Tribute to Kurt Cobain
by Laura Kallio
illustration by Jessica Sisak
I received Nirvana’s Nevermind as a gift from my sister who was ten at the time. This was long before the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hoopla exploded all over MTV, changing forever, almost single-handedly, the face of popular music as we knew it. My sister had never heard the album. She chose it because she liked the cover.
I’ll admit something now: Nirvana didn’t change my life. I liked the music. It sure as hell was different, but my foundations weren’t shaken. It didn’t speak to all of my unnamed fear and pain. At least until April 8th.
If there’s one thing that Kurt Cobain’s death proves for sure, it’s that he wasn’t kidding. Lately, (and without question, as a direct result of Nirvana’s impact) the majority of popular “alternative” (and I use that term loosely) bands are putting out songs so angst-ridden that you have to stop to question their credibility. Come on, did all of you spring from severely dysfunctional homes? Are all of you really that consumed with bitterness, with cynicism?
On April 8th, I listened to the songs again, for the first time. Now, when Cobain’s liquefied gravel voice trudges through lyrics like, “oh well whatever nevermind,” there’s a painful twinge of realism that wasn’t there before. “And I swear that I don’t have a gun,” is particularly difficult to bear. Maybe I’m the cynic, but rather than sympathizing with every band that cries Woe is me, I tend to doubt their sincerity. You’re gainfully employed, people acknowledge your art, so cheer up and quit pretending to be the suffering artist you’re not.
Well, Cobain was. Granted, there are lots of people who say they always knew so, but for me, and I think for many people, it unfortunately took a bullet to the temple to make the songs on Nevermind and In Utero as painful, as harrowing, and as beautiful, as they always were to Kurt Cobain.
With Cobain’s death came all kinds of encyclopedic detail about the man’s tragic life. I won’t spit it all out here because I think that would be redundant. Suffice it to say that this guy’s daily existence was other than blissful. His under-reported clinical depression ran in the family (two of Cobain’s uncles also took their own lives) and it was impacted by chronic stomach pain for which he took heroin.
The only real joy at the end of Cobain’s life seems to have come from his daughter Frances Bean. There are those who think, what kind of asshole abandons his wife and child like that? Stop to think: You are so far gone that you’re going to violently take your own life, literally blow your head off (Cobain was so unrecognizable when found that he had to be identified through finger prints). You have obviously, at this point, already moved far beyond this life. Nothing physical or tangible matters. Cobain wasn’t the selfish one, we are, for wanting him back.
When Courtney Love and the thousands of Seatalites gathered under the Space Needle chanted “Asshole” toward the sky, they were being selfish. They wanted the asshole back.
“Asshole Asshole Asshole…”
This is not to say that grand public displays of grief and sorrow are inappropriate, far from it, but all that chanting seems pretty self-reflective to me. Don’t we feel like assholes for not being able to prevent this tragedy. Don’t we feel in some way cheated? I bought your CDs, I paid to see you perform live, I watched MTV unplugged, you owe me.
When someone, anyone, takes their own life, those of us still living without having to shoulder the burden of suicidal impulses, have this need to justify, to make sense of our loss. It must have been the drugs. No, it was that bitchy wife of his. Maybe he just couldn’t handle the pressures of fame and fortune.
The truth is that it was none of these, and all of these. The truth is that Kurt Cobain probably didn’t even understand his own pain or its death. Even attempting to comprehend the psychic and physical pain that this gifted man suffered serves only to minimalize just that suffering.
What Cobain wanted was to escape. It is this fact in particular that separates his death from the deaths of other famous, culturally significant people. There was River Phoenix, recently, and earlier, Morrison, Presley, Joplin, Lennon, Kennedy, Dean, Bonham, Hendrix… the list, unfortunately, goes on. We don’t know that what they wanted was to leave. We know that this is precisely what Cobain wanted.
Leaving is what Cobain tried to accomplish in Rome, and then, after failing, why he took great pains to completely isolated himself from all those who cared about him, and at the age of twenty-seven, was successful.
Because we were left is, I think, why Cobain’s death is so much more difficult to deal with, but hey, as the cliche goes, if you love something set it free.
Thank you Kurt, for sticking around long enough to leave us with the music you did, for sharing your vision and making an indelible and irreversible impact on popular culture, whether you meant to or not. On Nevermind‘s “Territorial Pissings,” Cobain screams, almost to the point of sobbing, “Gotta find a way, a better way, a better way…” I hope he’s finally found it.