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Kurt Cobain remembered, 20 years after his death

Kurt Cobain changed Win Butler's world. Billie Joe Armstrong thought the Nirvana frontman was his generation's John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And Beck thinks he owes a debt of gratitude to the singer-guitarist for opening the world's ears to a thriving, but little-heard underground scene.

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."

Everything that would make the band popular when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ripped the fabric of pop music was already there.

"And I can tell you, any situation I've been in and many of my peers I've seen coming up, playing for audiences who've never heard of you, you don't get people's attention at all," he said. "Usually they're talking or going to the bathroom in those kinds of situations, but they had the audience from the first note. Even if they had never become successful, I would still remember that. It made a big impression. I remember at the time thinking, `What is this? Something's going on here,' and I was a fan after that."


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.

"You know, the guy just wrote beautiful songs," Armstrong said. "When someone goes that honestly straight to the core of who they are, what they're feeling, and was able to kind of put it out there, I don't know, man, it's amazing. I remember hearing it when `Nevermind' came out and just thinking, we've finally got our Beatles, this era finally got our Beatles, and ever since then it's never happened again. That's what's interesting. I was always thinking maybe the next 10 years. OK, maybe the next 10 years, OK, maybe. ... That was truly the last rock `n' roll revolution."


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."

Butler still takes cues from Cobain and Nirvana. After winning the 2010 Grammy Award for album of the year, Butler and his band delivered a completely unexpected follow-up album last year that ignored the lure of pop possibilities - much like Nirvana did when it recorded the band's final album, the polarizing "In Utero," in 1993.

"Imagine Nirvana having the biggest record in the world and spending nine days and coming back with this super-raw album with pretty acoustic songs and crazy metal songs," Butler said. "I don't know, just artistically `In Utero' was a constant source of inspiration. It stands the test of time so well, and `All Apologies' is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, I think."


Cobain enjoyed a kind of feedback loop with those he admired, and got the attention of Neil Young - a major touchstone for the grunge movement - before his death.

Young has often chafed under the requirements of fame as well, and understands some of what Cobain was experiencing. The singer-songwriter was so moved by Cobain's death, he recorded the album "Sleeps With Angels," and still wonders what might have happened if he had been able to talk to Cobain before he died.

"Well, you know, it's a hard thing to deal with," Young said. "I guess Kurt felt too much. I think it's sad that he didn't have anybody to talk to that could've talked to him and said, `I know what you're going through, but it's not too bad. It really isn't bad. Just (expletive) blink and it will be gone. Everything will be all right. You've got a lot of other things to do. Why don't you just take a break? Don't worry about all these (expletive) who want you to do all this (expletive) you don't want to do. Just stop doing everything. Tell them to get (expletive) and stay away.' That's it. That's what I would have told him if I had the chance. And I almost got a chance, but it didn't happen."


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kimwham2 April 05 2014 at 1:06 PM

I was listening to Nirvana in my car last night. I read this today and I was so sad when I thought about it , I wanted to cry. It just doesn't seem that long ago. Hell, I'm going to be 60 soon and have always loved them. Both of my young adult kids (19&22) have finally begun to appreciate good music. Thank goodness! Now they brag that their mom listens to Nirvana and the Clash all of the time. Thanks Kurt! You've helped make my life a better one. I wish you could have been happier too. I know how you felt though. I have daily thoughts of doing the same but I guess because of my kids and my dog I don't. But I completely understand how and why some people get to that point of no return. Most people don't and never will understand why a person kills themselves but I do. I'm just so sad that he felt there was no where to turn. I keep my thoughts under my hat to keep my kids from worrying but I do see my doctor (plain old family doctor)and she works with me. Kurt, I wish you would have done the same. In my 60 years I've seen way too many amazing musicians die that it hurts. All of them so young. True artists like them feel more than an average person. Their music truly does come from their hearts. They feel life in a different way. A way that most of us will never feel. Thanks again Kurt for being there for me!

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GrnBer kimwham2 April 05 2014 at 1:50 PM

Do you well up also when you think about the young men and women who die in our nation's wars? Most of them never make it to 27 years of age or are privileged to wealth and fame. They are the ones to honor, not a spoiled, drug-fueled narcissist who had it all and let it go. Kurt could have done so much good with what he had, but he didn't. FYI: Vietnam, 2/505 Chu Lai, '68

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1 reply
lutzsheron GrnBer April 05 2014 at 3:49 PM

He was not a drug fueld narcissist. He was a tortured soul who found solice in his music. He used music to console himself in a time of distress. He did not set out to find fame and fortune. It found him and he did not know how to handle it. Donald was a good person a straight shooter who always spoke what was on his mind. He grew up at a time when heroin dominated the pacific northwest. His mother was drug addicted and never fed him . He would go weeks without food. He was just kid surrounded by drug dealers and drug users. I was just a kid when we met. I was there when he got his first guitar. He did not have any food or a birthday cake for that matter but he had that guitar. It is very sad to read the comments of people who did not know his situation.When you hear his music you will hear the pain and torment he constantly felt that would not go away no matter how much fame and fortune he acquired. His music was real it came from his soul. RIP Kurt Donald Cobain I will always respect, love and miss you!!!!!

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Hollie kimwham2 April 05 2014 at 2:28 PM

Well said.

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littlewhootsie April 05 2014 at 2:37 PM

At the time, I was a DJ and reading the words that Neil Young said: "if I could only have talked to him..." It was JUST before I started doing interviews (w/bands like Portishead, Luscious Jackson, Suede, Ivy, Kristin Hersh...) but TODAY, when I heard he'd died, I was making the bed--putting the fitted sheet on, and heard Kurt Loder say that Curt Cobain had been found...I couldn't believe it; it must have been a mistake. Seriously. I was wearing overalls, a flannel shirt, w/a wool cap and my heart just sank. I called a friend--she came over w/a bottle of wine and we just sat there. I put Nirvana cds in the player and we lay down b/t the speakers turned up way high, w/pillows and just lissening and crying. She asked me if it was true that fish had no feelings (we were vegan at that time). It goes so way further than all this, tho. His wife got away w/murder, you know. Everyone keeps away from the controversial stuff. Her name is so UNsynonymous w/"Love" it's CURAZY. And to those of you who are HATERS, it sounds like yer the jealous ones who didn't get "appreciated" for your (local-Seattle) music b/c you either didn't try hard enough or expected too much or didn't have that "sound". Kurdt wasn't a "sucker", he had what it took as far as the LOOK , the sound & the TALENT. You don't get as far as he/they did on a whim. The band, together, made up the Whole. He just got too caught up in everything--his emotions; his pain; his wife; his life and didn't make good decisions. I wish he could have talked to someone (like Neil Young), too. It would have changed his life. I KNOW IT.

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Ace April 05 2014 at 3:10 PM

Don't judge a book by its cover. Kurt Cobain is a legend in the music industry. Sure, he had his share of problems. But doesn't everybody? He had never wanted to aim towards stardom to begin with. It just happened. And a lot of people who end up making gobs of money tend to let it go thru their heads. Turning to drugs and messing themselves up. They get carried away. Kurt wasn't the only one. Elvis Presley was a mess. Jim Morrison was a mess. Jimi Hendrix was a mess. Whitney Houston was a mess. And countless others were a mess. Unless you truly know the background of one or more of these celebrities, don't judge a book by its cover. Nobdoy's perfect. Nobody ever has been. Nobody ever will be. We make mistakes, learn from 'em, and move on. A phrase that I always tell everyone... "We live, we learn, we die. And that's that." And yes, killing yourself is a "coward's" way out. But to those of you who has never been suicidal, you DO NOT have a clue. Believe me when I say this... you don't know what it's like being suicidal. I've been there. I'm still alive. And I'm thankful that I haven't been suicidal in a long time. And I would never wish anyone to be suicidal. It's the 2nd worst feeling in the world next to a mother who loses her child. At least, in my opinion.

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4 replies
soihad April 05 2014 at 3:33 PM

In a sense, I was the luckiest 15-year-old in the world, for a night, as I attended the Nirvana Unplugged taping, and spend a generous amount of time talking to Kurt. Not that it was hard, as he mingled with the audiance both before and after the performance. I was shcoked at the time to find that he was truly a humble, yet troubled sweet man who made you feel like you'd known him for years. As he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world at the time, he could easily have spent all his time in the back secluded from the crowd (as most do). But he didn't. And I will cherish that experience for the rest of my life.

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Lee April 05 2014 at 3:07 PM

i wish neil young could've talk to pete ham and tom evans

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1 reply
obloodyblada Lee April 05 2014 at 3:26 PM

It's too bad the people at Apple couldn't have stepped in and tried to do something to help Badfinger before it got to the point it did.

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bigchaos April 05 2014 at 5:44 PM

F - -k off, all of you uninformed, worthless haters. You are all compassionless little punks, that were still messing your dityies, when he was, ruling popular music.

You culturally deprived underachievers, have no talent, or sense of it!

RIP Kurt.... We Love You.

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5 replies
srmazz66 April 05 2014 at 1:05 PM

if cobain was so influential didn't you know he was left handed. nice reverse picture

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tina April 05 2014 at 3:27 PM

As I read these comments...and the ones on other stories, whether I agree with the commentor or not, I weep for this world. The lack of compassion, intellect, real experience, and soul is so loud it drowns out everything else. We live in a social media, reality TV educated society and I wonder if we will ever be able to recover our humanity. Life is what happens when you lift your head from your cell phone and switch off your laptop. The irony of the fact that I'm commenting on this and my actual comment is not lost on me, believe me. But I think I can count on both hands the number of times I've ever posted a comment online. That being said I just reminded myself that I only feel this way when I stop to read the comments.
Kurt was a drug addict, and a talented musician. The two are not mutually exclusive. He did change the world of music thereby changing the world in general. It is no doubt a better place because he was in it, even if he couldn't bring himself to stay.

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lap4otk April 05 2014 at 11:20 PM

Have Your Say...He was always shooting his mouth off.

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notno13 April 05 2014 at 12:48 PM

the nirvana unplugged was the best unplugged by far

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1 reply
rasabobdog notno13 April 05 2014 at 1:23 PM

Nope. Alice in Chains wins that one.

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