The praise of Bob Dylan must surely be the food of the gods. Countless musicians regard the legendary folk singer and curator of the popular American song as a major influence on their work, but the old curmudgeon very rarely comments on other artist’s. Especially in the last decade, he has become increasingly reclusive, making fewer and fewer public appearances. Even in his heyday, he rarely commented on his own songwriting, never mind other people’s. He was always a bit of an enigma in that sense.
But there was one unlikely musician who Bob Dylan marked out as having a real gift. That musician was Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Below, we take a look at what Dylan thought of the grunge icon.
The first Nirvana song Dylan heard was a live version of ‘Polly’, perhaps the darkest of all Nirvana’s songs. Cobain wrote it after he heard of a teenage girl’s abduction, rape and torture when she was on her way home from a rock concert.
Dylan had heard the song live at a concert he attended and picked it out as a highlight of the band’s set – largely due to Cobain’s intimate performance of the track. Of Cobain, Dylan went on to say: “That kid has heart”.
I doubt Cobain ever knew how much Dylan admired him, but it feels appropriate that Dylan, the voice of the 1960s, gave his blessing to a man who was, arguably, the voice of the ’90s. Indeed, there are a surprising amount of comparisons we can draw between the two artists. Although their styles were radically different, both Dylan and Cobain understood how to make introspective subject matter universal.
With their lyrics, the two songwriters were able to capture the zeitgeist of their age without being didactic or self-indulgent. Instead, they wrote songs that could be interpreted in myriad ways. As a result, both Dylan and Cobain’s songs are the focus of frequent over-analysis by fans and even academics. People want to know the heart of Cobain in the same way that they want to know the heart of Dylan. Of course, it’s unlikely anyone will ever achieve that goal, but it is a testament to the legacy of their songcraft.
Cobain’s artistry drew the admiration of more than Bob Dylan, however. The guitarist, singer, and songwriter was so famous at one point that he attracted the attention of the likes of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and the beat generation writer, William S. Burroughs.
When each of these icons was asked about Cobain, they all seemed to say the same thing – that he was a unique talent who was born to die. Of the Nirvana frontman, Burroughs would say: “Cobain was very shy, very polite, and obviously enjoyed the fact that I wasn’t awestruck at meeting him. There was something about him, fragile and engagingly lost.”
Take a listen to ‘Polly’, the Nirvana song Bob Dylan loved the most.