20 years after his death, Kurt Cobain still sings for the underdogs

BY Victoria Fleischer  April 4, 2014 at 2:49 PM EST
American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, November 18, 1993. Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program ‘MTV Unplugged,’ New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

On April 5, 1994, the life of Kurt Cobain ended abruptly with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His band Nirvana, which had only months earlier released its third studio album, “In Utero,” redefined 1990s rock, establishing the raw, dark, bohemian musical subgenre that came to be known as grunge.

“Nirvana was the band that took all those influences from the late 1980s and turned them into a movement,” said Kevin Griffin, lead singer of the band, Better Than Ezra.

Twenty years later, we remember Cobain, and, in the words of Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, “the soulful presence and poetic lyricism that he brought to his music.”

Every once in a while, a piece of art stops time and completely redefines the moment.

Cobain tackled painful, complicated subjects in his lyrics, said Charles Cross, a Seattle-based journalist and author of the book,“Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain

“If you think about ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ it’s not the typical song about girls and cars,” Cross said. “Kurt changed even what a pop song could be about. He had the capacity in his songwriting to make a listener feel like he was truly speaking to them and speaking for them.”

On the eve of the anniversary of his death, we reached out to musicians, radio hosts and music producers, and asked them to reflect on Cobain and his legacy. Among them, Jack Endino, who produced and recorded Nirvana’s debut album, “Bleach,” and David Lovering, drummer of the rock band, the Pixies, who powerfully influenced Cobain’s musical style.

Talib Kweli, Rapper

Talib Kweli is a socially conscious Brooklyn-based rapper, best known for albums “Eardrum” and “The Beautiful Struggle.” He’s also known for his collaboration Black Star with fellow rapper Mos Def.

“Every once in a while, a piece of art stops time and completely redefines the moment. The release of Nevermind was one of those times … [Nirvana was] untainted and not restrained by what rock was supposed to be at the time. They were far more influenced by what was going on in their musical community than what was going on in the music business.”

from bruce pavitt's "experiencing nirvana" e-book

Kurt Cobain was the first person Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt encountered at the Piper Club, Rome, 11/27/89. Photo by Bruce Pavitt

Greg Gillis, Girl Talk

Gregg Gillis is the DJ behind Girl Talk, a solo project that creates remixes and mash-ups of recent hits.

“Getting into Nirvana is what led me to seriously consider making and performing music. They made me realize anyone could start a band … Many people have similar stories to me, with Nirvana being the primary influence in them starting their own music projects. I’ve seen this range from experimental electronic music to pop. I think it’s less about the exact sound and more about inspiring people to do whatever they want.”

Bruce Pavitt, Sub Pop

In 1986, Bruce Pavitt co-founded Sub Pop, the record label that first signed many popular Seattle grunge bands including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney. He is the author of “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989,” which includes a collection of rare photos featuring eight days on tour in Europe with Nirvana and Mudhoney.

“No artist of Kurt’s popularity ever embraced the creatively disenfranchised as much as Kurt Cobain.”

from bruce pavitt's "experiencing nirvana" e-book

Kurt Cobain and Sub Pop cofounder Jon Poneman in conference. Nirvana’s future was in jeopardy, but, by morning, the band had decided to stay together. Photo by Bruce Pavitt

David Lovering, The Pixies

David Lovering is the drummer for the Pixies. He also pursued a magic career as The Scientific Phenomenalist.

“One time, it was Super Bowl Sunday, probably 1994, at the height of Nirvana when their album came out, and we went to Six Flags, which is an amusement park right outside of Los Angeles. It was myself, my wife, another couple, and Kurt and Courtney. We’re at the park walking around, and it was just a quiet day, there’s nobody there – if you want take advantage of bowling or amusement parks, go on Super Bowl Sunday.

“Kurt is wearing pajama bottoms. He was kind of a shy guy. We just had small talk, and Courtney was doing a lot of talking. We’re walking along, and we’re going to a ride, and a young kid is walking along, and he goes ‘Oh my god, oh my god,” he goes. ‘It’s David Lovering!’

“And I am standing next to Kurt Cobain, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m with this huge star right now, and you’re pointing, and you recognize me?’ That was surreal.”

Kevin Griffin, Better Than Ezra

Kevin Griffin helped form Better than Ezra in 1988. He is the band’s singer and guitarist. Griffin also produces and writes for other artists, including James Blunt, Train, Howie Day and Debbie Harry.

“So much great music was happening at the time…the Pixies, REM, the Smiths, etc. Nirvana was the band that took all those influences from the late 1980s, and turned them into a movement. Suddenly everyone was listening to and buying the sound of real bands playing music, and that was incredibly inspiring to a band like Better Than Ezra touring around the South in our van … On a personal level, Nirvana just had great songs. I love turning my 14-year-old onto their music. Every morning on the way to school it’s “Come as You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.”

from bruce pavitt's "experiencing nirvana" e-book

Nirvana bassist and co-founder Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain, and Tad Doyle of the grunge band, TAD. Rote Fabrik, Zürich, November 30, 1989. Photo by Bruce Pavitt

Jack Endino, Recording Engineer/Producer

In association with Sub Pop records, Jack Endino produced Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, along with early releases from other Seattle grunge artists, including Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and TAD.

“Kurt would sit down and write out the lyrics right before recording his vocals. He seemingly had been carrying most of the lyrics around in his head but they were not “finalized” until he got to the studio and wrote them down. … If someone had told him this would happen, he would not have believed it.”

John Richards, Seattle Radio Host

John Richards is the host and producer of “The Morning Show” at Seattle’s 90.3 FM KEXP, a public radio station that specializes in alternative and indie rock.

“There were countless “frontmen” ahead of Kurt Cobain, but most of them were nothing like him. The only ones you could compare him to would be punk icons like Iggy Pop or Joey Ramone, who while popular were not at the level he was at.

Kurt spoke to the underdog, the music freaks, the outcasts, the people fed up with top 40 and hair bands. He changed not just how music was played, but how we listened to music.

“It literally put the breaks on rock music being made outside of Seattle and made everyone rethink and recreate their sound. In Seattle, this was already going on, so it was fascinating to see the rest of the country suddenly figure out there IS a city called ‘Seattle’ in our country, and ‘My god, what is going on there, this is the most honest thing being made today.

“There is a reason he struck so many people listening to music. You wait for a voice to come along like that, the John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Joe Strummer, Bono, and you’re lucky if one appears, let alone speaks to you. Kurt spoke to the underdog, the music freaks, the outcasts, the people fed up with top 40 and hair bands. He changed not just how music was played, but how we listened to music.”

from bruce pavitt's "experiencing nirvana" e-book

Within 15 seconds of Nirvana’s set at LameFest UK, Kurt Cobain broke a string. Photo by Bruce Pavitt

Josh Franceschi, You Me At Six

Josh Franceschi is the lead singer of British rock band, You Me at Six.

“[When I think of Nirvana,] I think of rebellion, angst and a time when rock music ruled the world. When MTV was playing music videos full time and was dominated by grunge, rock and punk music…

Kurt was a true lyrical genius. He was a storyteller with a voice that was so honest and so very pure.

“Nirvana inspired a generation and changed music forever. The first song I learned on guitar was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the first music video I ever saw was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the first mosh pit I was ever in was at a school dance to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” … Kurt was a true lyrical genius. He was a storyteller with a voice that was so honest and so very pure.”

Jessica Lea Mayfield, Singer-Songwriter

Jessica Lea Mayfield is an American singer-songwriter. Her new album, “Make My Head Sing,” goes on sale April 15.

“His lyrics and music have and always will continue to inspire me in a countless ways. Nirvana is and always will be the king of their genre.”

from bruce pavitt's "experiencing nirvana" e-book

Kurt Cobain signs one of his first autographs at Rough Trade Records in London on December 4, 1989. Within two years Nirvana would be a global sensation. Photo by Bruce Pavitt.]

Charles Cross

From 1986 to 2000, Charles Cross was the editor of Seattle’s “The Rocket,” a biweekly newspaper that covered the local music scene. Cross has written four books about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, including the New York Times bestselling “Heavier than Heaven” and his recently published “Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain.”

“Kurt struggled with drugs, but I think there’s a myth in the media that he glamorized drug use. That’s far from the case. He was in rehab a number of times. And he never said anything in interviews that glamorized drug use. He talks about the horrors in his diaries … They include extensive notes that are pleading to God for sobriety. There’s a perception that he turned to drugs for euphoria, and that’s not the case by far.

I think there’s a myth in the media that he glamorized drug use. That’s far from the case.

I think that’s one of the great myths about him. His life ends in suicide, and it includes heroin addiction. This is a pretty dark life. People look at that and say, why should we embrace this guy, why celebrate him? But despite all that, there’s something heroic about him. All these things were stacked up against him, but he was able to get up off the couch and write these songs. And that’s something to celebrate and admire.”

Do you remember the first time you heard a Nirvana song? What did Kurt Cobain mean to you? Add your reflections in the comments below or tweet @NewsHourArtBeat with #NewsHourAsks.