Tag Archives: Kurt Cobain

Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley

When I was learning how to play guitar, I played a lot of Nirvana. Part of that was the timing — I was born in 1983 and picked up the instrument in middle school. The other part was the songs’ simplicity. Power chords, power chords, and more power chords. Three notes at a time? I could handle that. In fact, my first band was a duo that played pretty much nothing but Nirvana and Foo Fighters (we never made it out of my friend’s basement, but some glorious noise was made).

The irony is that while Nirvana may be perfect fodder for beginner guitarists, they’re an incredibly difficult band to cover. People do it, and some do it well, but it’s a tall order. That’s because both ends of the faithful-inventive cover continuum are boobytrapped. If you try to perform “Scentless Apprentice” exactly like Nirvana did, chances are you’re never going to match the throat-tearing, cymbal-smashing, strangely disaffected intensity of the original. Missing by just a little — not giving enough or screaming like an unhinged maniac — holds dire consequences (“dire” may be a bit overdramatic — you’d just be stuck with a smattering of awkward, tepid applause). Just as perilous is the idea of tinkering with a Nirvana song to put your own stamp on it. There’s a paradoxical quality to the emotional impact Cobain’s songs had. While the feelings he expressed were nuanced, with shades of depression, alienation, sarcasm and anger, his delivery was extremely visceral. Primal. Hovering just north of the human-subhuman dividing line. So jazzing up a Nirvana song — pouring intellect into something that’s nearly bestial — risks overcomplicating beauty that originated in a more basic place.

It’s a tiny sweet spot to hit, which is why Charles Bradley’s cover of “Stay Away” strikes me as so special.

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Nirvana

Kurt Cobain

Depending on which website you ask, the photo above, taken May, 1986 in Aberdeen, WA, is either a mugshot from when Kurt Cobain was arrested for trespassing or from when Kurt Cobain was arrested for vandalizing a wall with the phrase “God is gay.” Or maybe it was “Homo sex rules.” Or, if police records are to be believed, “Ain’t got no whatchamacallit.” Internet confusion abounds over which incident the shot is connected with and what he actually spray painted when he did spray paint something, but what’s clear is that Cobain was arrested twice in a short period of time, and when asked years later about his vandalism charge, he wanted people to believe he wrote something provocative that referenced homosexuality. The specifics become less significant when you consider that the phrase “God is gay” reached more eyeballs by way of interviews than it ever would have on that wall in Aberdeen, and even more ears as the final lyrics of the 10th track of one of the best selling records of all time.

Cobain’s vandalism may involve elements of myth, but his distaste for homophobia was well documented. Two examples stand out — a journal entry that was revealed to read “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes” — and the liner notes of 1992’s Incesticide, which made the following appeal:

At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.

I find myself thinking about this part of Cobain’s legacy every once in a while, and it strikes me as incredibly powerful. People like to say — rightly on some levels, I think — that we remember Kurt Cobain in rosier terms because of his suicide, and that the uglier parts of his life get swept under the rug by a combination of selective nostalgia and hero worship. But in my mind, this is an area of unequivocal beauty. As confused and ironic as it may have been at times, Cobain’s cross-dressing, spray-painting, liner-noting, bassist-kissing advocacy for the acceptance of homosexuality demonstrated real compassion and courage, and each time it comes to mind, I’m filled with a strange sense of pride. The guy I trusted my early adolescence with — whose songs helped me learn how to play guitar and whose hair and clothes I emulated — turns out to have been even worthier of emulation than I realized, if just in this one specific, yet incredibly meaningful, way.

By chance, one of these prideful moments took place while I was getting ready for work yesterday — the same day the Supreme Court was set to hear oral arguments for the first of two landmark cases involving gay marriage. I can’t remember what got me thinking about Cobain and his convictions, but I realized yesterday morning that, aside from developing a woefully half-baked theory involving David Geffen, the openly gay record executive who won the Nevermind bidding war, I’d never taken the time to learn why he felt so strongly about homophobia.

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