What do you do when your dreams come true, and they’re not quite like you planned? For Kurt Cobain, the pain of fame became too much, says Caitlin Moran, a grieving fan
EVERY TELEPHONE is engaged. Every single person I know under the age of 35 is on the phone — and when I finally get through to them, they’re chain smoking and downing vodka at a vast rate of knots. The soundtrack in the background is always the same — stereos playing the second track from In Utero, where Kurt Cobain is screaming, like a man who’s drunk a whole bottle of whisky and then eaten the bottle: “Go away. Go away”. Cobain sounds as if he’s seen every light go out; the world in total darkness, threats and a length of barbed wire twined around his guts.
When In Utero came out a few months ago, reviewers thought it was driven by angst; a self-indulgent dismissal of his success and subsequent deification. Listening to it now, from inside a small fortress of empty bottles and ashtrays spilling with burnt-out tabs, it sounds like Cobain is kneeling in the foetus position, eyes screwed tight, lyric sheets thrown into a comer of the studio, and wailing the only words left in his head: “Go away. Go away…”
Born in 1967, Cobain was passed from relative to relative, finally being thrown out of his mother’s house for smoking pot at the age of 15. He lived rough for a while, rigging a tarpaulin tent under a bridge and living off what food he could hunt or scrounge. ‘Something In The Way’, the last track on the Nevermind album, describes this time: “Living off the grass and the/drippings from the ceiling/and it’s OK to eat fish ‘cos they/don’t have any feelings.”
He could already play guitar quite well. His favourite bands were the Beatles — the most famous and popular band in the world — and obscure hardcore bands such as the Meat Puppets and X-Men. This explains why Nirvana sounded like pop music that would make your eyes bleed — the pop sensibility on Nevermind and the more “accessible” tracks on In Utero is staggering — and also underlines Cobain’s problem when suddenly, in 1991 he became one of the most famous and talked-about people in rock.
In the 1980s and 1990s, very few good bands became successful. The underground was at its strongest, and even the big underground acts such as the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction and Throwing Muses never really crossed over into general public consciousness. As Nevermind sat at No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and the band gave endless interviews complaining about Nirvana being a public commodity, Cobain knew that he could list 20 bands who were, in his opinion, much more talented than Nirvana and yet could not have landed a No 1 album if you stapled a tenner to the LP cover and threw in a free stereo.
The reason Nevermind started walking out of the shop on the first day the original 40,000 copies were shipped to England — to date, the LP has sold nine million throughout the world — was because listeners recognised the grain of frustration, bewilderment and anger in Cobain’s voice. Everyone enjoys surfing on other people’s flood-tide emotions.
Cobain was raging against something, but didn’t know what it was. Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, along with ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream and Happy Mondays’ ‘Wrote For Luck’, became the theme for many people’s first grasp at adolescent freedom.
BUT THE lyrics for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ were completely unintelligible. MTV ran a competition, asking viewers to write in with their version of what they thought Cobain was singing. Not one person got them right.
So, as such, Cobain was not a spokesman for our generation — but he screamed on our behalf; and he was the only one who had any kind of commercial clout. Cobain had no words to describe just how he felt and why the world spun in the opposite direction from the one in which he wished to walk, just an immutable fury and a bloodied wail that let you know you were entering a High Tension Area as soon as you put on a Nirvana record.
This desire to express the unexpressible is, perhaps, one of the reasons why he turned to heroin, a drug that turns the volume on the voices in your head down, and allows you to stumble in semi-sleep through your life.
Perhaps Cobain had always thought that being rich and successful with a child he’d die for and a wife who would die for him would close up the vacuum in his head that was gradually absorbing the rest of his mind. The fact that it didn’t may be the reason he complained so vociferously in interviews.
To know you have everything and it still isn’t enough is a debilitating knowledge. To know, on top of that, that a sizeable part of the world’s youth either looks to you for guidance, or would kill to be in your shoes, just adds salt to the wounds.
People with a stable upbringing would struggle to cope with the course Cobain took after Nevermind. He struggled against the tide for a while, until he was swallowing three parts sea water to one part air; and then decided to bow out.
Compared to the death of John Lennon, or the unfortunate Sid , Vicious, press coverage of Cobain’s suicide seemed quite low-key, and slightly confused. The Teletext obituary said that Cobain “remained largely unknown to those over the age of 35”. It’s a shame for you “over the age of 35”, and a shame for us “under the age of 35”. For the Kids it means we don’t get the chance to mourn Cobain properly. And for the Adults it means you missed out on the fire-burnished, fractured beauty of a furious recording career.
For someone who rubbed verdigris on Rock Music so it became shiny and beautiful again; for someone who brought (cliché alert) so much to other people’s lives, it’s heart-breaking to know Cobain’s own life was so painful. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s finally stopped hurting. What more could I say?
© Caitlin Moran, The Times, 15 April 1994