There are those artists who cast a modest veil over their influences, like magicians reluctant to reveal their secrets. And then there’s Kurt Cobain. The dark soul of Nirvana spent his life honouring his role models, whether they were ultra-famous (like the Beatles, whose song “And I Love Her” he covered) or very underground (the Melvins, for whom Cobain was once a roadie). These tributes took many forms, which I’ve had fun categorising.
So where can we find the most famous of these tributes? During MTV Unplugged in November 1994, Nirvana carefully avoided playing their hits “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Rape Me” in favour of covers that sounded like messages. David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” shows how Kurt Cobain reclaimed mainstream pop, as well as mainstream punk. Three songs by the obscure Meat Puppets demonstrate some feelings of impostor syndrome – uncomfortable with his gargantuan success, Kurt Cobain used his fame to shine a light on other less successful bands. The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” is a reminder of Nirvana’s affection for this British band from K. Records, whose songs “Son of a Gun” and “Molly’s Lips” had already been covered by Cobain et al on Incesticide. Finally, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, the Leadbelly classic, allows us to imagine bridges between grunge and blues thanks to a lonely, penniless scream and a jangling guitar.
What about the most playful? Just check out his clothes. Kurt Cobain knew he was being dissected by the press and his fans, so he regularly wore T-shirts bearing the image of underground figures such as Daniel Johnston, fellow touring musicians like Mudhoney and Butthole Surfers, or combos revered by serious fans, such as the Californians of Flipper. It was a way to advertise them in a friendly way, and to show off Nirvana’s alternative heritage at a time when the band was being played over and over on the very commercial MTV.
And the most tragic? In his suicide note where he mentioned Freddie Mercury. Queen had always fascinated him and he flattened the family van’s battery listening to News from The World over and over again. The second name mentioned in this farewell letter is Neil Young through a quote from “Rust Never Sleeps”: ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.’ Of the Canadian songwriter, Kurt Cobain said that he deeply respected his career and praised the fact that he never gave into people’s demands. ‘I’d like to grow old like him.’ This was consistent for the leader of Nirvana, whose influences weren’t only musical but also ethical. He would often repeat how much he admired the way R.E.M. had managed the star system without ever compromising themselves.
And finally, where can we find the craziest of Cobain’s tributes to his musical influences? In his diaries (published in 2002), Cobain used to make lists of cult records. There are punk stalwarts such as Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, and Black Flag, and related artists whose work he admired like Sonic Youth, The Pixies, PJ Harvey, and The Breeders. But above all, we discovered more surprising references such as the oft underestimated minimalist masterpiece Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants, and an indisputable hip-hop manifesto It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. It would appear that Kurt Cobain fed off all forms of rage, no matter what the source.