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Reflecting on Kurt Cobain 20 Years After Suicide

Kurt Cobain changed Win Butler’s world. Billie Joe Armstrong thought the Nirvana frontman was his generation’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And Beck thinks he owes a debt of gratitude to the singer-guitarist for opening the world’s ears to a thriving, but little-heard underground scene.

It’s been two decades since Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, at age 27, yet he remains an important cultural touchstone for those he influenced and entertained in his short-lived career. The Associated Press spoke with a handful of musicians about their memories of Cobain as the anniversary of his suicide approached. Some knew him, some watched him from afar. All were touched in some way profound and unforgettable.

Beck experienced Nirvana long before everyone else. He ran into the band three years before Nirvana’s Nevermind changed pop music. He had never heard of the band, the opening act on a three-band bill, the top draws now lost to memory.

“I have a memory of them coming out and he had his middle finger up, was giving his middle finger to the audience,” he said. “I’d seen a lot of punk shows and I’d seen a lot of bands when I was younger where the shows were pretty aggressive or confrontational, but there was something completely different about this. I remember he had a smile on his face, there was a kind of playfulness, but it was also a little menacing, and I remember the minute they started playing, the entire audience erupted in a way I hadn’t seen before.”

Everything that would make the band popular when Smells Like Teen Spirit ripped the fabric of pop music was already there.

“And I can tell you, any situation I’ve been in and many of my peers I’ve seen coming up, playing for audiences who’ve never heard of you, you don’t get people’s attention at all,” he said. “Usually they’re talking or going to the bathroom in those kinds of situations, but they had the audience from the first note. Even if they had never become successful, I would still remember that. It made a big impression. I remember at the time thinking, ‘What is this? Something’s going on here,’ and I was a fan after that.”

Billie Joe Armstrong remembers being out on Green Day’s first tour in 1990 and encountering the band’s graffiti in a string of tiny clubs out West. He’d heard of Nirvana through its Sub Pop releases, including its debut album, Bleach, but thought little of it at the time. A year later, Nirvana was known throughout the world. Cobain became something of a tortured poet laureate, a figure Armstrong thinks was as important for his generation as Lennon and McCartney were to theirs.

“You know, the guy just wrote beautiful songs,” Armstrong said. “When someone goes that honestly straight to the core of who they are, what they’re feeling, and was able to kind of put it out there, I don’t know, man, it’s amazing. I remember hearing it when Nevermind came out and just thinking, we’ve finally got our Beatles, this era finally got our Beatles, and ever since then it’s never happened again. ”

Like Armstrong, Win Butler was moved when he first heard Nevermind in 1991. So was everyone in the Arcade Fire frontman’s world growing up in Texas.

“All the sudden the whole kind of social dynamic at my junior high changed where these kind of misfit kids who maybe come from a broken home and they’re smoking cigarettes in the back and they didn’t have money for nice clothes, all the sudden those kids socially were in a weird way on the same level as everyone else,” Butler said. “I was sort of like a weird kid who didn’t know where I fit in or whatever and just to have that kind of voice be that big in culture, I feel like that was a magical period of alternative music where we had Jane’s Addiction and R.E.M. and Nirvana, it was like seeing these kind of freaks from all the different cities of North America and you’re like, oh wow.”

Cobain enjoyed a kind of feedback loop with those he admired, and got the attention of Neil Young — a major touchstone for the grunge movement — before his death. Young has often chafed under the requirements of fame as well, and understands some of what Cobain was experiencing. The singer-songwriter was so moved by Cobain’s death, he recorded the album Sleeps With Angels, and still wonders what might have happened if he had been able to talk to Cobain before he died.

“Well, you know, it’s a hard thing to deal with,” Young said. “I guess Kurt felt too much. I think it’s sad that he didn’t have anybody to talk to that could’ve talked to him and said, ‘I know what you’re going through, but it’s not too bad. It really isn’t bad. Just (expletive) blink and it will be gone. Everything will be all right. You’ve got a lot of other things to do. Why don’t you just take a break? Don’t worry about all these (expletive) who want you to do all this (expletive) you don’t want to do. Just stop doing everything. Tell them to get (expletive) and stay away.’ That’s it. That’s what I would have told him if I had the chance. And I almost got a chance, but it didn’t happen.”