Kurt Cobain Would’ve Turned 49 This Week: Where Would He Be Now?
Any time a great artist dies young and unexpectedly, as fans we often spend our own remaining years wondering what would’ve been, had they just stayed with us longer. Previous generations mourned rockers like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and John Lennon, while those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s had our own fallen heroes – from metal gods like Ozzy Osbourne virtuoso Randy Rhoads and Metallica's Cliff Burton to Sublime's Bradley Nowell, Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon and of course, Kurt Cobain. The Nirvana frontman and grunge icon would’ve turned 49 today had he not allegedly committed suicide in 1994, and his legacy continues to burn brightly more than two decades after his passing.
But, if Cobain were still alive today, where would he be now? It’s an interesting question. Perhaps even more so than the others from Cobain’s era who’ve since shaken the mortal coil, Cobain would probably be crafting something very different now. As someone who helped (accidentally or otherwise) create an entire genre and cultural shift, Cobain invented the rules; he was never defined or confined by them.
He certainly wouldn’t still be playing grunge, that’s for sure. Nirvana’s groundbreaking 1994 live album MTV Unplugged in New York showed the world that Cobain was capable of a lot more than just screaming and smashing his guitar; the overall folk-country vibe of the album and the band’s unforgettable re-workings of pre-existing material like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and the folk traditional “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (aka “In The Pines”) pushed the boundaries of expectation for the band. It turned out that the more we could actually hear Cobain sing, the better his voice sounded.
In an interview originally intended for French television, Cobain said, “It might be nice to start playing acoustic guitar and be thought of as a singer and a songwriter, rather than a grunge rocker. I could sit down on a chair and play acoustic guitar like Johnny Cash or something, and it won't be a big joke.” Unplugged went a long way toward planting that seed in the public’s mind, but Cobain was already dead by the time of its release in November 1994. It likely would’ve only been the beginning of Kurt’s exploration of a wider range of tones.
There’s also the question of whether or not he would’ve stayed in Nirvana or moved on. In addition to stating his desire to eventually create music as a solo artist, at one point, Cobain also discussed joining Hole – the band fronted by his wife, Courtney Love. Rumors have always abounded that he actually penned much of the material on Hole's 1994 breakthrough, Live Through This, so we can only guess if that collaboration would’ve ever become official. It’s doubtful though, considering the reports that the couple were close to divorcing at the time of his death. Still, it’s not hard to imagine Kurt working with multiple artists outside of just Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic.
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe has said that he and Kurt talked about working together during the weeks before his death, and this is just one example of a union that could’ve changed music as we know it today. Everything that came later in the ’90s – especially the rise of pop-punk and emo – could’ve been even more heavily informed by Cobain’s influence than they already are. Can you imagine Cobain guest-starring on Weezer’s Pinkerton? That would’ve been a pairing for the ages.
And there was also Kurt’s talent for art – particularly drawing – which he’d enjoyed since his school days. Nirvana album artwork provides an indelible glimpse of his talents outside of just music, with multiple paintings, collages and sculptures showcasing his love for macabre imagery and his fascination with anatomical detail. The posthumous release of his Journals in 2003 further underscored just how gifted a visual artist he was, so he probably would have pursued this passion even more actively had he lived to a point where time and money allowed it. It was a huge part of who he was.
In all likelihood, Nirvana wouldn’t have survived forever, even if Kurt had lived, and that’s one of the things that made the band legendary: There was always a sense of danger and volatility surrounding the group, like a fire raging out of control. The pressures that were mounting on Cobain at the time of his death, paired with his disillusionment over the music business and the misinterpreting of his artistic vision, would have likely forced the band to take at least a hiatus, if not a permanent split. Then at some point, when enough time had passed, perhaps they would’ve reunited – but undoubtedly for love, not nostalgia or money. If that had happened, it would’ve been a very different Kurt Cobain singing those songs, but we'd like to think he would’ve done it for the fans, and would’ve found a way to keep the past material vibrant and refreshing.
His legacy as a parent would be much different, too. Maybe he would've channeled his energy into being a loving dad to his daughter, Frances Bean, after the inevitable split with Courtney. It's hard to imagine Courtney being granted custody in that situation, so Frances would've likely stayed with her dad and actually gotten to know him and his music firsthand. And maybe as a result, Frances wouldn't have grown up to be the "anti-celebrity" she has become. A lifetime of having Courtney Love as your sole parent is something we wouldn't wish on anyone.
And of course, there’s also the chance that Cobain would’ve retreated from public life entirely, spending his days as a recluse in Seattle. Who could’ve blamed him? He defined a generation and rewrote the rule book for popular music by essentially disregarding convention and breaking all the rules, only to watch his art bastardized by bean counters and an endless sea of wannabes. No one would’ve been shocked if he'd said “f--- it all” and disappeared. It might have even saved his life.