30 years, 2 months, and 3 days later: a holistic view of a brutal media event

CONTENT WARNING: discussion of suicide, depression, anxiety, tabloid media intrusion, and fascism.

(This is pretty late – the 30th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death was of course in April of this year – but I only just found a thing I wrote ages ago about it, and have taken the opportunity to edit and massively expand it. It’s still very rough around the edges so I might take some attempts at editing this again in the future. The original version was posted on Tumblr in 2014, on the time of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.)

When documentaries cover Kurt Cobain’s death, you usually see it in the forms of clips broadcast on MTV in America. The perspective in general comes from the United States, which makes sense… but I’ll start by talking about how I experienced the tragic event as a young Nirvana fan in the UK.

Cobain took his life on 5th April 1994, but his body wasn’t found until the 8th. When the news started to break that day, it was evening in Britain. I was running myself a bath when the radio – tuned to the very much non-rock station Capital FM – ran a news bulletin which included a report that “a body has been found in the house of Kurt Cobain”. This was obviously pretty ominous, given he’d been missing. They didn’t outright say that the body was Kurt’s. For some reason I didn’t immediately put two and two together and thought it might be someone else – I don’t know why I thought that. Self-denial? Anyway, despite that grim notice, I was thinking of catching the first Channel 4 broadcast of Beavis and Butthead, even though I’d already seen a fair bit of it (we had Sky).

A glimpse at some of the TV schedules that night. I can’t explain why, but there’s something weirdly appropriate about this little bit from the Red Dwarf listing: Don’t try to follow the plot. Just hang on. It’s like a koan on life.

It was a bit of a long bath, and after an hour soaking I was about to get out. Then it got near to the top of the hour (as they say in radio) and Capital suddenly started playing Smells Like Teen Spirit. This was unusual enough that I stayed and listened to the full song. As it ended with the feedbacking guitars ebbing away, a news bulletin immediately began without a jingle. A woman announced: “Capital Radio News at 10 o’clock – Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, has died”. It was one hell of a segue.

After getting dried and dressed I looked it up on Teletext. The thing that tends to be forgotten about now was how weirdly apathetic much of the UK news media were to his death. Capital may have recognised it, but it felt like Cobain’s sad fate was relayed almost in passing in most news broadcasts and newspapers. Looking through archives of various UK papers from 9th April of that year reveals that most of them placed the story fairly deep into the contents. Oddly, the one paper that had it as front page news was a local one, the Newcastle Journal:

My ability to search this stuff at a national level is limited, but if the Daily Mirror are anything to go by, they were remarkably slow at working out this was a big thing. The slow dribbling delivery of their coverage allows us yet another look into the weird minds who run our press.

As far as I can tell the first mention of it in the Mirror was on the 9th, as you’d imagine, but it’s in a “guess we’d better mention this, then” kind of way – a thin bit at the bottom of page 3:

If you’re wondering what those top two photos are about, apparently footballer Paul Gascoigne had been severely injured in a European match, and had hurled a glass of brandy at someone on a plane back to England. This was because he wasn’t happy at seeing a photographer from this same newspaper, and the brandy was aimed at both photographer and accompanying hack. It’s a fact which is blithely brought up and then tossed aside.

The following day in their Sunday edition, there’s a slightly larger boxout now in the corner of page 3. It’s also framed in the context of a deeply unhappy Courtney Love lashing out in abject despair… from something she said at the time of his attempted Rome overdose, which didn’t really have any bearing on what had just happened. You can’t really see it in the image below, but it was absurdly stated to be an “EXCLUSIVE”.

“Ha ha ha, John Majors!”

I seem to recall it being said at the time that there was a slowly-dawning realization in the British media that they’d effectively missed a huge story, according to various NME and Melody Maker journos in the know. They’d quickly try to catch up, with the Mirror belatedly running a double page spread on the 11th over pages 8 and 9.

And the Wednesday after, they followed it up with this bit of utter fucking poison:

(I’m including the photo of the columnist here out of spite. Statistically the rates of men killing themselves continue to be shockingly high, as revealed in the most recent English figures from 2022, and this US data from 2023.)

Another thing about Cobain’s death was that it seemed to confirm the change of the British zeitgeist. Our stupid island was moving from grunge and politics to britpop and hedonism, a switchover which had been taking place since the start of 1994. To a degree, I remain ambiguous about britpop. I can’t help but agree with various critics that it over-rode other potential futures and other ways forward, yet at the same time I still enjoy some of the music, and I did have fun… well, as much fun as someone who had developed a weird gastric complaint could have, I suppose. The Britpop years seem to alternate in my memory from long sunny afternoons spent listening to Supergrass CDs, and agonising stretches of pain which usually happened way too late at night.

The dubiousness of this cultural change isn’t just from the viewpoint of three decades after; it was something that was discussed back then. In January, Steven Wells of the NME delivered an early broadside against the spirit of the age which feels uncannily applicable to 2024.

Sections of the British rock press spew forth a nauseating mixture of bravado, hysteria and xenophobia […] The kind of sneering, despearte guff that you often hear in ex-imperial nations which refuse to believe that, despite their former power and glory, they simply don’t mean jack shit to anyone any more. Defining a defendable “British rock music” under such circumstances is at best naive and at worst, casually racist […] Doing so at a time when Nazism and racism are undergoing a Europe-wide renaissance verges on the contemptable.

(Famously, Brett Anderson of Suede was deeply unhappy with this cover...)

I took those quotes from John Harris’s well-known book on britpop, “The Last Party” (since reissued under a different title). Harris calls Wells’s rant a “rather bizarre blast”, yet Wells wasn’t strictly wrong. Now largely forgotten, the early 90s saw Europe’s first brush with the menace of neo-fascism, which was ultimately repelled on account that the people in charge back then had most likely lived through the Second World War. Thirty years on, those people are either dead or deep into retirement, and the news media has taken leave of every single sense it ever had. You can draw your own conclusions.

Having learnt their lesson, the likes of The Sun would soon be obsessing over every tiny thing involving Blur and Oasis. Blur themselves were already in ascendance at the time of Cobain’s death, following the release of “Girls & Boys” earlier in March; the imminent release of Parklife, which came out on the 25th April, would cement that. Damon Albarn, who was at the time suffering from a form of depression and anxiety as a result of his suddenly increasing fame, was deeply unnerved by Kurt’s suicide. Blur’s cheese tory bassist Alex James put it this way, also within the pages of “The Last Party”:

It was either him or Kurt on the front of the music papers each week for a little while. And then one of them was dead. That scared him.

Damon Albarn’s partner of the time, Justine Frischmann, also stated in the book:

It wasn’t obvious that Parklife was going to be big. Elastica were bigger than Blur for a while: getting more press, more popular, more hype. Even though he wanted it, no-one knew that Girls And Boys was going to go in at number five. And the week Parklife went in at number one, he couldn’t stop crying.

For the next couple of days after the discovery of Cobain’s body, I recall MTV Europe being in tribute overdrive; they were broadcasting a mix of simulcasts from MTV US, which was possibly the first time I’d ever seen or heard of Kurt Loder, and a loop of nothing but Nirvana videos and footage of live performances (the “Live & Loud” concert for MTV and the then-recent MTV Unplugged appearance got a lot of mileage).

In the American news updates there was lots of stuff with grieving fans in Seattle, as you’d imagine. I always remember a very brief and odd moment where it showed a voxpop of somebody wearing a home-made T-shirt of the front cover of Nevermind with “KURT’S IN HELL” written above the cover image – the guy’s shrugging explanation was “Kurt killed himself, so he’s in hell!”

I also recall that mere days beforehand, MTV Europe showed the video for Weird Al Yankovic’s 1992 Nirvana parody (“Smells Like Nirvana”) at some random moment during the day. I’d actually taped it by accident, and enjoyed it tremendously, but for a while afterwards it didn’t feel right to re-watch it.

Back to reality. The following Monday at school the first thing that was said to me was “NIIIIIRRRRVAAAAANAAAAA!”. This was delivered by a wide-eyed boy grinning from ear to ear – everyone knew me as a Nirvana fan, and also I was the biggest target for bullies there. They were obviously expecting me to be totally devastated and hoping to be able to relentlessly taunt me over it – however they were pretty disappointed, and perhaps a little disturbed at my stoic attitude towards his death.

It’s odd how I never cried. I know people often say how ridiculous it is that people weep over the deaths of famous people they’ve never met, but I felt like I should have done. This has always bothered me. The couple of times I do remember being genuinely affected in some way by famous people dying were Rik Mayall’s passing and, a few years later, David Bowie.

There was only one other Nirvana fan in my year at school – possibly the entire school for all I knew – a boy who I think had the nickname of “Smut”, whose real name I have long forgotten. He was more annoyed than upset, as he’d bought two tickets for the now-cancelled London dates of Nirvana’s tour. I think he said something like, “I wish he’d put off killing himself until he’d played that concert”. (Considering how bothered I remain at not crying at Cobain’s death, I take some small relief that at least I wan’t that heartless.) Nobody else seemed to give a single shit – not so much because they weren’t that into Nirvana, but because I don’t think many in my class were particularly into music of any kind. Or not until Oasis came along, naturally.

A few months later the aforementioned Smut was playing a tape of “Lithium” in class while there were no teachers around (I can’t remember why this was), and one boy attempted to mock the song by making up new lyrics. Unfortunately the only thing he could think of was singing “I’m so shi-hiiiit” to the tune of the first line of the verse.

Everyone laughed anyway.