When Nirvana played at Roseland in New York City in the summer of 1993, I scalped a ticket a half-hour before the show and maneuvered my way onto the sunken dance floor. Although I was a little older than most of the flannelled crowd — and a complete stranger to crowd-surfing and stage-diving — I had no doubts I belonged here, that Nirvana was my band as much as any other. In fact, as someone who had grown up in the eighties listening to the Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin, Nirvana was the first contemporary band that I could claim as my own.
When a friend had played me a muddy cassette tape of Nevermind two years earlier, I was shocked by the force of its violent, half-formed sound, the ragged ruined melodies droning under grey guitar riffs. I felt like I was listening to the savage currents roiling my own psyche, the dimly understood rage that I kept contained under a façade of normalcy.
As I rode home that afternoon on the subway, I fell asleep and dreamed of an exceptionally detailed bleak cityscape — walls of angular towers and dusty windows, heaps of refuse on rooftops, brick surfaces covered with graffiti. I woke up as the train was crossing the Manhattan Bridge and saw that I had been simply dreaming of the view I saw every morning during my commute. My world was mapped and memorized, a series of dreadful repetitions. It took the music of Nirvana to help me notice just how furious I was to be trapped in my own routines.
Not as furious as Kurt Cobain, however, when he took the stage at Roseland, emerging from the dressing room in a striped polo and torn jeans. There was no joy or pleasure in his eyes when he stepped into the lights, not even the grimace of blue-collar professionalism. His face was stiff with an unknowable fury, a blind hostility to everything and everyone around him. As the band started to play, I had the impression that everyone in the crowd was eavesdropping on a private performance, glimpsing through a two-way mirror as the band went through its set list.
Most disturbing were the screams. I had read an interview several weeks earlier in which Cobain said that his distinctively piercing shrieks were in fact exacerbating his epic stomach problems — the agonizing pains in his gut which were commonly assumed to stem from ulcerative colitis. For the sake of his health, Cobain declared he would be changing his style of singing.
I had already accepted that I would be hearing a more tepid attack when the band launched into one of the tracks from the still-unreleased In Utero album: “Scentless Apprentice.” The chorus was built around a rising crescendo of desperate wails that seemed wordless but in fact coalesced into the command — or was it a plea? — to go away. When Cobain first cried those lyrics into the mic, I shuddered at the sound of the singer mutilating himself for the sake of a song.
The lyrics of “Scentless Apprentice” were polluted with images of mutant children and intoxicating suicide: leaking gas fumes made to smell like perfume. The imagery of rock and roll decadence grew toxic as Kurt Cobain declaimed the verses, each line delivered in a voice that was somehow both affectless and outraged.
More than anything, Cobain seemed furious to be onstage at Roseland that night, to be singing for a paying audience when he could have been a decaying corpse serving as the nutrients for dank grey mushrooms. As I would learn years after the fact, Cobain had in fact suffered a heroin overdose earlier that day, collapsing on the bathroom floor. He had literally been hovering at the edge of death hours before the show.
I could hear his awful ambivalence about survival as he bombarded the darkened room with a flurry of agonized riffs and more self-immolating shrieks, a performance that note by note tore down at my ideal of the rock star. Instead of offering himself as a hero who could lift me and the rest of the crowd into an ecstatic moment of self-actualization, Kurt Cobain revealed himself as an unformed, unprotected still-born soul who could not even save himself through music. All at once he portrayed a generation trapped in its own entropy and stood as a harbinger of a nation that would increasingly become obsessed with unborn fetuses and comatose patients stuck on feeding tubes.
The concert proceeded to the inevitable encore of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The performance was great, all flash and fire, but that was not how the show ended. Instead, Cobain dropped his guitar to the lip of the stage and walked off, leaving me — and everyone else — alone with nothing but the sound of his Fender resonating: a pointless sustained drone puncturing the silence like a lingering toothache or an inflamed nerve that could not be corrected through surgery.