The first time I ever heard Nirvana was at 6:00 am on a very cold morning. I don't know why, but for some reason I remember it was a Tuesday. Little did I know that it would again be a Tuesday that I would stand face to face with Kurt Cobain only two years later. And little did all of us know that he would die at the height of his fame when he was far too young - on a Tuesday - April 5, 1994.
In the 80s and 90s, I had this old-school 70s-style wood veneer alarm radio with glowing red digits sitting on my nightstand. There was that unsettling, electrical sound that the alarm radio would make that was something like thunder, or something like when you accidentally leave a fork on a plate and put it in the microwave. That brief electrical buzz you can sometimes hear when you turn on a radio seemed amplified on my alarm for some reason. When I heard that familiar electrical sound that Tuesday morning, it was literally the moment on the timeline at which one era of my life ended and another began. That was fall 1991 - and I was just starting high school. As I heard Nirvana for the first time, the music had such energy and intensity, and was so entirely new, that I knew that the zeitgeist had changed. As dawn was trying to break over the horizon that morning, my 1970s style alarm told me that the decade of the 1980s had truly come to an end and the 1990s had truly begun. I could sense all this even after just hearing a few bars of the music - and even while still half asleep. Middle school had come to an end and the music that many now call 'canned' or 'factory made' was no longer going to fully dominate the charts. I was starting high school right as alternative music was becoming more well known - well enough known that it was creating its own subculture. Two eras of music were split up neatly between two different eras of my life - middle school and high school - and all the while my music collection was switching over from cassette tapes to CDs.
Everything was changing.
While Nirvana's sound was new and enthralling, I didn't feel the resonance that I did with some other bands, so I only listened to them occasionally. Yet, from the first moment I heard their music, I knew there was something more than significant about them. And before the tragic story unfolded that we all now know, I specifically knew there was something more than significant about Kurt. While the timeline that led up to Kurt's fame is a long story full of twists and turns, the timeline between his fame and death was just really a few short years. He was a quintessential Gen Xer - he had the classic Gen X childhood story of having a good life until his parents divorced which caused him to have to fend for himself from then on. This, along with many other problems of the era, seemed to contribute to the downward spiral of his life.
Many Gen Xers ask each other the question: "Where were you when you got the news that Kurt Cobain had died?" As all Gen Xers remember, in April of 1994, after Kurt's body was found, radio DJs all over the world were making the announcement in between songs. The tragedy was announced and covered by MTV VJs from the youth of Gen X - Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, and others. There also a mention that Cobain was, on some level, a representation of every young person at the time - that we might all end up like him if no one reached out to us in our darkest hours. My life had become a train wreck in the months leading up to his death and I very well might have ended up like him. The week he died, I had been busy with the work of trying to get my life back together.
It was an April afternoon when I was on my way to an interview for a summer job. I was driving down a familiar road. Some Stone Temple Pilots song was on the radio and came to an end. I had a lot on my mind so I wasn't paying much attention to it. The local DJ came on and announced the news, which grabbed my attention fiercely, and it hit me as hard or harder than any bad news I'd ever received in my life at that point. It almost knocked the breath out of me. I will, of course, never forget that moment...like there was this space, like there was this nothingness that I didn't know what to do with....
I could hear that electrical sound my alarm clock would make echoing in my head, like the eerie sound of thunder when you can't tell exactly how close it is. I would've pulled the car over, but I couldn't risk being late to my job interview. I worked hard to stay focused on the road. It felt that my heart was in a vice grip. And it felt like my car was no longer driving on the road, but instead that it was somehow floating above the ground - like I was, for several moments, not connected to the earth but disassociated from it as I drove. Everything felt surreal. I had to pull myself together and quickly wipe off the relentless waterfall of tears on my face from the parking lot and act like everything was perfectly and wonderfully fine so that I could go into the job interview. And while I didn't consider Nirvana one of my favorite bands, I was more than distraught and utterly crushed at that moment. And there is a whole back story as to why...
Haunting me still is that electrical sound from the alarm radio - the sound that buzzes through my head in moments when bad news is delivered and life is, at least in that moment, more than I feel can take.
And haunting us all still is a much larger electrical sound....Kurt changing history as he played his chords on metal strings. It was the unfurling of the angst. It was the gritty elegance. It was the charged up, unconstrained energy of the early 90s.
(c) 2013 writing and photo by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved.