Posted by: mattburleigh | April 6, 2014

Was it really 20 years ago?

Kurt Cobain killed himself 20 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long. In 1994 I was in the first year of my PhD, and was visiting the USA for the first time. I had a conference in Berkeley discussing results from NASA’s Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer satellite, and on the way I visited friends in Florida and at CalTech in Pasadena. I have vivid memories of driving the long road to the Florida Keys, visiting Cape Canaveral, sampling my first American microbrewed beers in the CalTech bar, and in many more around San Francisco and Berkeley. I tend to remember the fun bits: the conference meal on a boat under the Golden Gate (a free bar if I recall, Pete Wheatley?), talking the hind legs off a donkey in a jazz club somewhere in SF ’til lord knows what time,  eating in an enormous Dim Sum restaurant in LA with CalTech PhD students including Ben Oppenheimer & Angela Putney. Then that summer we went on cricket tour to Bath, played a legendary fixture at Bath CC (caught at gulley for bugger all, smashed into the Avon for six, but Steve Orchard and Richard Gatehouse showed their class and gave us a score), failed to set light to Marcus Baines’ only pair of socks, and generally misbehaved myself in the bars and clubs. I still have the photos somewhere (not including the misbehaviour).

But back to Cobain. I still remember the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Keith Sohl came bounding out of the side room of Beaumont Hall bar where we tended to have a cheap disco every saturday, and grabbed me: “You’ve got to listen to this!” He was right. I’m not sure I ever again had quite that experience of hearing a completely new and novel piece of music, and being utterly blown away. Radiohead? Oasis? Arcade Fire? All fantastic the first time I heard them (in Oasis’ case, the interesting stuff before they became white van man favourites), but not quite the same effect.

I suspect it’s an age thing. No doubt every teenager or young adult has their “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment. Cobain’s suicide was sad, but I’m not one for a hysterical over-reaction (see also Michael Jackson, Diana, etc). Frankly, it seemed inevitable. So the anniversary doesn’t stir in me feelings of loss. Instead, it evokes an uncomfortable emotion about the passage of time. It was 20 years ago, FFS! In the 80s, when my parents’ generation celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s (and it seemed, every other bloody even that happened in the sixties), I thought it was ancient history. And if you are much less than 30, Cobain and Nirvana are ancient history.

Now that thought makes me sad. What have I done in those 20 years? What have I achieved? Where did I leave that enthusiasm that drove me as a PhD student? What if I had made other choices, where would I be today? How did my career get so stuck? And if I look in the other direction, the one time takes, well, there’s the reminder that there’s going to be less and less of it in which to achieve my ambitions, and simply to enjoy…..

Here’s Nirvana’s first UK TV appearance, on The Word. Back when Channel 4 wasn’t stuffed full of reality TV garbage.

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