Nirvana No More

I’d intended to post this one week ago today, on the thirteenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, but was vacationing and high-speed Internet-deprived in Florida. I wrote this piece for The Event, a now defunct Salt Lake City, Utah, alternative newspaper, where it was published on May 16, 1994.

The normally perspicacious Andy Rooney chose the unhappy occasion of Kurt Cobain’s suicide to act out against a culture that has left him behind. In his usual two-minute segment at the closing of April 17’s [1994] 60 Minutes, Rooney spewed vitriol at not only the Nirvana lead singer but at the band’s generation as a whole.

Cobain’s body was discovered on April 8 in his Seattle home, where he reportedly killed himself with a shotgun three days before.

Rooney confessed at the outset of his tirade that he had not previously heard of Cobain, Nirvana, or this thing called grunge; but that did not prevent him from damning the singer/songwriter straight to hell. He ignored the sad and obvious fact that Cobain was a sick young man, both mentally and physically, and proclaimed no sadness for his death.

“A lot of people would like to have the years left that he threw away,” Rooney said with a level of anger that he usually reserves for cereal boxes that do not close properly. “I’d like to have them.”

Nor did he have any use for the youthful mourners who had gathered in front of Cobain’s home to pay their respect. “What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems,” he wanted to know, “like a Depression, World War II, or Viet Nam?”

Rooney was not alone in his opinion — just a tad more heartless than most. Since his death, Kurt Cobain has become the poster boy for everything from suicide to heroin addiction to all that is wrong with this generation called X.

But Cobain did not kill himself because of drugs, or because he could no longer bear the responsibility of being the “voice of his generation,” or because he had fallen out of love with his own band. Rock & roll did not kill him, nor fame and fortune. It was not, as his mother told the press, a desire to join “that stupid club” that already included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, all of whom were also 27 years old when they died.

Kurt Cobain took his life because he was clinically depressed. He could no longer help himself. His depression had finally grown to the point that it was larger, stronger than everything else that mattered to him, including his wife Courtney Love and their 19-month-old daughter Frances Bean.

By most accounts, friends and family had spent the last 20 years of Cobain’s life keeping him, in one way or another, from throwing it away. In a recorded message played at the candlelight vigil held at the Seattle Center the Sunday after his body had been found, a heartbroken and bitter Love told the 7,000 people in attendance, “It was gonna happen, but it could’ve happened when he was 40.”

Cobain had been quoted as saying that he did not want his daughter to have the kind of unhappy childhood that he had endured. His parents’ divorce when he was eight apparently devastated him, and the years that followed consisted of being shuffled from one reluctant family member to the next.

The chilling irony, of course, is that by committing suicide Cobain more than likely sentenced his daughter to a life of unrequited love for a father she will never know. She will never be able to understand why he did not love her enough to stay. Her search for answers will probably only lead her to the very unhappiness and anger from which he was hoping to spare her.

Courtney Love, who herself is lead singer for the very impressive band Hole, will undoubtedly make sure that her daughter knows it was not rock & roll that killed Kurt Cobain. If anything, it was his slippery salvation, without which he would have been dead much sooner.

Rock & roll, as with other belief systems like religion or love or politics or fandom, is a stabilizing force, a way of life that not only guides and enriches but also acts as a kind of anesthetic, buffering the believer from life’s harsh realities. When this faith fails, the results can range from simple life crises to … well, Kurt Cobain.

The magic of rock & roll had apparently long evaporated for Cobain, who wrote in his suicide note that “when we’re backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury.” Mercury, the lead singer for Queen, died in 1991 from complications brought on by AIDS.

The note also quoted from Neil Young’s 1979 song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (which was ironically directed at punk rocker Johnny Rotten, who remains alive and well): “I don’t have the passion anymore, so remember it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

While his love for rock & roll — as his love for his wife and child — only succeeded in postponing Cobain’s suicide, heaven only knows what might have become of him without it. It is not difficult to imagine him, without music as an outlet for the melancholy ferocity that so many of his fans latched onto in his songs, having become a human monster of Manson- or Dahmer-like proportions.

According to Love, Cobain’s favorite TV shows were reruns of Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and Leave It to Beaver. These make-believe worlds and their inhabitants whose clear sense of right and wrong ensured that by the end of each 30-minute episode everything would be all right, must have been extremely attractive to the disturbed Cobain, whose own sense of morality seemed to be failing him. Seattle is a far cry from Jack Webb’s two-dimensional version of Los Angeles, or Andy and Barney’s Mayberry, or the Beav’s stateless Mayfield.

Cobain wrote in his exquisite liner notes to Nirvana’s 1992 album Incesticide (DGC): “I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

Not only did he talk the talk, but he walked the walk, as he so demonstrated at the Golden Spike Arena last December 16 when Nirvana’s final tour brought them to Ogden [Utah]. After bassist Krist Novoselic spied a man molesting a woman in the audience, Cobain threatened to end the show if such behavior continued. When the morons in the crowd cheered, Cobain turned angry. “Rape is nothing to cheer at,” he told them. “If anyone sees anybody groping a girl, beat the shit out of him!”

Pop culture and capitalism are mutually dependent on each other for survival. You need something to sell to have something to buy. These days we practically swallow our popular icons whole, chew them up, then spit out what remains before we move on to the next one.

Andy Rooney could not comprehend the kids who congregated outside Cobain’s house to embrace each other’s sadness and loss. But, just as when John Lennon observed that the Beatles had become bigger than Jesus Christ, so did the death of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana signify more to their fans than Richard Nixon’s demise ever would. When the media finally turned their attention away from the grunge rocker and toward Nixon and his funeral, we watched slack-jawed as the disgraced and all-but-indicted ex-president was instantly absolved of his sins and his sainthood confirmed.

Cobain and Nirvana contributed more and meant more to the lives of the millions of fans their music entertained than all of Nixon’s deaths, lies, and audiotapes ever will.

What Andy Rooney did accomplish, however, was to return rock & roll to the sometimes dangerous and disrespectful arena in which it was born.

And that, more than anything else that has transpired in the media circus since he pulled the trigger, would make Kurt Cobain proud.

© Kevin Avery, 1994.

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