I'm not sure I can say this about any other pop song, but I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. The angsty wall of sound blasting out of my friend's roommate's boom box may not have announced itself immediately as the voice of a generation, but it demanded a thrilled, "What is this?"
Less than three years later came that other remember-where-you-were-when Nirvana moment.
April 5 marks 20 years since Kurt Cobain shot himself at his Seattle home. He was 27, with superstar-level fame and wealth – not to mention a wife and a one-year-old daughter. He also had many personal issues, including depression and a heroin addiction.
With this grim anniversary, and Nirvana's induction next week into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cobain is making headlines again. His hometown of Aberdeen, Wash., has unveiled a (much-maligned) memorial statue. His mother is trying to sell the tiny, wrong-side-of-the-tracks house where he grew up for $500,000 (U.S.). New police photos have been released of the death scene by the Seattle Police Department. His widow Courtney Love is musing about a Nirvana Broadway musical.
And in rainy Seattle, a week before the anniversary, a steady stream of fans made the pilgrimage to the closest thing the city offers to a memorial – a bench thick with graffiti and carved tributes in the tiny park next to the lakeview home where he lived, and died. A Nirvana exhibit at the EMP Museum (formerly the Experience Music Project) was doing a brisk business too.
There will be nostalgia aplenty this weekend. But as we light our candles, in a daze, we also have the distance to examine through a contemporary lens the legacy of this god we found and then, way too soon, lost. For rather than fade, Cobain's stamp on the culture continues to evolve in unexpected ways, even if he did not live to experience the popular culture he helped shape.