Would the real Kurt Cobain please stand up?

Film-makers, musicians and authors have reimagined and reinvented the Nirvana frontman ad nauseam – and that’s a problem. On the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death, Everett True, who knew the singer, struggles to resurrect the spirit of the band

Kurt Cobain: an icon of alienation

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain – a life in pictures

In 1982, Phil Collins released a cover of the Supremes' You Can’t Hurry Love, which was a hit for the Supremes in the Sixties. It reached No 1 on the UK charts and went top 10 in Australia and the US. The beat was jaunty and synthetic; the vocal was laden with echo, and sung in Collins's peculiarly constipated way.

Now, as a former DIY punk zealot, I can’t abide Genesis, or anything associated with them. Collins may well be a great drummer – as has been claimed here – but I cannot get past his strained voice to discover whether it’s true or not. He ruined the song for me so effectively that 30 years on I can't listen to the original without hearing the echo of his Mockney chirpiness, the pseudo-soul backing. Indeed, I just cannot listen to the original.

A few days ago, I took the opportunity to listen to Nevermind – the era-defining 1991 Nirvana album had been reissued remastered a few years ago to tie in with its 20th anniversary – because I haven’t listened to it for several years. The opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit started up, the drums came crashing through and Kurt’s voice came out, plaintively singing those famous opening lines Load up on guns/ Bring your friends” and … I didn’t recognise it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t recognise the song. That’d have been crazy. It’s that I didn’t recognise the person singing the song. All I could hear were echoes of the bands and singers who came after Nirvana, the ones who diluted their performance and message and impact by slavishly following a formula that was never intended to be followed. All I could hear was this weird triple-tracked, brightening vocoder-type effect used on Kurt’s voice.

I wondered how much of my inability to recognise the song was to do with the remastering – done, presumably, so the record would sound more "contemporary", with all the spatial FX and volume setting subtly adjusted to "correct" the original version. (That version, let’s not forget, managed to sell several million copies on its own merits, without any "correction" or brightening or volume "enhancement" effects, thank you.)

So I had another listen. Unlistenable.

All I could hear was Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd and Silverchair, and other bands too horrible to even whisper their names. I heard Phil Collins covering You Can’t Hurry Love.

This was odd. Surely, my familiarity with the song – I had the “Hello/ Hello/ Hello/ Hello” refrain on my answerphone six months before Teen Spirit was released, as I thought it sounded funny – would override such niggling concerns? Surely, I could convince myself that the odd digital distortion here, the odd flattened dynamic there, shouldn’t affect my enjoyment of a song I felt such a strong personal connection to.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view Smells Like Teen Spirit video

I played it again. No dice. I wanted to scream, the way Kurt Cobain once screamed to sum up the hope and alienation, despair and abandonment of his generation.

So I got to thinking: when was the last time I heard or saw a public representation of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana that I recognised? Certainly not in the press. That weeping angel statue of Cobain unveiled in his birthplace of Aberdeen, Washington, looks more like Boromir from The Lord of the Rings than the human bundle of torn emotion and enthusiasm I thought I once knew. That clip of Paul McCartney jamming with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear? Well, good on them for having a fun time, but Nirvana? It was Foo Fighters by any other name!

Kurt Cobain, as most famously portrayed in Charles Cross’ made-for-Hollywood book Heavier Than Heaven (2001), is even more remote in biographical form.

In this version, Cobain walks around smelling the sex of his girlfriend on his fingers after his first bout of love-making. (How does the author know?) He brawls with Axl Rose, kills cats and is a hypocrite about fame and influence etc. Apparently, all he ever wanted was to be famous. In an astonishing slide into straight narrative fiction, the author – who despite being a Seattle-based music journalist, never knew Cobain – writes an entire chapter detailing the thoughts running the singer’s head right before he kills himself.

One wonders how much other less-straightforward fiction is included.

Film versions of Nirvana and Cobain – the pleasingly artful The Last Days of Kurt Cobain, Nick Broomfield’s infamous "documentary" Kurt and Courtney, et al – makes Cross’ work look like JD Salinger by comparison.

A new photographic book, documented evidence of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain and other groups of the time, comes out soon that rings a little truer to me (I wrote its introduction.) Obviously, one can change photographs after the event, however, the ones in British photographer Steve Gullick’s work seem more "authentic" to me (whatever the hell that word means these days). Maybe it’s because he hasn’t tried to "remaster" his work, or force the stories his photographs tell into one straight linear narrative.

Like his Seattle counterpart Charles Peterson, who documented Nirvana and the Seattle scene that spawned them, there is a certain unpretentious beauty at work here. It's never boring, but captures a human side of their subjects that better-known photographers and biographers often miss in their search for the bigger picture. And maybe that’s all I’m after these days – the human side of Nirvana.

Sadly, I’m not going to be finding it in their music any time soon.

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain – a life in pictures
Britpop and Kurt Cobain 20 years on – don't look back in anger


Everett True

The GuardianTramp

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