NIRVANA SINGER AND SONGWRITER. THE FIRST TRUE ROCK AND ROLL STAR OF THE NINETIES.
ON THE EIGHTH of April 1994, the day that Kurt Cobain’s death was duly made known to the world, several of the Nirvana leader’s closest peers and kindred spirits found themselves staggering around Paris, trying to promote their latest albums to the French media but getting bombarded instead by insistent queries about the exact nature of their relationships with the recently coma-ridden Cobain.
You could see they were sick of hearing the guy’s name, of being asked what drugs he was really taking and what his boisterous spouse Courtney Love was really like. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, who personally introduced Nirvana both to their current record label Geffen and their management firm Gold Mountain, is a normally garrulous fellow, but whenever he was asked about Cobain’s condition he would grow uncharacteristically subdued. “It’s a sad business what’s going on with him right now,” the Sonic Youth guitarist commented cryptically at one point. “It’s too bad as well, ‘cos Kurt’s a nice guy. You only hope he can come through something like that.”
Only a matter of a few streets away from where Moore was holding forth, the humongous Tad Doyle and his group Tad — Seattle-based bosom buddies of Cobain’s and the rest of Nirvana from the very beginning — wasn’t feeling much like commenting on his old buddy Kurt either, mainly because Tad had recently been kicked off a Nirvana support slot by Kurt himself after the 3004+ lb guitarist referred to Courtney Love in the press as a “bitch”. “Sure, I wouldn’t have said it if I thought Kurt would react that way,” remarked Doyle slightly tetchily, “but saying that doesn’t alter how I feel about the woman.”
Finally it was down to Soundgarden to really let the spleen roll on the subject of their Seattle rivals. “Cobain and Vedder — those guys really have a hard time of things,” remarked their guitarist Kim Thayil at one point during the afternoon. “People follow them around all the time with cameras in their faces and they always want to know what drugs they’re taking. Their fame happened overnight, see. One minute they’re the guys in the street minding their own business and playing their guitars. The next minute they’re older, they’re millionaires and they’re on every magazine cover in the world. These two guys, overnight, their lives were shattered. With Soundgarden we were gradually obliterated. We had our fingers removed one at a time. Cobain and Vedder just had their heads chopped off.”
Two hours after Thayil’s remark was made, at almost exactly 7pm, he along with the rest of Soundgarden and Tad got the news via a transatlantic phone call made to the promoter of the Paris venue they were playing that night. The fame-leeches hadn’t chopped Cobain’s head off, he’d blown it off himself with a shot-gun while all alone, having alienated practically everyone he’d ever been close to. He’d taken a bunch of drugs and he’d written a rambling, rather pathetic suicide note and then purposefully placed his identity card and driver’s license on his chest, so that whoever found him with his face splashed all over the wall would know instantly who it was laying there. This time, quite clearly, Kurt Cobain didn’t want any mistakes made about how he was going out.
Coming only a few months after the gifted young actor River Phoenix’s equally senseless OD, Kurt Cobain’s suicide is likely to be one of those white-hot media enquiries destined to run and run, as more sordid titbits of his singular slacker eccentricities rise to the surface and yet more fairweather, flannel-brained friends “who knew the real Kurt better than anyone else” spout self-righteous eulogies about the terrible price of fame and how all the media vultures never giving him any peace is what really caused him to pull that fatal trigger.
Cobain himself bellyached about it to the press almost as ceaselessly as he bemoaned those strangely undiagnosable “stomach problems” that so cursed his life, but I always saw his griping as a punk-rock pose and essentially a cop-out on his part. I mean, this guy was planning on being a rock-star from the age of two. The only thing he could ever feel half-way motivating was playing guitar, writing songs and singing them in a voice that sounded like one of those chamois-leather cloths they use for washing cars being methodically ripped down the middle. In truth, Cobain probably had all his “major-league rock icon” moves worked out far in advance of the early fall of 1991 when his trio finally got catapulted rudely into the greater public eye. He always professed to hate all the attention that fame presented him with, and yet the first thing he did upon going platinum was to marry Courtney Love, a young woman who wantonly draws attention to herself like a magnet sucks up tiny ball-bearings.
Throughout Michael Azerrad’s excellent biography of Nirvana, Come As You Are, Cobain comes across as part-likeable-sensitive-tortured-soul and part-petulant-whingeing-mess. The more you read about him, the more you realise that nothing was ever good enough for this guy. His parents let him down by splitting up when he was eight, and he could never forgive them for subsequently making him feel so unwanted and wretchedly bereft of self-esteem. He was rather a sickly and under-developed figure of a young man who got picked on a lot, but the one time he responded to a physical attack he got so caught up in his rage he ended up putting his assailant in hospital with a coma. He clearly felt an overwhelming spiritual kinship with all the outsiders of society, openly fantasising about being gay – even though he was really just another slightly confused heterosexual.
He’d become a confirmed pot-head as early as the age of ten and naturally felt drawn to an older group of local stoner outcasts, at least one of whom robbed chemists from time to time, duly initiating a 13-year-old Cobain into the perilous joys of consuming narcotic and opiate medication. He always claimed that the intense stomach pains that blighted his life from his mid-teens to his untimely death came from some unknown source, but the years he spent punishing his intestines with all manner of cheesy pain pills washed down with the most disgusting codeine-infected cough medicines available almost certainly provided the direct cause for why his poor old guts ached so viciously. In fact, as far as drug abuse and overwhelming suicidal impulses starting to engulf him, you could argue that Cobain was a lost and broken soul just before Nevermind‘s cataclysmic success, if Azerrad’s depiction of the singer throughout 1991 is any indication.
I mean, here he was with all this beyond-his-wildest-dreams stuff happening to him, all this vital music pouring out of him, all this new-found acceptance coming his way as well as money and acclaim, and all the guy wanted to do was sleep through the whole experience.
“I would prefer to be in a coma and just be woken up and wheeled out onstage and play and then be put back in my own little world,” Cobain is quoted by Azerrad as blithely admitting at one point. “Everyday simple pleasures that people might have in having conversations or talking about inane things I just find really boring, so I’d rather just be asleep.”
Add to this somnambulistic propensity a sudden jolting rise in one’s immediate cash flow, and the noisy arrival in your day-today existence of a woman you see as the love of your life and who loves to get high on dangerous drugs just as much as you do, and you have all the ingredients you possibly need for impending personal disaster. I mean, this word “tragedy” keeps getting thrown around about the way this guy went out but how much of a tragedy is it when someone who so ardently craved to embrace the void 24 hours a day as Cobain did finally got his wish? I still can’t get over the fact that here was a man who when he was first revived after his last suicide-bid coma over in Rome, scribbled Fuck You as his personal message to all those who’d succeeded in pulling him back to life. In ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Cobain’s texts shift from lines ringing with howling cynicism towards the whole cathartic rock’n’roll experience he and his group once seem by the same token so totally swept up in, until they descend on one word which he concludes the song by screaming over and over again. The word is “denial”, something the singer as a hardened junkie and a hater of life knew far too much about for his frail soul to finally come to terms with.
Even the sketchy details of his final days currently available scream volumes to anyone conversant with the way heroin addiction first breaks its victim’s spirit, exiles him from his nearest and dearest, drives him crazy and then casually snuffs him out, after yet another night of soul-sucking moral conflicts and the black kink of hopelessness even the most numbing high can’t obliterate proves too unendurable to even contemplate. Cobain’s denial of his drug addiction had sent him off on the lam from a drug rehab clinic, had apparently destroyed both his group and his marriage, and finally caused him to deny himself his own life.
It remains a heart-rending scenario however, firstly because the guy was somebody’s father, somebody’s husband and somebody’s son and his embracing the void will leave a gaping void in their lives that won’t vanish as quickly as all the tawdry headlines. His fans, admirers will continue to play his music, salute his unwashed image whenever it gets aired on TV and quickly start looking around for some new maladjusted-but-charismatic young unwitting voice of a generation to hang their hopes and focus their wild romantic fantasies on.
Countless articles will appear mourning the death of grunge, and tossing in the suitable Sid Vicious comparisons, but this is just a sad little tale about a guy who never felt good about being alive, who channelled that screaming unease into a remarkable body of rock’n’roll performances and who then ended it all by shooting his face off. One can only hope his soul has finally found some sort of rest.
© Nick Kent, MOJO, June 1994