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Sean P. Means: Nirvana's music still has impact, 20 years later

Published April 6, 2014 3:20 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On a Saturday night in 1992, when I was working the night copy desk here at the Tribune, I got chatting about music with a police reporter.

To say this reporter's taste in music was behind the curve would be understating the case. His favorites were rooted back in the '70s — acts like The Eagles and Jackson Browne.

I pulled a cassette out of my backpack and loaned it to him. "Welcome to the Nineties," I said.

The cassette was Nirvana's "Nevermind."

Saturday marks 20 years since Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's lead singer and songwriter, took his own life in the garage of his Seattle home. Looking back at those two decades, it's hard to overestimate how Cobain and his band changed everything.

The impact of "Nevermind" on our music sensibilities is still stunning. After years of overly polished pop from MTV-ready haircut bands, here was an album of rough, raw rock 'n' roll that captured young rebellion and inchoate frustration with the powers that be. It was a sonic boom from the land of Boeing, and it was glorious.

The funny thing is that, as a former Seattle resident, I pretty much missed the whole thing.

I graduated from the University of Washington at the end of 1986 and got a job straightaway at UPI in Boise. So I left Seattle, the ground zero of the "grunge" movement, just before it started.

I always felt an affinity for the band and particularly for Cobain. Like Cobain, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and felt a similar restlessness about getting out of the place.

I remember interviewing the rock journalist Mikal Gilmore, just after Cobain's death, and he remarked on a visit to Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen, Wash. "I could see it was a place you'd want to get out of," Gilmore said. I've been to Aberdeen, and he was right.

Cobain was just two years younger than I was, and he played some of his early gigs at the same seedy bar in Olympia, Wash., where I used to go with my friends when I was an intern reporter covering the Washington State Legislature. It's possible I saw him there, but probably not.

What I knew of Cobain was what everyone knew, from the entertainment media that he abhorred. I knew about his uneasy relationship with fame, about his heroin addiction and about his tumultuous relationship with musician and human wrecking ball Courtney Love.

And I knew that he killed himself when he was 27 — the same age that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones and, later, Amy Winehouse were when they died.

I remember where I was 20 years ago this week, when I learned about Cobain's death. (I think most people my age can.)

I was heading into a movie screening at the old Crossroads Plaza, and I had my earbuds on listening to the news. The headlines at the top of the hour said there was a report of shots fired at Cobain's house, but they didn't know much more than that.

After the movie — "Above the Rim," a street basketball drama with Tupac Shakur, another musical icon who left us too soon — I rushed back to the Tribune newsroom and heard the confirmation that Cobain was dead.

I remember arguing with my editor that Cobain's death merited a story on page one. "People are going to want to know why their kids are up in their rooms crying," I said. I lost the argument, mostly because of an old newspaper rule against reporting on suicide.

Cobain seemed to sum it up in his suicide note, in which he famously quoted Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," and its immortal line that "it's better to burn out than to fade away."

Cobain obviously burned out on fame and his demons and self-destruction. But Nirvana, which will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week, has not faded away — and its messy, alive brand of rock 'n' roll will never die.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.