April 5, 1994, was the was the day that Kurt Cobain’s dead body was discovered in the greenhouse of his home in Seattle, and, coincidentally, the first time I ever used a cell phone. I called 911 to the scene of a car accident down the road from his house, and it seems somewhat fitting in retrospect, since that day turned out to be my own personal 9–11.
Kurt’s death that day changed everything I had ever thought about both my past and his. Nothing would ever be the same, in every way you could think of. And yet, when I think back, that’s the thing I remember best about that horrible day. Not the shock of hearing the news. Not the sadness of the situation, or the way it was going to color my world for the next decade or more. Just that it was the day I used a cell phone for the very first time in my life.
At the time, I had just published a highly praised book about Nirvana’s rise to fame, chronicling not only their whirlwind history but my own immersion in the scene they helped create. For me, Kurt’s death was both a personal and a professional apotheosis, but even so, I was a little shocked that it was such a big story. Nirvana were a pretty big band back then, but so was Skid Row and Ace of Base. Of course it mattered to me that Kurt killed himself, because he was, more or less, a friend. But the whole world went into was hyper-mourning was surprising, to say the least.
Not least of my surprise was the way my paper was covering it. Indeed, the reason my editor had given me one of the paper’s special edition cell phones, in a large, bulky box, was especially so I could phone in my stories. She did that because there wasn’t an internet in those days and the Cobain suicide was such big news that I was supposed to phone in every detail as it happened — like you’d read on twitter today.
That early cell phone call was not the only way that my memory is clouded by a fog of technological nostalgia. Another example is that, after my editor told me the news (which she’d read on the AP wire), she said, “We’ve booked you a flight to Seattle that leaves at 11 AM.” That time meant I was cutting it so close that I had to sprint down the corridor at SFO and yell at the gate people to keep the door to the plane open for me. You know why I could do that? Because there was no TSA in those days. You just leapt out of a cab and kept on running.
That sprint down the endless stretch of Terminal 2 made me feel like I was starring in a movie, and the feeling didn’t abate as the day continued. It was totally unprecedented for me to wake up in the morning like normal and then be in Seattle by lunch time. And then, after I’d checked into my hotel, I was on my way to the crime scene when I came upon this random guy having a seizure. And instead of having to search out a pay phone, I was able to pull out this ridiculously bulky apparatus — only it didn’t seem ridiculous to me at the time, as I stood on the corner of Denny and 5th and called the police.
Later, I sat in a bar — the Cloud Room, atop the Camlin hotel — and my friends and I all solemnly passed the phone around and made one phone call each. We were sad, for sure. We were sad as sad and we were crying, but we were also drinking, and we were sort of excited. Because you can’t imagine how exciting it was to make a phone call from the middle of a cocktail lounge, rather than from something tethered firmly to a wall. I once met a men who won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, and he told me what was the most exciting thing about it wasn’t meeting Hitler, but watching the first television set he’d ever seen broadcasting the races live in the Olympic Village. That’s what using a cell phone that day was like.
But I digress. As I said, the fact that Kurt’s death was going to be a touchstone moment of importance, even for people who didn’t care as much about Nirvana as I did, was surprising. (So was, and has been, the subsequent long-lastingness of their music: I am a college professor and Nirvana is now the only band that every single young person I teach.) But most of my memories of that day are either jumbled, or taken straight from the story I wrote for Spin Magazine (an assignment I got by default when the actual staff writer assigned to it freaked out, like many other people in America that weekend.) I remember hearing Eric Clapton’s song “Tears of Heaven” and crying in a taxi cab. I remember someone coming over to my hotel room in the middle of the night to play me a tape of what happened at a wake that night. I remember waiting for the morning, so I could fax my story to Spin from the first-open copy center.
I know now what I didn’t know then, which is that day would be one of those rare, sudden, moments in time that signified the exact end of an entire era. It would be six years before peer to peer file sharing would devastate the music industry for real, but in that 6 years, no new bands would emerge that would shake things up like Nirvana: rock music was going to stagnate from that point on, repeating its victories over and over.
Partly, that may have been because it was winding down anyway. But I think it was also due to the dampening effect of this suicide. Before Kurt died, I think there was some kind of fun shared dream amongst rock fans and practitioners of what it meant to be a rock star. That dream was dashed by the notion that someone who had it all — fame, fortune, a new baby, artistic merit — would put a gun to their head anyway. It was a revelation. For a while, we were able to pretend that everything was still the same. But it wasn’t. Never again would we feel about a band the way we felt about Nirvana. They were the last rock band to really matter.