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Kurt Cobain: Tragedy and unfathomable questions 20 years after his death

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain

This April 5 marks a tragic anniversary, that of the death of Kurt Cobain.
Much has been and will be written about the Nirvana guitarist-vocalist’s talent and aspirations, demons and drug use. It is difficult for anyone with an interest in the human condition, to say nothing of the nation’s cultural life, not to ponder what Cobain might have contributed had he lived, the same way we ponder the absent art of Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and so many – too many – others.
As a younger person, I might have marked the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death in print with an exploration of his life and work, perhaps a critical essay assaying what he created, how the media battered his clearly sensitive soul and his place in the pop culture pantheon. The professional music-appreciator approach, if you will.
But, to be sure, I am no longer that person. I am 50 and as such have a vastly different perspective on life, mortality, creativity and fulfillment than I did two decades ago. I have two sons, both young men approaching 27, Cobain’s age at the time of his death. One is even in a band and I fret a bit during his long weeks on the road.
So on this anniversary, while like millions of others I mourn the passing of a talented musician and singular artist, I am also struck by bewilderment over questions I can readily formulate but not begin to answer.
How much agony, I wonder, is required to take your own life, as Cobain took his? What did that pain feel like in its duration and intensity? How did his upbringing (read: parents) contribute to his turmoil, creativity and destruction? Could Kurt Cobain have been saved? Did Kurt Cobain want to be saved?
Cobain’s death remains a high-profile tragedy. The terrible reality, of course, is that thousands of people – young people, far too often, with their whole lives ahead of them – each year end their lives in a similar fashion. I will not pretend to think I understand why that happens. I will ask readers to keep all such troubled souls in their thoughts while pondering the 20th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” remains Nirvana’s signature tune and it has inspired cover versions across a wide variety of genres. In jazz, no rendition in my opinion tops the Bad Plus’, which can be found on the Minneapolis trio’s 2003 album “These Are the Vistas” and YouTube. The hip-hop influenced Robert Glasper also has a strong take on the tune, his piano mimicking the “hello, hello” parts. That Ituna released a Seattle-meets-Jobim samba take on the tune speaks to Cobain’s intuitive sense of melody.
Other notable jazz renditions of Nirvana songs include Herbie Hancock’s recording of “No Apologies,” Charlie Hunter Trio’s “Come As You Are,” Yaron Herman and Ambrose Akinmusire collaborating on “Heart Shaped Box,” and Brad Mehldau doing “Lithium.”
Mehldau is in Northern California this weekend for shows at Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz and the SFJAZZ Center. I will be on hand for the April 5 show in the City. Perhaps the audience will hear a Cobain homage.

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