January 2019: …Let’s wrap up That’s So ’90s Week here on the blog with a multiple-flashback-approach. Here’s a newspaper column I wrote in April 1999, on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, trying to make sense of that moment in time. Revisiting my words now in 2019, nearly 25 years on (!) after Kurt’s death, it’s a weird echoing effect indeed. A reminder that something sad never quite leaves your brain, that few moments are ever completely one thing. It’s one of my favorite of the couple hundred columns I wrote, back when there were newspaper columns.
April 1999: Five years ago now.
Few people noticed it and few comments were made in the news about it, but Friday was the fifth anniversary of the day Kurt Cobain died. The lead singer of the grunge rock band Nirvana took his own life with a shotgun in an apartment in Seattle five years ago.
In his suicide note, Cobain quoted Neil Young’s lyric about how it’s better to burn out quickly than fade away.
The thing no one told Kurt is that everyone fades, in fact and in memory.
A lot of you out there could probably give two tosses for Kurt Cobain’s sorry fate. Just another screwed-up junkie musician.
But I cared about him then and I care about him now, in the strange way you can care for someone you’ve never met who touched your life with their work – the way I care about, say, John Updike or George Lucas or Michael Stipe. It’s an abstract emotion but that makes it no less real.
A song can capture a moment forever. I hear “Pretty In Pink” by O.M.D. and I’m 15 again, instantly. The Velvet Underground always conjures up drunken all-night college parties, me leaning with my head up against the speaker.
And Nirvana. Nirvana was the music I listened to when I drove, loud clashing and screaming about the world. The music spoke of the underbelly of life, the flesh-rendering pain love can cause, the numbness a life can slip into, potential wasted. It was the music for me, then, the person I was then.
Strangely, the day Kurt Cobain died was one of the finest days I had ever known.
That morning, I had found out that I was the recipient of a summer internship with Billboard magazine in New York City.
I’d won out over dozens of other journalism students from around the country, and I’d spend the summer working for one of the biggest music magazines in the world, in the heart of the Big Apple. It was all too good to be true, and the world itself seemed to blossom and spread around me, acres of possibility and potential flowering.
I decided to drive home, from college in Mississippi up to Memphis to tell my parents the good news. I turned on the radio, and they were playing Nirvana, “Come As You Are,” and I began humming along. The song ended, and I heard the DJ say something about “the late Kurt Cobain.” My heart skipped the tiniest bit, the way it always does when you first hear bad news.
I gleaned the rest of the details over the next few minutes. Found in Seattle. Suicide. A shotgun. Heroin problems.
Kurt Cobain was dead.
It was a black spot, a small black spot on an otherwise pristine day.
I drove around Memphis that sunny April afternoon for a good while, playing the tape of Nirvana’s In Utero album I’d kept in the car and thinking what I considered mighty deep philosophical thoughts about life, the universe and everything, about how maybe only a razor’s edge of choice and circumstance separates the cocky college kid from the rock star with a shotgun in his mouth.
The sun splintered jewels of light into the car as I drove, pinballing between highs and lows.
I felt insanely happy one second – I was bound for New York City, where all things begin, where I could be anything! – and terribly apprehensive the next – New York alone, I was only 22, what would happen to me there?
The black spot on the day sat there, too, imprinting on the back of my brain a vague terror of demons unseen, unknowable.
“What else should I be? All apologies… What else could I say… everyone is gay… What else could I write… I don’t have the right… What else should I be? All apologies…”
—Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994
Yeah, he was a junkie. He was a self-proclaimed screwed-up loser who felt he didn’t deserve half of the adulation and acclaim given him during his short, sad life.
Kurt Cobain was not the nicest guy, and his music reflected that – the burnt-throat garglings of someone who would wake up some mornings with absolutely no idea of why he was here or what the point of it all was.
His screams and fractured musical chords tried to make some sense of that chaos. I would not wish his life on me or anyone, but what he said to me with his music made a difference to me, then, and when I listen to it now it still resonates.
I wrote a column, back then in spring 1994, about Kurt Cobain’s death.
I wrote: “I know there were others out there who gladly drank in Nirvana’s music, their corrosive rage and pain, and who saw Cobain as another scared, angry kid like themselves. Cobain’s music didn’t appeal to everyone: it was probably just scary noise to a lot of you reading this. But to me, there was something that could seem so very eloquent about a scream. Nirvana’s music could be beautiful in its ugliness.”
Kurt Cobain’s music came from pain. But in some way, the raw abrasiveness of it all was a healing salve to me. Ugly and beautiful, now strange and gone with no more to come from that dark and gifted place in Kurt Cobain’s heart.
It was a beautiful day there, driving around Memphis five years ago. That little black spot that was Kurt Cobain’s end… perhaps it made the air and sunlight seem sweeter still.
Another fine singer who is a favourite of mine put it best, perhaps, in a song of his own:
“There’s a bit of magic in everything, And some loss to even things out.”
–Lou Reed, “Magic & Loss”