It has been 10 years since the death of Kurt Cobain, and I’m torn. I’m torn between the tender spot I have for the angst and self-discovery of my early adolescence in which Nirvana played significantly, and the drivel that is today’s mass media’s “tribute to such a talented and tortured soul.”
I was 13 when Cobain committed suicide. It was probably the most impressionable age for me. It was the first time in my life that I had a real circle of friends, and naturally I just wanted to be liked. We were all pretty mean to each other, though, and I wasn’t going to have friends otherwise since I was branded a dork in the third grade. At the time of Cobain’s death, I was still only in junior high and completely immersed in the alternative rock and old-man cardigans of the time. There wasn’t too much else that interested me besides grunge music and the magazines that centered on it. Holiday money was spent on Columbia House and Spin subscriptions.
Nirvana was one of the bands of my life. Music is what brought my little circle together, and it started with Nirvana. Nirvana introduced me to the new friends in my life and reunited me with an old one with whom I’d had a falling out (if you can have a falling out when you’re 11). Even though everyone was angry with their parents and the people of the world in general (including each other), music was our glue. We sang as loud as we could when we got together, having parties around a campfire and dancing when it got dark. I’m much closer with some of those friends now, and some I have no idea where they even are in the world. But when I hear Nirvana, I think of all of them and their backyards and the campfires we had in them.
I had all of Nirvana’s albums, either purchased on CD or dubbed onto cassette — this was the age before CD burners. Cobain couldn’t sing like Vedder or Weiland, who could actually carry a tune or at least sound as though they were using their diaphragms. Nirvana’s actual music wasn’t even that visionary, much less complicated. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” tagged by the mass media machine as the band’s anthem (something Cobain hated), only had a four-note bass line.
It was the lyrics that were inspired. They woke up a generation of sleepy teenagers and young adults. If you were bitter because your parents put you on Ritalin and no one understood you, you felt as though Cobain were singing just for you.
I read About a Boy recently, whose climax has Cobain’s suicide as a backdrop. Ellie, a punk 13-year-old who wouldn’t wear her school uniform and who liked to get drunk, says she felt as though Cobain knew exactly what was inside of her, and that only he could put it in a way that made her feel as though he understood. Without a doubt, Ellie felt what many felt and carry with them to this day. It is hard to deny that Cobain was the voice of an apathetic bracket of youth, and that Nirvana was something they could actually care about.
I’ve read a lot of fan tributes on the Web today. A lot. And they’ve made me so, so sad. As fans clamor to pay homage (“RIP Kurt!”) and to top the last in terms of originality (“In Bloom In Utero In Memoriam” was the most nausea-inducing), I find two things very disturbing with this tribute.
The most common thing I’ve found in the fans’ tributes today was Cobain’s magic at turning them onto music or being the reason they learned to play guitar. Naturally, it should have been so. Cobain only saw a Sex Pistols poster and knew he wanted to be a punk rocker. But it’s the way fans have delivered this message. “You were an angel.” “You were such a talented bloke. It’s a shame we’ve lost your gift.” “You changed my life, thank you.” “Every time early April comes around, I slip into a depression.” “I think about you every day.”
They all write as though they personally knew him or that he presented them with some sort of gift directly. Almost no one recognizes that this cult of personality his so-called biggest fans have created probably would have made Cobain want to shoot himself all over again. If they truly felt that they knew him, that he spoke directly to them, and that he is the sole reason they are who they are (a scary notion on its own), then they would have remembered that it was the music that meant more to them than the tragic end, and they wouldn’t have written such rubbish. In fact, they wouldn’t have posted anything at all, but would have tried to remember him quietly, perhaps doing as they once did by listening to him alone in the bedroom.
The most disturbing thing I’ve found today, though, is that no one mentions that his death was entirely, completely selfish. He had a daughter. Frances Bean wasn’t even two years old at the time. All of these accolades say, “He gave, he gave, he gave,” but in the end, he was only thinking about himself and certainly not about those to whom he “touched” and gave “so much.” But yet they still revere him. I was almost expecting to see a posting that read “I actually started a Church of Cobain. Today, we’ve seen an increased number of chapters.” It’s no wonder to me that he had aggravated ulcers and shot heroin.
I do wonder, though, if he even thought about the effect his dramatic death would have on his daughter. So he wasn’t having 100 percent fun, but wasn’t his flesh, his blood, his child enough? I wonder if Frances Bean has seen her dad today on MTV, and if while everyone is praising him as “brilliant,” she’s thinking otherwise.
For the rest of her life, she’ll be like Jakob Dylan or Stella McCartney. If she tries to make a name for herself, it will only be clouded by her lineage, which today is in danger of becoming sensationalist fodder for magazines and television.
I wonder if Cobain, a child of a broken home, even had the foresight to imagine what Frances Bean’s life would be like without a father. I wonder if he felt the fatherly instinct to protect her and to keep her from having a similarly crappy childhood. If he knew Courtney Love was seemingly once again spinning out of control and that their daughter was in state custody, would he regret it?
Sometime in the year after Cobain’s death, my dad bought me a hand-sketched portrait of him by a street artist. I framed it and hung it up on my bedroom wall. It’s not on my wall anymore, and, like me, that wall has changed. My bachelor’s degree hangs in the frame now. The portrait is put away, protected, a mark of what my life was about 10 years ago. Ten years after the seventh grade, I’ve grown up and matured.
I’m not listening to Nirvana while I write this, and I don’t plan to listen to the band, since it was all that was on the radio on my way home from work. Instead the White Stripes, the members of which I’m sure were inspired by Nirvana when they, too, were younger, are currently playing on Media Player, which will soon switch to Hot Hot Heat or the Black-Eyed Peas or something else entirely.
Nirvana will always be synonymous with a particular time in my life, and I will look on that time with affection, no matter how embarrassing or confusing it was. “Unplugged” is always in regular rotation in my car, my primary music-listening space. But today, I shudder and recoil from Nirvana. And I hate you all for it.