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Kurt Cobain

by yo go re

Back in 1997, Todd McFarlane was publishing a comic based on KISS: Psycho Circus, and soon action figures followed suit. Eventually this expanded into a whole music series, to the point where now you can expect to find plastic versions of any number of bands and musicians when you walk into a specialty store. Even NECA's in on the act, though they tend to focus more on the icons of rock than hair bands, like McFarlane.

Kurt Cobain challenged the status quo in popular music and managed to create some of the most groundbreaking albums of the past 25 years.

You probably can't overestimate the impact that Nirvana had in 1991. That simple yet memorable opening riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a cultural atom bomb, shattering the music industry and redefining what "rock" was. In the early '90s, popular music was still struggling to find a new voice, a new sound. Peppy dance pop and the last sad remnants of hair metal were choking the airwaves. Whitney Houston does not belong on rock radio, you know? "Smells like Teen Spirit" was exactly what we'd been missing: a song that spoke to us, even if it didn't have anything to say.

Anyway, the video was as memorable as the song, with the band playing to a disinterested audience in a high school gym. The colors were as low and dirty as the sound, and the video's story supported the song without narrating it. The two just seemed to intersect without colliding, and it's that video NECA chose for their first Kurt Cobain figure.

As far as iconic images go, this is it: Kurt, standing defiantly in that gym, leaning into the music as it comes. He's wearing black sneakers, bluejeans and a striped shirt over a long-sleeved white shirt. There's no question that the sculpt delivers its subject perfectly, from the laces on his shoes to the wallet chain at his belt to the stringy blonde hair hanging in his face. A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido. Yeah. The texture on his clothes doesn't go overboard, but the tendons and veins in his hands look just as strained as they should from someone playing guitar like this.

And speaking of the guitar, Kurt's got his Lake Placid Blue Fender Mustang (complete with competition stripe and mother-of-pearl pickguard). The strings on this electric are sculpted, but they're painted well enough to stand out. There's a functioning strap made out of black rubber that slings the guitar over his shoulder, but his left leg is also raised slightly to help support it. The figure's articulation is sparse, since this is a three-dimensional snapshot - and after all, there are only so many different "guitar playing" poses.

Kurt comes with an irregularly-shaped base: a section of the gym floor. The anarchic destruction of the gymnasium seen at the end of the video is real: the kids had been sitting as the "audience" all day, and were fed up with it. When Cobain convinced the director to let them out, to bring them down on the floor for a mosh scene, their pent-up frustration escalated to real action - and if that isn't an apt metaphor for exactly what the entire generation felt like, nothing is. Geeze, no wonder grown-ups were afraid of us.

Getting one Kurt Cobain figure was awesome - getting a second was entirely unexpected but, in hindsight, unavoidably necessary. Just like what the second figure represents.

Based on his appearance in the "Unplugged in New York" special, recorded live at Sony Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993. This stripped-down performance revealed the depth of Cobain's songwriting along with his broad musical interests.

Until Nirvana walked into the Sony Music Studios that night, they might have just been a bunch of punks with no talent who lucked into the big time. That's certainly what a lot of critics thought. But when they swapped the electric guitars for acoustics, everybody had to shut up. In addition to doing extensive rearrangements of their own songs, they filled about half the set with covers, several of which went on to be hits in their own right; David Bowie still gets annoyed by kids who think "The Man Who Sold the World" is a Nirvana song.

Unplugged wasn't a hard-rocking show, so Kurt is sitting on a simple office chair, strumming his guitar. He's wearing sneakers, jeans, a t-shirt and a fuzzy sweater - which was pretty much how everybody under 30 dressed back then (yeah, like we ever stopped dressing like that). He's also got a free-floating necklace that reaches down past his belt. The sculpt is excellent, especially on the upper arms; the temptation would be to capture the detail sharply, but the soft, subtle folds are truer to reality. The fingers on his right hand are surprisingly fat and stubby. Not sure what happened there.

The chair is very simple, but designed accurately. He's also got a music stand and a microphone, to complete the scene. This guitar is an acoustic, of course, a Martin D-18E. The figure's version looks a little thinner than the real thing, but not terribly so. Due to the fact the guitar has a sound hole, the strings couldn't be sculpted, and are instead thin strands of nylon that stretch from the tuners down to the bridge.

While the angels and the devils try to make them their own Nirvana's Unplugged special was shot in November, and first aired about a month later. There were originally no plans to release the performance as an album, but when Kurt committed suicide in April of the following year, things got underway quickly. MTV Unplugged in New York was released in November of 1994, nearly a year after it was recorded, and was a huge hit, being the first Nirvana album after the band's dissolution. It won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album, and has been certified platinum five times, selling over five million copies.

I don't remember where I was when I heard that Kurt Cobain had died - but playing the odds, it was either on MTV News or Channel One. However, I do remember where I was the first time I heard the music. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has that kind of power. Cobain hated the idea of being a spokesman, that his song was labelled the "anthem of a generation," but that's exactly what it was. The music world would be much different today if not for Kurt Cobain, and either of these figures is a worthy way to honor that.

-- 03/11/07

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