Commentary: Cobain, running all around my brain

BY DAN WATSON | APRIL 08, 2009 7:30 AM

Kurt Cobain, an unwilling American icon, is remembered 15 years after his death. But what is his death’s significance?

I still know every word to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Every grunt, every groaned out “yeah.” Although I still probably don’t fully understand the meaning of the lyrics, they are part of my childhood, they are still with me. I remember screaming them in my brand new PA stereo, as my middle-school friends and I formed our first band. We wanted to be like Nirvana, except that we wanted to be rock stars.

Somehow in the haze and innocence of youth I was ignorant of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s death. I knew he killed himself, but I really didn’t understand what that meant or its cultural significance. Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the shot that ended Cobain’s life and marred a generation. He was found dead in the greenhouse behind his Seattle mansion, killed by a reported self-inflicted gunshot wound — and was found approximately two days after he pulled the trigger, according to the coroner’s report.

I’m still not sure what to make of Cobain’s life and death 15 years later, and to be honest I’m kind of apathetic about the whole thing.

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Seemingly there are two different outlooks to categorize post-Cobain thought. One involves mythologizing his life. The world is filled with Nirvana and Cobain fanatics who will undoubtedly cry today reminiscing about the grunge god. These people put Cobain on a pedestal, praise his modern genius, and understand — or claim to — how unbearable it is to live in such a sad and abusive world.

Other individuals criticize Cobain for his last act, believing he was a drug-addicted loser who left fans and his young daughter on the worst of terms. Courtney Love, his widow, said as much when she read parts of his suicide note for a recording later played at a vigil for the fallen frontman. “He’s such an asshole,” Love said.

Born into a lower-middle-class family, the Cobains moved to the dying logging town of Aberdeen, Wash., when Kurt was still a child. His parents split when he was 7. Cobain wrote in his suicide note that he never felt happy again after the divorce. He was constantly harassed in high school and eventually dropped out. He became dependent on alcohol and drugs during this period.

Cobain managed to find time for music. He formed Nirvana in 1986. Three years later, the band came out with its first CD, Bleach, and in 1991 signed to major record label DGC, which released Nevermind, and then boom … Nirvana and the disenchanted Cobain were mainstream.

Cobain was Generation X’s reluctant icon. He was grunge. He embodied the slacker, stick-it-to-the-man ideals that the culture represented. He was pissed off at the establishment, not for what it did, but for what it didn’t do, namely look out for the victims of capitalism. Musically, Cobain and Nirvana popularized the famous Seattle grunge sound. As the leading creative force behind Nirvana, Cobain brought the attitude of 1970s such punk-rock acts as Joy Division and the Sex Pistols and combined it with a distorted metal edge. Nirvana’s success paved the way for peers Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.

Cobain couldn’t grasp that individuals similar to the ones who harassed him during his childhood were now filling venues to see Nirvana and buying his band’s albums. Such irony. The irony that he took drugs to mask the pain, but drugs actually amplified his insecurities. The irony that his anti-materialistic ideology was making him and others rich — that rock-stardom and critical success only made him more depressed.

“There’s good in all of us, and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad,” Cobain said in his suicide note. “The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man. Why don’t you just enjoy it? I don’t know!”

Cobain appropriately left the last irony for us, the living. Unintentionally he created a music genre and the slacker philosophy of denying mainstream ideals, staying true to oneself, and a realizing that it’s all right to be angry at the world. The finality of Cobain’s suicide ended the grunge movement as quickly as it started. The act raises the question: If Cobain’s antiestablishment ideals led to his suicide, who would argue being a materialist sellout is wrong?

In the end Cobain’s rationales were his own, and contemplating them only takes us in circles, but every once in a while, like today, anyone interested in the man can reflect upon the meaning of his life, music, and even his death.

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