I was driving my four-year-old home from his Saturday karate class and flipping stations on the radio when Nirvana's "Come As You Are" came on. I turned it up so he could rock out in his car seat. But then Kurt Cobain started screaming "And I swear that I don't have a gun." I cut the volume.
When I cranked it back up, the DJ was asking listeners to remember where we were when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I changed the station -- even listening to Kesha and Pitbull's "Timber" was preferable to explaining suicide to my son.
The next song was A Great Big World's "Say Something," which prompted my son to say "I know it's a sad song, but I still like it." So was the Nirvana song, I thought. So are all Nirvana songs.
There's simply no way to listen to their music without the sadness of Kurt's death coming through every lacerating lyric, raging guitar riff and primal scream, at least not for those of us who remember where we were when we heard the news.
Kurt Cobain died on April 5, 1994, but we only found out about it on April 8, when an initially unidentified body was discovered in the room above his garage. I was in first-year university and it was exam week, but I had no tests that day. So I spent the entirety of it in the communal TV lounge, watching CNN as they speculated and then finally confirmed that the body was, in fact, that of Nirvana's lead singer.
This was the last time a celebrity's death affected me in such a visceral manner. Growing up in a B.C. border town about 90 minutes from Seattle, the alt-rock revolution felt like it mattered more than anything else ever had.
I was in high school, had shoulder length hair, wore flannel and treasured every Lollapalooza when the other outsider-y kids like me, the ones who were the minority in their various schools, all showed up en masse to become the majority. Before the Internet, this sort of subcultural gathering was more important than you could imagine.
So when Kurt killed himself, it hurt me personally. But though I was still a kid, I wasn't his kid. Frances Bean Cobain wasn't even two. As a father, I can't even fathom the depth of despair he must have been feeling to leave his daughter. And now as a listener with a child, I can't help but let that startling selfishness affect my feelings for his music.
I still love Nirvana, and wish my strongest memory was that day my friend handed me a dubbed cassette tape of Bleach a few months before they became the biggest band in the world. Or any of countless times I would ecstatically headbang in my car with Nevermind turned up to 11. God, I wish it was seeing Nirvana headline Lollapalooza '94 as scheduled rather than sitting in that TV room, alone though surrounded by classmates, realizing that the guy who made it OK to feel different, to be different, couldn't handle it in the end.
So I made a new memory.
My son had his best friend over for a playdate. I put "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the stereo, spiked the volume, and taught them how to mosh. It doesn't change the past, but remembering their boundless joy at that moment will make it a bit easier for me to listen to Nirvana in the future.