Kurt Cobain

WHEN ROCK stars die, it’s usually as a result of living too well, taking too much, going too fast, getting too high.

Kurt Cobain was different. He took heroin but he did so to deaden the pain of existence, exacerbated by a chronic stomach problem, not to achieve a heightened state of bliss. He took too much Rohipnol and champagne, going into a 20-hour coma in February 1994 but only in an effort to lapse into a womb-like unconsciousness.

Cobain had a difficult, lonely upbringing but when Nirvana struck paydirt, he achieved fame, critical and commercial adulation, wealth, and a glamorous wife. Yet it wasn’t enough for him. It turned in on him like a sick joke, made him sick to his stomach.

Gene Simmons of Kiss, perhaps the rock star most heartily well-adjusted to the demands of fame, to whom the pained, left-field sensibilities of a Cobain are a mystery, scoffed at his inability to handle success thus: “If you’re uncomfortable about the amount of money you’re making out of rock music, here’s the solution. Make out a personal cheque to G Simmons because I will gladly take the burden of your money off you and become even richer. I support Kurt Cobain’s right to kill himself. I wish more rock stars would. Because when they’re gone it leaves more of the world to me.”

It’s easy to laugh along with Simmons. A whiney, self-pitying little asshole Kurt may have been, but the story of his desperate, deliberate demise goes directly to the heart of the rock myth, raging implacably against the condition of life itself.

In the Nick Broomfield documentary, Kurt And Courtney, we hear eerie reel-to-reel tape of the very young Cobain gleefully caterwauling some pop song. It’s all the more poignant, knowing what cruel bodyblows life had waiting for this vivacious, unspoilt little spirit. Before he was 10, his parents divorced. The break-up apparently scarred Kurt for life. Growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, a small logging town miles from anywhere, under the leaden, grey, serotonin-sapping skies of Seattle, shunted between his father’s trailer and his mother’s house, he felt he didn’t really belong anywhere. Unable to relate to the jocks’n’cheerleaders scene of his school, he imagined he must be gay. He hung out in the library, on friends’ floors, even under a dilapidated bridge on the edge of town. In 1985, he was arrested for petty, pointless acts of vandalism. Life seemed pointless.

Utterly disaffected, he found solace in the distant buzz of punk – a mixture of US New Wavers like The Wipers, Black Flag and Flipper, as well as British imports like The Raincoats. He started recording and, by the late Eighties, having formed Nirvana, was modestly surfing the Sub-Pop wave alongside Tad and Mudhoney. He was something like happy. “I can’t work among people,” he said. He didn’t want a job. This was an alternative to life, indulging in primal scream therapy on the indie margins, bumming by. Had Kurt somehow managed to eke out his days in a second-division grunge band, he might have made it. But then, it never happens that way. You have to take your chances. And Kurt, unfortunately, was tinged by genius. There was a silvery pop lining to Nirvana’s music that made them glisten among the grunge grey. And, of course, there was something about Kurt, a raw nerve, a harrowing vulnerability, lacking in his contemporaries. American rock was about to experience its belated punk shock, blowing away years of bloated metal, ageing rockers and mullet-headed mediocrities and, with the acid-tipped anthem of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Kurt would be its figurehead.

Trouble was, as Kurt himself later groaned, “I never wanted this in the first place!” He was troubled by the number of jocks and macho squareheads now headbanging to Nirvana. “We’re not proud that there are a bunch of Guns N’ Roses kids into our music. We don’t feel comfortable playing larger venues,” he complained. These were not the people he was singing to but how could he stop them from buying his records? He had no evangelical rock desire to spread the word (what word?). Moreover, now that he was a Big Rock Star he couldn’t wander into some bar without being heaped with abuse. So he couldn’t go out. That was life.

As for the money, you knew he meant it when he said that acquiring the first Raincoats album meant more to him than making his first million. Hell, there were probably times when he would have made out that cheque to Gene Simmons. Have it all, Gene. It’s brought me nothing.

It wasn’t all bad – he fell in love with and married Courtney Love, the “best fuck in the world”. He bought into her feminism, would himself strike defiantly effeminate gestures – wearing lipstick and eyeliner, even dresses onstage, come on provocatively faggoty on the asses of the loathsome jocks and macho types out there. He cultivated the feminine side of his nature (as Courtney cultivated the masculine side of hers). They were perfectly matched.

But now his life would really spiral into soap opera. The madness was about to multiply. Like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons, he responded to the stress with another bout of stomach pains. It was these that made him switch from marijuana to heroin. He openly declared himself determined to get a habit.

It wasn’t Courtney who introduced Kurt to smack, contrary to suggestions – but it didn’t help matters that she joined in. In 1992, it emerged in an interview that she had apparently taken heroin during the time she was pregnant with Frances Bean Cobain. This would set up a face-off with the authorities – Kurt’s terror that Frances would eventually be taken into care was even suggested as a reason for his eventual suicide.

With stories of bust-ups, drugs raids and firearms incidents trickling out on a regular basis, Kurt and Courtney fell into a siege mentality, a narcotic paranoia. Journalists who dared to suggest all was not well were ostracised. When an unauthorised biography of the couple by Victoria Clarke and Britt Collins was published, Courtney responded by physically attacking Clarke at a party, Kurt by leaving a rambling, threatening message on her answerphone.

On the musical side, Nirvana’s follow-up was full of “Fuck you” messages to the corporate record company beast that was feeding Cobain from the poisoned chalice of celebrity. In Utero had gone by the working title of I Hate Myself And I Want To Die.

He first attempted to do so in March 1994, falling into a coma after an overdose of Rohipnol and champagne in Rome. No one really bought the PR damage limitation spin. Then, in April, having gone AWOL from a drugs rehabilitation clinic, he returned home, took some drugs, sat down in a chair by a window overlooking Puget Sound and blew his head off with a Remington model II, 20-gauge shotgun. “It’s not fun for me anymore. I can’t live this life,” read his suicide note.

Kurt was both vilified and santicified for his death, regarded as both coward and saint. Certainly, though sensational, even salutary, it was a life-denying, utterly uninspiring gesture. Maybe if he’d taken some sort of political stand, like Eddie Vedder, tilting against the windmill of the Ticketmaster money machine, he might have found some meaning. As it was, the unquenchable sense of alienation, despair and rage at the limits of life which gave rise to his music, ultimately reclaimed him. The drugs hadn’t worked – in the end he had to do the job himself.

No life, not even the good life, was good enough. Everything fell short of Nirvana.

© David StubbsUncut, August 2000

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