Kurt Cobain Didn't Want to Be a Guitar Hero

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I never saw Kurt Cobain on stage without a guitar, or pieces of one.

I wrote a post yesterday in reaction to the Guitar Hero clip but since it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, I felt I needed to share my feelings in greater detail.  This is such a horrendous product, it makes me fear for the future of music and technology in general.

As a longtime “traditional” music promoter who who worked with Nirvana, I feel a need to explain why Guitar Hero 5 is a disgusting and unconscionable use of my former artist Kurt Cobain’s image.

I knew Kurt Cobain.  Kurt Cobain was a friend of mine… if he saw that damn video game you can bet he would have smashed the damn television to bits.  He was full of contradictions, had very original thoughts and vibes that were unpredictable, but in this case, I think I can speak for the guy, something I NEVER did when I was working at DGC Records doing College and Metal radio promotion: he would have hated it.  A lot.

Coming from an affluent part of Long Island, and as a massive hip hop fan in 1990 when I met Nirvana, I was neither an expert on Sub Pop nor American indie rock in general.  In fact, my college radio colleagues from WUSB thought it was strange that I was promoting Sonic Youth, a band I didn’t support much as music director (they were white, what can I say?).  Nevertheless, I was hired because I had experience in radio, and in music as a jazz publicist and as a promoter with groups like the Woodentops for Upside Records.

Part of the vicious irony of the Guitar Hero 5 scenario is that Kurt and the other Nirvana guys, in fact ALL the Seattle bands and people were vehemently anti-rap, even the politically charged Public Enemy.  To see a cartoon Kurt saying “yeah boyeee” is an effrontery to the truth, to Flava Flav and to what Nirvana meant to me (and millions of other people who didn’t know them personally).

I have often referred to Kurt as brooding, but the reality was he had an “biting” wit and engaged in mad pranks every step of the way to radio stations, record stores and whatever else we had to do together.  There is no way he would see the humor in this.  According to his suicide note, one poignant perspective on his personality, he was so ultra-serious about music, that he killed himself in an effort to NOT become lame or cheat the fans by delivering music with less passion as he got older.

He was wrong about himself in that regard – Kurt would have maintained that integrity at all costs.  He just could not deal, and as we have been reminded of by Courtney’s screed of tweets, etc., he didn’t have the best people around him.  There were very few times when the four of them were in harmony, but the members of Nirvana and Courtney Love happened to close ranks at the 1992 MTV Awards.

This was already a year later or many months into the Nirvana Nevermind campaign, and even after all their achievements commercially and “re-branding” the channel, as exec Amy Finnerty has said (Kurt was the Tila Tequila of the 90s!), there was still “pressure” on the band to do what the channel wanted – play the single.  Kurt insisted on opening the show with the unrecorded song “Rape Me.”  They also had their famous showdown with Axl Rose backstage, who both knew how great Nirvana was, but also how dated his own band now sounded.

When they met, Axl was both insecure but also felt the band owed him a bit of a debt since he had promoted them so hard.  The legend is that Courtney and Kurt were teasing him like he was a jock in high school, and Axl told Kurt “control your woman,” so Kurt turned to Courtney and said “shut up, bitch.”  He also declined to jam with Eddie Van Halen that night.

They were equally unfazed the previous January when Michael Jackson’s Dangerous succumbed to Nevermind in Christmas week.  As they rode into history, the alternative department at DGC received a great Christmas card from the band with the three of them riding a pony.

Ok, so maybe Courtney signed away his image for use as an avatar.  That doesn’t mean it should be used and abused that way.  Who makes this sort of decision at Activision?  What type of fan does this appeal to?  Isn’t there such a thing as artistic integrity?  Creative control from within?

What’s next?  I couldn’t help but notice the skeleton playing drums behind Kurt in the Guitar Hero video.  I guess we should be happy that they didn’t put a bit of Kurt’s ashes in with the games for collectors.

In fact, I never once saw him perform without a guitar on and hold the microphone like in that video game.  He NEVER jumped around, he crashed into things!  Kurt, at about 145 pounds, was both indestructable and fragile at the same time.  Creating noise on the guitar and then playing a complex riff like “Come As You Are” while he was singing it (try that sometime).  He downplayed it but he was an EXCELLENT musician.

I did once see Kurt play “Time in a Bottle” perfectly on an acoustic guitar (during soundcheck for the MTV Award show).  He could turn on the guitar store riffs at an instant.  It was clear that he had spent many hours playing guitar and taken the instrument much more seriously than he claimed (he often referred to the Knack, “Louie Louie” and Kiss as his inspirations but he could also play like Jimmy Page or Joe Perry if he wanted — check out “Aero Zeppelin” sometime if you doubt me.  He also turned down the guitar endorsements that started to filter in from Ernie Ball and others before designing his own for Fender.

As vile as this product is, this treatment would be a crappy way to use ANY band.  But to have Kurt Cobain doing this?   Not to give Activision any ideas, but the one thing all rock fans would want to see is something they should never make: a rock and roll heaven version where Elvis, Jimi, Marley, Fela, Jerry, Lennon, Cobain and the other greats jam together.

We may be headed for a lot more products like this in the next few years.  As someone who knows music, aesthetics and technology, I hope to make a positive difference on the development of new entertainment in the 21st century.  That’s what Earbender is all about – bringing what I learned from Kurt, Thurston, Watt, Tricky, Sinéad, Willie and all the others, the managers, the promo guys and everyone else in the business to bear in the new situation.

In my mind, the best thing they could have done was promise Krist and Dave that it would be a perfect re-enactment of the band’s history, much like the Beatles have gotten, but probably thought it was a corny and trite representation of their great band.  Nirvana’s own experience as people was that music was not a toy, but very easy to learn and play along with on real instruments to records you like and that feeling brought meaning to their lives… why minimize it with a video game?

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