The Legacy of Kurt Cobain (A Law Blog’s Perspective)
This past Saturday, April 5, 2014, marked the twentieth anniversary of the self-inflicted death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain. You may have seen a number of articles and think pieces about the occasion over the weekend. Tomorrow, though, marks the anniversary of the day in 1994 when the world learned of Cobain’s death. That was April 8, 1994, a Friday, which meant that his fans – mostly members of Generation X – began that weekend with the news. Many learned of Cobain’s death from anchor Kurt Loder in this April 8 MTV News broadcast. As far as we here at Abnormal Use are concerned, all that needed to be said about the legacy of Cobain was addressed in 2004 when Spin magazine writer Chuck Klostermann speculated about an alternate history in which Cobain lived. That said, as members of Generation X ourselves (and as lawyers who can’t resist an opportunity to opine on a subject of interest), we feel compelled to comment on the anniversary (despite the fact that Cobain would likely not have appreciated a law blog weighing in on his place in music history). Oh, well.
Cobain was an interesting contradiction. He brought punk rock music to the masses (making 1991 the year that genre finally “broke” into the mainstream). But he clearly disdained the many suburban fans who flocked to his band’s shows. “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it,” he said to the crowd on November 18, 1993 as he introduced “About A Girl” during the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. With that statement, Cobain passive aggressively suggested that the general public, who had heaped praise upon him and bought his album in droves for more than two years at that point, was somehow neglectful in not owning 1989’s Bleach, his band’s first record. Basically, if a fan was not the type of person he would have befriended in high school, or if a listener did not share his political and social opinions, Cobain didn’t want their support. An interesting marketing strategy, that. We suspect that if Cobain had lived into the Internet days, we’d be hearing a myriad stories about his rudeness to certain segments of fans (which is consistent with some actual anecdotes we’ve heard about him in the early 1990’s, as well).
But you can’t deny his talent. He mixed the elements of light hearted pop with heavy grunge and punk (in a far, far more sophisticated and appealing way than what passes for punk, or the inappropriately named “pop punk” genre, these days). Even within the same song, he would shift from melodic and almost quiet poppiness to heavily distorted and loud guitar, and in so doing, create an extraordinarily catchy tune. Although he downplayed his lyrical abilities (telling interviewers that the lyrics were the last part of a song he would develop, sometimes as late as the day the song was to be recorded), his words, often contradictory themselves, were more thought provoking than he would claim them to be. In addition to his own merits, he introduced a generation of young music listeners to bands they’d never before encountered such as the Melvins, Shonen Knife, Scratch Acid, Daniel Johnston, the Raincoats, and the Wipers. On the aforementioned Unplugged album, he covered the Meat Puppets, Leadbelly, the Vaselines, and even David Bowie. Back in the early 1990’s, there was no Internet (at least not one that was accessible to the general public), and the task of finding new music – especially that which was not promoted on MTV or discussed in Rolling Stone or Spin – was a challenge indeed. In those days, a decision by a musician as famous as Cobain to don a t-shirt promoting a previously obscure band had an immense effect, and thus, fans of Nirvana, if they elected to do so, could explore Cobain’s own musical influences and save such bands from the ash heap of music history. On this very point, Anthony Carew of About.Com once wrote:
In 1992, in a pre-internet era, the ability to find out about fringe acts was limited to what your local record-store was like. Information was a limited commodity, and wearing someone’s t-shirt made a statement long before last.fm profiles did the work for you. In this day and age, when the internet offers the possibility of everyone being an obscure music expert, there’s no comparable act; if Jack White had worn an Ariel Pink t-shirt to the 2005 MTV VMAs, no one would’ve batted an eyelid.
A historical irony: Sometimes, the types of fans Cobain disdained might discover the records and artists he himself held dear.
Whatever the case, on this somber anniversary, to Cobain, we say requiescat in pace.
A few other thoughts and memories on this occasion:
In the 2000 film High Fidelity, based upon the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, John Cusack plays world weary record store owner Rob Gordon. In film, Gordon remarks, “Some people never got over ‘Nam, or the night their band opened for Nirvana.” That’s more profound than you might realize, especially if you know someone who was a member of band who actually did open for Nirvana.
Like many, I spent much of the night of April 8, 1994 driving around my city (Houston, Texas) listening to Nirvana songs on the radio. Of course, the deejays couldn’t resist repeatedly playing the “No, I don’t have a gun” line from “Come As You Are,” the second single from Nevermind. I remember thinking that it was obnoxious for them to be doing so.
In December of 1993, I had the chance to see Nirvana perform in Houston. It was a Monday night (a school night), so I decided to skip the show. Big mistake, obviously.
Cobain does make it into case law and you’ll find his name if you do a result of same. In United States v. Wecht, No. 06-0026, 2006 WL 1669879, at *1 (W.D. Pa. June 13, 2006), the court addressed the motion to suppress of famed pathologist Cyril Wecht. According to the opinion in that case, federal agents took possession of a number of Wecht’s files, including “29 unlabeled boxes which contained Dr. Wecht’s private autopsy files in accordion folders, including files on various high profile matters including the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Tammy Wynette, Kurt Cobain, and other notable celebrities and public figures.” Wecht is known in JFK assassination conspiracy circles as a fierce critic of the Warren Commission. But there’s more: Courtney Love Cobain, as Administratrix of the Estate of Kurt Cobain, was a party to Neighbors & Friends of Viretta Park v. Miller, 940 P.2d 286 (Wash. Ct. App. Div. 1997), a case in which “[t]he Neighbors and Friends of Viretta Park, an unincorporated voluntary association, and several individuals who live in the vicinity of Viretta Park . . . brought this lawsuit against the City of Seattle, its Parks Superintendent Holly Miller, and Howard and Sheri Schultz seeking declaratory judgment that vehicles are barred from the Viretta Park right of way, and that the City did not have the authority under the plat dedicating the Park to allow the Schultzes to utilize the Park right of way for vehicular access to their property.” We’re not entirely sure why the estate was a defendant in that matter. (Side note: The defendants in that case prevailed on their laches defense. How about that?).
Speaking of conspiracies, you’ve probably heard the nonsense espoused by some who contend that Cobain was murdered. Tom Grant, a former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office detective turned private investigator, is the foremost among them. He’s turned this theory into an income generating mechanism for himself. On his website, he sells a book, more of a large pamphlet of sorts, really, which he has called The Kurt Cobain Murder Investigation. As civil litigators, we’ve seen a lot of lousy, lazy, and poorly developed expert opinion reports in our time, but this one may take the cake. The one word that kept recurring to me as I read Grant’s work was Daubert.
Also worth reading today: “Remembering April 8, 1994” by Chuck Norton of Dead Journalist.