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For Cobain, a sleepless Nirvana

WashPost: Late singer/songwriter would have hated 'anniversary' fuss
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He would hate this. Oh, would he hate this.

He would hate the fuss and the tributes, the psychoanalysis and the pity.

He would fume at the five-in-a-row rock block of Nirvana on "classic alternative" radio stations. He'd be sickened by this essay, sickened by everything that marked this tragic occasion. Actually, the words "tragic occasion" would set him off. He'd find them solemn and empty and he never had patience for solemn and empty.

Kurt Cobain would detest all the re-eulogizing prompted by the 10th anniversary of his suicide. It was 10 years ago today that he put a Remington 20-gauge shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, and it's impossible to imagine the scene without also imagining him begging us to imagine something else. Anything else. "Just move on," you hear him plead, wearing a shabby wool sweater, his blue eyes moist with fatigue. "Shut up, please, and just move on."

But we won't. We're stuck on Kurt Cobain, a troubled blond waif who found fame, fortune and new reasons to be depressed by transforming his chronic self-loathing in sulfuric rock. We can't leave him alone because his music won't leave us alone, and because the story of his brief life is folklore now: Neglected kid starts band, rises to pop culture's empyrean heights, then jumps. We saw the whole thing and there was nothing we could do to prevent it.

Bottomless anguish was the great motif of his music — "I feel stupid and contagious," he sang on his most famous song — and it had everything to do with his own beaten-down psyche and little to do with us. Except that it had everything to do with us because feeling stupid and contagious is part of being alive, especially if you're under 20 and believe, somewhere in your heart, at least once in a while, that you're a damaged freak. That's why our fascination with Cobain will vanish the same day that people stop slowing down to gawk at car wrecks. Both offer the spectacle of gruesome carnage and the spirit-lifting sense of  that could have been me. Emotionally, Cobain lived in a realm that most of us only visit, a place where everything is smoldering and there's no telling if there's a beating heart under all that debris.

It was over so fast. Three full-length albums of originals in the span of four years. More has arrived since then, of course, including a live album and a retrospective with a previously unreleased original song, "You Know You're Right." But the reputation of Cobain and Nirvana rests almost entirely on two albums, "Nevermind" and "In Utero," which together amount to less than 85 minutes of music. You need to go back to the 1970s and the Sex Pistols  to find  a band that exerted so great an influence with so slight a canon.

At the distance of a decade, the songs are still ferocious, still as raw as rug burns, but they don't startle as  they once did. How could they?

Countless fans of a certain age can tell you where they were when they first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It was the sort of time-stopping event that triggers a flashbulb memory, like the news of an assassination or a national disaster. You heard "Teen Spirit" and knew that something had changed, that the future in some small but important way was going to be different than what you'd imagined.

The sound was vaguely familiar, or at least there were parts that could be easily identified. The riff of "Teen Spirit" was lifted from Boston's "More Than a Feeling," and the loud-soft-loud dynamics imitated one of Cobain's favorite band, the Pixies. But Nirvana took those elements and raised the ante so high that the band seemed to be playing for its soul, its next breath and all its equipment. Everything was at stake on "Nevermind" and "In Utero." It is music of palpable desperation, the flailings of cornered men, but the desperation on these albums is matched only by their crushing beauty. Rock has never toggled so quickly from the sensitive to the brutal as it does on songs like "In Bloom" and "Pennyroyal Tea," to name just two of many. Cobain hid nothing in his music, not even his admiration for the melodies of bands like the Beatles and R.E.M.

The lyrics were poetry for the damaged; the disaffecton and confessional irony they conveyed were quickly snatched up and repurposed by novelists, magazine editors and filmmakers. Cobain created a style of gloom and detachment that is still part of pop culture. "I wish I was like you /Easily amused," he howled on "All Apologies." "I am my own parasite / I don't need a host to live," he murmured on "Milk It." He sang about eating your cancer and kissing your sores and leaking out gas fumes, but each time he had just one topic in mind: his own mission, never accomplished, to find peace.

Why was peace so elusive? There was that mysterious stomach pain that never went away, but that was probably just a symptom of the turbulence in Cobain's life that began when his parents were divorced. He was 9, and it wasn't one of those splits where the boy is tenderly handed off between  a loving mom and dad.  Cobain was treated like "Something in the Way," as he put it on a tune on "Nevermind," shuffled around to dozens of homes. He slept for a while in a refrigerator box on the porch of a friend and found shelter in the waiting room of a nearby hospital. In interviews Cobain would often exaggerate the depredations of his youth — he claimed, for instance, that he lived under a bridge in his home town of Aberdeen, Wash., which biographer Charles R. Cross says wasn't true. But the reality didn't need enhancing. Cobain was diagnosed with clinical depression in high school.

"He was a walking time bomb," said Danny Goldberg, former Nirvana manager, in the pages of Rolling Stone, "and nobody could do anything about it." You couldn't call his suicide a surprise. The un-ironic original title of Nirvana's album was "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die," and there were several drug overdoses in the months before his death that sounded suspiciously like the work of a man in a rush for the exit. But suicide is ordinarily a parting strategy for stars who are past their prime.

Cobain was the first rocker to  commit suicide at the very peak of his creative powers, and by 1994 even the critics were coming around. His departure was every bit as stunning as his arrival.

He left behind his music, but if we're being honest, let's admit that he also left us a hellacious mess. Since 1994, every rock band selling bleakness that has reached the upper end of the charts has owed something to Nirvana.  It takes an elastic sense of responsibility to blame an artist for his less gifted imitators, but without "Nevermind" there would have been no Creed, no Puddle of Mudd, no Godsmack, no Korn. These bands were inspired by Cobain's wounds and his sense of the guitar as the only tourniquet that can temporarily stop the bleeding. But you can't fake a trauma, and Cobain's songwriting skills come along about once a decade. He created a monster and then he split. Had he lived, he could have done little to stop those acts but he could have heaped ridicule on them — he was good at that — and that might have helped.

At the time of his suicide there was talk of a collaboration with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, and there was no telling what Cobain would have come up with next. Probably something searing and gorgeous. Or maybe not. Perhaps with time, he could have stumbled like every other rock star, released a stinker, dried out in rehab, staged a comeback, broken up the band, then reunited for a farewell tour. He could have been a musician, in other words. That would have spared him the indecency, which posthumously he must endure today, of becoming a myth.