Patton Oswalt retweeted someone who shared this YouTube clip of Nirvana on Top of the Pops way back in the prehistoric days of the early 90s. They came on to flog their single Smells Like Teen Spirit, something that deeply disturbed Kurt already. To make matters worse, Top of the Pops was essentially karaoke, with Kurt singing live over recorded musical tracks. In true punk fashion, the band drew attention to the artifice, barely even pretending to play their instruments. But best of all, Kurt crooned the song in a deep voice that he said was his attempt to imitate Morrissey. While he was taking the piss, as the Brits in the audience might have said, Kurt ended up doing one of the great variations on the song.
I saw Nirvana live twice. Both times they played Teen Spirit, both times grudgingly. One show on the Nevermind tour, at the Roseland Ballroom with the Jesus Lizard opening, Kurt turned the song into a prototype version of Rape Me.
There’s kind of a sick purity to Cobain’s suicide, which happened 17 years ago today. It reminds me of something the aforementioned Morrissey said about Ian Curtis’ death - something to the effect that it was unfair and that the only way Morrissey could compete would be to actually hang himself on stage. Kurt upped the ante in standing behind the pain of his music.
Today most bands wouldn’t think twice about karaoking their big hit or selling their songs to commercials, but when Nirvana walked the Earth there was still a sense that those weren’t things rock bands - especially rock bands with punk philosophies - did. There were a lot of reasons Kurt Cobain killed himself - many of them selfish and cowardly - but one of them was his inability to deal with the nature of the marriage of his art and commerce. He never got over the fact that the wrong people were listening to his music, the people who he made his music to defy.