The place in Seattle where Kurt Cobain died is hidden in the pines. It's not easy to see from the street, and the pilgrims who are determined to get a better view walk down toward Lake Washington and rubberneck from a patch of grass that's known as Viretta Park. There they find two benches marked up with the inevitable rock-shrine greetings and invocations: "We miss you!" "R.I.P." "Kurt would have helped impeach Bush!" The messages have overlapped each other through the years, but early in 2009 this lyric was scrawled among them: "I'm not like them, but I can pretend."
It's a line from "Dumb," a melancholy tune from Nirvana's In Utero album, and to come across it now is to revisit the brief, bizarre moment when Kurt Cobain was the biggest rock star in the world. That moment seems like a long time ago. This year brings the 15th anniversary of his suicidethe Nirvana frontman slipped the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth in a spare room above the garage of his house at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27, and his body was found three days laterand to some degree the city that catapulted Cobain to conflicted fame, along with the generation that he spoke for, has grown up and moved on.
In media shorthand Cobain is often referred to as the voice of his generation, but it's more accurate to say that he is the voice of what his generation used to be. A lot has happened since 1994. The slacker era has passed, and Generation X has filled the ranks of business, culture, and politics with a phalanx of striversthe Google guys and Jeff Bezos, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper, Newark mayor Cory Booker and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and (if we're willing to stretch the demographic a bit) President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. Meanwhile, Cobain's identity remains stuck in the bong-water amber of the early nineties. For better or worse, he died before we got to see him go bald, grow a pony-tail, embrace Kabbalah, record an album of Broadway show tunes, and sip Bellinis by the pool with Sting.
Cobain's trapped-in-time twentysomething stancesullen, angry, anti-everythingdoesn't necessarily click with the issues that preoccupy his generational comrades in 2009. If Gen X has succumbed to the big sellout since then, well, it's not as though Cobain escaped the same fate. You might say he's the victim of posthumous gentrification: Memorializing Kurt has turned into its own industrious wing of the media business. In 2006, Forbes crowned Cobain No. 1 on its list of the most lucrative dead celebritieshigher than Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Cobain earned the rank in part because his widow, Courtney Love, had sold one quarter of the spoils from his back catalog to Primary Wave, a company that places songs in TV shows and commercials and builds associations with various products. Its most visible deal was with Converse, which created a line of Kurt sneakers decorated with Cobain's signature and chicken-scratch musings. (Scrawled on the sole of one version: PUNK ROCK MEANS FREEDOM.) "Kurt wore those shoes," Primary Wave's Devin Lasker says. "It wasn't like it was, like, some artist who never wore Converse before."