The Return of the Cobains (Whatever Happened to Grunge?)

A continuation of a thought on Frances Bean Cobain from a few weeks back, which can be found here.

The New York Times had an article recently on the “arrival” of Frances Bean Cobain, as perhaps a fashion and pop icon. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter is all of 18 years old, and this offensive article (more befitting of the TMZs of the world) is so frustratingly naïve and ignorant it makes me fear for the Times.  For example writer Austin Considine, who I’m assuming is a 15-year-old aspiring dancer/actor from Des Moines with a prestigious blog and a subscription to People, notes:

“Last night as we were all attempting to leave the office, we couldn’t pull ourselves away from our computer screens because we were too mesmerized by the new photos of Frances Bean Cobain,” wrote Alyssa Vingan on “All of our fashion friends were tweeting up a storm about them, and it’s easy to see why.”

Indeed. Gone is the sweet round-faced teen of her 2008 pictorial for Harper’s Bazaar. Instead, her intense, pale stare hauntingly recalls her brilliant but troubled father, front man for Nirvana, who committed suicide in 1994, when she wasn’t yet 2. The stringy hair, self-possession and voluptuous pouting lips evoke a younger, wildly ambitious Ms. Love.”

What young Considine does in quoting the similarly naïve ignoramus Vingan, and noting Ms. Cobain’s aesthetic attributes she shares with her parents, is that the only thing that matters in her rise to pop prominence is her parents. A birth certificate, and not person mesmerized Vingan and her cohorts. And more importantly, and intriguingly, and upsettingly, is whether or not Eddie Vedder’s daughter(s) would (or will) get this much attention. And the answer is: fuck no. Because Eddie Vedder didn’t kill himself with a shotgun on April 4th, 1994.

But all this got me thinking about Grunge, because what Considine sees in Frances’ “intense, pale stare” I did see in the photos from Harper’s Bazaar in 2008. I see her dad. I see Kurt Cobain. And I see my youth. I was 17-years-old when Cobain died, not that much younger than Frances is now. I don’t remember a whole lot about the day. I know that my friends and I were stoned, and hanging out in someone’s parents’ basement. Much Music broke the news that a man had been found dead on Cobain’s Seattle property, and though I recall waiting for confirmation that it was indeed Cobain, we all knew.

I also don’t recall any great sadness, or an evening drunken reminiscence, or candle light vigils. Maybe because at the time, I was more of a Pearl Jam fan. I do remember being angry that Cobain quoted Neil Young in his suicide note, writing it was “better to burnout, than to fade away.” In the 90s, Young was often referred to as The Godfather of Grunge, but what Cobain’s borrowing of a great lyric failed to do, and what Grunge did not properly inherit from Neil Young, is that the music, the art, the writing was the release, not the embodiment, of pain and suffering.

Young took the quoting hard, and refused to play “Hey, Hey, My, My” for years afterwards. I was, and am, a huge Neil fan, and during this time I saw Neil play once or twice a year. The songs absence was noticeable, and sad in a way I can’t quite explain. When he finally did put the song back in his concert rotation, I saw him at a show in (I believe) Toronto, and it was moving and cathartic experience for the crowd, and I imagine for Young. In that rendition, and in the times I’ve seen him since, his emphasis seems to be on the lyric “and once you’re gone, you can’t come back” and there’s something quietly beautiful about that, and the place that Young and Cobain share in Rock’s history.

I miss Grunge. I miss Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. I miss going to the record store, and searching out Green River imports, and Mother Love Bone EPs. I miss waking up and throwing on a pair of dirty ripped jeans and a plaid flannel shirt over a beaten up t-shirt, and calling it an outfit. I miss never having to wash or shave, and calling it cool. I miss lyrics like “Chloe’s just like me, only beautiful” and “the feeling, it gets left behind.” And I actually miss feeling “stupid, and contagious,” because, shit, that’s how it was at times.

A while back I started listening to Nirvana again. The Cock n’ Bull in Montreal had “Aneurysm” on it’s jukebox, and I overplayed it every time we went in. This was followed by a re-introduction to MTV Unplugged in New York.  There’s a point in “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that just breaks your heart, and for a beautifully haunting moment, you’re exposed to what it is that eventually ended Cobain. “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?” And though the composition isn’t his, it allows for a great parallel in interpretation. Cobain, intriguingly, felt the full Blues-ridden pain of the Lead Belly song, and put a stripped down and yet near pitch-perfect Grunge take on it. Yet, when it came to interpreting Young’s lyric, all he could take away was an excuse to burn out.

Too bad. Who knows where Nirvana would have gone, where Cobain was going to take music, if Grunge would have survived. We could have been spared Foo Fighters. But Pearl Jam faded away, but not before leaving us with an unfortunate legacy of Eddie Vedder copycat artists (I’m looking at you Nicklesuck.) And Chris Cornell turned to Adult Contemporary pop nonsense, forming the worst named band ever (Audioslave), teaming with American Idol winners, and finally a desperate Soundgarden reunion. (Christ, that’s how old I am. A Soundgarden reunion.) Layne Staley OD’d to no one’s surprise, though Alice in Chains reunited anyway.  And yet their Godfather, Neil Young, is still as vibrant as ever. It’s sad when parents outlive their children, a sadness that will be carried out all too publicly by Frances Bean Cobain.