By Mark Kemp
As you read this post, please think about the question posed in the headline.
For many who admired and came to love Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana, April 5, 1994, was a horribly dark day. [See note at bottom for clarification on the sequence of events leading up to the discovery of Cobain’s body. — MK] It most certainly is one of the darkest days of my career as a music journalist. I remember it with the clarity of my parents’ generation when they talk about the day John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. died.
Sure, Kurt Cobain was just a singer, songwriter, and guitarist — he didn’t avert a Cuban Missile Crisis or keep speaking out against the vicious racism of an earlier American era even when his life was in jeopardy. Cobain did, however, give voice to a very marginalized group of misfits that didn’t seem so out of the ordinary when arenas full of kids shouted the words to Kurt’s songs. Even today, misfit kids in middle and high schools across the country learn Lead Belly songs because Kurt Cobain strapped on his acoustic guitar at an MTV Unplugged session and played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — also sung by Lead Belly as “Black Girl” — and Kurt’s version remains the most definitive cover of that classic acoustic-blues song that I’ve ever heard.
At any rate: Back to April 5, 1994. I had just arrived at offices of Option, an indie-alternative magazine I edited in Los Angeles, when one of our best writers, Neil Strauss, who was just beginning to break into Rolling Stone and The New York Times, called me. Since Cobain’s near-fatal overdose in Rome not long before, Neil had been on the Kurt Cobain Watch beat. Sadly, that was a thing.
“Kurt’s missing,” Neil said, his voice shaky. “Apparently he broke out of rehab last night.”
If you’d followed Kurt as much as we had during that period, it was pretty clear this day wasn’t going to end well.
Neil called back a little while later. “Looks like a body’s been found with a gunshot wound to the head at their Seattle house.”
“You think it’s Kurt?” I knew the answer.
I went outside and got physically ill.
We all cared a lot about Kurt Cobain. He was a sweet guy and a major talent. His screaming electric guitar is often overlooked or taken for granted in light of all the hoopla surrounding Nirvana (some true, some way off), and his by turns aggressive and then gentle touch on an acoustic is hardly talked about unless you’re talking about the MTV Unplugged appearance. But the acoustic guitars those guys used weren’t the accessories of a privileged rock band. Kurt loved acoustic music, from the classical-style leads of George Harrison and strumming of John Lennon on “And I Love Her,” by Kurt’s favorite band, the Beatles, to the nylon-plucking of poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen to the hardscrabble jangle and piercing leads of deep Delta folk-blues men like Lead Belly.
In fact, a 2014 report at the website of the British pop weekly New Musical Express revealed that Cobain had been interest in going out to the Arizona studio of Wipers guitarist Greg Sage — one of Cobain’s punk-rock heroes — and recording a full solo album of blues covers:
I heard from some people in [Kurt’s] camp in his circle that he wanted to come to Arizona and record at my studio, Zenorecords, and do an album of old blues covers,” says Sage. “I thought that would be good for him personally, but how do you go from mega-million LP sales to an album of old blues covers from a corporate point of view? Two weeks later he was gone.
What’s abundantly clear to anyone who ever spent any time with Cobain and Nirvana is that he alone had the genius gene. The other guys are good players, good people, but the Foo Fighters are pretty much a typical rock band from that era. Dave Grohl is a nice guy and a terrific drummer with great musical taste, and the Foos are a good band, but they’re hardly artists in the real sense of putting stuff together to make something much bigger and more important. Kurt Cobain was an artist. Whether you like his music or not. Whether you approve of the way he treated an acoustic guitar or not. Kurt Cobain being an artist is just a fact.
So my answer to the question in the headline: I imagine Kurt becoming an acoustic singer-songwriter, but not your average, everyday, acoustic singer-songwriter writing the same old James Taylor songs that have been written since the late ’60s. He’d be Kurt Cobain, screaming out poetry and truth and the absurd in that beautiful screech, and strumming, and fingerpicking, and maybe destroying a few Martins, I dunno. That’s how he rolled. One thing I did notice on the recent Cobain collection of lo-fi demos, Montage of Heck, was that you can hear him experimenting with Django-style Gypsy jazz. You may have found him sitting in with the Hot Club of Seattle, by this point.
My conclusion: Kurt Cobain would have produced more than one solo masterwork by now.
But just as we knew that April 5, 1994, was not going to end well, we also had known deep down for quite some time that Kurt Cobain wasn’t going to be around to produce any solo masterworks.
So while you are mourning the death date of one of this country’s great artists whose versatility was just beginning to manifest itself, please give your own answers to the question posed in the headline:
Get stories like this in your inbox
Had Kurt Cobain not died 22 years ago today, what do you think he’d be doing?
Correction: Apparently I do not remember April 5, 1994, as I wrote in the first paragraph, “with the clarity of my parents’ generation when they talk about the day John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. died.” Cobain’s body was not discovered until April 8, which is the day I remember so well. Forensic evidence showed the Nirvana frontman had been dead for three days, and April 5 was established as his official death date. Most of the phone updates I received from Neil Strauss happened on April 8, when Cobain’s body was found. The initial conversation I had with Strauss about Cobain having gone missing from rehab occurred at some time between April 1 and April 8. I apologize for the errors and learned a very important lesson today: It’s not wise to use the word “clarity” when writing a blog editorial from memory. — MK