Kurt Cobain is supposedly a genius, who killed himself at the age of 27, when arguably he was still pretty much on the cusp of what could have been a long and very successful rock career.
Dave Grohl, who was the drummer in Nirvana when the band broke through to commercial success, has now been leading the very successful Foo Fighters for 21 years, far longer than he ever was in Nirvana, yet will he ever be considered in the same genius league as the dead Cobain?
For that matter, was Cobain truly a genius or merely quite clever, very fucked up and very lucky. And now dead; with the halo effect, early death gives artists with early success who never matured or became boring and repetitive. Like most pop or rock stars who have died young (the notorious 27 club) Cobain has perhaps very calculatingly cemented his reputation and place in rock iconography and history with an immutability far beyond what the case might have been had he lived and carried producing work of diminishing value.
For, after all, what is Cobain’s main claim to fame? That the second Nirvana album, Nevermind (1991), was a monster success that knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the US charts, inspired a million bands and singlehandedly created grunge, or at least made it commercially and publically acceptable.
Nirvana released two decent studio albums, Nevermind and In Utero (1993), of which I rate In Utero the highest. The debut, Bleach (1989), was no more than a noisy mess. The MTV Unplugged (1993) album is probably noteworthy too, mostly because it played against type, but by all accounts, Cobain was as fucked up as they come, very punk rock, but not conducive to a long life, long career or simply being a pleasant person to deal with.
One gets the impression, after the success of Nevermind, that band, management and record label tolerated Cobain purely and simply because he was the goose laying the golden eggs.
Cobain despised Pearl Jam, who have carved out a solid career from their grunge-by-numbers start. Chances are that Cobain and Nirvana would have had to do much the same over time if he could contain his maverick self-destructive tendencies. Given that he was a classic seriously fucked up kid with no real sense of perspective on himself and his life, little propriety and simple common sense, this was probably not likely. Whether he killed himself or not Cobain would have found ways to fuck up the band, the music and his career because he obviously did not believe in success or that he deserved success.
Grohl, for all his challenging life prior to being successful, seems to have been far more grounded in himself and his music and basically burned and lived to play with far more open and frank lust for life than deep introspective examination and self-criticism of the soul. He has a real sense of reality and the necessity of getting along in life, with people and in the industry. One could see that Cobain would eventually have developed and shown a contempt for the fans who blindly followed Nirvana whereas Grohl, possibly a careerist move, has known all along that without fans his career would be a very minor one at best and that it is an investment in one’s own future to invest in the fans and to support them for supporting you.
Be that as it may, I’ve bought the three Nirvana studio albums, the Unplugged album (albeit twenty years after the event) and even once owned the cassette tape version of Incesticide (1992), the collection of pre-success singles, B-side and rarities that became commercially viable only after the success of Nevermind.
In contrast, I have never bought a single Foo Fighters album and have only very recently listened to the debut album Foo Fighters (1994) (on the Apple Music streaming service) for the very first time. That is probably my loss over the past two decades though the failure to investigate the Foo Fighters has more to do with my receding lack of interest in that style of rock, than with any criticism of Grohl and his music.
Like everybody else, I bought Nevermind on the back or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the hype surrounding the band at the time. I bought In Utero because I liked some of the radio singles and wanted to know how Nirvana overcame the challenge of meeting and beating the enormous, monster success that Nevermind was. My immediate, and lasting, impression of In Utero was, and is, that it is far superior to its predecessor. I did not like the atonal noise punk of Bleach and even after several spins I could not grow to like it. Maybe I was already too old and I did not grow up on the Seattle scene.
Foo Fighters (the album) sounds pretty much like an extension of the direction taken on In Utero but with bigger, more traditional choruses and is overall a likeable album rather than a particularly great one. This is with hindsight. Perhaps I would have felt differently about the record had I first listened to it on release. After that, it seemed to me, from The Colour & The Shape (1996) onwards, based on the evidence of radio play, that Foo Fighters became a radio friendly heavy band that was not essential listening but pleasant if one were exposed to it.
During the first decade of the 21st century, and even beyond, Dave Grohl was forever featured on the front covers of UK rock magazines, specifically Q, and this obviously meant that Foo Fighters had become one of the big mainstream rock acts. Dave Grohl had been accepted as one of the leading rock gods of the modern era. In this way, he has received far more media attention and this career has been far more satisfying and successful that Cobain’s ever was.
The thing is, Grohl has had his demons too, such as alcoholism. He also suffers the fare of the careerist, after two decades of consistent effort, where the focus is still more on the early breakthrough years, and on Nirvana in his case, because Foo Fighters have released so many albums and the career has had so many highlights that it is difficult to isolate one or two. Neither Grohl or Foo Fighters are particularly controversial.
On the other hand, Cobain lived a very brief life and his career as leader of Nirvana was extremely brief, especially the spotlight years, and it is far easier to examine that short period in depth. Cobain gets more attention precisely because he died young and in such a sad way.
Kurt was crazy in so many ways; Dave is normal in so many ways. Dave will never attract the obsessive attention that Kurt has and does. That is the difference between being a careerist rocker and a dead legend.
It is trite that the myth and legend of Nirvana will continuously be writ large in the official history of rock and that the story of Foo Fighters will always be linked to Dave Gorhl’s connection to Nirvana. Grohl will never be regarded as revolutionary or as anything other than a commercially successful second act without huge intrinsic merit or distinction other than for being a decent, successful rock and roll band.
Nirvana skirted the edge of the mainstream despite selling millions of records and Foo Fighters have become central players in the current mainstream along with Metallica, for example, simply because Foo Fighters has lasted for over 20 years and its members are middle aged rockers who are emulating the likes of the Rolling Stones who have become prime examples of the truth that rockers need not die at the age of 27 or even 30 but can continue honing and practising their craft into their seventies. In this way rock is no different to jazz or any other form of serious music. Surprisingly the audience remains as young as ever; one cannot imagine very many 70-year olds at a Rolling Stones stadium show. If he lasts that long, Dave Grohl will also still be rocking when he is seventy, alongside his peers, because making music is what it is all about for him, not just making money although the rewards are nothing to be sneezed at.
It is a central nub of the Nirvana and Foo Fighters myths, and the general rock myth, that the big stars started out simply wanting to make music as escape from reality or because they enjoyed it, hoping to make some money, get some chicks and get some drugs. To their surprise it turned out, after several years of hard graft, that there is a mass audience who grew up with the struggling artist and who are more than happy to buy the records and attend the live shows and make the musicians rich and famous and, eventually, established. After a couple pf years of creativity and massive commercial success, the previously tenuous position settles into a career which becomes a steady earner, provided you are still willing to work, but with no continued innovation and becoming no more than nostalgia by and by.
Perhaps integrity is its own reward but fame and fortune is a far better reward, if you are psychologically capable of dealing with it.
It seems that Kurt Cobain was not fit to deal with adulation and mass success and that is why he was not for the long haul and essentially gave up just when he was on the verge of settling firmly into the mainstream. Cobain epitomised the trope of “I hope I die before I get old”, or “I hope I die before I have to face the reality of what I’ve been striving for all this time.” Or, “I don’t want to be trapped by my success and the only way out is to kill myself because I genuinely do hate myself even if it was once seen as joke.”
Although Dave Grohl no doubt has his own demons, such as alcoholism, he comes across as the basically grounded, sensible kind of guy who believes in the kind of work ethic and dedication to his chosen career that will bring long term rewards and recognition to sustain him into the ripe old age of rock elder statesman. Even if Kurt Cobain will always be deified as the supernova shooting star, Grohl will have been the most successful of the two.