Even in His Youth

...At some point during the evening, the event's organizer happened to mention that another notable musical milestone was soon to pass: February 20, 2007 would mark the 40th birthday of one Kurt Donal

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was taking part in a tribute to Sonic Youth, on the occasion of the band's 25th anniversary. At some point during the evening, the event's organizer happened to mention that another notable musical milestone was soon to pass: February 20, 2007 would mark the 40th birthday of one Kurt Donald Cobain.

Although delivered without much fanfare, the announcement hit me like a ton of bricks. Could it be? Kurt Cobain, the reluctant voice of my reluctant generation, frozen in time 13 years earlier when he put his tormented soul to rest with a single gunshot wound to the head, would have been 40 in just a few months, had he lived?

A fellow Pisces, Kurt was born exactly ten years and six days before I was. Perhaps part of my shock was related to the way becoming aware of Kurt's "aging" immediately solidified my own sense of getting older. In September of 1991, when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" first hit MTV, I was a 14-year-old high school freshman, already a voracious music fan, but mostly enamored of artists that had been passed down to me by my parents, artists who predated my birth by more than a decade -- the Beatles, Dylan, the Doors. I didn't know it until I first saw Kurt Cobain alternately mumbling and howling in front of those black-clad cheerleaders, but I was desperately in need of a band for my cultural moment. Nirvana was it.

Less than three years later, I was riding in the back seat of my parent's car as my whole family made its way over to a Red Lobster [insert cringe here] to celebrate my grandmother's birthday; it was early on a Friday evening. As was always the case when we traveled together by car, the radio was on, keeping the peace and helping to alleviate the boredom. Suddenly a man's voice came over the airwaves: Kurt Cobain's lifeless body had been discovered in a room above his garage, the apparent victim of suicide.

The first thing I did when we got to the restaurant was run to a pay phone inside the lobby to call one of my best friends at the time -- a fellow Nirvana devotee -- to ask if she'd heard the news. She hadn't. We didn't cry. Not then, anyway -- that was saved for the privacy of our respective bedrooms, late at night, tucked away from the rest of the world. All we could do at that moment was grasp at straws, fumble for words; we didn't find many.

The shock eventually wore off, but the impact Nirvana had never did. More than a decade later, although it is rare for a Nirvana CD to find its way into my player, I'd still name the band as a favorite, and would place it toward the very top of a list of life-changing musical discoveries. Kurt, in particular, remains a standard-bearer: as I try now to perform the precarious role of critic, it's his passion, humility and vision that I largely measure new acts against.

But this is a different cultural moment. Indeed, I gather that my astonishment about Kurt's impending birthday has as much to do with registering my own loss of youth as it does with recognizing just how little is left of that far more promising (and perhaps far more naive) time. Where have we gone as a society since Kurt's death?

Fiercely radical in his politics, manifesting them in the way he lived his life and made his art, Kurt was able to convey his beliefs without having to resort to sermonizing. I doubt Nirvana would have ever taken the eventual Bruce Springsteen-Pearl Jam route of using the stage not only as a soapbox, but to promote some sort of "dialogue" with fans. Kurt was far too direct for an approach like that; he made it plain: if you had, in his words, "redneck" beliefs, he didn't want you at his shows or championing his music. There was no room for negotiation, and no patience for trying to change your mind. You either got it or you didn't.

Back in 1991, the times they were a-changin' much like they had been 25 years earlier. A fired-up youth-driven movement was taking charge and you could join the cause or get the hell out of the way -- nobody was going to wait around for you to make up your mind. Thirteen years later and it seems like all the progressive movement can do now is labor to "build bridges" and create "understanding." It's "P.C." turned against itself -- the most extreme expression of the "let's not hurt anyone's feelings, let's work to unify" ethos.

In the midst of this pandering we've seen things go from bad to worse, from Clinton to Bush II, from "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the Federal Marriage Amendment, from NAFTA to the Immigration Bill, from the Defense of Marriage Act to the Patriot Act. And youth culture has devolved into a billion-dollar industry founded on packaging and sustained by ease of use.

It feels wrong to think it, but Kurt not being here to turn 40 is somehow reassuring. Having lost him when we did, he'll forever exist as an icon of youth, of rebellion, of never compromising. Some argue, of course, that he compromised the moment he pulled the trigger, but others figure the opposite. Famously quoting Neil Young's immortal "it's better to burn out than to fade away" mantra in his suicide note, it could be said Kurt left this world on his own terms.

Or maybe he ran. Ran away from troubles he didn't -- for whatever reason -- have the strength to face.

Whichever way you want to look at it, the most fitting tribute on the occasion of Kurt's 40th would seem to be remembering what it was that drove us all those years ago to roar along with his songs, to reject everything we had known before for the prospect of something better, something new, to shed -- if only for a while -- our reluctance, and now to rekindle that often-joked about but frequently sorely missed "teen spirit."

It's either that or... oh well, whatever, never mind.


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