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Kurt Cobain Forever

In the 30 years since his death, the Nirvana frontman has gained mythical status and his influence is still felt today by a new generation
Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Kurt Cobain left a legacy that transcended his 27 years alive. In the 30 years since his shocking death, it still resonates with Gen X (a “where were you?” moment) — his impact is undeniable. 

For one thing, you can point to the number of kids who sport licensed Nirvana shirts purchased at Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and other big box retailers (who knows what Cobain would have thought about this…), or to how often Nirvana is played on the radio in 2024.

In 2020, when we spoke with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, he said Cobain would appreciate so many people connecting to his words. “He could connect and empathize with people,” Krist said. “Those kinds of things would affect him. But he had this voice inside of him that could speak and keep speaking.” 

He also said that Cobain’s music “is very personal to this day. Kurt would say ‘I like cryptic lyrics’ and he’d say that he wasn’t really out for big messages or anything. But that left it open for interpretation and maybe that’s one of the keys to how individuals connect with it.”

Nirvana Reading 1992
Kurt Cobain, live at Reading in 1992 (Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

And he’s right. Whenever there has been a major anniversary (most recently, the 30th anniversary of In Utero), a Nirvana box set has been released with the inclusion of unearthed live performances. It is here where Nirvana’s raw power has been on display. Cobain’s ferocious passion is reflected in his howling vocals and the band’s oftentimes ragtag performances (and sometimes humorous) — the perfect embodiment of how imperfection can be perfection.

In 2021, to celebrate Nevermind’s 30th anniversary, we initially intended to speak with 30 musicians to reflect on the album’s importance, but went way past that number into the 40s. Here are some of the most profound responses we got. And they demonstrate why Kurt Cobain remains the most significant figure in rock (not just as a symbol of what could have been) of the past 40 years.  

Perry Farrell, Jane’s Addiction/Porno for Pyros

It’s a testament to who they are as people that it’s lasted this long. Absolutely and young people and old people alike should understand that. When you come from a place of good intention, you’re eternal. When you don’t and when you lie, and when you make up fake shit, the world spits people like that out. Everything gets uncovered, but Nirvana was real. 

Jerry Cantrell, Alice in Chains

Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains
Jerry Cantrell performing in 2019 (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kurt truly was an amazing songwriter. He did a lot with a little, you know what I mean? Very simple. It’s very simple songwriting. Super powerful, great melodies, and great lyrics. And the band is badass, Kurt, Krist and Dave — it was just amazing.

Paul Banks, Interpol

Paul Banks
Paul Banks performing with Interpol (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Phoniness, pretension, pomp – all fell away from pop music for a while, and Kurt’s primal scream, raucous guitar playing, and sledgehammer lyrics woke everyone up, setting dreams like mine in motion.

Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo (Credit: Carlos Cruz)

Kurt Cobain studied the Beatles and loved R.E.M., and the DNA of both is seen clearly in Nevermind, in its emphasis on the tension between parts. Each song is a constant ebb and pulse of energy: it presents itself, then withdraws, then slides back into full throttle, holding the listener at the throat as it plunges into the next section with an inescapable snare fill or vocal line. This is three-dimensional music, for sure.

And that is Nevermind’s hidden strength, what makes it more than tight pop craftsmanship – these songs, with their strange chords and strange words, unfold themselves out of miniature proportion to project an entire world, a massive, dark, and deep vision. The lyrics of songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” are not merely cryptic; they are specific. Each song taps into a particular strand of emotion that no one else would think to identify, let alone try to write about. Yet in Cobain’s hands, they come out starkly defined, and alarmingly intense – elements of his soul, rendered in ultra-precise origami.

My mind didn’t stand a chance from this music. By seventh grade, I had the Greatest Hits comp and was eagerly making my way into the unhinged experimentalism of Incesticide, the poetry and raw production of In Utero, and the glimpses of far-out creative energy shining throughout the three discs of With the Lights Out. These works redefined my notion of what music could be, and Nevermind is the proof that it can all be summed up into a simple, powerful, coherent whole.

David Lovering, Pixies

David Lovering
David Lovering of the Pixies (Credit: Louise Wilson/Getty Images)

At the time, the Pixies were touring. When I heard Nirvana, our manager at the time said, “Oh, we have a band Nirvana that could open up for us.” And I was like “I don’t think so” [Laughs.]. I don’t think would be a wise decision at that moment for us to turn the tables around.

A story going back to it, through mutual friends, we were friends with Kurt and Courtney. With some other friends, we all went to Magic Mountain. This was on Super Bowl Sunday 1992 or whenever it was and this is when Nirvana was HUGE. So we meet there on a Sunday and Kurt is in pajama bottoms. We walked around the park going on rides, but there was nobody there [If there’s any word of advice, if you want to hit any theme park or something like that, in this day and age, go on Super Bowl Sunday]. We’re walking around and stuff like that having a good time talking and stuff like that, then this kid walks by. He was like [whispers] “Oh my God. It’s David Lovering!” I’m looking around like “What are you talking about? I’m standing next to these two right here [points at Cobain and Love].” It was surreal and we laughed about it afterward.

Malia J

Malia J
Malia J (Credit: Shane McCormick)

As I got older, Kurt’s lyrics became very meaningful to me. “I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us,” I resonated with this lyric because you have to be vulnerable as an artist. I felt Kurt understood exactly how I feel when I create.

Every time I hear the lyric “come as you are” it inspires me to embrace who I am, nothing more, nothing less. It’s such a beautiful song that reminds me to pursue self-love and acceptance.

I don’t think Kurt Cobain realized the impact he would have on so many generations when he wrote Nevermind. It’s an honor to cover one of these iconic songs for such a massive audience.

Torres

Torres
Torres (Credit: Shervin Lainez)

Kurt was a mastermind in the way he could write lyrics that do so much more showing than telling. You can look at the words on paper and on their own they’re a little like trying to read William Burroughs…the meaning is all in the way it’s felt and delivered. He was a really intuitive writer. I used to drive around in my car at 2 a.m. my freshman year of college cracked out on coffee or Red Bull or some shit, and blast the CD, which I bought used from Grimey’s in Nashville, and just imagine that I was gonna get to scream my head off onstage like that someday.

Joan as Police Woman

Joan As Police Woman
Joan As Police Woman (Credit: Lindsey Byrnes)

I remember being surprised and blown away by the sound of it. It felt like a big step away from Bleach but still sounded like the same band, just dressed in a slicker outfit. It had been obvious Kurt had a way with melody but these songs and production highlighted the catchiness of the songs in a new way. I did think THIS SHIT IS GONNA BE HUGE. I mean, this was not hard to predict. Every song was amazing. It hit harder than anything I had heard. It was filled with hooks. Kurt’s clever/cutting lyrics and singing style were now audible.

My boyfriend Colin and I took that car on a trip to the Cape. We started the trip with that cassette in the stereo and it just remained the whole time. We were planning on having a beach vacation and instead a hurricane hit. It was very symbolic. The record hit us all like a hurricane.

At the time I worked at this rock-n-roll bar called Bills. It was owned by the same people who owned the club next door, Axis, where I would see Nirvana play for the third time. I remember Kurt’s face. He looked freaked out. There were 500 people there as opposed to the 50 at previous shows. This was Sept. 23. I knew all the words. The next day Nevermind was released. From then on, the world knew all the words.

Joy Oladokun

Joy Oladokun
Joy Oladokun (Credit: Nolan Knight)

I just think in general, Kurt Cobain was one of the greatest observers of the world and culture. He was also the greatest communicator of his observations. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Territorial Pissings” are all commentaries on the things he sees and feels. We live in an age with so much news, information and tragedy, and Nirvana’s music is striking a chord again because he was hoping for the better but seeing it get worse.

Jason Narducy

Jason Narducy
Jason Narducy

When I listen to Nevermind now, I’m struck by the power of Kurt Cobain’s voice. Yes, he had a great scream but his lower register notes are no less compelling and authoritative. Most of us singers have sweet spots – keys that we sing stronger in than others but Kurt had tremendous range.

Maybe not enough has been said about Krist Novoselic’s bass parts and playing on these songs. In any trio, a weak link is sure to be exposed if they aren’t carrying their weight. In songs like “Lithium,” Krist chooses the fifth instead of the root or plays a counter melody in the choruses while Kurt and Dave Grohl repeat their parts. It’s a beautiful thread below the darkness.