Two days after the death of Kurt Cobain, in which one of the most famous and beloved men in the universe committed an act of self-inflicted assassination by shotgun, a campaign of race-murder erupted in Rwanda that left as many as a million people dead in the dirt because they’d happened to belong to the wrong tribe. Two years later, America’s first Democratic president in sixteen years, with an executive’s pen in one hand and a distended middle finger in the other, ended “welfare as we know it” and sent millions of the country’s most vulnerable citizens into a neoliberal nightmare of hunger and poverty. One decade after the death of Kurt Cobain, a coalition of Western imperialists and fat oilmen crushed the people of a sovereign nation into submission for the crime of tolerating a malignant but stabilizing dictator who had both maintained and deployed weapons of mass destruction in the years when Kurt Cobain was still alive, but was later discovered to have disposed of them in the intervening years.
Since April 5, 1994, the date which the autopsy report states that Cobain perished, Courtney Love has been sued over remarks she made on Twitter, Frances Bean Cobain has had images of her with a new fiancé posted on TMZ and IMDB, and Dave Grohl, in his capacity as the frontman of the Foo Fighters, played multiple concerts in service to the successful reelection bid of the nation’s first president of color. On December 12, 2012, Grohl and Krist Novoselic debuted the first new “Nirvana” material in the more than eighteen years since the recording of “You Know You’re Right”, the last known Nirvana track, with Paul McCartney, who had once been dead but managed to come back, filling in for a man who had been dead and stayed that way. I’m of the opinion that “Cut Me Some Slack”, which the band played at a live broadcast fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Sandy, sounds more like a Beatles song would if Lennon-McCartney had continued to compose music in a post-Black Sabbath world. The big Nirvana reunion, as it had been billed, turned out to be too little of either. Still, it was nice to see Krist, Dave, and Pat Smear, accept the award for Best Rock Song at the Grammy’s this year, an award the band had been denied until the posthumous release of MTV Unplugged in New York in 1996.
How long does it take to measure a downfall? In the terms of Kurt Cobain, it’s about thirty-one months, the span of time which separates the release of Nevermind from the death of its creator.
Is suicide a selfish act committed out of extreme cowardice, or a selfless act which materialized in a moment of profound courage? In what context does one talk about a suicide in a world that would be unrecognizable to its executioner, not just days and weeks and years on, but whole histories and generations later? How about when the suicide meant so little beyond the death of a drug addict and rock musician? – a “worthless shred of human detritus”, in the words of a conservative bigot calling a kettle black on syndicated radio. Kurt Cobain was neither a Yukio Mishima nor a Mohamed Bouazizi. He was a flawed, complex individual, capable of both lending his band to benefit concerts on behalf of reproductive choice, and threatening to murder a woman – “… I’m going to kill [Lynn Hirschberg] with my bare hands: I’m going to stab her to death,” he told Michael Azzerad – for printing an unflattering profile of Courtney in Vanity Fair. He was an intimate, personal friend who also made his only child half an orphan. Why do we insist on memorializing Kurt Cobain over the nameless millions the world has lost since his death?
Much ink has been spilled on the fact that one of the last people to see Kurt Cobain alive, a former bassist from Guns ‘n Roses, who happened to be sitting next him on an airplane, reported that he’d been, if not exactly happy, at least wistful. Well, if he hadn’t been depressed, isn’t this evidence that Courtney Love must’ve had him killed? Of course not: think about Tyler Clementi logging into Facebook to publicly say good-bye from the bridge that carried him to his grave. These were men who wanted to be found, even desperately so. And many of Kurt’s fans made it their responsibility to do the finding, like those with the benefit of hindsight who think it meant something in 1991 that “Something in the Way” was the last track on Nevermind. (This was not even necessarily true, as least in pressings that included the orgiastic noise song “Endless, Nameless”.) Certainly, we know that the evolution of “You Know You’re Right” can be tracked to the evolution of Kurt’s mental state, a timeline I described in an essay commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind three years ago. I concluded that “You Know You’re Right” became the swan song that it was because Kurt Cobain, who had always been a devoted husband and hopeless romantic, had discovered an affair between his wife and Billy Corgan and had been powerless, due to obligations with the band, to put a stop to it. In other words, the man who was made to humiliate himself publicly with endless, unwanted coverage of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and bear witness to a corporate assembly line of dull-witted knockoffs, had been, at last, also humiliated in the comforting refuge of his private life. But that only tells part of the story.
The other part has a lot in common with how we memorialize a suicide. References to his death still continue to appear in pop culture, from a quick moment of reflection written into My So-Called Life to a casual joke offered by Tony Soprano to his therapist. Mishima and Boauzizi never had the honor of being name-dropped by Senator Paul Ryan and Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., on the campaign trail, 2012. One way not to salute the late twenty-seven-year-old might be for the town of his birth to install a maudlin, weeping statute that resembles the man not at all and Jesus Christ quite a bit. Another wrong way to do this is perhaps with the offensive conspiracy theories proffered in the wake of his suicide that purport to do the heroic work of showing that it had not been a suicide at all. As I wrote on the twentieth anniversary of In Utero: “But let’s get real about those right now: the idea that anyone else could have been responsible for pulling that sorry trigger denies Kurt the very palpable desperation of his own agency in responding to his disease in the manner with which he felt most comfortable.” Rather, let us not speak of drug addiction before mentioning the enervating stomach ailment, something which Kurt never felt comfortable discussing even among friends, and which necessitated the heroin habit to “treat” it in lieu of a working medical concoction in the first place. And let us not discuss the quality of the music without examining the quality of the man behind it, and the demons with which he struggled. At the time of his death, Kurt Cobain was the second most famous artist in the world, but it still took the world three days to find his carcass, and only by someone, an electrician making a housecall, who had never even known him at all.
Because of the relatively short span of Nirvana’s existence, anniversaries commemorating the band’s milestones are doomed for all eternity to happen in quick succession. How long does it take to measure a downfall? In the terms of Kurt Cobain, it’s about thirty-one months, the span of time which separates the release of Nevermind from the death of its creator. This quickish burst of sonic energy, rarely punctuated except by the vicissitudes of romance and domesticity, after a lifetime of disease and addiction and traveling between broken home to broken home, seems somehow improbable and quaint. In everything else that came before, Cobain’s was a life of uncertainty and fear. There was the announcement that Kurt’s childhood home was on track to become a museum. Which home? What childhood? The famous bridge from “Something in the Way” might be the more appropriate venue for an exploration of Kurt Cobain’s life than that small house so capable of producing so much despair. When his parents divorced, he was just seven years old, the same year he was prescribed medicine usually taken for attention-deficit disorders and developed the confounding stomach disease that had him throwing up blood and digestive acid until the end of his life.
There were also the recent reports, hastily configured by the Seattle radio station responsible for originally announcing his demise, that the police department had suddenly “reopened” the case. I guessed that they would turn out to be false, if not an outright hoax, and I was not wrong. Instead, a roll of film retained in the care of the department had been discovered by a curious officer with the twentieth anniversary of the suicide on his mind. The film was developed, and the narrative changed: reports now held that “unreleased” photos from the scene of the crime were to be posted, but that, in the words of a spokeswoman, they would contain “nothing earth-shattering”. Unreleased Nirvana material has usually meant demos, solo recordings, and outtakes, or in the case of a moving new book by SubPop founder Bruce Pavitt, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, images of the band at their most hopeful, most free. Placed in the awkward position of reigniting the territorial passions of the wrong kind of Nirvana fan, the Seattle P.D. put out a bunch of macabre images of actual human detritus. Far from being revelatory, the images reconfirmed, at least for those of us who have actually made a biographical rather than theoretical attempt at comprehending Kurt Cobain, that there was no mystery behind April 5, 1994.
That is not to let Courtney Love entirely off the hook. I have elsewhere commended her for putting up with the unbelievable nightmare of “marrying into psychosis”, and have credited her for saving Kurt from the suicide attempt, approximately one month earlier, that did not succeed. But it had happened in a hotel room that the two were sharing in Rome, which suggests that he’d wanted Courtney to be the first to feel it, and later, Charles Cross, whose Heavier than Heaven is one of the few truly indispensable contributions to the Nirvana legendarium (the other being Everett True’s unsentimental and almost too thorough epistle), wrote that Billy Corgan was among the names of several men Kurt had accused Courtney of sleeping with in a suicide note found at the scene. Posthumous interviews on the subject, with the only people who could have possibly known, were worse than unhelpful; I’m remain of the opinion that it probably happened, and more often than even Kurt was aware.
To see what the story would look like had it been actually true, perhaps it’s time to reexamine the supposed suicide of another musician equally as beloved for his creations as he was for his struggles with depression. Heroically writing for a largely unknown New York City culture blog, Alyson Camus has presented the only compelling case that what conspiracy theorists insist happened to Kurt Cobain actually did happen to Elliott Smith. Camus’ chronology of the discrepancies in the death of Elliott Smith begins with the improbable reaction of the singer – living some of the happiest years of his life – to a routine fight with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, and ends with the police arriving at the scene to find Chiba holding the knife. There were multiple stabs, apparently a rare occurrence when the weapon is wielded against ones self, and also no “hesitation wounds”, the minor cuts commonly found in the autopsy reports of stabbing suicides. Elliott Smith had been clean for over a year – compare that to Kurt Cobain, whose body was overloaded with a lethal dose of heroin – but somehow, in the narrative that ends with his death being “ruled” a suicide, had apparently not had the presence of mind to take off his shirt before inflicting the fatal cuts. Camus’ writing leaves something to be desired, but her findings are exhaustive and persuasive: I still find the fresh cuts found on Smith’s hands, alluded to by the doctor who’d performed the autopsy, to be the most damning evidence. Chiba told police that Smith had been self-mutilating, but Camus believes them to be defensive wounds.
On the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind, the big question floating around the culturati was a slightly offensive guessing game imagining an alternate timeline where Kurt decides not to kill himself. Mostly, his career ends up following that of any number of rock musicians: one more album, a solo project, a reunion tour. He watches Frances Bean grow up on the weekends he has custody. He demonstrates against the war; he votes for Barack Obama. He, according to one artist who just recently completed a series of portraits of musicians who died young, apparently grows into a chubby redneck. But one thing I hadn’t anticipated, this time around, was the degree to which people are still asking about how Kurt Cobain and Nirvana have resonated in pop culture since. We’ve finally made our peace with the dead and allowed ourselves to examine his legacy: Even Charles Cross has a short book out last month addressing this question, but I haven’t read it because the answer seems so obvious. Obvious, yes, and contra the conclusions of Pitchfork, which, in reviewing Cross’s book, seems to believe that Kurt’s influence is everywhere. There are those of us who would certainly like it to be, but much of what the man stood for has proceeded progressively along changes in social temperament that were angling into place long before he’d ever written his first song. I have argued that In Utero is a feminist, even Marxist manifesto, but I would never be so naive as to trace its lineage directly to, say, the Occupy movement, or Wendy Davis’ courageous filibuster in defense of reproductive rights.
A clearer connection, I think, might be to the “It Gets Better” campaign that the LGBT community and its allies produced a few years back. Meant to comfort young people struggling to define themselves in the midst of a culture war, the videos were equally confessional as they were confrontational, which is not a far cry from what In Utero was meant to achieve. Like that sonic one of Kurt Cobain, the catharsis did not always succeed, and several people featured in the videos ended up taking their own lives. But I remember, also, how quickly the dominoes of LGBT equality began to fall in the wake of “It Gets Better”. We overcame Don’t-Ask, Don’t-Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and Proposition 8, and so much of that battle was fought by our friends and neighbors and relatives who finally shared common cause to put a face to an idea. If there is one thing Kurt knew, it was how much courage it required to “come out” as anything: to be publicly gay, or poor, or divorced, or mentally ill, or a person of color. In Utero climbs from a pit of absent fathers into a world where everyone is gay (a more muscular statement of equality than anything in Lady Gaga’s insipid “Born This Way”). The original lyric, “all my words are grey”, is exactly the kind of impersonal cliche revised out of the final production that has come to categorize all of Nirvana’s most potent work, but more resonant, still, is the prediction he could not have known he was making with that track. It is the couplet “married / buried”, which, twenty years after the death of Kurt Cobain, still does the most impressive work in describing the fate of gay people in America.
But one thing I hadn’t anticipated, this time around, was the degree to which people are still asking about how Kurt Cobain and Nirvana have resonated in pop culture since. We’ve finally made our peace with the dead and allowed ourselves to examine his legacy.
If it was all incidental, then, what does Kurt leave us with today? If you discount the music, almost nothing. Those of us who love him and cherish his memory have had to be unsentimental about it because anything more would be just short of hagiographical. He leaves us with no profound message – of course racism and poverty are social ills – and few songs recognizable by the larger public. For a man who would rather burn out than fade away, he may be burning out faster than Elvis Presley: does anyone older than Kurt was when he died still consciously find herself putting on a Nirvana song? But it may just be in that almost-nothingness that we may find the last gasp of the man’s legacy, as a voice not just for the isolated and oppressed, but for every adolescent who, once able to fall asleep watching TV and wake up in his mother’s arms, was now been pressed by the twin depredations of capitalism and love to grow up and become a productive member of society. The finest day that he ever had, Kurt once told us, was when he learned to cry on command. We never have a need to ask for sympathy until the very day we discover that we can no longer locate our innocence. He was the voice not of a generation, but of the margins of a generation, a voice that had usually squeaked and coughed and whispered but was finally delivered to us, roaring and pissed off, as a bit of deafening courage for the least influential members of our and his time. As long as these social strata are perpetuated, and this doesn’t seem likely to abate before the next twenty-year cycle of Nirvana anniversaries either, and as long as its lowest rung is replenished by the freaks and geeks whom Kurt Cobain felt most comfortable being amongst, then at least they will have his music to guide them through. Twenty years later, he’s still their first ally; that, at least, is worth remembering.