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Remembering Kurt

A decade after Cobain's death, his music retains its power.

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It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Kurt Cobain died. To me, the memory is as stark as if it happened yesterday.

I was working at the Flyer that Friday afternoon, April 8, 1994, when a co-worker said she'd heard on the radio that Kurt was dead. We thought it was a hoax at first, but the news turned out to be true.

A maintenance worker had found the 27-year-old Nirvana frontman in the garage of his Seattle home. The body had apparently been there for a couple of days, lying in a pool of blood beside a suicide note and a 20-gauge Remington shotgun.

In retrospect, I don't know why I was shocked. Ever since his "accidental" overdose in Rome a month earlier, I knew Kurt was living on borrowed time. But I thought he would eventually succumb to the massive amounts of chemicals he was putting into his body. It never occurred to me that he would do something so deliberate as blow his brains out.

If I had been searching for clues to Kurt's state of mind, I could have found them in Nirvana's brilliant MTV Unplugged, taped on Nov. 18, 1993. Surrounded by candles, frail in appearance but strong in voice, Kurt seemed to be performing his own eulogy, singing about sickness and death and the afterlife.

At the end of the final song, a cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?," he let out a scream so filled with rage and anguish that the audience almost recoiled. It felt like voyeurism to listen to this man's raw pain.

Kurt had a family history of major depression. At least three of his male relatives committed suicide. Like many depressives, he turned to substance abuse in an unconscious attempt to self-medicate. But what really screwed him up was the mysterious stomach ailment that he suffered the last few years of his life.

From his own descriptions of his symptoms, I'm convinced Kurt had gastroparesis, a partial paralysis of the stomach that causes chronic pain and nausea. Unfortunately, there's no effective treatment for this condition. So Kurt turned to heroin, which couldn't cure him but made him too numb to care. Shortly before Kurt's death, his family and friends worried that his drug abuse was out of control and staged an intervention. They meant well, but they were asking him to give up the one thing that made life bearable. Kurt panicked. He jumped the fence of a rehab center and fled back to Seattle, where he ended up jamming that shotgun against the roof of his mouth and pulling the trigger.

In a way, I'm almost happy for him that he's gone. He'd feel even more depressed if he had to witness what has happened to rock music since he left. For a few years after his passing, there was a brief golden age when fine bands such as Pearl Jam got plenty of airplay. But the recording industry killed alternative music by turning it into a commodity, and the scene soon degenerated into a cesspool of sound-alike posers and wannabes. "Modern rock" radio these days consists of tiresome rap-rock and emo bands with their interchangeable lead singers whining about how their girlfriends don't treat them right.

By contrast, Kurt actually had something to say. Music was his weapon for bashing the establishment, and though he always yearned to be a rock star, he agonized over his success, fretting that it contradicted the punk ethic. This was a guy who had the guts to mock his own fans ("Here we are now, imitate us"); who titled a track "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter" just to piss off his record company; who managed to create a hit single out of a song that contains the line, "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black."

On those rare occasions when a Nirvana song comes on the radio, it sounds as fresh as the day it was written, and you realize how singular Kurt's talent was. He had a gift for melody, a sense of irony, an artistic vision. In his lifetime, he produced only three studio albums and a B-side compilation; two live albums were released posthumously. Yet there is more quality in his meager catalog than in the combined output of most of the faceless, soulless bands out there now.

As a fan, I wish he had left more material. But maybe Kurt realized the value of quitting while you're on top. As he wrote in one of his countless three-ring-binder notebooks: "I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend." You got your wish, Kurt. You got your wish.

Debbie Gilbert is an environmental and medical reporter with The Times in Gainesville, Georgia.

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