Kurt’s Ghost: Reflecting on Nirvana and the 21st Century

Photo by Mick Haupt, courtesy of Unsplash

On October 9th, 2018, sometime after 3 p.m. EST, I listened seriously to a Nirvana song for the first time. It was raining out, and it was chilly with an invasive autumn wind blowing that was more post-Remembrance Day than pre-Halloween. I was headed with my dad to pick up dinner, an assortment of cutlets and gnocchi and other Italian bakery delicacies. 

For whatever reason, I was brooding. My usual deep cuts from around that time—Sgt. Pepper’s, Flower Boy, and Wish You Were Here—weren’t exactly hitting the spot. I, of course, like millions if not billions of others, had heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before. I’d seen the music video on YouTube, I’d parsed through an infinite scroll of “who’s watching in 2015?” comments. I’d even made some jokes about Kurt Cobain—just dumb ones—without really knowing much about who he was, à la fourteen-years-old.

Music wasn’t a big thing for me until that year, the spring of 2018. Sure, I’d been listening to Twenty One Pilots, Fall Out Boy, MCR and Panic! at the Disco for most of the eighth grade, but the quintessential emo quartet was more of a Chaucer to my Shakespeare: in March 2018 I found The Beatles’ Revolver, and everything changed. I was a greasy freshman moth to a bohemian flame. I watched the movies, grew out my hair, and wouldn’t be caught dead without a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea brewing. I introduced them to my first-ever girlfriend, and she loved them too.

So, I suppose my introduction to Nirvana the subsequent fall and winter was the ebb tide to a serious flower-power bender. “All You Need Is Love” was about to make my ears bleed, plus Seasonal Affective Disorder has always been hard. Winter is bleak, long, and dark in Ontario, just as in Montreal. It’s horrible. I don’t think anyone can listen to Sgt. Pepper’s in November in the GTA and derive any serious value from the record. Its euphoria is squandered on streetside slush and five p.m. sunsets. So, I sought out something I thought was darker, moodier. Some downer melody and snarling frontman to lead my first-rate teenage apathy. That afternoon in the car, with the sky all grey and me sulking in the passenger seat, I put on Teen Spirit.

It was abrasive and I wasn’t used to it. But like black coffee, it was refreshing in its bitterness.

My descent into Nirvana’s discography and obsession with their ethos was slow. That October, I added four songs off Nevermind to my Spotify library. I remember vividly walking between classes one day when I shuffled their artist’s page. “Very Ape” off In Utero was the first track that came up. It was abrasive and I wasn’t used to it. But like black coffee, it was refreshing in its bitterness. I stuck with it. I stuck with all of In Utero and fell in love. I listened to Live at Reading for the first time.

But Nirvana was still just more-or-less “a band I liked” up until the spring of 2019. Turning sixteen that summer, I had my first big real breakup after eleven months, and there aren’t many angsty Beatles cuts. So, I put In Utero back on and decided that, in the shadow of a ’67-esque summer prior, I would retreat into my own little corner. It was a kaleidoscopic explosion.

I saw Montage of Heck around that time, the Kurt Cobain biopic. I forced friends to watch it over with me. I pored over journal pages and interviews. I dyed my hair red. Received a guitar for my birthday in June. Went to a thrift store for the first time. Refused a haircut. My person was being redrawn in the silhouette of a band, of a Jagstang, and it felt fantastic. I was pulled away from a geriatric, sepia-stained nostalgia into something new, shaggy, subversive, and deeply authentic. Jerry Garcia was gone and In June, I went to sleep every night with MTV Unplugged Live in New York playing. I would usually clock out by “The Man Who Sold The World,” but sometimes I would make it as far as “On a Plain,” or push “Oh Me.” I spent one-hundred and thirty hours, according to Wrapped, with Nirvana in 2019. It was a whirlwind.

By the time the pandemic arrived, I’d largely cooled down. Funnily enough, my girlfriend and I were back together, and I was getting into other artists. However, on April 5th, 2020, I still made sure to share a few messages on social media commemorating twenty-six years since the death of Kurt. I did again on April 5th, 2021, and I did today as well.

This year in particular, 2022, marks twenty-eight years since the death of Kurt, now dead longer than he was alive. This is likely surreal to many Gen Xers and maybe a smattering of millennials. For Generation Z, however, I believe things are a bit different.

I stood one person and twenty-some years away from Kurt live on stage at Maple Leaf Gardens. The past wasn’t so past.

One really weird moment for me was in my twelfth-grade philosophy class, when my teacher told me that she’d seen Nirvana live—not once, but twice. I’d spoken to my parents before—baby boomers—about their perceptions of Nirvana when Nirvana was a living, breathing thing, but they had few. They did vaguely remember hearing the news that Kurt had died. In my teacher, however, was a bridge: I stood one person and twenty-some years away from Kurt live on stage at Maple Leaf Gardens. The past wasn’t so past.

I believe the gravitational force exerted by Nirvana towards me and similar Gen Z youth is tied deeply to the band’s position in history: Nevermind was released hardly two months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, which Francis Fukuyama heralded as the end of history. Nirvana teeters on the edge of the past and the present like no other band, extinguished the same year that the first major web browser, Netscapes, went up. Rumours go around every once and a while on Nirvana forums as to whether Kurt ever used the internet or sent an email. There exist archived message-board discussions of Kurt’s death in early 1994. Yet Cobain wasn’t around for 9/11, likely never heard of Weezer, nor of Harry Potter. Nirvana seemed to explode and dissipate at a point in which culture was both accelerating and simultaneously freezing. What do we do with all this liminality? Nirvana, I realised, stood as one of the few remaining bridges back into the bygones. How we cross that bridge, how we run back to the Rolodex, continuously, is through commodities.

We understand no other way to interact with the past than through price-tags.

When working at a Dollarama the past summer, I was always fascinated by the large amount of merchandise that was sold with Marilyn Monroe’s image on it. Kitschy wall-art and sequined sofa cushions and the occasional t-shirt. I realised that the image of Marilyn Monroe has become a public asset, and that its historical sentiment had become a facet of its consumption. We understand no other way to interact with the past than through price-tags. So I believe something similar is happening to the cultural memory of Kurt Cobain: the gradual transition of an individual from a living cultural force into a consumable so we might remember him in the only way we know how. Nirvana is undead in cultural memory without any ability to influence its own trajectory. It’s an object, hurtling through time without any agency of its own. Where it ends up is subject to various devices and mechanisms of 21st century life such as merchandising, social media promotion, and movie features.

Since Nirvana, I’ve found it difficult to immerse myself to the same extent in the work of other artists. I’ve approached Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bill Evans, Death Grips, and Aphex Twin with the same intensity to varying degrees of avail, yet the connection pales in success to Nirvana. Everything is measured against Nirvana, from David Lynch to Digable Planets. One might attribute this to passing a certain formative period in adolescence, maturing to some degree, or just a diversification of taste. As Mark Fisher, to whom I am indebted for many of my ideas on the past, asked in 2005: “is it possible to reproduce, later in life, the impact that books, records and films have between the ages of fourteen and seventeen?” It’s a good question. I’m not sure. What I’m left wondering, however, is that as time stretches onwards, and as Nirvana goes no further behind us in collective cultural memory, is whether or not the immortality of Kurt Cobain and his music through apparent commodification is permissible. I was sold Nirvana, but I didn’t mind. Was my Nirvana experience, my Nirvana euphoria, any different from that of a fan in the crowd at Reading in ’92? I’m not sure, but I believe the impact the music and its ethos had on my life, if quantifiable, must be somewhat equal. So what is to be done? Obviously, if we want to go forwards, we’ve got to get moving. It can’t be merchandise immemorial. 

What happens when the eternal, cardigan-clad ghost is so beloved? Is there a solution beyond Kurt’s face on a tee at H&M? I realise that to some degree, I am horrified, retrospectively, of the idea of losing Nirvana, of the next disaffected youth bumming around being unable to immerse themselves in the band to the same extent that I was through their commodified haunting of the present. It takes a tremendous amount of faith to abandon a familiar spectre in hope that some new zeitgeist will be conjured. So I think we must not consider the next generation-defining band, or film, or novel unmade or not-yet arrived. They’re at the door, waiting to be let in.

So now, on April 5th, 2022, Kurt has been gone longer than he was ever here. In my love for the euphoria that discovery can provide, I suggest we let him rest. Somebody else—another song, another album, another force—is waiting. Kurt’s ghost, in guidance, is encyclopaedic of another time. As lovely as that time looks, we must not concentrate our efforts on reanimation, but rather rebirth. All we need is with us now. 

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