Saturday, July 24, 2010

Conjectures Of The Bored And Old

Kurt Cobain was the world's greatest music fan. It's not a part of his legend, and I'm not sure it needs to be, but his cultish love of rock music is evident to anyone who's ever read an interview with him. Even today, it's rare to see Cobain favorites like the Vaselines, Melvins, Meat Puppets, or Raincoats discussed without a mention of his name. Those bands were hardly the extent of his fandom, as he was also obsessed with Daniel Johnston, Pixies, Half Japanese the Beatles, and K Records. That's just off the top of my head, there's dozens of other bands he was a vocal supporter of.

But what effect did these artists have on Cobain? It's unclear. Peers and predecessors did influence Nirvana's decision to sign to Geffen. They were courted by Sonic Youth, and Cobain looked towards R.E.M. as a band that made the major label jump without sacrificing their credibility or vision.* The move still seems to have been torturesome, for Cobain, at least, in part because of his devotion to some of the most obstinately underground acts.

It does seem peculiar, however, that the singer/guitarist for a band with great debts to 70's hard rock spent so much time worrying if he was deviating from the way of the Pastels and Shonen Knife. I wonder if he spent more time promoting the Vaselines than Led Zeppelin simply because they were far more obscure. His habit of talking up his favorite bands, and wearing their t-shirts, may too have been a strategy to deflect attention, less artful but probably cooler than the solution Bob Dylan came up with when he was branded the voice of a generation he didn't belong to.

All of which begs the question: was Nirvana actually better than any of the bands Cobain adored? It's a matter of taste, of course, but I like most of the bands mentioned in this post as least as much as I like Nirvana. Nirvana isn't particularly in vogue these days, probably a result of years of sub-Nirvana modern rock acts with heavy debts to grunge. And there may be a critical shift away from Nevermind, after years of seeing that album near the top of every critic's poll--as Chris Molanphy wrote in an Idolator column from that site's glory days that I can't find--towards In Utero. It resembles the relatively recent preference in those polls for Revolver over Sgt. Pepper's.

So while it's difficult not to blame Cobain the musician for Creed and Bush, Kurt the music fan had peerless (if quite narrow) taste. He wasn't shy about discussing it, or even covering and working with his heroes. He helped bring exposure to artists who otherwise might have received very little, an act that carried greater weight in the days before the internet. Kurt Cobain still deserves to be remembered as a talented and influential musician, but he was also a guy with some of the best taste in the history of the world.

*If Cobain had been able to travel ahead a few years in time and hear Around The Sun, would he have made the same decision?

2 comments:

  1. Hey, quit knocking Around The Sun!

    Your post motivated me to finally go looking for KC's legendary list of his 50 favorite albums, which I found here: http://nirvana.wikia.com/wiki/Kurt_Cobain's_Top_50_Albums

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  2. I guess I over-emphasized his love of wuss-pop a bit...which is nevertheless pretty striking.

    And who knows, Kurt could have loved "Around The Sun," you don't see a lot of people saying "Green" is their favorite R.E.M. album.

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