Twenty years ago today, Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was nearly 15 years old and a freshman in high school. I even remember where I was when I heard the news — in the backseat of my friend’s mom’s white Ford Taurus. Her mom was giving us a ride somewhere, to the mall maybe? The news must’ve broken earlier than that, while we were in school, but without cell phones none of us would’ve heard about it until we got off the bus around 3pm. Later, I remember listening to heartbroken Courtney Love read Kurt’s suicide note to a group of tear-streaked fans sitting in a park in Seattle. I remember these things. Not clearly, but they’re there in the back of my mind where I file away impactful historical moments that I was around for.
Truthfully, I liked Nirvana a lot, but I wasn’t a huge fan. I didn’t own one of their albums. When I was 15, I had a huge crush on Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day (even stitching the band’s name into my Jansport with embroidery thread). I listened to Dookie on cassette tape until the ribbon wore out. I loved angsty chick music like Sarah McLachlan and Hole (who had released their album, Live Through This, less than a week after Cobain’s death). My music tastes eventually evolved when I finally got a CD player for my birthday and discovered Radiohead, The Afghan Whigs and Tori Amos.
To be honest had I not just heard a piece about Kurt Cobain on NPR, the anniversary of his death would’ve missed me completely. And yet, the minute I hear Smells Like Teen Spirit on the radio I’m transformed back to the early 90s. I’m back in high school. I’m thrashing my head back and forth and singing along like I’m 14 again and not a mom driving a white minivan.
There’s no question in my mind that the 1990s was the best decade for music. Even my favorite bands today don’t make albums as good as the ones they put out in the late 90s. And I could probably write a treatise on how downloading a single does not produce the same level of excitement as getting a new CD on release day. And don’t even get me started on the pity party I throw myself every time my favorite 90s band tours and I can’t go because I’m nursing a baby…
A reflection on Cobain’s death twenty years later feels like a reflection on who I am at nearly 35 years old. The 90s were my formative years. It’s the reason I set my novel, Grunge Gods and Graveyards, in 1996. And why every chapter heading is the title of a song from that period, a band that had been influenced by Cobain’s genius. A band whose music influenced me in some way. Music that makes me feel like I’m 15 years old even when I’m driving my kids to an Easter egg hunt at the local park. That transports me to the past. That’s what Cobain’s legacy means to me. It’s a return to my youth no matter what age I am. Whether I’m 35 or 55. Hopefully, I’ll be able to thrash my head a bit when I’m 85 too.