|TEN YEARS LATER.|
|Tom Perrotta, James Frey, Dan Shanoff, Jonathan Ames, Whitney Pastorek, Amanda Stern Tim Grierson|
stunning as it might be to imagine, it was 10 years -- today -- that
Kurt Cobain killed himself. But even though Cobain himself said it was "better
to burn out than fade away," he -- and his music -- has done neither.
Many of a certain age remember that day as a
major milestone in their own lives.
In honor of this anniversary, exclusively for The Black Table, we asked some writers to contribute their own personal recollections on Cobain: His pain, his death, his lasting impact and, of course, his music.
I was 33 years old in April 1994, married, with a month-old baby, our first. I was teaching college writing courses part-time, barely paying the rent. For the first time in my life, I was feeling like an adult, tired,
a little bit cranky, focused on my work and family, just trying to make a living and keep everything together. I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to the world of rock and roll, which had become a hair metal wasteland in the late Eighties, the last time I'd bothered to check. I'd heard about Seattle and grunge in the meantime, but my tastes had shifted -- I was listening to Tom Waits and the Pogues, and some of the alt country bands that were springing up.
I walked into my creative writing class one day and noticed a strange silence in the room, a collective sense of shock. A girl, one of my favorite students, was
crying quietly. When I asked what was wrong, they told me that Kurt
Cobain had killed himself. I must have expressed impatience or disdain
-- Jesus, hadn't Cobain heard; the Sixties were over, we'd done the
self-destructive rock star thing to death, it wasn't like the guy was
John Lennon or anything -- when a number of my students started talking
at once, all trying to explain to me what he meant to them.
Tom Perrotta is the author of Little Children, a current New York Times bestseller, and four other books, including Election.
1. I lived abroad for 18 months in the early Nineties. When I left, no Nirvana. When I came back, big-time Nirvana. I heard "Smells like Teen Spirit" everywhere. The people it mocked -- football players,
cheerleaders, student council representatives and marching band members -- all fucking loved it, and pretty much every asshole I knew also fucking loved it. That made me think it was lame. I also remember hearing Cobain call Nirvana a punk band. To me, The Vandals were a punk band, Minor Threat was punk band, the Dead Kennedys were a punk band; I thought Nirvana was a creation of MTV.
2. I was reading the paper. There was a small article about Cobain having an accidental heroin overdose in Italy. The article said he used heroin to deal with stomach ulcers. I immediately
thought suicide. Junkies generally use to deal with emotional pain, not physical pain, and junkies don't generally OD by accident. I knew he wanted to die. I knew because I had just come out of rehab and jail and often felt the same shit. I hurt for him. He stopped being a rock star to me and became another man in tremendous pain who wanted it all to end. I knew a bunch of men like him. I didn't want him to die like they died. I hoped he would find something to keep him going.
3. On the first anniversary of his death, I went with a friend to a house in Wicker Park, Chicago. An altar had been set-up with Cobain's picture, some candles, a hypodermic, a bindle of dope and a small pile of letters addressed to him. A Nirvana disc was in the stereo. There were 10 or 12 people, several were crying; all were talking about how much he meant to them and how much they missed him. At that moment, I stopped thinking Nirvana was lame. I stopped thinking Nirvana was a creation of MTV. I realized Cobain spoke for a lot of people, changed a lot of lives, touched an untold number. I bought In Utero the next day, listened to it. I realized maybe Cobain spoke for me as well.
James Frey is the author of A Million Little Pieces, selected the Best Book of 2003 by Amazon.com.
Yes, but what if...?
"Rock idol" status is a lot tougher to maintain if you keep living. Look
at Elvis in '77. Or Clay Aiken in '07.
A 37-year-old Kurt Cobain wouldn't be pretty. Sure as he'd be coloring his hair, he'd have a blog. Oh lord, he'd have a blog. He'd have called his third solo record effort "Blogosphere" (or certainly had an eponymous single). Maybe blogs could have saved him, like they've saved so many other angst-ridden people in their 20s and 30s.
He would have made his way on to reality TV. You'd hope it would be one of the less humiliating ones, but 10 years is a long time. Given the acceleration of the fame cycle since 1994, Kurt would be doing a guest spot on
"Star Search" ... maybe hosting "TRL" with La-La and Good Charlotte. I'm not saying he'd be guest-hosting "Clean Sweep," but his sick (and inevitable) Mercer Island mansion would have made it to "Cribs."
If nothing else, he'd have a "Celebrity Playlist" on iTunes. What you wouldn't see is all the Nirvana-derivative bands; they wouldn't exist, or, at least, they would need the imprimatur of Cobain -- he'd have a catch phrase of approval, like Randy Jackson's "What's up, Dawg?" Maybe he'd have even invented "What's up, Dawg?"
I'd love to say that Courtney Love would have remained the same pop-culture non-factor that she was before her husband died. But she would have found a way to service her ambition -- probably high-profile divorce (the timing affected by whether US Weekly was in pre-Bonnie, mid-Bonnie or post-Bonnie era), followed by the same parade of self-promotion that led her to her current standing ... on David Letterman's desk.
The last Decade of Love, instead of a Decade of Kurt Cobain's Inevitable Slide Into Desperate Clinging to Relevancy? There's an even bigger tragedy for you.
Dan Shanoff is a columnist for ESPN.com and writes "The Daily Quickie" every weekday morning.
When it comes to music I've always been more or less retarded. The first album I ever owned was by Helen Reddy. I don't remember the title. I was 10 years old. I heard one of her songs on the radio, and I
cried. I've always been drawn to things that make me cry -- music, movies -- even at the age of 10. So I asked my mother to get the record for me, and she did. My sister, three-and-a-half years my elder, then immediately and cruelly mocked me for my Reddy fixation, so after one tearful listen, I never played the record again. I wonder where it is. I'd like to hear that song again.
Anyway, after my brief fling into the world of expressing my taste for music, I took the safe route and only listened to what my sister listened to: Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Carol King and Carly Simon. Why this was so
much better than Helen Reddy, I'm not sure.
By the time I was 18, in 1982, after so much exposure to folk music, I had no capacity to tell what was cool music or good music. I was absolutely hopeless, destined to never be able to keep up with my peers when it came to discussing rock bands in a competitive, all-knowing way, which is how white males like to talk about rock n' roll. I could argue about baseball players and batting averages with the best of them, but when it came to Led Zeppelin or the Who, I knew nothing.
I did get into one band during my early-Eighties high school life: The Doors. I was a "roadie" -- because I had a car with a large trunk -- for a band composed of my friends, and all they played were Doors covers at high school parties. When they would sing "Got myself a beer," I would chug as much beer as possible, and then drive the band home drunk later that night. It all felt very romantic at the time.
But this Doors period ended with high school, so from 1982 to 1993, I then mostly listened over and over to all the folk singers listed above, with occasional intruders, mostly female singers, like Suzanne Vega or Natalie Merchant or the Indigo Girls.
You know, this is all very embarrassing to be revealing this. It's like saying I'm heterosexual but sitting on a butt plug as I write this.
Then in 1993, I became aware of this band called Nirvana. Everyone had been making a big deal about them for about a year, and I caved into cultural pressure and bought a tape of Nevermind. At first it just sounded very loud to me: I was accustomed to the story-telling I heard in folk music or the sweet, sad songs of female vocalists, feeling always that I was in love with the women singers. But then after a few listens to the Nirvana album, it stopped sounding loud to me, and I began to get a taste for something nihilistic and crazed in the music.
I played the tape repeatedly in my car and would drive very fast, and the music made me want to be alive in a suicidal way, and I say that without making reference to how Cobain eventually went out. It's genuinely how the songs made me feel: that I had nothing to lose. And this was a bit upsetting, but to hell with it.
So I might as well drive my car fast and reckless and smoke crack and drink too much and pursue the crazy girl I was obsessed with. The music compelled me to just want to give up in a fiery way. Something like that.
Then I broke up with the girl because I paranoically thought I might have AIDS (I didn't), and my little crack binges had carved out my insides, and I lost the Nirvana album, and I don't know where it is. So in 1994, I moved in with my parents in New Jersey and tried to reform. To sober up.
Then Cobain killed himself. Supposedly because of stomach ulcers. That's what I remember from the news accounts. Stomach ulcers and heroin. He was weak. A sweet, weak poet. I was 30 years old, just a little older than him, and I was safe at home with my mother and father. I still mistakenly felt like I had nothing to lose, but I was alive, and down in my parents' basement I watched the TV with all its coverage about Kurt Cobain's suicide. I remember the constant video footage of the outside of his misty house, the view through the window where his body could be seen. From the perspective of my parents' basement, it seemed like Kurt Cobain had so much to live for, that he could be as free as he wanted, but he must have never felt that way, so it wasn't too much to put that gun in his mouth.
Now it's 2004. It's a long story, but I have a son who's about to turn 18. We don't live together, but I see him quite often. I was just with him. He hasn't quite inherited my bad taste in music. At least he's on top of what's happening -- he likes all the rap guys. My only influence on him musically is that I did turn him on to The Doors when we took a road-trip a year ago. Say what you will about that band, but it is good driving music.
After that trip, we watched the Oliver Stone Doors movie, and my son started getting really interested in Morrison, and then he had to do a report on Apocalypse Now for his English class and got even more into The Doors, since Coppola uses their music at the end of the film. So we talked a lot about Jim Morrison and I told him that there was this other guy, Kurt Cobain, who was kind of like Morrison, destined to be famous forever because of dying so young.
Then a few weeks ago, my son got Nevermind at some garage sale. Leading him to one guy who overdosed on drugs and another guy who committed suicide is really stupid, but my son seems to have a wise, sad take on it -- that it's a terrible shame and waste, that it would be have been "so cool" if Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain had made more records.
So this past week we were together for his spring break. We were in his hometown down south, driving around in his pick-up truck. We listened a lot to Cobain, and when we didn't have the CD in, the radio stations were playing Nirvana constantly because of the coming anniversary of his death. I liked hearing all the songs again and remembered how Cobain had been my companion in '93, how he made me feel less alone with going crazy. Now I was listening to him with my full-grown son, and my son said more than once, "Yeah, Cobain is cool."
As we kept playing Nevermind, I wanted to feel some of the old manic nihilism, but it wasn't there. I couldn't get it back. I was a father sitting next to his son, gently urging him to use his directional signal when he made a turn, or trying, as we talked, to give him decent counsel about his first girlfriend. So I listened to Nirvana, and it didn't quite touch me. It didn't make me cry. It didn't make me want to die. It didn't make me do anything except look back.
Jonathan Ames is the author of five books; his most recent, a novel,
Wake Up, Sir!, will be published in July by Scribner. His novel
The Extra Man is in development as a movie with Killer Films and
his memoir What's Not to Love? is in development as a TV show with
Showtime. You can visit his mildly amusing website at www.Jonathanames.com.
There she is, leaving home in her late teens, to finish high school at an arts college in North Carolina: A girl taught from birth by symphony musician parents that rock music is loud and, by
extension, bad. In the back of the family Suburban, as it drives north and east, is a stereo with her first CD player. She doesn't own any CDs, not yet, and her tapes look more like this: Indigo Girls, Mozart, C+C Music Factory, Sting. Her largest rebellion to date had something to do with Poison and the tongue on the cover of Open Up And Say Ahh...
But the parents are gone now, and so she's picking up a package from the campus mail center that contains the first CDs she will ever order from the Columbia House Record and Tape and Now Compact Disc Club: Pearl Jam's Ten, and Nirvana's Nevermind. It is, to be sure, an order influenced by the dorms around her, their tapestried
corners swirling with cigarette -- and other -- smoke, with late nights and loud music and actual angst. There are other bands she wants to figure out, with songs like "Under the Bridge" and "Here Comes Your Man," but it is the opening strains of the two albums she has ordered that are moving her away from childhood, fast.
Although she is achingly naive and easily confused by things like Wiccans and bongs and sex, she's still reached a certain level of acceptance on campus by playing her guitar, on which she knows every song the Indigo Girls have ever recorded as well as many, many songs about Jesus. But today she has learned bar chords, and they are: F, B-flat, A-flat, C-sharp. She plays them over and over again, while the people from the dorms sing the words she's not sure of yet, except for this: "Hello." And this: "Mosquito." She has never held an electric guitar in her hands, but for the first time, she thinks she might like to. She thinks, frankly, that she might like to do a lot of things.
She arrives in New York in 1993, armed with what she needs to be an artist: She has angst, she smokes, she is appropriately weary. There is a new album when she gets there, one that floats through the halls of the new dorms and carries with it the notion of a little cocaine and a video full of stars. A picture from the video ripped out of a magazine is on her wall, and she is actually a little surprised to find herself with a desperate crush on the cute long-haired drummer. But teen crushes are fading away, and what she is left with is the feeling of vast and almost overwhelming independence she gets from an open window in her building on 11th Street and the sounds of New York City below as the cool breeze sorts through the incense and the Marlboros and flickers the Christmas lights stapled to the ceiling and her own tapestry tacked in the corner.
When Kurt Cobain dies, she will see her new community of artists in action, and she will gasp at the feeling of belonging in a world. She will get stuck there, frozen in time, a relic in flannel.
I will look back on her in my late twenties and see that the nostalgia is unnecessary: Nothing has changed. I am writing an essay on What Kurt Cobain Means To Me for a Web site run by my community of artists; I am listening to In Utero on a stereo with a CD player; I have just purchased the new death-metal album by the cute drummer; I still do not know the words much beyond "Hello" and "Mosquito." I am not who I was before Nevermind, and I am 100 percent whom I became after. And that, I guess, is how these things happen.
Whitney Pastorek is a writer and musician and is the editor of Pindeldyboz. She has written for the NY Post, Surface Magazine, Time Out, Village Voice, SF Chronicle, Westchester Journal News and McSweeney's. A complete list of everything is constantly in flux over at Whittlz.com.
He was strung out without ever having used heroin. Pants fell off him. Hair hung in frayed shavings down his face. Showers couldn't put a dent in him. And although my little wannabe looked more like Mia
Farrow than Kurt Cobain, he studied Cobain's essential facts: posture, gait, hair style, vocal intonation, and copied them like a drag queen does his idea of a feminine woman. He was the light of my life: my boyfriend, my little wannabe.
At gigs he played Nirvana songs although his band was stuck in originals. During shows his mates would squirm, stand defeated and confused staring at the punk in plaid flannel under the spotlight veering off course and into the land of covers. They didn't care that Polly wants a cracker. And as much as I appreciated the gestures, I never once used the
peroxide, torn fishnets or red lipsticks he brought home to me.
Unbeknownst to him, my little wannabe mocked himself singing along with Nirvana's lyrics:
And he's the one who likes / All our pretty songs and he
Which I suppose is why it was such a shock to him when Cobain died. He never expected it. Couldn't see it coming, not from 3,000 miles away because my little wannabe wasn't tortured. He just wanted to be.
He called me crying while I was at work. I picked him up, brought him back to the office with me, stuck him in front of MTV while he wept and absorbed every last detail. I felt bad for him, but worse for the people who actually knew Cobain. I felt somehow that the little wannabe's tears were selfish, naïve.
So months later when I found them, stacks of them, piles of them, hordes of them stashed under the bed like porn, I thought perhaps it was time for an intervention of sorts. Time to introduce my little wannabe to someone new: James Iha, Perry Ferrell, anyone, someone. Or maybe it was time for me to move on.
It was a rare act, but I happened to have been cleaning that day. I got down on all fours and peered under the bed to see masses of paper all different sizes. I crept under further, grabbed a handful, pulled them out.
Back at me, staring at my face were hundreds of collages, magazine clippings of Kurt Cobain's face with headlines carefully clipped and glued in various crafty positions. I flipped through one after another. They reminded me of the birthday cards I made my girlfriends in sixth grade. But these were dedicated to a person neither of us had known. And hidden. Made secretly and stored for some future use. Was I so disinterested in his grief that he felt compelled to hide it? Or was this something else, something even he was embarrassed by? I mean, collage?
I had fantasies of wallpapering the apartment with them so he'd be confronted with his secret when he came home from work. I imagined making paper dresses, paper hats, paper dolls out of his dirty little secret. But, I did nothing. Which is what I did most of the time in the Nineties, and why I finally left a few months after Cobain did. The original was gone, and I didn't want to date his cover band anymore. And although I didn't kill myself, I did pack it up and leave as abruptly as Kurt left Courtney. But I didn't leave a note.
Normally, my birthday doesn't cause me the slightest bit of alarm. That all changed when I turned 27. This, like several key moments in
my early life, was the direct result of Kurt Cobain's influence on me.
When you're a teenager, you're desperately grasping for older role models. They've lived more life and experienced things you haven't yet. Basically, they've got it more together than you do. In hindsight, saying that Cobain symbolized those qualities for me might seem horribly naive, but you'll have to take my word for it -- and I certainly wasn't the only one who felt this way.
Before his suicide, Cobain represented a heightened version
of my fledgling creative self, or so I flattered myself to believe. I didn't want to be a rock star, and I have forever found Courtney Love repellent, but Cobain exuded a brave, funny, likable sincerity that meshed with a tremendous talent for songwriting and performance, equal parts loud and tender. (Go back to In Utero and MTV Unplugged in New York. What other band achieved such extremes in volume in the span of a year?) A gifted popular artist, he played the game but did it better than all the poseurs and sell-outs who usually get the platinum plaques and nail the chicks. Cobain's success meant that, hey, maybe I had a chance in the world.
Kurt, of course, did not see his stardom that way.
When Rolling Stone published its (little-did-we-know) final interview with Cobain in early 1994, the drug/breakup rumors were rampant, and so the Nirvana Nation sought any encouraging sign possible. And Cobain happily obliged, telling reporter David Fricke that he had stopped doing heroin, gotten healthy, discovered contentment in his baby daughter, and could foresee a future for himself and his band.
Cobain was gonna make it.
I wanted to believe it, he wanted me to believe it, but he lied to both of us.
He died a few months later at the age of 27.
I wasn't yet 20 when Cobain killed himself, and so 27 seemed a long way off. (Shielded by the warm, protective bubble of college, you tend to treat most of real life as something a long way off.) But when I hit that fateful age -- the same age that brought the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison -- I finally understood why people got gloomy about another candle on the cake. Hardly a perfectly adjusted, wholly wonderful person myself at 27, I somehow sensed that I had reached a pivotal moment in my faithful adoration of Cobain.
Initially, my birthday felt like the beginning of the end. When you use music as a spiritual guide and therapist, you find yourself inextricably linked to the artist. Not only do you relate to the singer, you start to turn to the songs for counseling and direction: What would Kurt do? My close connection with Cobain presumed I would always feel and experience life as he did. But once I realized I had no intention of putting a gun to my head at age 27, I broke the bond between the awkward kid and the cool older role model. And now there were no Nirvana songs to tell me what to do next. So it was time for a little reevaluation.
When you're a kid, you emulate your big brother. When you grow up, you see him more clearly. Cobain was an enormous talent -- no passage of time changes that fact -- but his downfall now seems less tragic, less mythic. Suicide, as Cobain must have surmised, creates an aura of artistic "legitimacy," a permanent punctuation mark to a career and a life more perfect than a thousand Neverminds. But what seemed "cool" in my adolescence rings false now. Cobain's suicide note -- filled with complaints about not being able to feel the joy of music anymore -- only offers lame excuses. The life of an artist requires courage, requires the individual to struggle in order to find his creative voice despite considerable obstacles. The best work comes from such doubt and anguish: In Utero gives me comfort for that very reason; every howl cleanses and liberates the soul. Why didn't he realize that?
When Cobain died, music critics pointed to his lyrics as bracing proof that he had planned this exit for a while:
One more special message to go
I'd rather be dead than cool
Look on the bright side, suicide
With 10 years hindsight, and with my own 20s in the rearview mirror, those words remain indelible blueprints for the confusion and anger of youth. But they aren't words worth living for. I'll take the unpredictable, lengthy careers of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Warren Zevon, Prince and Bob Dylan over the wham-bam mercurial genius of a Nirvana. Ten years ago, I would have scoffed at anybody who dared to speak such blasphemy. But 10 years ago, these lines from Pavement would have meant nothing to me either:
Simply put, I want to grow old
Stephen Malkmus, a smart guy in it for the long haul, wrote that when he turned 30. I can't wait to see what he has to say at 50.
Tim Grierson is an editor of The Simon, a weekly online publication of culture, politics, and humor.