If Kurt Cobain had lived – what might have been?

As late as November 1993, only a few months before his death, Cobain would talk excitedly about his next move. He wanted acoustic instruments and more textured arrangements for the next album, something that would plunge him deeper into the introspective shadows and subterranean beauty of a Nick Drake or a Skip Spence (co-founder of Moby Grape) rather than the scorched-earth fury of In Utero tracks like Milk It or Rape Me. The approach defined by MTV Unplugged in New York was one possible way forward.

On that album, Cobain found new inspiration by digging into the music of his heroes and inspirations: Leadbelly, The Meat Puppets, David Bowie and The Vaselines. He reduced the songs to their barest essentials: voice, guitar, a bit of bass, brushed drums. On Penny Royal Tea, it was just him and his guitar. “Am I doing this or not?” Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl asked before the song began, but Cobain waved him off. He wasn’t ready to limit himself to only one musical genre played with the same collaborators.

Soul searching

Only months before, Cobain had sounded uncertain, interrogating himself on Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero: “What else should I be?… What else could I say?… What else should I write?” MTV Unplugged provided some answers, a way to stay a step ahead of boredom, and irrelevance. REM’s Michael Stipe has said that he and Cobain were talking about collaborating in the weeks before the singer’s death.

And now, it’s quite possible to imagine Cobain not (like some of his counterparts) as the proprietor of a heritage act – “Nirvana, the 35th anniversary tour!” – but as a musical vagabond, jumping in and out of diverse projects in the way his old Seattle peer, Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees) did. He’d no longer be at the centre of popular culture, but he wouldn’t be a nostalgia act, either.

Cobain never felt completely comfortable as the centre of attention; he once said that he coveted John Lennon’s fame, but he also wanted Ringo Starr’s anonymity. So my guess is he would have kept moving, flitting from project to project much like a Dylan, Lanegan, Lou Reed or Neil Young, in search of new inspiration, rather than becoming a greatest-hits jukebox. He probably wouldn’t be a huge celebrity anymore because he never craved that constant level of media attention. But the work would keep him relevant because he would be restless and curious enough to keep exploring. “What else should I be?” would be a constant question with a new answer every year.

Who might he be collaborating with today? Artists with a flair for musical risk-taking and cutting humour would have appealed to him: Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, The Julie Ruin and Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna, Jack White. Whether Cobain would’ve shown up is another matter. Instead, he might have run away on tour with his ’80s heroes, punk-metal old-timers The Melvins, as their first millionaire roadie.  

This is an updated version of an article originally published in 2014.

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