Kurt Cobain's suicide turned 20 last week. He's an important figure, but I find it slightly ghoulish the way articles and commentary on Cobain pop up like clockwork on every anniversary of Nevermind; of In Utero; of his final act, alone with a gun.
This article at the Washington Post caught my eye, because it seemed like that rarest of creatures: a new angle. But it dances around the problem of the final mix of Nevermind of which Cobain disapproved, and I'm afraid that its reading of Cobain's pre-death importance may soar far beyond reality. (I was there, and Nirvana was way famous - acting as a sort of pushbroom to the dreadful pop of the early 90s as well as glam rock and G&R-type hair metal and all else that came before - but I don't think they were famous beyond anyone's imagination, as the article has it. Probably not beyond David Geffen's.) Still, kinda sweet to think about a few generations of kids plucking out the first notes of "Come As You Are", which happens to be the only riff I ever learned to play on the guitar. I wonder very much what "Smells Like Teen Spirit" means to people born around the time it was a hit on the radio, as opposed to what it meant to me or to the Xers.
Anyway, over the weekend I listened to Nevermind for the 11,867th time, and it reminded me strongly of the last book we finished in my American Novels class: On the Road. Not because the two works resemble each other artistically (although I suppose you could argue that they do, each a yawp from its respective generation), but because each, despite its grounding in a particular time and place, offers utter freshness.
I didn't love On the Road. I found it rambling, self-centered, pointlessly repetitious, and reeking of privilege of various types. But I was nevertheless seduced by its sincerity, which is a rare quality when uncoupled from sentimentality. The voice is completely convincing, head-over-heels committed. And it feels...fresh. There's just no other word for it. It feels novel and new and unique, 60 years after its birth, after it's been made a bible by numberless masses.
Nevermind feels the same way. All the reasons in the world exist to make me bored with the record: I've listened to it 11,867 times, I heard "Teen Spirit" played and referenced and analyzed to death in my adolescence, I wore out CDs of other grunge that practically photocopied Nirvana. (This listen, I realized that Stone Temple Pilots' Core is basically a 12-track meditation on "In Bloom" with a little Metallica flavor.) Nevertheless, it's a thoroughly fresh record. It makes you sit up straighter and turn up the volume and pay attention.
Both Nevermind and On the Road have the capacity to revolutionize a young life, no matter the year. Their age seems not to have denuded their power. They're both still genuinely exciting, and they both stand quite apart from the hordes of imitative works that they spawned. It's a shame that (arguably) neither Cobain nor Kerouac was able to top himself after that one great artistic expulsion.
How does "fresh" happen? Why are there so few albums and books and films that succeed at staying fresh generations after birth? How do you quantify it? Is it inevitably linked with voice-of-a-generation works, or even just voice-of-an-artistic-movement stuff? Is it one of those qualities, like pornography, that depends on knowing it when you see it? If anyone knows, please tell me, because I'd like to be able to create fresh work. (Wouldn't we all?)