When Patti Smith sings, people listen. When Patti Smith writes, people read. In an interview from 2010, the poet shared her views of Nirvana, the alternative rock band from the 1990s that still held a firm fanbase, 15 years after their prime.
“My reaction to Kurt Cobain was much more emotional,” Smith explained. “I was heartbroken when he committed suicide. I loved Nirvana. And I knew that Kurt Cobain was very fond of my husband and the MC5. We felt so badly. We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some positive effect on him. Seeing Robert struggling for his life, and doing everything to live, and then seeing this very gifted boy kill himself was painful to factor”.
It might be tricky to loop Dave Grohl‘s jauntier trajectory with hers, but she’s correct to praise Kurt Cobain, the band’s lyricist and frontman. He sang from the heart, meaning that his work had endurability that gravitated into the hearts of millions of record buyers. Sure, Nirvana weren’t intellectual, and they definitely weren’t a technical powerhouse, but they were immediate, truthful and laced with a desire to improve the world for their listeners.
Cobain despised misogyny, racism and homophobia, encouraging listeners who followed those traits to avoid his concerts entirely. Courtney Love sat beside him during interviews, as the pair fashioned as the modern-day John and Yoko. Cobain opened a portal for more women to exhibit their own art, something Smith must have recognised. She didn’t see Cobain as either a threat or a foe but saw him as a creative thinker who fashioned his own work according to the parameters of his own life.
Art didn’t have to be pretty to be powerful, but the prettiness of life could only be translated through the vitality of the art in question. Smith’s own creative endeavours spanned across genres, as she published books, wrote poems, gave speeches and commanded a live stage. She is, no matter what definition you used, a true talent, and she used her unique set of skills to further her continuum.
Cobain was also a talented man and one who burned out too quickly to acknowledge the beauty of his gift. Yet there’s nothing disingenuous about ‘Come As You Are’, much as it isn’t insincere about his guitar-work on ‘Rape Me’. If he was alive today, there is no doubt that he would have admonished the TERFs that try to rob their fellow sisters of their basic dignity, much as he would have joined Smith on her many political campaigns and causes that span the width of the globe.
Cobain was proudly progressive and personally called out Guns N’ Roses in a series of interviews. Rebellion, he felt, was standing up to the bands who demonised women, based on their breasts and good looks. He felt Guns N’ Roses exhibited everything that was rotten about rock, picturing females as objects to play around with, offering them no opportunity to shine as the poet they could turn out to be.
Smith wasn’t the only woman who was admonished for her success. Fleetwood Mac frontwoman Stevie Nicks felt belittled by her male bandmates who resented her immense success. Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was given a copy of her recently furnished Bella Donna, only for him to put it down on his studio floor and to walk away.
Yet like Smith before her, Nicks has never felt ashamed of either her success or her artistry. She continues to work on her craft, even with the absence of one Buckingham to steer Fleetwood Mac with. And Smith continues to grow as both a person and an artist, which is exactly what Cobain would have wanted from her.
It’s the job of an artist to prosper and grow within the continuum they set out for themselves, and to do anything else would be churlish, insincere and inconclusive. Art stems from a moment in time, and how the emotion soaks the artist in that particular juncture. Truth centres on the basis of memorable art, whether it’s the intention or the prerogative to do so.
Smith recorded a blinding version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ in 2007. It can be heard on her 10th solo album Twelve, slowing the urgency of the Nirvana tune to focus on the words in question. Behind her emerges a shimmering acoustic guitar, chiming in and out of the work, like a minstrel working his way for his weekly trade.
Whether or not it was intended as a tribute to the late Nirvana frontman is ultimately a moot point because she sells the composition with her own incendiary truth on top of the melody in question. It stands up with many of the best covers in her catalogue.