Saturday, April 4, 2009

St. Kurt

Fifteen years ago this month, a musical icon died - not just any icon mind you - but an individual who would have a profound affect on my initiation into a vast world of music that I had otherwise never heard of.

I know it's hard to fathom now, but there was a time not so long ago when the internet - an entity that can make or break bands and artists before their album even hits the shelves - did not exist. In the pre-internet era, finding out about music that was outside of the mainstream was done through word of mouth or through the publication of "zines" - small, independently produced publications by mostly unpaid, nonprofessional writers who did it for the sheer love of music much like bloggers do today. Well, for someone like me coming from a small town in Louisiana, that "word of mouth" would never come as I knew absolutely no one who was into music that was outside of what you heard on the radio or MTV. Zines in my town were nonexistant, as well. And then a little low-budget video entered the pop cultural lexicon that would change the landscape of music and still resonates to this day.

The video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which debuted on MTV in 1991, was a musical jolt that signaled the end of excessive and cheesy rock star pomposity and ushered in, for better or worse, the indie/alternative format that exists today. Yes, Rome was burning and it was being torched by a sensitive, unassuming, emotionally unstable kid by the name of Kurt Cobain. I related to this guy and clung to his every word with the naive notion that his was a unique experience; completely clueless to the fact that there was a whole subculture of Cobains that came before him that thrived unceremoniously in an underground movement known as "punk" which had finally bubbled over into the mainstream with the release of Nirvana's Nevermind.

Even though "mainstream" is a term that makes me cringe as I've gotten older, there's no denying that Nirvana's mainstream success was directly responsible for leading me, as well as countless others, towards a path of music that was less than mainstream. Rather than bask in the glory of fame that so many musicians would kill for, Cobain instead used it as a platform to introduce bands and artists who could barely sell records to the millions upon millions who were buying his records.

When I read an article about Cobain being nervous at a gig because his idol - Iggy Pop - was in attendance, I thought, "Iggy who?" I wanted to know more and when I purchased The Stooges' Fun House, it absolutely blew me away. I'd never heard the brilliant country-punk beauty of the Meat Puppets either until Cobain brought them(the Kirkwood brothers) on stage during the MTV Unplugged sessions and covered their songs, much to the disgust of MTV bigwigs who were hoping for Eddie Vedder or some other bankable star at that time. And that guitarist during the In Utero tour? He was none other than Pat Smear from the legendary L.A. punk band - the Germs. The producer of In Utero was a legend by the name of Steve Albini who I soon discovered was the frontman for the amazing and confrontational 80's band - Big Black. And god only knows how the fortunes of Daniel Johnston - the mentally ill, lo-fi cult musician - would have turned out had Kurt Cobain not worn a Daniel Johnston t-shirt in public on numerous occassions. Obscure albums that were previously out of print were now put back on record store shelves based on Cobain's praise alone.

Kurt Cobain was my introduction to punk music and I wanted to learn more and what I discovered was much more than I bargained for. It's not enough to know who the Ramones or the Sex Pistols or any other punk bands are for that matter but, rather, the ideology that made punk such a powerful force to begin with - that ideas and creativity aren't exclusive to those who are technically or artistically gifted. There are no rules to art - anyone can create. The punk movement inspired thousands of kids with no talent to pick up guitars and start bands and many of those kids created some of the most amazing music we have today. Passion, not skill, fueled the punk movement and, without it, we probably wouldn't be uttering the name Kurt Cobain today.

And yet, the antithesis of punk - corporate, mainstream success - was exactly what Nirvana had become much to the chagrin of Cobain who in his suicide note stated: "All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years, since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved in independence and the embracement of your community has proven to be very true. I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now."

Kurt Cobain has nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody in their right mind could have predicted the success that Nevermind would become and though his music will be his most enduring legacy, his crowning achievement, in my opinion, is the fact that this megastar unselfishly championed lesser known acts and helped spread the "punk gospel" to the ignorant masses - ignorant masses, I might add, that included myself.

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