Kurt Cobain Lives On – While Others Don’t

Image of guitar lying on an amplifier

Image of guitar lying on an amplifierKurt Cobain died 20 years ago on Saturday — one of those morose anniversaries that make people reflect on his legacy and the sadness that accompanies any suicide.

Think of the unwritten songs, the continued legacy that Nirvana could have continued to impress upon rock music. Few really know what despondency and depression fuel thoughts or attempts at suicide. Cobain was depressed, even though he was at the pinnacle of rock music. And we all lament his passing.

But his legacy is waning. Even during his life, he spawned several copycat groups (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden), and after his death, it got even worse, with some mostly awful groups that were the Rick Astley version of Nirvana (Creed, Bush, Hoobastank, Nickelback). Now most Top 40 music is full of hip-hop, techno and dance music. The pendulum has swung in a different direction.

Artists are tortured people, and too often we hear of suicides by those in their prime. But Cobain’s suicide, although tragic, reminds me of other artists who ended their lives — and whose legacy remains virtually unknown. That is what’s truly sad.

  • Nick Drake (who either committed suicide or overdosed on depression medication) was all but forgotten until a Volkswagen commercial featuring “Pink Moon” revived his music for a short time. A documentary and several books have helped cement his legacy, but you still don’t hear his music very often.
  • Elliott Smith‘s claim to fame was being nominated for an Oscar for his song “Miss Misery,” but his catalog included quiet, cleverly written pop songs not unlike those of Nick Drake, accompanied mostly by his acoustic guitar. He died at his own hands in 2003, and few even noticed.
  • Nashville pop music artist Will Owsley was talented, releasing two superb albums full of Beatlesque music before ending his life in 2010. His music is unknown outside of a small group of power pop artists and fans.
  • Former Boston lead singer Brad Delp committed suicide in 2007; he has one of the more recognizable voices in rock, thanks to “More Than a Feeling”; it’s known among classic rock fans, but his name is not.

There are countless others whose names you probably don’t know: Crowded House drummer Paul Hester; INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Pete Ham of Badfinger. Cobain will always be remembered for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” arguably the greatest rock anthem of the 90s, possibly of all time.

But what about these others? Did their music die with them? Perhaps they knew that their music wasn’t being accepted by the public; maybe they encountered money troubles caused by their lack of fame. But precious few know who they are or recognize their music. I try to highlight their music, hoping that someone else will find these jewels, appreciate the music we got from them, and mourn the music that we never got to hear.

Rest in peace, Kurt. And Nick, and Will and Elliott, and Brad and Michael, and Ian and Paul and Pete. May your music live on and be rediscovered.

Share this:

You Might Also Like

  1. Abed

    How can you call Soundgarden and Pearl Jam copycats? Soundgarden was founded three or four years before Nirvana, and they released their first EP two years before Nirvana released Bleach. And Pearl Jam grew out of Mother Love Bone, which also predated Nirvana. On top of that, their sounds weren’t similar. The press and A&R people reductively lumped them together under the label of “grunge,” but each has (or had) a distinctive sound.

  2. Peter Lee

    Yes, Soundgarden has been around since 1984, but they (or Pearl Jam) didn’t really achieve success until after the press discovered Nirvana and grunge rock – hence the copycat term. I really don’t see that much of a difference between Soundgarden and Nirvana’s sound, although I do blame Eddie Vedder’s voice for spawning the barbaric yawps that defined the alt-grunge movement.

  3. Jace

    Smith committed suicide in 2003.

    Where does Alice in Chains fit in here? After all, they were the first grunge act to achieve commercial success.

  4. Peter Lee

    In music history, it will always be pre-Nirvana and post-Nirvana. Many groups were around before them and many groups sounded distinct. But the grunge movement was led by them and will encompass any band that sounded remotely similar.

  5. Distance Left (@DistanceLeft)

    Nick Drake is fabulous, inherited his music from my parents record collection.
    I’m also young/old enough to remember Joy Division.
    Thanks to Abed for saving me the ‘there were grunge bands before Nirvana’ post too.