ROCK KILLS. The list of victims is too long and depressing to print here. We still raise an eyebrow when another tortured Narcissus bites the dust, but the impact has been dwindling ever since the cataclysmic nine months in the early seventies when Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all made the ultimate career move.
And suicide surprises us least of all. It has been suggested that taking your own life is a gesture of selfishness, and who’s more consumed by ego than your standard rock god or goddess? But the suicide of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, five years ago today, was something out of the ordinary. Cobain was the rock’n’roll martyr to end all rock’n’roll martyrs, the sensitive guy who shot himself in the mouth because he cared about his art too much, who would rather die than continue ‘faking it’.
Nirvana, the first band to make grunge sell, were big boys who wanted to be small. Cobain, the major-label artist with the number-one album who almost split up his group in a dispute over royalties, actually envied indie minnows who recorded in their outside toilets. Fame numbed him. ‘I can’t fool any of you: it simply isn’t fair to you or to me,’ he wrote in his bizarrely lucid suicide note.
Popping his sneakers, Cobain made this final plea to his followers: don’t sell your soul, success sucks, stick to your independent ideals. Kurt was dead, but things were going to change for the better.
Then a strange thing happened: almost immediately, indie decided to follow Kurt to the other side. Within days of his suicide, Cobain’s last words were emblazoned across overpriced T-shirts. Sales of Nirvana albums tripled, but even they were soon eclipsed by those of Blur and Oasis, ‘independent’ artists with no real wish to be anything but all-out pop stars. The nebulous notion of Britpop arrived. America, always the hottest breeding ground for great underground guitar music, was elbowed aside.
Nineteen ninety-four was the last time that independent music – true, old-school independent music – was a large-scale cultural force with the power to bind and make people belong. The term ‘indie’ has been hijacked and rendered mainstream and meaningless; meanwhile, the music with the real independent spirit has been sidelined, banished from student discos. It’s now something you have to struggle to hear, and most folks simply can’t be bothered.
Cobain would be mortified by the spurious ‘icons’ who’ve been hailed as his successors. Smashing Pumpkins were widely perceived as painting-by-numbers imitators during Cobain’s lifetime; they’re now one of America’s biggest bands. Would Placebo’s plastic sex dwarf Brian Molko really have been taken seriously seven or eight years ago? Can you imagine him bludgeoning himself lifeless with his mascara stick because he ‘cared’ too much about the corporate harlot he’d become? How would Cobain feel if could see his missus, Courtney Love, today – a motormouth riot grrrl turned Hollywood sell-out who just sounds bored and rich? It’s tempting to conclude that Cobain’s death altered the cultural landscape in one fell shot. Last Wednesday’s New Musical Express, subtitled No Sell Out, hailed Cobain as the last beacon of punk-rock ethics. But what did he say during his life, besides moaning about the pressures of fame, playing the odd gay benefit, hurling elitist brickbats at the metalhead element of his fanbase, and being economical with the truth about his heroin abuse? A swift leaf through his old interviews and lyrics doesn’t yield much else. Billy Bragg has been 50 times as brave, 100 times as independent in spirit.
Cobain left it all until the end, and reinforced the depth of his sentiments by killing himself. But he was a manic depressive from a family with a history of suicide. It’s a mistake to suggest that he died purely for the music. If Cobain truly wanted to retreat from the spotlight, why didn’t he record an unlistenable lo-fi side project, or simply take a break? Cobain’s death wiped out the dream of Alternative, cheapened it, but it had been on its way out since Nirvana first hit the charts. Parklife and Definitely Maybe were done and dusted by the time he pulled the trigger: they’d have been gargantuan whether he’d killed himself or not – Nirvana had made that possible. The fragmentation of 1999’s music scene was already beginning in 1994. The current rash of cod ‘alternatives’ is more a result of media dumb-down than Cobain’s death. It’s sad that the united subculture he represented is gone, but real American independent music is as strong and diverse as ever, and rather less spoiled. It’s just back underground, where it belongs.
Every dead rock star has a silver lining Five facile ‘alternative’ icons who have benefited from Kurt Cobain’s suicide:
Courtney Love Cobain’s widow. Self-willed megalomaniac. No longer seems to care about music.
Offspring Pretty fly, pretty old white guys who make derivative punk metal for 15-year-olds.
Green Day Three-chord eternal adolescents whose sole contribution to the evolution of punk is the ‘phlegmball’.
Brian Molko Squeaky-voiced glam rat who thinks he’s interesting just because he’s androgynous.
Smashing Pumpkins Sub-Nirvana mewlers turned parsimonious stadium monsters.
© Tom Cox, Guardian Unlimited, 5 April 1999