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Tonight, twenty years after Kurt Cobain chose to burn out and not fade away, Nirvana are being inducted into the Hall of Fame. But at this time that’s seeing a major swell of Nirvana-related stories and Cobain-related controversies, I say forget for now the conspiracy theories, forget the upcoming Soaked In Bleach movie, forget that stupid statue in Aberdeen, the frequent celebrity nonsense of Courtney Love, and all the other extraneous distractions that float about Kurt Cobain’s legacy; the greatest part of Kurt’s legacy remains musical and cultural. Kurt’s first, most important legacy, is his music.
The second – and the subject of this post – is his influence on the culture and sub-culture of at least two generations, if not a third.

I mean never mind just how many bands started because of Nirvana (I don’t think I would’ve picked up a guitar all those years ago if not for finding Nirvana), or how many bands and artists have been influenced by Cobain and Nirvana; but actually just think about how much of what people respond to in sub-culture and listen to in music has been influenced by Nirvana and Kurt. Speaking for myself at least, I know that at least half of the music in my collection wouldn’t be there if Nirvana hadn’t been there first. And I’m not talking about Hole or Foo Fighters.

Imagining a world without Nirvana, I tend to think the “alternative explosion” of the early nineties may well have happened anyway. But the exposure probably would’ve been limited to bands on commercial labels; I still think bands like Smashing Pumpkins would’ve become commercially successful anyway, and it’s possible that some of the Seattle bands would’ve had mainstream success even without Nevermind‘s earth-shaking breakthrough; Pearl Jam seemed meant for breakthrough success on their own merit, as did Soundgarden, while Mudhoney already had a significant audience even beyond the Pacific Northwest scene that they and Nirvana came from.

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And by 1991 bands like REM and Janes Addiction had already started enjoying “overground” success; so with the amount of pure quality emergent in the alternative rock scene in the early nineties, much of it spearheaded by groups like Sonic Youth and the Pixies, some major crossover activity into the mainstream was bound to happen anyway and it just happened to be Nirvana that lit the fuse in a critical moment and in the most dramatic manner.

I also tend to think Hole would’ve come to prominence even without Cobain’s association, just through Courtney’s sheer will and talent (though there obviously wouldn’t be the Foo Fighters today). But the difference Cobain made isn’t about any of that; it’s the fact that, aside from the sacred, enduring legacy of his music itself, he was also the one who turned scores and scores of people onto the underground scene, onto bands and albums that otherwise would’ve not gotten the exposure beyond their existing arena.

And it was specifically Cobain who did that; the success of bands like Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins, for example, would’ve had no bearing on that side of things, wouldn’t have created the new exposure for lesser-known music, wouldn’t have acted as a catalyst for young music fans to seek out and discover whole new worlds of obscure indie, punk or alternative acts, wouldn’t have served as the entry-point into the underground that Kurt and Nirvana did.

This is partly because Nirvana were the underground personified in a way that the other ‘big alternative acts’ weren’t.

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I’m not just talking about the more obvious, naturalistic thing of getting into one band and then getting further into the ‘genre’; I mean I might’ve still gotten into Soundgarden and other Seattle bands and unrelated alternative acts like PJ Harvey or the Manic Street Preachers even if I hadn’t come through Nirvana and Nevermind first. But no, I’m talking about the way Kurt used every opportunity to direct people’s attention to certain acts, in many cases obscure or even forgotten acts that even the coolest indie kids didn’t know about and that Kurt’s by-then mainstream audience certainly wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.

Kurt was virtually a portal into a new world. I have never known any other successful musician or rock star to have been so influential in turning people onto other artists and new bands, nor to have done it so purposefully.

It was as if Kurt could justify his mainstream success to himself by using it as a platform for helping raise up other bands and artists that he loved or respected; the Melvins, Tad, Screaming Trees, the Wipers, the Buzzcocks, Shonen Knife, the Vasolines, the Meat Puppets, the list goes on.

As a teenager when I was first getting into Nirvana I remember that every time Kurt referenced a band I remembered it and made it a point to try to listen to that band when I got the chance. And so many pictures of Kurt, you’d see him wearing a t-shirt with some unknown band’s name on it, which would arouse your curiosity – I only ever heard of Captain America or Flipper because of t-shirts I saw Kurt wearing. I would never have heard of the Raincoats or Young Marble Giants had it not been for Kurt talking about them. I only became aware of Jesus Lizard because of the joint single they released with Nirvana (I was only a kid).

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Even with a band like the Butthole Surfers, I might’ve found my way towards them eventually, but it was Kurt that introduced my impressionable young mind to them a lot sooner – and what a band to be introduced to. I always remember how often Kurt would talk about this band or that band that I hadn’t heard of at the time; at times he seemed more eager to do that than to talk about his own band or his own issues.

This point was highlighted further when Nirvana was invited to headline the Reading Festival in 1992; Kurt slapped down the proviso that he be allowed to “handpick” the rest of the line-up on the main-stage. Who else would’ve done that? As a result, everyone from The Melvins and Screaming Trees to the ABBA tribute-act Bjorn Again got to play that show. He also pulled the Buzzcocks back out of relative obscurity.

And when Nirvana were invited to do MTV‘s Unplugged in 1993, instead of playing a set of ‘hits’ or standards like everyone else did, Kurt covered Leadbelly and the Vaselines and even brought the Meat Puppets into the show to help perform their own material. Who would’ve heard of the Meat Puppets if it hadn’t been for this show, other than their limited existing fanbase?

Bands like The Melvins, Screaming Trees and Mudhoney, not to mention acts like The Pixies, already had a fanbase and would’ve certainly continued to have a fanbase – but it has to be acknowledged that a significant amount of the fanbases of these and other bands included a high percentage of Nirvana fans who came to them through Cobain. Buzz Osbourne of The Melvins has openly admitted as much. In effect, bands that influenced and inspired Cobain in the first instance then became beneficiaries of Nirvana’s success in the second; it was a fitting circle.

A very large percentage of the music I love and listen to today consists of performers and musicians who benefited massively from Cobain and Nirvana, whose presence shifted the playing field in the favour of such artists for a time; don’t get me wrong, these are artists that totally deserve to have long, successful careers (in fact, artists that for the most part should be more successful than they even are and would be if half the world wasn’t so busy watching TV talent shows and lame music stations).

And not just bands; SubPop, the cool-as-fuck small-town label that put out Bleach in 1989 is still going strong even today and putting out cool music all the time; it’s highly unlikely that this would be the case had it not been for Nevermind in 1991 and all the subsequent attention that was fixed upon Nirvana’s history and geographical location.

I’m sure it’s something that would make Kurt smile; seeing, for example, how his beloved The Melvins are still going, still selling out tours, almost 30 years after he was following them about as a kid.

 

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It was clearly in Kurt’s nature to want to bring up artists he respected with him into success; he was incredibly loyal to his influences, his contemporaries, and to his punk-rock roots, as he saw it.

He may have been uncomfortable with the “grunge” business and with the mainstream subversion of the scene his band had been a part of; even though Nirvana and Cobain could never have been blamed for the commercial subversion of that scene, the catalyst for that being more about Pearl Jam and later Pearl Jam copyists if anything.

But you sense he was doing whatever he could to counter that effect; everything from promoting scores of proper indie bands or obscure artists whenever he could to making In Utero an album that could never be seen to have anything musically in common with what other ‘grunge’ bands were doing at the time.

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As an aside, I’ve always thought the media’s grouping together of certain bands at that time was highly spurious anyway, as bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains for example were only really related to bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney by geography and not by style or by their influences, the former having come from a more classic-rock or metal influence while the latter came from a more punk, more hardcore influence.

In any case, when I listen to a band like The Wipers, Flipper or The Melvins or when I listen to Mark Lanegan’s various twenty-first century work a part of me is always aware that if it wasn’t for Kurt and Nirvana I wouldn’t have been shepherded towards all this great music.

What I owe to Kurt as a fan of his own music is one thing; but what I owe to him for all the other music he turned me onto, music that has been so important a part of my life, is immeasurable.

I think that’s particularly a legacy Cobain would be proud of; having acted as a catalyst for shitloads of people to get interested in music outside of the mainstream, even of the rock mainstream, music that was never played on MTV. I think there are probably a lot of people today who’re into lots of really cool music and have actually forgotten how much of an influence Cobain was on that, because it becomes so old-hat that you just take it for granted. But even when I go to little gigs in Camden, watching bands that no one’s heard of and might never hear of, a part of me wonders if I would ever have remained this passionate about music if Nirvana hadn’t been there in my formative years to light the fuse.

So when Eddie Vedder was saying that night on April 8th, the day Cobain’s body was found, “I don’t think any of us would be here tonight without Kurt”; I think that statement rang very true and actually rings very true even now for a lot of bands and musicians and for a lot of music fans, so many of whom were brought to the party via Kurt Cobain, his great evangelism and his incredible band…

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Comments
  1. mark brennan says:

    Great aevele that captures my feelings entirely
    Nirvanas inductioI
    nto
    ntothe hall of Fame is richly deserved and in some ways overdue. Having said that 20 or even 10 years ago I think that most people would have disagreed with me. It is only with the onset of time Coupled with not only Endurance but growth in popularity that the masses have come to appreciate his work.

    Like

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