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Remembering Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of his death

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana performs in Seattle on

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana performs in Seattle on Dec. 13, 1993. Credit: AP / Robert Sorbo

It’s comforting to know Kurt Cobain hasn’t been forgotten.

He won’t just be remembered Saturday, the 20th anniversary of his suicide. A few days later, on Thursday, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his band Nirvana.

Rock Hall officials say Nirviana’s surviving members – Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic – are “planning something” for the ceremonies at Barclays Center, though they would not reveal who, if anyone, would stand in Cobain’s place as the band’s lead singer. Will it be R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Cobain’s friend who will induct Nirvana into the Rock Hall? Will it be Paul McCartney, who took over vocal duties when Nirvana reunited for Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary? Either (or both) would be great, but neither of those legends can really fill Cobain’s particular Converse high-top shoes.

We know now that Cobain was clinically depressed and suicidal long before he took his life, that he was uncomfortable with the success of Nirvana’s groundbreaking “Nevermind” album and that he didn’t have the answers to the questions his lyrics raised about life as a struggling twentysomething in ’90s America. That doesn’t detract from his legacy. It only enhances it.

It is hard to overstate the impact of “Nevermind.” In rock and roll history, only the arrival of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” created more upheaval in popular culture. Following the success of “Nevermind,” which literally dethroned the King of Pop when it took over the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, radio stations suddenly embraced the “alternative rock” providing a spotlight to countless deserving bands from R.E.M. and The Replacements to Sonic Youth, while major labels went on a signing spree to find the next Nirvana.

Cobain didn’t invent Gen X angst, but he certainly created its anthems. “Here we are now, entertain us” from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became the rallying cry for a generation of unemployed and underemployed twentysomethings who were living proof of economists’ warnings that their generation would become the first American generation to do worse than their parents due to macroeconomic factors and government policy. That turned out to be true, not whining.

And he was clear about how Nirvana fans should feel about discrimination. “I have a request for our fans,” he wrote in the “Incesticide” liner notes. “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the [expletive] alone!”

The looming anniversary of his suicide has generated lots of renewed interest in the circumstances of his death, with the Seattle police even taking a fresh look at it. (Spoiler alert: Still a suicide.) What’s comforting, though, is that as unforgettable as Cobain’s death was 20 years ago, it’s his life that continues to inspire people today and will continue to be celebrated.

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