If Kurt Cobain, who died by his own hand over 20 years ago, were alive today, he would be 55 years old. The idea of the grunge icon stepping into the late stages of middle age, of course, begs the question: what would he be doing now? His premature death at the age of 27 halted the musician’s story halfway through, ripping out the pages of the second chapter and tossing them into the wind. But, by looking back at Cobain’s career and examining that of a similarly deified musical icon, it’s possible to hazard a guess at what might have that next chapter might have entailed.
By 1994, Kurt Cobain was one of the most famous musicians on the planet. Following the commercial failure of Bleach, Nirvana teamed up with producer Butch Vig, who helped the group refine their chaotic sound into something at once unrestrained and radio-friendly. The result of this collaboration was Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind, which quickly rocketed to the top of the charts, sparking a massive change in the landscape of American rock music, one that saw hair metal group’s like Van Halen and Aerosmith become regarded as inauthentic and inconsequential.
The album came as a complete surprise to the music industry, affecting the very fabric of popular culture. With its punk-rock iconoclasm, down-tuned guitar lines, and abstract, introspective lyrics, Nevermind became the album of the early 1990s, capturing the imagination of the politically-disillusioned Generation X. By the time Christmas rolled around, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week in the US, famously knocking Michael Jackson’s Bad off the top spot.
The success of Nevermind saw Cobain become a legend in his own lunchtime, an icon for an angst-fueled era in American youth culture. But, with the extended tours, the frequent TV performances, and the endless interviews, Cobain found himself suffering from exhaustion, so he refused to embark on another Nevermind tour. Instead, he focused the group’s efforts on recording a new album that would take Nirvana back to their no-wave roots. Cobain was already looking to move away from the mainstream grunge sound that had made them so successful in 1991, hiring producer Steve Albini on the assumption that his natural and pared-back recording style would suffuse In Utero with the rawness of Nirvana’s underground days.
Cobain had managed to galvanise an entire generation. His work with Nirvana had, so far, served as a rallying cry for an entire generation of disaffected youths, many of whom came to revere Cobian as their unofficial spokesperson – in much the same way that Bob Dylan became the spokesperson for the folk revivalists int he 1960s. Like Dylan, Cobain came to resent this deification. As he grew older, his fanbase wanted him to remain the same angsty anti-patriot that he always had been. But, judging from Nirvana’s ‘Serve the Servants’, he was already growing weary of this characterisation: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old,” he sang.
The fact that Dylan is still around today offers us an indication of where Cobain might have ended up later in life. Just before his death, he was fixated on his next move, using ‘All Apologies’ from In Utero to ponder: “What else should I be? What else could I say? What else should I write?”. When Dylan was faced with similar questions, he disowned his original fanbase, severing himself from the folk revivalists by adopting an electrified, blues-oriented sound at that infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. Perhaps Cobain would have made a similar decision, albeit in the opposite direction – replacing the distorted ferocity of Nirvana with a more acoustic palette.
It’s possible that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance in 1994 was designed to prove that Cobain and his band were capable of more than the chaotic swirling that had defined their last two albums. Indeed, in the buildup to his death, Cobain reportedly spoke about his ambitions for the next album, suggesting that the group adopt more acoustic instruments and pursue a textured sound underpinned by the occasional orchestral instrument like a cello or a violin. In this sense, Cobain looked set to chase the folkish introspection of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith rather than the all-out carnage of In Utero’s ‘Rape Me’.
Cobain was also considering collaborations with other artists, and I think this offers us the most vivid portrait of what his career might look like today. Weeks before his suicide, Cobain considered working with R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe on a joint project. The Nirvana frontman had already taken a huge step back from the limelight by releasing ‘Puss’ / ‘Oh, the Guilt’ from In Utero as a split single with The Jesus Lizard. Clearly, Cobain was never going to be a ’25th-anniversary Nirvana reunion tour’ kind of artist. However, it’s pretty easy to imagine him adopting a more curatorial approach to musicianship – building up a catalogue of projects and collaborations in much the same way that Damon Albarn has. If this had turned out to be the case, and he was alive today, it’s not unlikely that Cobain would have been regarded as a sort of semi-reclusive outsider talent, whose glory days may have been succeeded by a series of fringe releases, pushing his career away from the mainstream and toward the realm of monkish artistry.