keep close touch with Tyler anymore. He’s back in Washington now with his son who recently turned 14. I’m in Minnesota now, playing in bands that are much calmer (and better) than Rive ever aspired to be. But we catch up once in a while. I recently talked to him about that day, 20 years ago, when he came to my door all ashen-faced. I asked him why he came to me. He said, “I came to you because you were my best friend and, as a lover of music, I knew you would understand there was a loss.” I did understand. And I felt understood. And now, 20 years later, I’m still grateful for it.

Jimmy Osterholt wrote this article for The Stake. Jimmy plays bass in The Small Cites, Gospel Machine, and other Twin Cities bands by night, and edits technical manuals by day. You can find him on Twitter @citizenjimmy

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