The Last Star: Kurt Cobain

Why Kurt Cobain’s legacy is worth fighting – or at least waiting – for

“THERE’S SOMETHING wrong with that boy,” noted the late William Burroughs. “He frowns for no good reason.”

Big Bad Bill was talking about Kurt Cobain, who’d just paid a visit to the author of The Naked Lunch midway through the final American tour by his band Nirvana in 1993.

Burroughs was right that something was wrong with Cobain, but wrong that the “boy” frowned for no good reason. Kurt frowned because he was a deeply unhappy, chronically drug-addicted young man in a harrowing state of crisis.

Cobain was also the biggest rock star on the planet – a scrawny trailer-park loser whom fate had transformed into a grunge icon, a messiah of misery for a generation steeped in self-loathing. Six months later he would do what for years he’d been saying he would do: kill himself.

Now, eight years after Cobain blew his head off, his music is being fought over with a degree of rancour unprecedented even in the torrid annals of rock lawsuits. In one corner of the ring sit Cobain’s former bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic; in the opposite corner is the indefatigable Courtney Love, consort and muse to the flannel-shirted punk prince and mother of his now nine-year-old daughter. At stake is the collection of recordings Kurt left behind, a collection whose worth – musical and financial – few are in a position to gauge.

“In the history of rock music, no one has left behind a catalogue of this scope and astonishing depth,” Love told Spin‘s Jim DeRogatis, calling the trove “the literal holy grail of rock”. Yet she declined to play DeRogatis any of the recordings, most recorded on primitive equipment at home.

Love wants to dissolve the business partnership she formed with Grohl and Novoselic in 1997, principally with a view to accruing more of her late husband’s royalties for herself and her daughter. Last year she scuppered the inclusion of a lost Kurt classic, ‘You Know You’re Right’, in a planned 45-track Nirvana box set. The set itself is now on an indefinite back burner.

Anyone who’s seen Nick Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney will have no trouble believing that Love is – in the words of sometime Nirvana producer Steve Albini – “a psycho hosebeast”. (Grohl and Novoselic’s request for Love to undergo psychiatric testing was turned down in April.) On the other hand, there is little doubt that Cobain was basically responsible for Nirvana’s great songs.

“They’re all still wrestling with Kurt’s suicide,” says Jon Savage, who interviewed Cobain in the summer of 1993. “It took New Order 15 years to start talking properly about Ian Curtis’ suicide, so I’m not surprised it’s taking Courtney and Krist and Dave this long to start addressing Kurt’s. In a way, all the legal wrangling is really a kind of displacement of the pain.”

But the real question is: Why are we still so gripped by the legacy of this wretched creature, a misfit who made a career out of abjection? Why do we continue to listen to that agonising voice – always straining, always sore – and its impotent, hopeless rage?

Why, because Kurt Cobain was The Last Rock Star, the last small-town fuckup to become an accidental superstar. Half Sid Vicious, half Jeff Buckley, this dysfunctional angel in pyjamas was the dream of punk rock writ large – the thrilling riposte to the bogus testosterone bullshit of mainstream rock.

Cobain was the Eminem of the rain-sodden northwest, a petulant poet wracked by the void of his loveless childhood. He was America’s archetypal broken-home sociopath, his true siblings the Satanists and serial killers that dominate the hysterical history of suburban white America. For all his Christ-like beauty he hated his “anemic rodent-like body”, and wrote songs about filth and degradation and obscenity. His band couldn’t have been less appropriately named.

If rock has failed to produce a single truly galvanising figure since Kurt’s demise, that may be at least partly because of the violence of the death itself. The lesson seems to be: believe in music that fiercely – that uncompromisingly – and look what happens. Better to treat music as frothy ritual for nu-metalheads or prospective Pop Idols.

Cobain’s death was the end of rock’n’roll conviction, and of true musical community, in our hyper-mediated society. Does anyone believe in rock anymore, or need a pop messiah?

“Rock and roll is just an anomaly,” concluded Michael Wolff in a bracing piece in New York magazine this month. “While for a generation or two it created a go-go industry – the youthquake – it is unreasonable to expect that anything so transforming can remain a permanent condition. To a large degree, the music industry is, then, a fluke. A bubble. Finally the bubble burst.”

R.I.P. Kurt. R.I.P. rock’n’roll.

© Barney HoskynsObserver Music Monthly, June 2002

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