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"The Poet of Alienation"
Newsweek - 04/18/94
Article on Kurt Cobain's passing
by Jeff Giles
He'd come to install an alarm system. The irony is that longbefore electrician Gary Smith found Kurt Cobain's body, it wasclear that what Nirvana's singer really needed protection from was himself. Cobain wasn't identified for hours, but his mother,Wendy O'Connor, didn't need anyone to tell her that it was herson who was found with a shotgun and a suicide note that reportedlyended, "I love you, I love you." The singer had been missing, andhis mother has feared that the most troubled and talented rock star of his generation would go the way of Jim Morrison and JimiHendrix. "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club," she told the Associated Press. "I told him not to join that stupid club."
Cobain didn't overdose like Morrison and Hendrix, of course.But the singer's self-destructive steak seems to have been boundup inextricably with drugs. In March, while in Rome, Cobainoverdosed on painkillers and champagne. Nirvana's spokespeopleinsisted that it was an accident, portraying Cobain and his wife,Courtney Love, as stable, happy parents who drug days were behind them. But the truth about Cobain's last months was farmessier than we'd been led to believe. On March 18, Cobainreportedly locked himself in a room of his spacious Seattle homeand threatened to kill himself; Love is said to have called thepolice, who arrived on the scene and seized medication and firearms.On April 2, the police were summoned once more-this time by O'Conner, who told them her son was missing. The rumor mill hasit that Cobain and Love's marriage was on the rocks; that his friends performed an "intervention," and that while Love was promoting a new album by her band, Hole, Cobain was fleeing arehab clinic in Los Angeles. According to the AP, O'Conner's missing person's report read, in part, "Cobain ran away from [a]California facility and flew back to Seattle. He also bought a shotgun and may be suicidal." All these dark machinations willmake for an uneasy legacy-precisely the sort of legacy he didn'twant. "I don't want my daughter to grow up and someday be hassledby kids at school," he once said of Frances Bean Cobain, now 19months. "I don't want people telling her that her parents werejunkies."
Which raises a question: what will they tell Frances Bean?Where her father's career is concerned, at least, the answer isreassuring. They'll tell her Cobain and his band hated the slick,MTV-driven rock establishment so much they took it over. They'lltell her that with the album "Nevermind," Nirvana replaced theprefab sentiments of pop with hard, unreconstituted emotions. That they got rich and went to No.1. That they were responsiblefor other bands getting rich and going to No.1: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains. That Cobain never took his bandas seriously as everyone else did-that he once wrote, "I'm thefirst to admit that we're the '90s version of Cheap Trick." Butthat despite his corrosive guitar playing, he wrote gorgeous,airtight melodies. That he took the Sex Pistols' battle cry"Never Mind the Bullocks," mixed it with some twenty-somethingrage and disillusion, and came out with this lyric: "Oh, well,whatever, never mind." And finally, that he reminded his peersthey were not alone, though all the evidence suggests that he was.
Cobain was born just outside the desultory logging town ofAberdeen, Wash., in February 1967. (Yes, he was 27, as wasMorrison, Hendrix and Joplin.) The singer hated being the crownprince of Generation X, but the fury of Nirvana's music spoketo his generation because they'd grown up more or less the sameway. Which is to say: grunge is what happens when children ofdivorce get their hands on guitars. Cobain's mother was a house-wife; his father, Don Cobain, was a mechanic at the Chevron station in town. They divorced when the singer was 8.
Drugs and punk: Cobain always had a fragile constition (hewas subject to bronchitis, as well as the recurrent stomach painshe claimed drove him to a heroin addiction). The image one getsis that of a frail kid batted between warring parents. "[Thedivorce] just destroyed his life." Wendy O'Conner tells MichaelAzerrad in the Nirvana biography, "Come As You Are." "Hechanged completely. I think he was ashamed. And he became veryinward-he just held everything [in]....I think he's still suffering." As a teen, Cobain dabbled in drugs and punk rock, and dropped out of school. His father persuaded him to pawn his guitar and take an entrance exam for the navy. But Cobainsoon returned for the guitar. "To them, I was wasting my life,"he told the Los Angeles Times. "To me, I was fighting for it."Cobain didn't speak to his father for eight years. When Nirvanawent to the top of the charts, Don Cobain began keeping a scrapbook. "Everything I know about Kurt," he told Azerrad,"I've read in newspapers and magazines."
The more famous Nirvana became, the more Cobain wanted noneof it. The group, whose first album, 1989's "Bleach," was recorded for $606.17, and released on the independent label SubPop, was meant to be a latter-day punk band. It was supposedto be nasty and defiant and unpopular. But something went wrong: Nirvana's major-label debut, "Nevermind," sold almost10 million copies worldwide. On the stunning single "Smells LikeTeen Spirit," Cobain howled over a sludgy guitar riff, "I feelstupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us." This wasthe sound of psychic damage, and an entire generation recognizedit.
Nirvana-with their stringy hair, plaid work shirts and tornjeans-appealed to a mass of young fans who were tired of falseidols like Madonna and Michael Jackson, and who'd never had adangerous rock-and-roll hero to call their own. Unfortunately,the band also appealed to the sort of people Cobain had alwayshated: poseurs and bandwagoneers, not to mention record-companyexecs and fashion designers who fell over themselves cashing in on the new sights and sounds. Cobain, who'd grown up as anangry outsider, tried to shake his celebrity. "I have a request for our fans," he fumed in the liner notes to the album"Incesticide." "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals,people of different color, or women, please do this one favorfor us-leave us the f--k alone!...Last year, a girl was rapedby two wastes of sperm and eggs while singing...our song 'Polly.'I have had a hard time carrying on knowing there are planktonlike that in our audience."
By 1992, it became clear that Cobain's personal life was astangled and troubling as his music. The singer married Love inWaikiki-the bride wore a moth-eaten dress once owned by actressFrances Farmer-and the couple embarked on a self-destructive pas de deux widely referred to as a '90s version of "Sid and Nancy." As Cobain put it, "I was going off with Courtney and we were scoring drugs and we were f--king up against a walloutside and stuff...and causing secnes just to do it. It wasfun to be with someone who would stand up all of a sudden and smash a glass on a table." In September '92, Vanity Fairreported that Love had used heroin while she was pregnant withFrances Bean. She and Cobain denied the story (the baby ishealthy). But authorities were reportedly concerned enough toforce them to surrender custody of Frances to Love's sister,Jamie, for a month, during which time the couple was, in Cobain's words, "totally suicidal."
Tormented rebel: By last week the world knew Cobain had aself-destructive streak, that he'd flailed violently against hisunwanted celebrity-but the world had been assured those dayswere over. Nirvana recently postponed its European concertdates and opted out of this summer's Lollapalooza tour. Still,spokesmen maintained that Cobain simply needed time to recuperatefrom the overdose in Rome. They offered a tempting picture:Cobain the tormented rebel reborn as a doting, drug-free father.Even Dr. Osvaldo Galletta, of Rome's American Hospital, says hebelieved the overdose was an accident: "The last image I haveof him, which in light of the tragedy now seems pathetic, is of a young man playing with the little girl. He did not seemlike a young man who wanted to end it. I had hope for him. Some of the people that visited him were a little strange, buthe seemed to be a mild sort, not at all violent. His wife alsobehaved quite normally. She left a thank-you note."
It'd be nice if we, too, could come away with that imageof Cobain and his daughter. And, in truth, those who knew thesinger say there was a real fragility buried beneath the noiseof his music and his life. Still, there are a lot of otherimages vying for our attention just now. Among them is the image of Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain, who are saidto have arrived at their home in Seattle, via limo, late Friday. Again: what will people tell Frances? Ed Rosenblatt,Geffen Records president, says, "The world has lost a greatartist and we've lost a great friend. It leaves a huge voidin our hearts." That is certainly true. If only someone hadheard the alarms ringing at the rambling, grayshingled homenear the lake. Long before there was a void in our hearts, there was a void in Kurt Cobain's.