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20 yrs after suicide, Cobain still fascinates Nirvana’s frontman remembered

ABERDEEN, United States, April 4, (Agencies): The road sign outside town reads “Welcome to Aberdeen. Come As You Are.” The iconic Nirvana song title greets fans from around the world flocking to pay homage to Kurt Cobain. Twenty years after the grunge band’s frontman killed himself, the run-down town in Washington state two hours from Seattle is keen to ensure that the legacy of its most famous son lives on. Mayor Bill Simpson rejects criticism that it is wrong to celebrate the life of a drug-addict who committed suicide when his daughter was still a toddler. “Everybody says ‘Oh, Kurt was a druggy, and Kurt was a nasty man.’ But you know, the more I’ve read, the more I’ve studied about him, he was a pretty down-to-earth guy, very caring, a very loving individual,” Simpson told AFP. Cobain died at age 27 when Nirvana was at the height of its powers, scoring global hits including “Come as You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and spawning a generation of bands playing grunge, a mash-up of punk and heavy metal music.

He had come a long way in a few short years: from the bleak streets of struggling logging town Aberdeen to international fame and fortune, and a luxury house in Seattle’s swanky Denny-Blaine neighborhood. It was at that house — in a room above the garage — that his body was found on April 8, 1994. Cobain shot himself in the head. Coroners found large quantities of heroin in his system, and said his body had probably been there for days. They estimated he had died on April 5. Cobain thus entered the so-called “27 Club” — the grim roster of stars to die of drugs or alcohol abuse at age 27 that includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and, more recently, Amy Winehouse. As with those other music greats, dying ironically only elevated Cobain’s celebrity status.

“It’s like James Dean: he was an acclaimed actor, and then he died young in a tragic accident and that made him iconic,” said Gillian Gaar, a Seattle journalist and author of “Entertain Us: the Rise of Nirvana.”
Gaar compared Cobain to artists like Neil Young, Carlos Santana and Bob Dylan — all of them had huge early fame but then went on to enjoy success later in their careers. The big tragedy of Cobain’s early death “is the sense of potential unfulfilled,” the writer told AFP.

Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987 with bassist Krist Novoselic while at school in Aberdeen. Dave Grohl later joined as drummer after a series of candidates failed to work out. The trio’s big break came when they were signed by record label Sub Pop in 1988. But they nearly didn’t make the grade, when Sub Pop set up a showcase concert at Seattle’s Central Saloon on April 10, 1988. The group released its debut album, “Bleach,” with Sub Pop in 1989. But it was 1991’s “Nevermind” with Geffen Records that really catapulted them to stardom. Their third, “In Utero” in 1993, was also a hit. Nirvana’s success was accompanied by personal cause for joy for Cobain — he married singer Courtney Love in 1992, and had a baby daughter, Frances, with her in August of that year.

But the pressures of fame were clearly getting to him, as he struggled with depression. A drug overdose in Rome in March 1994 was described by Love as his first suicide attempt. His death, when it was announced, sent shockwaves around Seattle and the music world. Fans gathered initially in Viretta Park, a leafy area next to Cobain’s last house — where some may flock again Saturday to add more scrawl to a bench already covered in adulatory graffiti. Strangely, while Seattle’s EMP museum is currently hosting a Nirvana exhibition, the bench is the closest thing the city has to a memorial to the charismatic Nirvana frontman. “Although the media here certainly is proud, and the music industry is proud, I still detect an underlying ambivalence” from city authorities, said Gaar.

Back in Aberdeen — where there is a statue of Cobain in the town museum, and a Cobain-themed park by a bridge where the singer wrote some of his most famous songs — the mayor is a bit skeptical about Seattle’s reaction. Meanwhile, it’s been two decades since Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, at age 27, yet he remains an important cultural touchstone for those he influenced and entertained in his short-lived career. The Associated Press spoke with a handful of musicians about their memories of Cobain as the anniversary of his suicide approached. Some knew him, some watched him from afar. All were touched in some way profound and unforgettable. Beck experienced Nirvana long before everyone else. He ran into the band three years before Nirvana’s “Nevermind” changed pop music.

He had never heard of the band, the opening act on a three-band bill, the top draws now lost to memory.
“I have a memory of them coming out and he had his middle finger up, was giving his middle finger to the audience,” he said. “ ... I’d seen a lot of punk shows and I’d seen a lot of bands when I was younger where the shows were pretty aggressive or confrontational, but there was something completely different about this. I remember he had a smile on his face, there was a kind of playfulness, but it was also a little menacing, and I remember the minute they started playing, the entire audience erupted in a way I hadn’t seen before.”

Billie Joe Armstrong remembers being out on Green Day’s first tour in 1990 and encountering the band’s graffiti in a string of tiny clubs out West. He’d heard of Nirvana through its Sub Pop releases, including its debut album, “Bleach,” but thought little of it at the time. A year later, Nirvana was known throughout the world. Cobain became something of a tortured poet laureate, a figure Armstrong thinks was as important for his generation as Lennon and McCartney were to theirs. Like Armstrong, Win Butler was moved when he first heard “Nevermind” in 1991. So was everyone in the Arcade Fire frontman’s world growing up in Texas.

“All the sudden the whole kind of social dynamic at my junior high changed where these kind of misfit kids who maybe come from a broken home and they’re smoking cigarettes in the back and they didn’t have money for nice clothes, all the sudden those kids socially were in a weird way on the same level as everyone else,” Butler said. “I was sort of like a weird kid who didn’t know where I fit in or whatever and just to have that kind of voice be that big in culture, I feel like that was a magical period of alternative music where we had Jane’s Addiction and R.E.M. and Nirvana, it was like seeing these kind of freaks from all the different cities of North America and you’re like, oh wow.”

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