It's April 8. It's been 20 years since Kurt Cobain shot himself. Unlike the O.J. Simpson chase or 9/11 or the Challenger explosion, I can't exactly remember where I was when I heard the news, though I do remember MTV solemnly covering it all that weekend. A friend pointed out that Cobain was, at the time, the biggest rock star in the world. I threw out names to prove my friend wrong. Eddie Vedder? Michael Stipe? The Crash Test Dummies guy?
Twenty years later, there's no contest. Vedder's output sounds dated. Trent Reznor is a mogul for music streaming services, the Red Hot Chili Peppers lip-sync at the Super Bowl, and Axl Rose is whatever Axl Rose has become. But Cobain is and always will be 27 and too pure for a world that mixed rock 'n' roll with commerce.
"I wish I was like you/easily amused" sounds so much more profound knowing his fate than it would if Kurt was still around to do guest vocals on a Foo Fighters album.
Today's a day to remember his life. And four months before his final day on Earth, Nirvana came to Miami. November 27, 1993, it was the Saturday night after Thanksgiving. I can now believe every graybeard Florida local who claimed they were at Dinner Key when Jim Morrison flashed his penis, because half of my high school was at Bayfront Amphitheater that night -- or at least all the kids who spent lunch at the gas station across the street from school, smoking cigarettes.
As if a Nirvana concert would not have enough historical significance, the evening was also fraught with a personal milestone. My friend offered me a hit of Orange Sunshine LSD, and, at 15, I felt brave enough to try a substance that had been so vilified. We split the tab in half and placed it on our tongues on the long bus ride that ended at Biscayne Boulevard.
I'm unsure if it was the drug -- which has a habit of giving everything more significance -- but my memories of the evening seemed like a time capsule for the early 1990s. The long-haired kids who climbed the fence and ran into the venue without paying admission. The mosh pit up front with Doc Marten-wearing skinheads stomping on feet as the Breeders opened. The joints that were rolled and passed on the lawn.
As the evening ended, I lost track of my friends, and the acid kicked in. I stood at the back, listening to the loud music and pondering about volume's purple aura. I realized the level to which I'd spaced out and said to an absolute stranger, "Man, I'm really fucked up." The blond guy with long hair and a beard was a couple of years older. He responded, "I think everybody here is."
I don't think we spoke anymore. But as the encore wound up and I heard the first familiar chord of, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" I said to him, "Let's go down to the pit."
It's a long song, but it was also a far run to the front, and as I got closer, I started getting self-conscious that the dude was simply humoring me and was up above laughing at the guy who was really fucked up. But when I turned around, he was a step behind me. We pushed each other around along with the hundreds of other sweaty people until the end of the song and the house lights went up. It was an amazing concert, but I had been to so few shows at that age, every show seemed amazing.
It was only due to the passage of time and Cobain's suicide that the night now seems historic. In spite of his death robbing fans of future greatness and, more significantly, robbing his daughter of a father, it did make him the last major legend in the book of rock 'n' roll. Because of his place in that story, I had an idea. Perhaps that Bayfront concert had been recorded? A quick search on the web uncovered not only grade-A audio recordings of that night but also a shaky video recording. I know we've reached a point in human history where every moment is now recorded and uploaded for posterity and Instagram, but this document from two decades earlier blew my mind.
A listen to the hour and a half show brought back memories that made up for Nancy Reagan's and D.A.R.E.'s broken promises of acid flashbacks. I could once again see and hear Cobain shaking his fist and suggesting we all throw rocks at the giant guitar of Bayside's Hard Rock Café. I remembered sitting with a bunch of friends all bobbing our heads to "Heart Shaped Box" and seeing a mysterious second guitarist who on the Halloween-themed stage we thought might be the devil but later learned was Pat Smear. I didn't remember Cobain's mocking of Gloria Estefan or bringing up River Phoenix's death or him saying after the show he'd be going to Churchill's to see a band called Harry Pussy.
Mostly, I was surprised by their witty banter, how tight the band was, and the power of his voice. We really did lose him at the top of his game. Twenty years ago, 27 seemed so damned old; from my current perspective, it's terribly young. It was his choice to end it all, whatever turmoil, pain, and anguish caused it. I just wish a man who gave a generation such wonderful memories and inspired lyrics could have put those feelings into his art instead of into the trigger of a gun.
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