Sometime in the mid-1980’s, Kurt Cobain read a news story about a teenage girl who was kidnapped hitchhiking home from a concert; a pretty typical modern-day horror story, unusual only in that the victim managed to escape and went on to talk about her ordeal. Cobain was disturbed by the incident, which occurred in the Seattle area, and like any poet, dealt by writing a song about it. Obviously, some creative liberties were taken, but that is what makes it an interesting piece of work. The writer sees the relationship between perpetrator and victim as one of sick symbiosis. The condition of a man who would resort to the lowest depravity may just be a very extreme form of loneliness and alienation; he’s isolated and bored, so desperately out of touch with his own or anyone else’s humanity that only meaningful connection he can make is through violence. What about the victim, on the other hand? Here the artist takes a bold liberty, a controversial one. Is it possible that in her 14 years, being tied up and tortured by a filthy old man is the most attention she’s ever gotten? If someone is lonely, alienated, bored and ignored, then being a kidnap victim is the most interesting and important thing that’s ever happened to them. In a perverse way, they form a bond; they’re both experiencing the most intense experience they’ve ever experienced. That doesn’t make it not wrong, and it doesn’t make it worthwhile, but it does make it psychologically complex in a way that we don’t like to talk about.
The brief wondrous life and messy death of Kurt Cobain was one of those earth shaking, generation defining cultural phenomenons that maybe happen once in a decade. It’s one I’m just slightly too young to have fully appreciated, although people just older than me, or ones who were more culturally in tune at an early age, were devastated. The fact that we still remember and talk about it like it was yesterday rather than more than 20 years ago attests to the power of myth-making. Cobain’s biography could be subtitled The Making of a Martyr. I struggle to understand, and I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that launched this particular band into iconic stratosphere. Besides that they were good; of course they were very good, but plenty of good bands aren’t assigned the job of embodying the voice of their generation right upon their debut. The question is, whose self-image did Kurt Cobain really embody and why? It’s a Zeitgeist I wasn’t part of, yet I witnessed it, and I still don’t understand. Maybe it just comes down to the simple things – Kurt Cobain was good-looking and sad, and mopey adolescent people like that and romanticize it, sometimes to their own detriment and certainly to the detriment of the person being romanticized. Cobain’s now-grown and admirably functional daughter has criticized the ongoing prevalence of romantic-suicide culture, shooting down the I-wanna-be-dead posturing of Lana Del Rey; mental illness, substance abuse and suicide are not dreamy, not aspirational, not something to fantasize about as you snuggle in bed. There’s a fine line between admiring a troubled cultural icon because their struggles genuinely reflect your own, and putting them on a romantic pedestal because you wish your struggles reflected theirs.
Behold the legendary 1979 Saturday Nigh Live performance of The Man Who Sold the World. In which David Bowie brought in Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for help and inspiration. Klaus Nomi even let Bowie wear one of his Nomi suits. As if an already weird song needed to get any weirder. It didn’t particularly, but adding a little Nomi to the mix never hurt anybody, and Bowie is the indisputable master of well-curated weirdness. Sadly, the encounter failed to skyrocket Nomi into superstardom, showing that even David Bowie’s powers are finite. Klaus Nomi rocketed straight back into NYC art scene obscurity, brief pop success in Germany and finally, the AIDS ward. David Bowie moved on to serious moonlight, MTV rotation and Jim Henson movies. The song itself went on to have an unexpected second life as a grunge anthem, thanks to Kurt Cobain, who identified with – and brought out – its underlying angst. Because it is a deeply angsty song. As Bowie tells the origin story; “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there’s some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.” That might seem like a bit of a trite explanation to those intent on pinpointing Lovecraft and Antigonish references, but underneath the reference points and homages, the quest for a unified self has always been one of Bowie’s great themes, and it’s something that carries over with or without eccentric accessories.
So this is the voice of my generation. I barely remember Nirvana being around, honestly; I was a small child. Mostly what I remember is the effect on people slightly older than me. Kids a few years ahead of me, for whom grunge was a real thing that they experienced in real time, not a historical event viewed in glossy hindsight. It happened and it was important but I was just a tiny bit too young. So I can’t say I feel sincere nostalgia for any of it. I guess I’m between generations, being born 1983. Just on the tail end of Gen-X and just ahead of the Millennial curve, and not entirely relating to either one *tears of alienation* The thing about those who were born just ahead of me, they had a voice of their generation. Their generation anointed Kurt Cobain, and so it has been settled for all eternity. And the thing about that is, someone decided that Cobain was to play that role, when he was right out of the gate. He barely had a chance to look around before someone put that crown on his head. He was a rookie, and he never had the time to develop as an artist, or adjust his viewpoint, or grow into a full person, even. He was pushed very quickly into a role largely created by the media, and one that he hated, and he couldn’t even deal with it long enough to create himself a persona he was comfortable with. He couldn’t deal with it, so he shot himself, and irony of ironies, that only cemented his status as a one-dimensional icon, and he still serves that purpose. And of course, his loss and his suffering were, whether he liked it or not, for the benefit of the generation he was purportedly the voice of, and they were lucky to have him as such. It’s kind of a timeless martyr narrative, really. And possibly the last great one of its kind, at the time of this writing. For who is the voice of the youngest generation so far? Who is the Millennial martyr? I don’t know, and I can’t even nominate a candidate. Perhaps history will establish, with that fabulous 20/20 vision, who was the one person speaking with the voice of all the youth culture? Or whatever passes for youth culture nowadays. Perhaps there is no such thing as a youth culture anymore. Perhaps the culture has changed so much that there’s no possibility of a Kurt Cobain figure emerging to exemplify an entire group of young people all born within a few years of each other. There no one person to rally behind anymore. Thank the fractured media-sphere and the interwebs and all of the other boogeymen of modern times. Or maybe that person is already out there, poised to become the beacon of a generation – to become the messiah, all they have to do is die.
Here we have some fine, clean, upstanding young men from Seattle, who are in no way into drugs or cross-dressing – I give you, Nirvana! Well, maybe not so much, depends on how you would define ‘fine and upstanding’. Honestly, I think that Kurt Cobain was about as fine and upstanding a person as you could hope to share needles with. He didn’t become the voice of his generation for being a dingbat, you know. That title, of course, is a heavy one, and unfortunately, Cobain couldn’t handle bearing it. He didn’t set out to be the voice of anyone but himself and he had enough problems without being forced to personify the collective self-image of all the young people alive in America at that time. His suicide, besides illustrating why suicidal people shouldn’t own guns, did two things; it turned him instantly and permanently into the pop cultural figment he didn’t want to be, and it cemented him in the public mind as, understandably, a very gloomy, depressed and depressing individual. Obviously, he was gloomy and depressed. But, as you can see from that video, or if you’ve ever seen or read any of his interviews, he had a pretty wicked sense of humor. He got off some real zingers in his time.
As it turned out, he did have a gun.
Kurt Cobain really symbolized something important for a whole generation. What the meaningful thing was, I’m not fully certain. I missed that Zeitgeist by only a few years. I remember hearing a lot of things about grunge and something called Generation X, and this Kurt Cobain who was supposed to be its prophet or some-such nonsense. I’m not the least bit disappointed I missed the GenX boat. They seemed kind of depressing. That I remember the period but don’t quite relate to it is part of the appeal. I like Nirvana because they weren’t my prophets. It makes the music feel both historic and familiar. Inevitably, it makes me think about how damn long ago 1992 was, and how old I’m getting and how time whips by at such a fast clip, and that makes me feel existential and angsty.
What is it that makes me, someone who loathes pretty much every band that was big in the nineties, like Nirvana so much? A big part of the appeal is Kurt Cobain’s strong personal charisma. I mean, seriously, he was way hotter than Billy Corgan. Then there’s the dramatic appeal of the whole sordid, tragic, short story, compelling precisely because it was short. Cliched as it sounds, it really was the definitive cautionary tale of that era. The music may be nineties grunge to the max, but there’s a sense that underneath all that feedback and loudness there was some soul.