MUSIC: Never Mind

Kurt Cobain was the dour, brilliant leader of Nirvana, the multiplatinum grunge band that defined the sound of the 1990s. Last week he killed himself.

  • Robert Sorbo / AP

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    It was Nirvana's unexpected stardom that seemed to eat at him. He appeared unusually tortured by success, even in a profession famous for containing people who are tortured by success. "He was a very bright, sweet, generous and caring individual, perhaps a little too sweet and sensitive for the business he was in," says Michael Azerrad, author of Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana . Danny Goldberg, the former head of Nirvana's management company who now runs Atlantic Records, says, "In all the years I knew him, he had very mixed feelings about being on this planet." Goldberg remembers another of the band's handlers once asking the singer why he was moping. "I'm awake, aren't I?" Cobain replied.

    He suffered the usual torments of the underground poet moving into the mainstream, and was worried that his band had sold out, that it was attracting - the wrong kind of fans (e.g., the guys who used to beat him up). True, he liked the money that went with mall-rat adulation. But in interviews he exuded a pain beyond standard-issue superstar whining. He said his heroin use was a kind of self-medication for stomach pains, but what he really seemed in search of was psychic equilibrium.

    "None of this would have happened had he not been famous," insists Daniel House, a friend of Cobain's and the owner of an independent record label in Seattle. "When Nirvana started catching on, he was kind of bewildered. His music was so personal, it amazed him when people came out in droves to hear it."

    They were there, though, because Cobain conveyed meaning and even beauty in his harsh recordings. His lyrics could be sour, occasionally frightening if opaque. Take these simultaneously blase and acerbic lines from the group's biggest hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "And I forget just why I taste/ Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile/ I found it hard, it was hard to find/ Oh well, whatever, never mind." Cobain's sometimes fierce, sometimes weary growl, the sometimes convulsive, sometimes grating guitars, the very loud drums: all of it communicated anger, maybe loathing, definitely passion, no matter how inchoate.

    His subject was the same perennial, youthful fury captured by the Sex Pistols, before they too self-destructed, and by the Who, before Pete Townshend survived to purvey nostalgia to Broadway theatergoers. Youthful nihilism may not be new, but no artist invents all his materials; it's what he does with them that counts, and Cobain wrote great rock songs as he explored a familiar theme with genius.

    Last year a journalist visited a home he and Love were renting before they moved into the house in which Cobain would end his life. He had decorated one of the walls with this graffito: NONE OF YOU WILL EVER KNOW MY INTENTIONS. It could serve as his credo as well as his epitaph. "Guess we won't be getting the deposit back on the house," he joked.

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