"Kurt Cobain: When rock becomes religion, our gods are rendered mortal."

Spin - 12/94

Article about Kurt Cobain

by Charles Aaron

If growing up as a Pisces on bended knees in the church of punk rock taught me anything, it was never to trust anything or anyone, even myself, particularly if there was money or love or God involved, never trust a melody because melodies sell people things they don't need, always place blame and always accept it, and remember that, in the words of punk forefather Graham Greene, "We are all of us resigned to death: It's life we aren't resigned to."

In other words, punk rock kept me from wanting to kill myself as a dopey kid, but left me with very little to live for as a dopey adult, except the laughter of survival or some such. The happiest people are the best liars. Stunted punk ideas like that still scurry from the right side of my brain to the left. And I say the "church" of punk rock because Johnny Rotten was a tortured Catholic, and I was a tortured Baptist, and my punk-rock dream come true wasn't some quaint DIY vision of hearing "real" rock'n'roll again. It was about rescuing Jesus from the repressive lying assholes and convincing Him to scream "Fuck off and die" at everything and everyone I hated. Punk rock was my substitute for spiritual ritual, my excuse for living. And it inevitably had to fail.

Kurt Cobain, born too late in a trailer park in Aberdeen, Washington, felt cheated that he didn't even get his chance to fail. He missed punk proper, missed the black-joke blubbering of hardcore, missed the Beatles AND the Knack, for that matter. Instead his parents divorced, his father beat the shit out of him, and he dropped out of high school. But once he got his band together (Dave Grohl on drums instead of those other guys), he gave us Nevermind, its title a blunted response, either intentionally or unintentionally, to the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks. And more than a decade after the fact, Nirvana perfectly expressed how shitty and sad and funny-pathetic millions of so-called normal kids now felt, instead of just speaking to a bunch of "weirdos" and "fags". With an album produced so that it blared comfortably next to Guns N' Roses on the radio, and because of the clever video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and because Kurt Cobain was a great song- writer, Nirvana became a No. 1 punk band. Fairly legitimately, no big swindle.

But unlike other insecure, long-suffering punk grunts, I felt more disoriented than validated or vindicated. As time went on, questions nagged. What does an invigorating postmortem on punk offer anyone in the '90s? Aren't Nirvana fans just gonna use Cobain, a deeply conflicted dweeb with serious emotional and physical problems, as some kind of spiritual martyr? Aren't we going to end up gawking at the same lame suicidal striptease that Sid Vicious and Darby Crash put us through? Still, I got fed up with indie types bitching about the band, calling them the postpunk Police, not acknowledging their talent. I guess I wanted to stupidly give myself over to punk one more time.

Then came In Utero, even more overwhelming than Nevermind. Recorded with indie Stalinist Steve Albini, it sounded like a punk-rock record-- the drums thwapped, the guitars squalled, and Cobain's lyrics, especially on "Pennyroyal Tea", when he ached for a "Leonard Cohen afterworld" where he could "sigh eternally", were almost too much. In retrospect, like Sylvia Plath, Cobain seemed to cherish suicide as his muse.

So when the news agencies reported that the "grunge poet" had swallowed a shotgun blast in the garage of his Seattle home, I wasn't really shocked. Just depressed by the trite inevitability of it. Heroin, shmeroin: At that moment, Cobain was simply another artist who dared to let contradictory emotions fight it out and coexist in his work, and another who didn't survive. Because of his artistic courage, and because he was genuinely as confused as his fans, he ended up feeling responsible for this whole "voice of a voiceless generation" bullshit that gets dumped on anyone these days who's talented and quotable. Sucked into the country's spiritual vacuum, he became "the sad little sensitive unappreciative Pisces Jesus man", as his wife Courtney Love cracked with a sarcastic precision Cobain would have appreciated while she read his suicide note at the Seattle Center memorial on April 10.

As Cobain told biographer Michael Azerrad in Come As You Are, "I'm such a nihilistic jerk half the time and other times I'm so vulnerable and sincere. That's pretty much how every song comes out.... That's how most people my age are. They're sarcastic one minute, caring the next." That dichotomy is what punk rock should've always been about, but it wasn't and it isn't. The attitude, the form, the word, are more limiting than liberating. Still, a "punk" revival lingers, with entertaining pop cartoons like Green Day and the Offspring. In the liner notes to Incesticide, Cobain soberly claimed that "Punk rock [while still sacred to some] is to me, dead and gone. We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us to feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity." Maybe that's what he tried to believe, in the same way he needed to deny his drug use because he "had a responsibility to the kids". But to me, he just sounds like a scared, true-believing punk trying to talk himself into being a benevolent rock star, and failing.

Many fans, like members of an extended family, are mad at Cobain for abandoning them or for being weak or for never recording Nirvana's version of the White Album, or for whatever. Maybe some of those fans also feel pretty silly for worshiping a rock star and expecting him to handle the pressure like it was no biggie. Maybe it's just too banal and brutal to accept the bottom line--that he was sick and in pain and a tragic line was crossed.

Sociologist Donna Gaines wrote of Cobain's death: "His suicide was a betrayal; it negated an unspoken contract among members of a generation who depended on one another to reverse the parental generation's legacy of neglect, confusion, and frustration. Cobain broke that promise. He just walked." Kurt Cobain was an artist who wrote songs that expressed his painful, contradictory emotions. He had a responsibility to his art, his family, and his friends. His fans were not his family or his friends. It was not his responsibility to reverse their parents' neglect. To suggest otherwise is perversely arrogant.

Because we don't believe in God, because we don't believe in politics, because some of us come from less-than-ideal families, we insist on indulging in a warped, presumptuous romanticism of pop-culture figures that is unfair, unsatisfying and destructive. And we never wise up. The most vivid image I have of Cobain is from the last Nirvana show I saw, in November of '93 at New York's Roseland. On a big stage, bare except for wiry red roses poking up here and there, he stood stoically before a sold-out moshing mob, singing song after song, sounding better than ever, but looking totally defeated. The room became a free-for-all as the band played "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and a barrage of debris flew toward the stage--bottles, boots, flannel shirts. Cobain never flinched, screaming as if locked in a trance, a professional punk, going through the motions because we wanted him to. The barrier between performer and audience was like a Berlin Wall; he must've felt like an idiot for ever trying to jump over. We were lucky to have him for as long as we did.