No other artistic medium can evoke past people and places with the speed and precision of music. Old songs are often intensely personal time capsules that, once unlocked years or even decades after they ceased to provide life with its soundtrack, can resurface as defining documents of who we were, where we were, and who were with when our ears last heard them. A few bars out-of-the-blue can put you back where you were in an instant, as though the moment is so deeply engrained in the grooves of the record that the moment is as intrinsic to the recording as the instrumentation; it can be impossible to separate the song from the moment.
For me, many works of favourite musicians and singers are so bound-up with the first time I was exposed to them that music and moment are genuinely inseparable; this is particularly potent if my affair with the artists in question was encapsulated in a brief burst of passion and I subsequently haven’t kept in touch. Nirvana are a case in point, so associated with a precise period of my life that it’s only because today marks 25 years since Kurt Cobain pointed a shotgun at his head that I’ve dug out ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’ and dusted them down (literally – the vinyl was filthy) to properly listen for the first time this century. The short ‘n’ sweet career of Nirvana – and the suicide of Kurt Cobain, which casts quite an ominous shadow over that career – makes me think of a friend of mine I haven’t thought about for some time. For the purposes of this post, I shall call her Layla.
In 1994, Layla was my only friend in the neighbourhood, living a few doors away; she was seventeen and had just found out she was pregnant by a ‘bad boy’ that her parents (rightly, as it turned out) didn’t approve of. Suddenly finding herself out of favour with the rather conservative mindset of that neighbourhood, I sensed she needed a friend who had long found that mindset as oppressive as she now did, and I was right. I’d known her for a few years as a neighbour, but we forged a close friendship as we began to spend more time in each other’s company during what was a fairly traumatic year for her. A virtual pinball between boyfriend and family, she found refuge at my place as we stuck Nirvana on the turntable, chatted, consumed cup-after-cup of coffee, and chain-smoked for hours (yes, pregnant women still did in the early 90s).
Being a little older than Layla, it was refreshing to discover she was a Nirvana fan. Last time I’d asked her about music (when she was around 14), she’d been into New Kids on the Block. It reminded me how tastes change radically – and rapidly – in one’s teens, but it meant I had the chance to provide her with some background, lending her LPs by The Stooges, New York Dolls, Sex Pistols et al. I’d spent a while immersed in the Rave scene, finding guitar bands as irrelevant as Trad Jazz once the 90s dawned. Then there was that memorable performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on TOTP, when Kurt sang live and plummeted all the way down the scale to an Andrew Eldritch baritone-from-Hell as what had been safely secluded in the Indie ghetto abruptly gate-crashed the mainstream.
For a band stripped down to the (hard) core of a trio, Nirvana generated an immensely intense noise, but one punctuated by melodic passages that exposed pop sensibilities. Born the same year as me, Kurt Cobain shared my appetite for the pre-Punk rock that the 80s concept of ‘cool’ had told us we weren’t allowed to like whilst the 80s simultaneously inflicted upon our ears the worst music imaginable, whether Bon Jovi or Rick Astley. Then those nice people at the music press did what they always did by coining a hideous name – ‘Grunge’ – to attach to Nirvana and the bands that charged through the doors Kurt and friends had inadvertently kicked down. Yes, the ‘scene’ (for what it was) quickly took on the shape of a bandwagon and burned out within a couple of years, but its most articulate practitioners at least gave us a welcome breather from what had gone immediately before.
I followed the soap opera of Kurt’s marriage to Courtney Love of Hole in the music papers, but it was an amusing diversion from the good work being done – bringing the best rhetoric from the ‘alternative’ side of the tracks to a wider audience and in turn calling time on the embarrassingly antiquated attitudes and clichés of Guns ‘n’ Roses and their ilk. I doubted Axl Rose would have a clue who Sylvia Plath was, but I had a feeling Kurt Cobain knew. Yet, as with the late Mrs Hughes, there were numerous indications his time in the spotlight was destined to be short.
There was a kind of grim fatality to those lumbered with the ‘Gen X’ label, one that made the ending Kurt Cobain brought upon himself somehow inevitable. It radiated a resigned slacker surrender to the narrative that said everything important had been done in the 60s and 70s. ‘Okay,’ said Gen X, ‘well I won’t try then. I’ll smoke dope, wear the same clothes for a week and grow my hair without bothering to wash it. And I’ll listen to Black Sabbath as well as Black Flag.’ What was adopted as the Grunge ‘look’ was merely a regional equivalent of my own adolescent anti-fashion, native to Seattle. Once ‘Nevermind’ established Nirvana as unlikely radio-friendly unit-shifters, it was of course co-opted by opportunistic designers, and the lumberjack shirt became as much of a dead-end uniform as Sid Vicious’ leather jacket had been a few years before. Alas, nobody in 1994 foresaw Nirvana would one day join The Ramones in being reduced to a T-shirt.
Kurt Cobain’s suicide – something heroin undoubtedly played a depressingly familiar part in – meant a great deal at the time because he was the first famous person of my generation to die. We’d grown up with all the legends of the so-called ’27 Club’, but they were historical figures to us – even if the death of the most recent (Jim Morrison) wasn’t as far back in time then as Cobain’s death is in 2019, scarily. News broke three days after the date of his demise; it was a Saturday. Radio 1’s ‘Evening Session’ paid tribute a couple of days later; I still have an audiotape recording of it somewhere; I remember listening to it with Layla. We were subdued by the shocking passing of someone who mattered to us right at the moment when Layla herself was carrying a new life inside her. And the cycle goes on.
A few months after Kurt Cobain’s messy exit, Layla gave birth to a little girl as Nirvana’s morbidly beautiful ‘Unplugged’ LP was effortlessly sailing to the top of the charts. A few months after that, the cultural goalposts were shifted once again as Blur and Oasis prepared to lock horns; meanwhile, Layla was changing nappies, and I was getting ready to relocate elsewhere. Layla’s mother thanked me for being a good friend to her daughter during the most difficult months; ‘I don’t know how she’d have managed without you,’ she said, which was kind of her. I don’t know how I’d have managed without Layla.
Years passed. Layla and I saw each other periodically as we both moved around with the restlessness of gypsies for a good decade, and then we did what so many once-close friends do – we lost touch. But whenever I recall Nirvana – which isn’t, I admit, very often now – I recall Layla and a lovely friendship that grew out of alienation from our shared surroundings, one that had its perfect poet laureate in Kurt Cobain.
© The Editor