Kurt Cobain is an icon that exists in his own realm. Yes, Bob Dylan was labelled with the moniker of the ‘voice of a generation’, and of course, The Beatles’ pioneering steps in music have never been matched. However, Kurt Cobain has a strange, mythical allure of his own personal kind that he cultivated not only in his lifetime but with his tragic suicide as well.
As the frontman and mastermind of grunge vanguard Nirvana, much like Dylan 30 years prior but to much discomfort, Cobain became hailed as the spokesperson of his epoch and for Generation X. His generation were the children of the baby boomers and had a bleak, emotionally confused outlook on life and society owing to growing up under the spectre of the Cold War and in socio-economic strife.
In fact, Cobain’s life was one of much pain and confusion, and some of these themes unsurprisingly fed into his work. Take the extremely bleak ‘Something in the Way’, for example. Due to his lyrical density and the fact the majority of his songs didn’t have a clear theme but were instead a mesh of ideas, Cobain’s standing as an artist was afforded a similar air of mystery to the one that Bob Dylan had cultivated over his career. However, this one was infused with a lot more pain and confusion.
In addition to the rumours of homelessness, amongst other things, that inspired ‘Something in the Way’, the band’s most iconic track, the overnight sensation ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, was taken by critics and fans at face value as an anthem inciting teenage rebellion against the boomers. Lyrically though, it was a lot more complicated than that, with Cobain himself not even fully sure of its thematic origins, but you get the picture.
Through examples such as the aforementioned, Cobain became elevated to a demi-god-like stature in his lifetime. From there, the amount of fame he and the band had seemingly been adorned overnight simply added to his already severe mental health troubles. Like the ‘fire triangle’, fame, drug abuse and mental health issues all exacerbated each other, and together they can be taken as the main reasons for Cobain’s tragic suicide on April 5th, 1994.
As we mentioned at the inception, Cobain became even more mythologised after his death, owing to the very modern penchant for the macabre and the fact that in his lifetime, Cobain and Nirvana changed music Ad Infinium, a dizzying reality. One of the most profound examples of Kurt Cobain’s mythos is his suicide note and the classic song that it referenced. After his death, the line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, was etched into popular culture forevermore. Consequently, the line has become one of the most famous lyrics ever penned.
Ironically, it is from the song ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ by the ‘Godfather of Grunge’ Neil Young. Taken from his 1979 live album, Rust Never Sleeps, Young’s poignant song deals with what he saw at the time as his growing irrelevance owing to punk’s dominance. But with Cobain’s death, the song took on a literal meaning, and instead of it now representing a musical career, to “burn out” is a direct reference to death.
As Young’s song is so sad, the intrinsic connection it now has to the death of Cobain makes listening to it a real struggle, with it making the pain Cobain was suffering almost palpable, something that is physically impossible for many to endure.
In 2005, Young told Time about the line and Cobain’s death, and he offered up a different perspective to the one often discussed in discourse: “The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me, but I don’t think he was saying I have to kill myself because I don’t want to fade away,” Young said, before continung: “I don’t think he was interpreting the song in a negative way. It’s a song about artistic survival, and I think he had a problem with the fact that he thought he was selling out, and he didn’t know how to stop it.”
In relation to the suffering Cobain was enduring, Young explained the suffocating nature of the music business: “He was forced to do tours when he didn’t want to, forced into all kinds of stuff. I was trying to get a hold of him – because I had heard some of the things he was doing to himself – just to tell him it’s OK not to tour, it’s OK not to do these things, just take control of your life and make your music. Or, hey, don’t make music. But as soon as you feel like you’re out there pretending, you’re fucked.”
He concluded: “I think he knew that instinctively, but he was young and he didn’t have a lot of self-control. And who knows what other personal things in his life were having a negative impression on him at the time?”
Understandably, the inclusion of his song in Cobain’s suicide note “fucked” with Neil Young and “struck a deep chord” within him. Regardless of all the sadness and tragedy surrounding Cobain’s death, though, he will live on through his game-changing music forever.
Furthermore, the inclusion of Young’s lyrics in the note speaks volumes of his influence as an artist and is a testament to just how deeply he has affected many of us with his music and lyrics. An underrated bard, this is a glaring example that confirms Neil Young‘s position as your favourite musician’s favourite musician.
Listen to ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ below.