AND SO, to quote his mother, the only person who appears to have been actively concerned about his well-being in the last few days of his life, he’s joined “that stupid club” in the sky.
Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, John Lennon. And now Kurt Cobain.
In Cobain’s case, however, there’s a big difference. Rock’n’roll mythology is fed and defined by its occasional deaths. Usually, these are due to some excess or other – driving too fast, getting too high, taking too much, going too far, the romantic pushing bock of life’s envelope, testing the limits, wanting too much, wanting it now, forfeiting tomorrow in the bargain.
Rock’n’roll mythology dictates that its heroes die because they wanted to live too much.
Kurt Cobain, however, didn’t want to live. He wanted to die. It may be, as has been suggested, that he committed suicide as a result of a temporary bout of chemically induced depression inevitable after coming out of a Roipnol coma. Whatever. What’ll be remembered in 20 years time is that Kurt Cobain, rock star, at the height of his powers, died by his own hand.
THERE ISN’T really a precedent for this. Ian Curtis hanged himself when Joy Division were in their prime, but that was for personal, domestic reasons and Curtis was for from being a star, with all the concomitant pressures and temptations that implies. The whole imperative of Cobain’s life was life-negating. As Simon Reynolds once wrote, it was as if he wanted to say to that baby in the womb-like waters on the cover of Nevermind: be born and you’re making the first, and worst mistake of your life.
What was so awful about Kurt Cobain’s life? Were his circumstances so bad? Was being born in 20th-century America, joining a rock band, marrying Courtney Love, living in a mansion and selling millions of records really such a terrible fate?
In some ways, it turned out, yes. But Cobain’s pain wasn’t so much inflicted from outside as internal, like the perennial stomach pains he suffered that apparently baffled doctors.
To live was to hurt.
KURT COBAIN was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, a small, timber and logging town about 100 miles south west of Seattle. Shitkickersville, in other words. He had no father figure to speak of (“I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a Dad,” he sings on ‘Serve The Servants’ from In Utero) and all his life felt uncomfortable with, and nauseated by, American notions of “manhood”.
He dreamt of being a rock star, he said, because at 12 “I thought that would be my payback to all the jocks who got girlfriends all the time.”
His feelings of disenchantment were total. “We’re just babbling idiots…opinionated white trash,” he mumbled in an early interview. “I burnt myself out when I was 13. I was really weird then. I decided at seven that all my surroundings sucked, there was no sign of anyone who would be into art or music.”
Bored, he allegedly would break into other people’s houses just to trash them, not to steal anything. Just for a buzz. Then he found the buzz in punk. Now, the notion of alienated youth finding solace in left-field music from the bland conformism of everyday society is familiar enough. To be a punk in America, however, is very different from being a punk in Britain.
Britain is a smaller, closer knit, more claustrophobic country. You’re never more than 40 miles from a big city, where you’ll quickly find an almost obscene abundance of post-punk likemindedness, a densely enmeshed cultural network. When punk happened in England, it contaminated everything in the end – from music to hairstyles to graphics to TV.
In America, by contrast, you might walk through a thousand miles of desert without bumping into anyone else who had heard of The Sex Pistols. The majority of Americans live in scattered small towns, one-jukebox outposts where the sense of rootlessness, lack of history and indifference to culture is more palpable. If you don’t like it, move on someplace else, shift with the sands.
The sheer scale of America exacerbates any burgeoning sense of desolation in the outsider. It’s a long and lonesome drive to wherever it is you want to get to, and who’s to say you’ll ever find it?
To be a punk in England was to go to Feltham or Bromley. In the United States, punk was a faraway place and kindred souls were far away from each other, with no weekly music press, communicating by post and Fanzine networks.
Maybe this is why American indie-types are more rigid in their “no-bullshit” line on the commercial mainstream, wear their hair long and their T-shirts plain to testify how “honest” and “real” they are, and suffer such qualms, should they become successful, about having abandoned their punk roots. Pearl Jam and Counting Crows breast-beated on this score; Nirvana certainly did. Not like in Britain, where the clever, post-modern thing for indie bands to declare in interviews is that they want to get on TOTP as soon as possible.
So anyway, the young Kurt got into The Sex Pistols, The Wipers, Black Flag (whom he thought were “too macho”, but connected with Rollins’ vulnerability beneath the squalls of rage). Also, however, he picked up on Young Marble Giants, Jad Fair and The Raincoats, feminists, oddballs, outsiders, whose music chimed in with his sensibilities in a less obvious way. Only last year he said that re-acquiring the first Raincoats album meant more to him than making his first million. It probably did.
He formed Nirvana in the Sub Pop wave that followed the blank, rock howl of The Pixies, You suspect that those first few years, bumming around in the back of a van supporting Tad, just another name on the Sub Pop roster, were the happiest of Kurdt’s life. (He still had the ‘d’ back then.) “I don’t wanna have any other kind of job,” he declared in an early interview. “I can’t work among people. I may as well try to make a career out of this.”
Gigging along, one of the pack, grinding out grunge, Kurt might have been content on a modest, even keel. It was an alternative to a life, certainly. He could whinge, scream, confess, play, to his heart’s content. But there was always a poppy, silvery lining about Nirvana’s music amid the grey clouds of Sub Pop rock.
This dysfunctional little dork Cobain, his voice as whimpery as a lost little boy’s, yet hoarse and smoky as if given to more sinister bouts of pyschotic range, had a way of informing and distorting Nirvana’s rock sound with his peculiar sensibilities. When he struck a chord, he struck a nerve. Inevitably, the majors were interested. And Kurdt, in spite of later declaring of his success, “I never wanted this in the first place!” had frequently declared early on, “All my life my dream has been to be a big rock star – may as well abuse it while you can.”
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ broke huge in 1991. It was hailed as the first “grunge anthem” and altered the whole balance of the relationship between punk, metal and commercial radio. The likes of Motley Crue are still now trying to come to terms with its impact, while proto-grungers such as Bob Mould and Henry Rollins enjoyed Indian Summers to their own careers.
Kurt, now d-less, was appointed Slacker spokesman, though he insisted Nirvana were against that mentality. As the hotels got bigger and the vans swankier, Cobain and co seemed to lapse into a nihilistic bout of violence, smashing up rooms, setting fire to curtains.
Puerile, unreconstructed rock’n’roll animalism or a subconscious rejection of Nirvana’s new-found success?
As the album, Nevermind, consolidated Nirvana’s commercial dominance, Kurt began to express misgivings at the kind of people who were turning up to his gigs. Jocks, the macho enemy, the kids who got all the girlfriends at school. Over-adjusted, mainstream types. Metal kids. “We’re not proud of the fact that there are a bunch of Guns N’Roses kids into our music. We don’t feel comfortable playing larger venues,” he complained.
Kurt, it rapidly transpired, was no Bono, anxious to spread some message as wide as possible, able to place wry, post-modern, inverted commas around the trappings of success. He recalled going into some bar and a bunch of very drunk kids abusing him: “aah, rock star!”, then some guy coming up and asking him to give him his $14 dollars back for the new Nirvana album he just bought because he thought it sucked and Kurt was a millionaire now, he could afford to give him his money back. So now he couldn’t go out.
LIFE WAS beginning to hurt again. Why wasn’t it just about the music any more? This new stuff sucked. His stomach began to hurt. He began to whinge about his new-found success and, needless to say, was roundly derided and pilloried for doing so.
And then along came Courtney Love. Now the circus really began. The Kurt’n’Courtney soap opera.
Much was made, still is made, about Courtney Love’s impact on Kurt Cobain. Yoko Ono, they called her. A Nancy Spungen wannabe, a groupie who’d been around the block a few times sponging off the younger, more gullible Cobain. While there have to be doubts about her influence over his life, now is hardly the time to conduct a full-blown inquest into their relationship. I’m certainly not competent to do so, in any case.
Courtney Love is credited with introducing Kurt to drugs in a big way. According to biographer Michael Azerrad, it was the other way around, in Amsterdam. His stomach pains were getting worse and he declared himself determined to get a habit. “If I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself for a reason instead of some stupid stomach problem. So I decided to take everything in excess all at once,” he said.
In interviews with the couple, Courtney’s naively incontinent babble of media-hungry garrulousness, in which, ironically, she pleaded to be left alone by the media, made her seem more dominant than her husband. They occasionally snapped at one another in interviews. To cynics, Kurt seemed henpecked. While his wife was engaging in verbal catharsis, however, Kurt was suffering in silence. “I just don’t like to get intimate. I don’t want anyone to know what I feel and what I think, and if they can’t get some kind of an idea of what sort of person I am through my music, then that’s too bad.”
The warmest feelings Kurt felt for Courtney, it strikes me, is in his identification with her feminism. This was no lip service – feminism, his loathing of “the American macho male”, was one of Kurt’s strongest emotions, fundamental to what he was. He didn’t wear a dress onstage just to appease Courtney’s PC sensibilities but as a stark, aggressive, f*** you to all the jocks out there, the typical American males from whom he felt disenchanted, whom he loathed.
When The Stud Brothers interviewed Kurt last year, he was wearing heavy eyeliner and nail varnish, defiantly effeminate. In interviews, he cited ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ a paean to the rebel Hollywood blonde, subsequently lobotomised, as a parallel with the fate of his own wife at the hands of Vanity Fair magazine, who had suggested she had taken heroin during her pregnancy.
Call this fanciful but I suspect it was he who identified with Frances Farmer, that his empathies, not just his sympathies, were for women, that the real male/female battle was in his own nature, with the female coming out uppermost. How else could he write a song entitled ‘Rape Me’?
Who knows, maybe he loved Courtney because he wanted to be Courtney.
WHATEVER, THEY presented a defiantly close-knit front in public, in spite of their volatile relationship (Kurt was arrested for alleged wife-beating), even at the expense of good relationships with other band members. Drugs inevitably fed their paranoia. Courtney would think she heard burglars in the night, Kurt would have to go downstairs with a handgun and investigate. The paranoia naturally extended to the media. Journalists who had known them for years who openly expressed concern over Kurt’s increasing use of drugs, were ostracised and they went into public paroxysms of rage at an unauthorised biography by Victoria Clarke and Britt Collins.
Courtney was rumoured to have attacked Clarke at a party; Kurt reputedly left an answerphone message with the writers in which he ranted, “I’ll f***ing hurt you…I’ll give you anything you want, I’m begging you, I’m on my knees and my mouth is wide open. You have no idea what you are doing…parasitic little c***s!”
Like Nirvana’s music, this message seems to oscillate between pathetic whimpering and psychotic fury.
All of this ballyhoo exacerbated the sense that Kurt and Courtney were so anxious to suppress – that all was not well. There were problems surrounding the third album. The record company weren’t happy with the job Steve Albini had done on the production. Neither was Kurt – but why bring in this punkish, arch-foe of corporate rock if not, albeit subconsciously, to f*** up the success of the new album? Certainly, the proposed title of “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” didn’t bespeak an anxiety to follow up the commercial success of Nevermind.
When it did emerge, In Utero proved to be loaded with f*** you songs to the record company. ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ was sledgehammer satire. ‘Penny Royal Tea’ was a scornful rejection of money, of which Kurt now had plenty. Even the likes of ‘Heart Shaped Box’ contained sardonic sideswipes at his new-found media image.
But if he secretly wanted Nirvana to become the new Beastie Boys, plummeting back to oblivion with the second album, he was to be disappointed. In Utero was another big seller.
WHICH BRINGS us more or less to date. The Roipnol-induced coma incident in Rome came as no surprise to insiders. Previous such incidents had been hushed up. The damage limitation machinery went into overdrive and these past few weeks were full of press releases announcing that Kurt was sitting up sprightly in bed, looking forward to the next tour, etc, etc. Courtney was cancelling her Hole dates to “see to the health of my immediate family.”
Where she was, or anyone else surrounding Kurt, in the last six days of his life, we’re only beginning to piece together at the time of going to press. Having apparently contemplated suicide at the height of the Vanity Fair scandal and later, during his final Rolling Stone interview, Kurt Cobain mode good his word last week, alone, at home. Evidently, he had alienated everyone close to him so much that it took an electrician, rather than a friend or domestic help, to discover his body.
There’s a lot of people whose arses need kicking over this whole sorry story but the person whose arse I’d most want to kick is Kurt’s.
There’s a big part of me that wants to say: “You sad, weak, pathetic, self-indulgent little jerk. There’s people whose lives are far worse than yours who have shown far more courage in facing up to their burdens. You, given he glorious opportunities of money, fame and talent, with commercial success having visited you on your own terms, chose to squander it all on a needless decline, departing this life by the coward’s exit – suicide, leaving others to clear up the mess like you did your whole life. You took drugs, forever insisting that that was “My f**ing prerogative and no one else’s business.”
Maybe it was.
It’s also f***ing stupid, scummy and sleazy and, even though he didn’t intend to, the mere spectacle of a rock star taking drugs inevitably serves to glamorise them.
But however tragic and squalid a rock’n’roll death may be, it inevitably confers significance upon the victim and upon rock music as a whole. In the case of Hendrix, it froze him in our minds, arrested a supreme, fiery moment of Sixties ascendancy as embodied in one supremely talented individual, forever. Jim Morrison’s death epitomised the Sixties dream gone bloated and sour. Ian Curtis’ death inadvertently reflected the apocalyptic, nuclear war-fearing despondency of the early Eighties.
Crudely put, Kurt Cobain is the Slacker Martyr. The whole grunge ethic of dropping out because life sucks strikes many as lazy, parasitical and apolitical in its supine, despairing refusal to stand up and fight back.
But Kurt Cobain might well have died for this principle. He spent much of his life in physical and psychological pain. Punk provided existential solace for a while. Then he become popular, so it wasn’t about the music any more but all this other soap opera shit. He turned to drugs to ease the pain, maybe to die. But even the drugs didn’t kill him, they just f***ed him up. So in the end he had to do the job himself.
Here was a man who simply didn’t want to live because to live is to hurt. There was no way back to the womb (In Utero), so he had to go the other way. And here’s the nub of the reproach the rock music, essentially, articulates. It’s beyond politics. Even in an ecologically balanced, perfect socialist state, with a nice house, nice car, nice food and nice family for everybody, rock’n’roll will f*** up, kick over the traces.
Only guys like the one in the song ‘Dumb’, from In Utero, are naturally anaesthetised to the stable mediocrity of everyday existence. Because rock music is about implacable desire, wanting more, not wanting equanimity. It wasn’t appalling social conditions but the condition of life itself that proved intolerable for Kurt Cobain. His stomach hurt, so did his soul. No life, not even the good life, was good enough. Everything falls short of Nirvana.
It’s a pathetic story – but in the best, most dramatic sense.
© David Stubbs, Melody Maker, 16 April 1994