Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana was an all around creative person, not just a musician. He drew. He collected odd things and made art out of them. He wrote poetry and lyrics. He played music. He listened to other musicians to get ideas. He had trouble in school, didn’t fit in, spent a lot of time alone growing up.
When I was 13, he committed suicide. He was in the late stages of heroin addiction, depressed, and felt that there was no other way out. He was an idol to an entire generation of kids and adults who felt rejected and abandoned in the years after suburban life had already taken its toll and divorce was rampant. That legendary divorce is such a bore…
He had punk, counterculture, and anarchist leanings, yet his music ended up being completely mainstream. He got caught up in the hype. He and Courtney Love created their own Sid and Nancyesque love affair. They were all over the magazines when I was growing up: Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Spin. The hearsay or reality — we couldn’t know for sure which — of Courtney shooting dope while she was pregnant. Kurt going to jail for OD’ing on pills. His In Utero-era concert dressed in a hospital gown. His refusal to put on the same show every time he played, sometimes mangling the lyrics or flat out walking off stage.
And his death.
Peers used to make fun of me for having been such a fan during his life. But I don’t regret it. Cobain came to the spotlight during my adolescence. I lived in a box neighborhood where religious zealots reigned supreme and you had no way out unless you possessed a car. The suburbs were the cement wall sealing me to my seemingly predetermined fate of ostracism and not fitting in.
I listen to a lot of different bands now — due to the rampant availability of music everywhere — but recently I read a comic book based on Kurt Cobain called Godspeed, around the anniversary of his death in April, and remembered why I loved him and all the media of that time so much.
It was all I had.
I came home to empty houses after school, went to my friend’s houses to watch MTV. It was my only view into another world, one in which everything didn’t look the same, where you could trash a hotel room just because, throw your guitar across the stage, be completely vocal about your rage at the meaninglessness of a consumerist, puritanical, two-faced society and even get paid for it.
We were part of a generation that had nothing to lose. We were starving for attention and affection. There were no major movements going on that we knew of. We found solace in graffiti on abandoned houses, in music albums we had to save up $20.00 to buy. We didn’t have access to music (or anything really) online. Everything was controlled by big box stores and magazines.
Cobain spent a lot of time listening to bands who came before him; he built on a foundation of burgeoning grunge as well as earlier punk, rock and blues. If Cobain hadn’t covered “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” in such a baleful pleading tone I never would have looked into Leadbelly.
The 90′s were a dark time, reflected in the movies me and my friends watched. Lost Highway. Natural Born Killers. The People Versus Larry Flynt. Pulp Fiction. Bizarro, murder, porn. We grew up in a world that had no solidifying factor. We didn’t have a cause to cement us to our country. Our wars weren’t ours and they were far away. A lot of us had enough food, though it came in a cardboard box and was heated in a microwave. I grew up on the remnants of 50′s ease: poptarts, ramen, sirloin tv dinners and spam. And candy. Oodles of candy. Home cooked meals were few and far between.
Cobain bled color and life into white walls and ceiling stars. He inspired people to go their own way, be depressed if they were depressed, to turn it into art. I don’t think he was a god. He was younger than I am now when he killed himself. He thought it was better to burn out than to fade away. He was afraid. He was just a person, like you and me. He whined, he lamented, he cajoled. He did a lot of stupid shit. His stars crossed and he blew up big. He self-destructed. And music changed after that, at least in the mainstream. It became washed down, bland. The music industry had their formulas down pat by this time. And here we are.
No matter how big Cobain got, it never filled the hole inside. That was the first example he left for me: that fame isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Success means something different to everybody. Sometimes making it big isn’t a viable goal. And in this day and age, there seems to be less and less motivation for pursuing a career in the music industry – unless you’re into reality television. If you use success and the adulation of others to fill the hole inside of you, you’ll never be full. Hungry ghosts are everywhere, starving for attention and affection.
But you can fill that hole by creating something outside of yourself. Create because you feel alone and isolated. The end goal being connection with all the other little yous out there waiting for someone to mentor them.
Because of Cobain, I picked up the guitar and never put it down. I wasn’t afraid to play alone in my room. I felt I had somebody in my corner.
There’s a power in picking up an instrument. There’s courage in taking it outside of the bedroom. Who were your role models? Who is your audience?