By Eric Johnson
The first time I heard Nirvana, it was a classic record-store experience, which is something that's becoming increasingly rare these days. I walked into Rocks in Your Head in New York and asked the woman behind the counter, "What's new?" She put on "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I thought, "Wow. Somebody managed to combine R.E.M. and Metallica." I had never heard the term grunge, and I didn't know that it was going to be a phenomenon. I just knew that I was listening to something profound: a great piece of music.
My favorite song on Nevermind was "Lithium." Kurt Cobain tapped into something in the culture that nobody had given a voice to before: passionate ambivalence. "I'm so ugly, but that's OK/'Cause so are you." He captured the idea of having incredibly powerful feelings about not having feelings.
Cobain changed the course of where the music went. There are certain people where you can see the axis of musical history twisting on them: Hendrix was pivotal, Prince was pivotal, Cobain was pivotal. (I'm hoping that Andre 3000 of OutKast will turn out to be pivotal, but it's going to take a couple more albums to tell.)
And Cobain was a terrific guitarist. I said that to a big Joe Satriani fan, and he got really upset with me; he didn't think Cobain had enough chops. You can't say Cobain was a great songwriter but not a great guitarist -- because he couldn't have written those songs without the guitar. You can't separate out his Big Muff guitar playing - it was essential to the music he made, and his altered tunings were incredibly influential. Just like body piercing really took off as a trend after the first Lollapalooza, I think altered, tuned-down guitars were much more prominent in the music after Nirvana.
When I think about Nirvana, I think about the Bad Brains and the Sex Pistols. All those bands seem radical and edgy and outside the box and loud, but the tunes are incredibly melodic. They all wrote great songs with a core of emotion, loneliness and human feeling -- the same things that Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote songs about.After the breakup of Living Colour, I put out a solo instrumental record called Mistaken Identity, which included a song called "Saint Cobain." I'll never forget the day I heard that he had committed suicide. Success on the level that Nirvana had is traumatizing. People win the lottery, and after all the money's gone, they turn around and say, "You know, this is the worst thing that ever happened to me and my family." And everyone who hasn't gotten that phone call can't understand. They say, "Man, you just got $5 million -- what are you talking about?" I wish Kurt Cobain was still around to make music and confront George Bush. Can you imagine the song he would have written about reality TV?
Something else happened to Cobain that I think was a shame: Because Nirvana became popular, he had to confront this notion that he had sold out and establish this sense of purity. It's one thing to consider purity if you're judging an emerald or a pearl, but with people, purity is a dodgy concept. It can often be dangerous: Just consider the notions of artistic purity or racial purity. But I do believe Cobain was perfect, in a way: He was perfectly flawed.