Please Change Your Mind
Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love Stares Down the Haters, and Punk's Fate
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I got friendly with Bob Moses (RIP), a guitarist for Busted Statues, when I profiled the band for the Phoenix, and we stayed in touch. He asked me to write up a mid-decade navel-gazer for InfoPlease Entertainment Almanac, where he edited, and we worked hard to cover a lot of ground. Nobody saw it, of course, and it languished for years in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall’s front porch. But the web divulges as it destroys, and it reads curiously like history even thought I wrote as a contemporary who had trouble sifting through all the Seattle hype.
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Kurt Cobain (February 20, 1967 – c. April 5, 1994)
THE 1990s ROUNDED its mid-decade curve with pop audiences rehashing old questions about fame, integrity, and dinosaurs. For most rockers, the question was moot. Except for the obligatory noises about the hazards of touring, mainstream rock was aging comfortably (read: profitably). But for punk rock, which finally found its commercial triumph in the Seattle band Nirvana, the dilemma of fame may have been its undoing.
Within weeks of his suicide on April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain had taken his place in the pantheon his mother had warned him about: “that stupid club” of dead rock stars. And Cobain’s loss cast a shadow on the rest of 1994, right up through the release of Nirvana‘s Unplugged performance in December. Everyone from fans to newspaper columnists to network commentators spewed pieties about today’s price of fame. Neil Young, who had seen his share of waste, was moved to memorialize Cobain’s anguished “sacrifice” in “Sleeps with Angels” (his “Change Your Mind” could also be heard this way).
The lyric was sarcasm on a stick; the sound was revenge drenched in hilarity.
Nirvana’s saga stretched back to 1992 when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became punk’s first bonafide smash. It carried its album, Nevermind, past triple platinum, and selling more than seven million units into 1995. Led by Cobain, a dirty blond with unruly bangs and a cackling voice that caught an epic exasperation, Nirvana’s alienated thrash was festooned with catchy melodies. The success of “Teen Spirit” ridiculed the superficial styles that had dominated popular music since the mid-’80s. “Here we are now, entertain us,” went the refrain, casting its audience as mummies buying shock therapy. The lyric was sarcasm on a stick; the sound was revenge drenched in hilarity.
But for Cobain, the whole process of becoming famous rubbed hard against punk’s anti-corporate integrity. And since he made the simplistic equation that popularity meant selling out, and the matter was quickly out of his hands, he spoke as if it was a tragic fluke of fate that so many had responded to his music. Cobain seemed to fear that too much popularity might turn him into a freak, into a grunge Michael Jackson. During its heady 1992–1994 reign, Nirvana worked up an excitement in pop that had been missing since the glory days of the Clash in the early 1980s. But behind every hope lay rumors of despondency, an air of desperation that the music couldn’t forestall. Cobain was in and out of drug rehabs, and his daughter Frances Bean was said to have been conceived while Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love of Hole, were using heroin. Disabled by a chronic stomach ailment, Cobain’s canceled shows earned him a professional reputation for being unreliable. There was enough goodwill (and cashola) to keep the machine churning, but Cobain took every opportunity to describe how much he hated stardom, how distanced he felt from listeners, and how the precious Seattle scene had been corrupted by unwelcome gate-crashers and corporate raiders.
The New York Philharmonic’s appointment of Gustavo Dudamel, 41, doesn’t officially lock in until 2026, but we’re gonna pile on with all the anticipation. The LA Philharmonic’s loss also offers up the chance to catch up with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which boasts the only woman on a major American podium, Nathalie Stutzmann. This follows a string of minimal advancements in podium DEI and one colossal blunder of an Oscar-nominated film. In 2016, the City of Birmingham Orchestra named Lithuanian-born Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla the first female music director in its history, and Jonathon Heyward soon takes over the Baltimore Symphony as the first Black music director. Baby steps.
This puts pressure on Dudamel to name a female assistant, or several. Listening back to his Mahler Ninth Symphony (DG), you hear vivid outbursts of feeling, fluid and pliable brass, lush strings, baleful winds, flute solos by turns bright and discreet, and a feeling for the score beyond his years. Pulling off Mahler’s peculiar brand of exclamatory regret at this level takes a combination of moxie and profound humility. Dudamel has earned a reputation for never bowing, as if to counter all that lavish egoism of his clichéd predecessor, Leonard Bernstein. (If Bernstein were alive, his TikTok channel would get canceled.) Every time somebody murmurs, “greatest living conductor,” please tell them I’m running a master class loop of Herbert Blomstedt instructing Dudamel in my head.
And God help him, everybody expects Dudamel to save classical music.
Dudamel’s youtube channel includes a 2017 Beethoven Symphony cycle with Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, his hometown team.
Watch the ¡Viva Maestro! documentary on HBOMAX.
Visit the classical page at timrileyauthor.com/classical
We Don’t Know Ourselves, by Fintan O’Toole (Liveright, 2022)
The Cruelty is the Point, by Adam Serwer (One World, Random House, 2021)
The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson (Simon and Schuster, 2013)
Not Funny, by Jena Friedman (Atria/One Signal Books, April 2023)
Mozart in Motion, by Patrick Mackie (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2023)
Deliver Me From Nowhere, Warren Zanes on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (Crown, May 2023)
newsletter archive on substack
more links at the riley rock index: obits, bylines, deep youtube links, reference sites, newsletters, and more
random deep link: other critics
Belzer Portrays Dylan in his 80s
Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent, skews to an older demographic
Outside Nirvana, the Neil Young/Pearl Jam Mirror Ball remains my favorite slab of grunge until Black Keys.