NEW YORK: Decades after Kurt Cobain’s guttural rasp seduced Generation X from its collective bedroom and into the post-punk clubs of 1990s Seattle, the late Nirvana frontman remains a talisman for disaffected youth the world over. Friday marks a quarter of a century since grunge’s reluctant poster boy took his own life at the age of 27, and Cobain’s former manager Danny Goldberg said he’s finally ready to reflect publicly on the legacy of an enigma and a pioneer.
In “Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain” – published this week to mark the anniversary – Goldberg remembers a Cobain ahead of his time, whose quick wit and humanity shone through the brooding melancholy.
“The impression of him in the media had become a little distorted and focused disproportionately on his death, and not as much on his life and his artwork,” Goldberg told AFP.
“He was an incredibly soulful singer. His voice conveyed a vulnerability and an intimacy that’s rare.
“He’s one of a handful of artists whose art transcends his time,” Goldberg said. “He tuned into something that helped people feel less like freaks, less alone.”
This empathic quality ensured that the songwriter’s work remained relevant, Goldberg said, even to teenagers born after Cobain’s death, a world away from the drizzly Pacific Northwest of his formative years.
The universality of the singer’s appeal is the reason T-shirts with the band’s classic blank-eyed smiley logo can be seen wherever teenagers gather, from Toledo to Tokyo.
The depressive but singular talent who grew up in the misty woods two hours west of Seattle morphed into a rock god when “Nevermind,” the second of Nirvana’s three studio albums, catapulted the alt rock group to stratospheric fame and spawned the cult of Kurt.
Goldberg met Cobain in 1990, when Nirvana were up and coming but hoping to steer their unique blend of scruffy punk, raw metal and Beatles-inspired melodies toward a broader audience.
“Nevermind” did that, becoming one of the most successful albums of all time, with 30 million copies sold worldwide.
The instant classic booted pop star Michael Jackson from the top of the U.S. charts and saw Nirvana shift the course of pop culture, inspiring music, fashion and ethos.
In the 3 1/2 years he worked with Cobain, Goldberg witnessed Nirvana’s spectacular ascent.
He was there for the singer’s warm but tempestuous relationship with mercurial grunger Courtney Love, and the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean, now 26.
Tellingly, he witnessed the interventions aiming to loosen heroin’s grip on the rock star.
Cobain’s death sent shockwaves all around the world – the grisly details and the loss of a unique voice as gut-wrenching as the poignant suicide note.
“I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” he wrote, referencing a lyric by folk rocker Neil Young.
The news devastated Goldberg, and it wasn’t until recently that he began coming to terms with it.
“I miss him. I still love him,” Goldberg said.
“I wish he were still around but I’m happy I got to know him at all.”
He stressed that behind the drug use and depression the superstar was a “musical genius.”
He was also a romantic goofball, said Goldberg, who happened to be the proud owner of four pristine, sealed copies of “The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits.”
Goldberg believes Cobain’s “slacker” appeal – the tattered sweater, the ditchwater-blond locks, swept absent-mindedly from his face as he flicked a rollie – drew attention from his impressive intellect.
“I always knew there was a depth to the energy and feelings that he was playing with,” Goldberg claimed. “It was deeper than just a great chorus, even though he did write great choruses.”
Goldberg credits Cobain with championing women and helping to “redefine masculinity” within the music world.
“He could be very powerful and compelling and at the same time be sensitive and caring,” Goldberg said. “That was a departure from the rock orthodoxy of the time.”
In his memoir Goldberg recalls a show in Argentina that infuriated Cobain when the crowd booed the opening all-female act Calamity Jane. The Nirvana frontman retaliated by refusing to perform the band’s breakout hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“The audience didn’t deserve us playing it,” Cobain said at the time.
“He was committed to a feminist ideal and respect for everybody, a kind of anti-macho ethos,” Goldberg said, noting Cobain’s support for gay rights.
“He had a truly alternative version of what it was to be a rock star.”
The Nirvana supernova went dark when Cobain died but Goldberg says the ripples of his brief life endure, putting him in a league with icons like Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
He resists speculating on how the musician’s trajectory may have evolved had he lived, but Goldberg voiced certainty the artist would still be innovating, saying Cobain “was always evolving, not just copying himself.”
“I just hope that whatever he was doing,” he chuckled, “I’d be able to hang out with him.”
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