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Kills Like Teen Spirit

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A year ago, Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. For all that's been written about his suicide, the power it holds over our emotions and imaginations remains, for the most part, a mystery. It doesn't come down to anything quite so simple as great songs, a great band, a great singer, or "the voice of a generation." The answer doesn't lie in poring over the details of his life either. There was nothing simple about what drove Kurt Cobain to leave this world; there's nothing simple about what leads any person to choose death. But if we can never know what combination of biochemistry, family background, drug addiction, neglect, celebrity, and self-hatred caused Kurt Cobain to obliterate himself, it's still worth pondering what it says about the rock world, stardom, and our own complicity in it--as fans, critics, and partisans within a generation and across the gap. If we can't figure out what Cobain's suicide says about him, we should at least try to grasp what it says about us.

Alternative rock may believe that it discovered the idea that stardom is lethal--that embracing fame and fortune represents a death wish not only for the star but for everyone involved in the process--but that's a joke. The idea is there in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, and before that in the story of Icarus, who soared too high in emulation of the birds and gods. But there is something different in the current rock scene's attitude toward stardom, fame, and its own sense of community. The night Cobain's body was discovered, someone who worked for him approached me in real distress. "I don't understand how this happened," he said. "How do you get through to a guy who feels like a bigger and bigger failure the more people respond to him? And the more he says he's a failure, the bigger the response."

Excerpts from the letter left lying by his side--which Courtney Love read at his memorial service--reveal a lot about the thinking that led Cobain to kill himself. And while it would be crazy to take his suicide note as the last word on why he did it, it's equally crazy to ignore it and refuse its implications.

"This note should be pretty easy to understand," he wrote. "All the warnings from the Punk Rock 101 courses over the years since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and embracement of your community, it's proven to be very true. I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing something, for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things--for example, when we're backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd..."

At which point in her reading, Courtney Love paused and commented, "Well, Kurt, so fucking what? Then don't be a star, you asshole."

Then she read on: "...which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact that I can't fool you, any one of you, it simply isn't fair to you or me. The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having one hundred percent fun."

"Well, Kurt," Love interjected, "the worst crime I can think of is for you to just continue being a rock star when you fucking hate it, just fucking stop."

Well, he did.

Cobain's commentary on his own demise is a muddle of half-digested contradictions that, in my view anyway, reveal a fundamental quandary that has beset pop stardom since before the advent of punk--since it began to incorporate ideas from the folk music world, really.

The "warnings" Cobain mentioned are about selling out, a category that may or may not include commercial success. Selling out means displaying personal inauthenticity, which is the reason Cobain can express such admiration for Freddie Mercury, who lived his life in a closet but was true to his own fakery. Punk Rock 101 teaches that the greatest sin is not meaning what you're doing, and perversely it doesn't matter how jive you are if you really mean it. So we get acts of self-destruction like the Replacements drinking themselves half to death and making it look less like fun than obligation, Courtney Love insisting her Madison Square Garden audience join her in bellowing racist insults, and ordinary fans bruising each other, even breaking bones, all in order to "prove their cred."

Such an edict represents a curious thing in the annals of popular music. It's not an idea inherent in rock 'n' roll. Who knows if Elvis really meant what he sang in "Mystery Train" or "Heartbreak Hotel"? (He obviously didn't mean "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," and some people never forgave him for it, a fact Cobain might have found useful.) Who cares if Pete Townshend really wanted to die before he got old? Who's crazy enough to believe that Mick Jagger could never get any satisfaction?

Whether Bob Dylan really heard those answers blowing in the wind is another matter, though, and it was the arrival of Dylan and the folkies that gave birth to rock's cult of authenticity. Dylan was called a phony when he tried to sing like Blind Lemon Jefferson on his first album; when he failed to devote more time to playing civil rights benefits after "Blowin' in the Wind" became a hit; when he stopped writing and performing "protest" songs after The Times They Are A-Changin'; and, of course, when he began playing with a rock band and electric instruments in 1965. He wasn't the only one accused of fakery. Rock bands got away with all sorts of folderol in the studio for years, but the Byrds--the first important folk-rock band--were excoriated for recording with session musicians rather than using only band members.

The roots of the folk scene's quest for authenticity are deep, going back to the turn of the century when scholars like Francis Child first scoured Appalachian communities for the remnants of Elizabethan balladry and found a host of songs akin to the version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that Cobain learned from Leadbelly, who called it "In the Pines." Child and others found musical treasures and some of the greatest examples of vernacular poetic and narrative writing in the English language, material that still informs the writing of Dylan, Neil Young, and Allen Ginsberg, among others.

The authenticity issue arose in trying to make sense of what happened to these songs when they moved out of the preliterate traditions of the Appalachians (or British village life) and into the stream of urban music making. Folk music scholars insisted for the next century--some, like Alan Lomax, still do--that Tin Pan Alley songwriters who used folk elements created "inauthentic" songs; true folk music arose and was passed along anonymously and orally. There were even supposedly inauthentic instruments on which folk music would not be played--the piano, for example, supposedly existed only in bourgeois households, though a single visit to a juke joint could have blown that idea out of the water.

Such thinking suffused the folk song movement as it developed an urban "topical" or socialist realist aspect during and after the popular front era of the 1930s. Woody Guthrie attacked the jukeboxes that entertained America's working class, not only because the machines put live musicians like him out of work, but mainly because, as he put it in a 1947 journal entry, "A folk song tells a story that really did happen. A pop tune tells a yarn that didn't really take place." Well, Leadbelly didn't jump in the river and drown after writing "Goodnight Irene," and I presume that Woody wouldn't have wanted him to.

Nevertheless, this ideology had real staying power, finally foundering only when it met Dylan's impossible challenges, beginning with "Restless Farewell" at the end of The Times They Are A-Changin'. Dylan stopped writing protest songs, I think, because the stream-of-consciousness material seemed "truer," more "real." He hadn't changed his position on authenticity at all, which was just as well, since his audience hadn't either, as the folkies proved at the 1965 Newport festival by booing him, and thereafter by scrambling to catch up and immersing themselves in ever more "intimate" confessional material, until finally the whole stream came to a dead end in a welter of singer-songwriters as self-pitying as they were self-parodying--the very same artists, in many cases, who demanded the response that punk's initial assault provided. (Dylan had by then moved on to other things, including the wearing of masks and face paint.) The most prominent Dylan followers today--Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen--have made their strangest, bravest, and most ridiculous moves in the name of being true to themselves on those same old terms.

The shaky and querulous alliance between rock and the student left in the late 1960s reinforced the primacy of "authenticity." Political movements, particularly those as rootless and disaffected as the New Left, necessarily require a great deal of suspicion: Radicals need to prove their "authenticity" from time to time to demonstrate that they are not traitors, agents provocateurs, or otherwise in league with the bad guys. But the anarchist ideologies from the terminal portion of the 1960s (and almost all of the left after the civil rights movement became dominated by anarchist thinking) demanded authenticity of another sort--that people really mean what they say about making the personal political--and so we got, among other things, communes with enforced bisexuality run by the Weathermen, and the drop-out sloganeering of the French and English situationists.

The situationists were on to something--no need to keep a long face, there's more than enough material wealth to go around--but their elitism toward activists who did grassroots political work, as opposed to various sorts of "art" and media manipulation, scuttled whatever genuine revolutionary potential they brought to (and took out of) the crisis of 1968. It's probably more appropriate to think of the situationists as philosophers than as political radicals, and their philosophy was a species of nihilism: The central tenet, after all, was "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Punk inherited all this when Malcolm McLaren and his cohorts (notably graphic designer Jamie Reid) expropriated situationist ideas to help build the image of the Sex Pistols, and Clash Svengali Bernie Rhodes followed suit. McLaren, Rhodes, and other punk entrepreneurs essentially took situationist and anarchist ideas into the realm of promotion, marketing, and advertising. The Pistols in particular employed a phalanx of PR men so numerous and so astute they might have made Michael Jackson blush. Managers like McLaren, Rhodes, and even Miles Copeland, the decidedly nonanarchist CIA scion who handled the Police and founded I.R.S. Records, found such rhetoric useful for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that it allowed them to assume superiority over the acts, who were supposedly mere instruments of theory after all. (McLaren seems to remain unaware that the Pistols were a great band, or that they had an existence independent of his enterprise, even after getting his clock cleaned in court by Johnny Rotten.)

In English pop, the punk revolution changed everything on the surface and nothing at the core; Dave Rimmer's lost classic, Like Punk Never Happened, a book that traces the punk kids who became Culture Club, captures the result perfectly. Unless you believe that Morrissey is the voice of a generation, punk left British rock spent as a market force and laughable as a culture, depending as it now does on cannibalizing last year's version of the recycled fads of some previous era.

But those first punk kids in London thought they were waging a revolution against the corruption that had undeniably crept into a becalmed and boring rock scene. The terms in which they expressed their disdain for hangers-on and those whose credentials didn't quite make it came straight out of the authenticity movements: "Poseurs" was the favorite epithet.

It was back in the States that rock's two streams of authenticity finally came together. You can pinpoint the moment in a single song: Neil Young's 1979 "Out of the Blue and Into the Black," which Kurt Cobain quoted in a part of his suicide note that Courtney Love did not read. Remember that when punk first began to take shape in New York in the mid-70s, Young seemed the archetype of the laid-back California singer-songwriter, whining "Heart of Gold" and other such gems through his nose. By 1979, though, Young had undergone a couple more of his Dylan-esque transformations, and he sang "Out of the Blue" twice, once at the beginning of his album, in a folkie arrangement with acoustic guitar and mouth harp, and then again at the end, against a grinding grunge guitar: "Hey, hey, my, my / Rock and roll can never die," he sang, making it seem like a vampire's curse, and then, a verse later, "Out of the blue and into the black / You pay for this but they give you that / And once you're gone, you can't come back / When you're out of the blue and into the black." As a critique of suicide, it's hard to beat.

But those aren't the lines Kurt Cobain remembered when he wrote his note. The line he quoted is the line everyone remembers: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." But those words don't appear in the grunge version at all. Only in the folkie one.

Rock's quest for authenticity reached Kurt Cobain as legend as much as history. Cobain was eight years old when Patti Smith made Horses and the Ramones stormed England; nine when "Anarchy in the U.K." came out; all of 15 when the Clash broke up. These events took place so far from Aberdeen, the little Washington logging town where he grew up, that they might as well have happened in an entirely different generation.

What Cobain received from them was inspiration and a set of assumptions. If Kurt Cobain had grown up in the 50s or 60s or even the early 70s--if he was anybody from Lou Reed to Melissa Etheridge--his early encounters with rock 'n' roll almost certainly would have represented a glorious possibility, a chance to communicate across all the gaps in our society--gaps of class, race, region, gender, generation, education, you name it. Used this way, rock 'n' roll became not just a "way out" of impoverished working-class or straitjacketed middle-class existence but a method of absolutely transforming yourself, a means of becoming who you'd always dreamed of being, confronting your fears with the power to transmute them into assets, a chance to be a hero not only to others but in your own life, to articulate out loud a vision of the whole world when you'd previously been terrified to whisper into the mirror. Of such things freedom is constructed.

But for Cobain, and lots of kids like him, rock 'n' roll offered no hope. Instead it threw down a dare: Can you be pure enough, day after day, year after year, to prove your authenticity, to live up to the music? In short, can you prove you're not a fake and keep on proving it, without respite? And if you can't, can you live with being a poseur, a phony, a sellout?

Those questions are all too easy to answer because they present a classic double bind: In the first place, demanding "purity" really means proving something you don't have--that you lack all corruption--and no one can prove a negative. Notions like purity and authenticity are elusive; they can barely be articulated, let alone put on display. They are like the Puritans' idea of grace, here presented as a kind of hipness or "independence." But establishing such rigid qualifications immediately eliminates ease and freedom, the true hallmarks of independence and emotional authenticity. In this setting it really is easier for a professional poseur like Freddie Mercury than for a raw and amateurish artistic spirit like Kurt Cobain. So Cobain--but not Cobain alone--groped blindly, looking for a transcendence he could feel but that the rules of the game he was playing--or at least the game he thought he was playing--prevented him from reaching. And if you can't reach toward that transcendence, then, in ways far too lethal to enumerate, you really are a fake. That's the double bind, and Cobain buffeted around in it for a decade. No wonder his guts ached.

Again, there's nothing inherent about rock stardom in this. John Lennon, to choose a performer in many ways similar to Cobain in his drives and insights, never had to worry about such things. Even at his most despairing, on 1970's Plastic Ono Band, Lennon never descended into nihilism, because he expressed his despair in terms that implied any such obstacle could be overcome if the right mechanism--political, personal, psychological, religious--could be located. Even Iggy and the Stooges, by far the darkest band of rock's first two decades (no "linger on, your pale blue eyes" for the Ig), sounded as if they believed in a way out--as if the life force in their death-trip songs might be so powerful it could drag them out of its own murderous maw. That way out might be painful and self-threatening, but it was a pathway out of nothingness, not just another route to describing it but a means of obliterating the hollow core of the everyday and bursting through into free space. When you did that, the music promised (and early results demonstrated), the world would change, at least as it presented itself to you, because you had changed.

Beyond that, Lennon and the Stooges played rock 'n' roll as hedonists, for whom pleasure was central, not foreign. By maintaining their links to the world of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis, they somehow managed a last stand, out of which they took solace, relief, a good time. They could affect any pose that occurred to them, from village idiot to irascible artiste, snarling snob to bemused bohemian, so long as it worked. And what worked wasn't what kept them pure, it was what let them experience this liberating sense of play. "Fake" might have been an epithet in which artists like Lennon and Iggy delighted. At the very least, "No Fun" was a situation they didn't intend to put up with.

Kurt Cobain didn't hear "No Fun" as a protest; he heard it as a description of how things were and how they would stay. In the world he was born to, he literally couldn't imagine changing things. The best he could hope to achieve was to stay outside the corruption, stay true to his principles, not sell out, never become phony, never fake it. I'm not saying Kurt took no pleasure or solace in music. You can hear that he did all over Nirvana's records, particularly in the beautiful MTV Unplugged in New York, where he sings songs he loves by everybody from Leadbelly to David Bowie to the Meat Puppets. The love Kurt had for this music--and for his own songs, too--shines bright and hard, like a crystallized essence of what he's trying to say through the petulance and recriminations of Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide, and In Utero (one of the greatest series of album titles in rock history, incidentally, a set of images as bloody and beatified as the stations of the cross).

On MTV Unplugged in New York, you can hear Kurt being all the things he dreamed: unbridled hostile, at war with everyone and everything; self-defeating cynic ("I guarantee you I will screw this song up," he says by way of introducing "The Man Who Sold the World," and then, so far as I can hear, redeems it); little boy ("Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam"); and his final, lingering incarnation as a man not yet dead but already haunted on "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"

Cobain's version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"--an ancient song known primarily in folk and blues circles (Neil Strauss wrote a marvelous history of it in the New York Times last summer)--may be as great a performance in its own way as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which is only the greatest single rock 'n' roll record of this decade. You can hear Cobain as the pure product of punk and postpunk culture in those songs, but you can also hear him struggling to break free from the cliches imposed upon him. Cobain is looking for several things here. First of all, he's trying to find a route to community, as the only alternative to the atomized isolation that was killing him and the people he saw around him. And second, he was trying to feel good about it, to locate that moment's respite that could only come from opening his heart to the embrace offered by so many people who had mocked and ridiculed the geek he used to be: a terrifying possibility, but the only life raft he could reach.

Undoubtedly, Kurt Cobain came to feel trapped by the adoration of the geek bashers, the squares, the frat boys who heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a party song and saw in its bizarre cheerleader video not an anomaly but a true reflection of the world they so comfortably lived in. Trapped, in short, just as Punk Rock 101 told him he would be. When he sings "There's a friend, there's a friend, there's an enemy," he sounds like he's counting the house at a post-Nevermind show. But pushy and oppressive as their presence may have been, the geek bashers and frat boys aren't what pushed Kurt Cobain to suicide. How could they? They lacked the imagination and the interest. If philosophical questions about how stardom backfires had ever arisen for the beer guzzlers in the mosh pit, they'd have moved on to other concerns. No, I don't think that Kurt Cobain killed himself to escape the intrusions of Nirvana's legions of unpunk fans.

Punk answered the prayers of those who lamented the corruption of rock and the rest of popular culture, perhaps, but its followers had, shall we say, certain problems of their own. In a 1979 Village Voice essay, "The White Noise Supremacists," Lester Bangs identified the problems as racism and sexism, and maybe 15 years ago you could limit it to that: "Sometimes I think nothing is simple but the feeling of pain," Bangs wrote at the beginning of his essay, concluding 5,000-odd words later by remarking that he had written "not because you want to think that rock & roll can save the world but because since rock & roll is bound to stay in your life you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world."

If we have learned anything since then, it's that feeling pain may be simple but figuring out how to stop feeling it is incredibly difficult and dangerous (maybe Kurt's stomach really did hurt that bad, maybe the heroin really was the only thing that helped), and that within the bounds of hipness it's damn near impossible to figure out how to quit inflicting it--because that can only happen when you learn to feel the pain that you're causing others, and that can only happen when you let go of your worries about purity and begin the very impure, perhaps unhip process of communicating your hopes and fears with others. In short, when you admit out loud that you can and do hurt, not as a fashion statement but right at the core of your being, which good little alternative rockers are supposed to shield with the true armor of their authenticity, I guess.

God knows, this defines perfectly well the dilemma of Kurt Cobain, who wore his abraded empathy more poetically than anyone since Lester Bangs himself. What I have come to love most about the grunge bands--beyond the sheer sonic fury, the slash and snap of their attack, and the muddy-yet-crystalline musical ambition that brings me back to the days of the MC5 and the Stooges more directly than even the punks of the 70s--is their absolute disinterest in the art of the compromise. In the past two years, bands like Green Day and Pearl Jam have completely disrupted the American concert business, and given time they will do the same for records, radio, retail, and maybe even their audiences.

That's because they operate according to values that emerged out of this very history I have spent so much time here describing and criticizing. But they don't proceed to create from this history the anything-goes decadence that gave us Culture Club and a slew of other interesting British bands who then crashed, full speed, into a brick wall because if "nothing is true and everything is permitted," as punk's situationist forebears insisted, then making distinctions of any kind finally becomes an absurdity. Everybody's a fake.

The grunge bands upended that aesthetic by standing up and saying "No. These things are true, and those things are not permitted." And in this respect, it is unquestionable that the original grunge standard-bearer was Nirvana. Grunge bands took risks by standing up for what they believed in, whether that meant Cobain wearing a "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" T-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone or Pearl Jam playing an antiabortion concert on the site where the first murder of an abortion doctor took place. They risked getting caught being sincere but wrong, in either attitude or action. That could compel some to label you: Fake. Phony. Poseur. So not compromising, all by itself, can become as much a dead end as just shilling for the bucks. Proving you're not a fake doesn't make you feel real--that's what Cobain's suicide note struggled to tell us. And it was then, if at no other time, that Kurt Cobain really did become a spokesperson for his rock 'n' roll generation.

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted." At one time, back when it was beloved by situationists and satanists, this statement completely invalidated social conformity. But today everybody feels that way: Newt Gingrich, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, O.J. Simpson, CNN, and most likely, you and me. The credo no longer expresses an undercurrent of rebellion--it's at the center of everything from the Contract With America to Steve Albini's production on In Utero to Young's sad attempt to explain away the consequences of writing "It's better to burn out than to fade away" on Sleeps With Angels.

Young's title track doesn't say a thing to me, although I think it's the one that's meant to eulogize Cobain. What does connect to the tale I've been trying to tell is "Change Your Mind," a melodic rewrite of "Heart of Gold" and "Down by the River," whose lyric sounds like Neil pleading with Kurt to do the one thing that Young derives his alternative rock credentials from refusing to do: Consider the consequences. It's Young's dilemma that touches me most deeply, maybe because nobody who's spent the past 25 years helping create and define the rock 'n' roll world can help but feel a similar complicity in the Kurt Cobain story, maybe because Young struggles so palpably to convince us (convince himself?) that his ideas could not have had such consequences--and fails.

Today "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" rebels against nothing and liberates no one. And what is rebellion without liberation except the essence of what Kurt Cobain is talking about in that suicide note? This form of nihilism is just one more heartless rebuff to a world conceived in exactly such defeated terms: Dirt to those who don't have riches, spit in the eye of the one who ain't hip, disdain for anybody who'd actually try to connect with others, and above all a suspicion verging on contempt for anybody whose empathic resonance is so great that an entire generation or even an entire nation would respond to it. The saddest, most pathetic moment in that suicide note comes when Kurt Cobain talks about how he lacks empathy, how much he envies those who possess it--this from the author of all those songs!

And yet he did connect. No one, not even him, could deny it. People may have taken what they heard, not what Kurt wanted them to hear, but they took great things from Nirvana's scabrous and beautiful music. In the end, Kurt Cobain may have found this the most frightening aspect of his whole life and career. He thought he was alone in what he felt, and it turned out that in feeling alone he connected to just about everybody. Having to live with this truly penetrating awareness of how isolated and beyond solace almost everybody in our world feels could scare anybody to death.

In this respect, Kurt Cobain's death differed utterly from 1994's other nihilist suicide, that of Guy Debord, the philosophical eminence behind the situationists and thus a grandfather of punk. Debord shot himself to death last November 30. His friends weren't surprised, and nobody else paid much attention. For a philosopher who devoted his work to writing about representation and communication, it would be hard to define a greater failure. But Debord was no Icarus; he didn't soar. His theory kept him grounded. Or mired.

Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, died as something more than a star, a symbol, or even a generational martyr. He died like the painter Mark Rothko, who killed himself, it would seem, from an excess of feeling. Unlike Rothko, though, Cobain died from being a modernist (a modernist being a person "whose social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world," as Robert Motherwell wrote 50 years ago) who tried to live up to postmodern values.

What I have come to believe is that Kurt Cobain did not die because he could not fit in, but because he did. Which is why I can take no solace from Neil Young's stumbling for an explanation (much as I relate to it) or from Courtney Love's vainglorious effort to put the principles that doomed Kurt into practice (compelling as I find Live Through This) or in my friend Gina Arnold's bittersweet efforts to put the passions of Nirvana's fans into words, but only in the half-intelligible singing of Michael Stipe on Automatic for the People--a fit epitaph for rock 'n' roll's first celebrity shotgun suicide, if there ever was one.

Stipe has said that he and Cobain had been talking a lot while planning a collaboration; I don't know what Michael tried to say to Kurt in their last few conversations, but in my imagination he sings him a lullaby: "When you're sure you've had enough / Of this life...well, hang on."

I don't know what really happened--in those talks or in the last days of Kurt Cobain's life. I do know that those of us left behind had better start singing such things to one another or we will find our way to the ocean, not like the river that runs down so beautifully at the end of Automatic for the People in "Find the River," but like lemmings.

Hang on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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