Cobain carried his demons on ride to the top

HIS CUTTING-EDGE band brought punk rock ideals and alternative music to the American mainstream. He was a millionaire and a provocateur. He should have been sitting on top of the world and he knew it.

Kurt Cobain – lead singer-songwriter guitarist for Nirvana – exited the world last week, apparently by taking a shotgun to his head in Seattle. Authorities don’t know exactly when he died; Cobain’s mother said she’d been trying to reach him for six days and feared he was dead.

Last year, Cobain wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’, that was originally slated to be on the band’s In Utero album.

How did he mean it?

“Nothing more than a joke,” Cobain told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in January. “It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves. I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. . . . And I thought it was a funny title. I wanted it to be the title of the album for a long time. But I knew the majority of people wouldn’t understand it.” Nirvana pulled the song from the album. It was recently released on the Beavis & Butt-head compilation.

Fricke believed Cobain was, indeed, coming around. Cobain, who had suffered severe stomach pains for years and tried to self-medicate those pains with heroin, had seemingly turned a corner: gone clean, gotten married to Hole singer Courtney Love, had a baby girl, Frances Bean. He supposedly was coming to terms with celebrity.

Said Cobain: “I’m a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am.”

But suicide – even this particular method of suicide – had long been on Cobain’s mind. Last year, Cobain told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad in a Musician story that his stomach pain made him suicidal. “I was so angry with my body that I couldn’t deal with anyone socially,” said Cobain, adding that he turned to heroin to alleviate the pain. “I was determined to get a habit. I wanted to. It was my choice. I said, ‘This is the only thing that’s saving me from blowing my head off right now . . .”

Last month in Rome, Cobain was found in a near-fatal coma, the result of a champagne and tranquilizer mix. Nirvana recently scrapped a European tour, and bowed out of the Lollapalooza tour this summer. Rumors of a breakup were beginning to circulate prior to Cobain’s death.

Nirvana hit the big-time in 1991-92 with their second album, Nevermind, and its huge hit, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, a caustic song that railed against apathy, an anti-anthem that nevertheless became an anthem. It catapulted a shy, reclusive Cobain – a musician whose initial idea about playing rock ‘n’ roll was to play rhythm guitar in the background – into cover-boy status. His songs – full of rage, sarcasm, anguish, self-loathing and dead-end dreams – connected with a generation for whom expectations were diminished.

“He was responsible for writing songs and playing music that ushered in an enormous change in perspective in the mainstream culture in America,” said Nirvana producer Steve Albini, reached in Chicago. “His significance as an artist is obvious. I was never a fan of that genre and considered Nirvana a fairly typical example of it. That said, obviously they were originators rather than imitators and they were more influential than they were influenced. They were clearly important, a landmark event in rock music.”

Said Throwing Muses’ singer Kristin Hersh, “Nirvana changed a lot for the world. We’re lucky that way. I know Nirvana didn’t sell eight million records just because they’re good – I know it’s because they were trendy and timely and because they wrote good songs. But they wrote strictly pop songs. We’re just so lucky that they were good.”

Talk of Cobain was everywhere in area music shops yesterday. “Everyone’s having these conversation cliques,” said Peter Prescott, guitarist for the band Kustomized, who works at Mystery Train. “The people span lots of different age groups and interests. That’s why they sold so many records. They were an odd thing – despite where they came from, everybody loved it. They saw it as pop music on a certain level. Plenty of people – older, younger, people who never bought grunge records before – bought that one.”

“No one’s walking around in black, mourning,” said Amy Lamotta, customer service representative at HMV in Cambridge, “but there certainly is a sense of sadness. It’s tragic that someone who had so much and it’s all gone. We’ve been getting a lot of calls for hard-to-find Nirvana CDs, imports.”

Nirvana’s earlier lyrics were fragmented, cryptic, oblique. On last year’s In Utero album, which Albini co-produced, Cobain focused more clearly: And he focused on pain, torment, the pressures of the star-making machinery. It’s a brooding, dark, dense album. The album closes with the soft, stirring ‘All Apologies’, where Cobain intones, “Everything’s my fault…”

No doubt, many people today are responding to Cobain’s suicide the way they did to the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in 1980: That he meant what he wrote about, that the pain was real, not just an artistic pose. That the demons kept dancing, even after success came calling. Sad as it is, this is stuff of which rock myths – and posthumous superstardom – are made.

“It’s a shame that he chose to kill himself,” said Albini. “Having not been in his position I can’t begin to fathom why he would decide to do that. I don’t feel I have the moral or philosophical purchase to criticize him for behaving the way he did. . . . We got along famously, but Kurt never really opened himself up to me in the studio; we were never close. I got the impression that there were so many people who wanted to be in his confidence and he was tired of people wanting to be sympathetic to him, so I gave him the respect of his privacy. It was a matter of decency. He had enough people badgering him for his attention.”

© Jim SullivanThe Boston Globe, 10 April 1994

Leave a Comment