15 Feb On the 20th Anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s Suicide: From the Globe and Mail
Note: This was published in the Globe and Mail on the day of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
The suicide of Kurt Cobain twenty years ago today must rank as one of the most unsurprising deaths in rock history. Not only were intimations of death, illness, addiction, despair and suicide itself rife in the music and imagery of Cobain’s band Nirvana, Cobain’s behaviour in the months leading up to the discovery of his body in Seattle, Washington — a fatal self-inflicted shotgun wound in his head — indicated a man for whom life had become an unwinnable struggle.
Just days before the 27 year old guitarist, songwriter, addict and ill-suited spokesperson for a generation killed himself, he’d walked away from a Los Angeles rehab centre and holed up with his drugs in the greenhouse above the garage adjacent to his mansion. His body was discovered by an employee of an electrical firm dispatched to install a new security lighting system in Cobain’s home, the latest and final attempt by the famously unhappy rock star to build a barrier between himself and the world outside.
In the din made by that world in the days following Cobain’s death, speculation as to why attained predictably cacophonous proportions, with addiction, mental illness and even covert conspiracy vying for primary cause. Although the popular mythical narrative of rock music instantly conferred upon the dead star the mantle of myth and martyr, it tended to tiptoe around a reason suggested in Cobain’s suicide note, pinned to a planter close his body with a pen and addressed to “Boddah.”
“I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now,” Cobain wrote. “I feel guilty beyond words about these things… The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.”
Certainly the drugs, depression and shattered-family formative experience contributed to the final pulling of the trigger. But what was Cobain himself thinking of when he made the decision? What took precedence in the note even before his expression of love and apology to his wife (Courtney Love) and infant daughter Frances Bean?
It was the music. The music had lost its magic. And without that, in Cobain’s clouded mind, life had lost its purpose. Rock had failed him and it was time to die.
If this sounds a little melodramatic, remember that Cobain came from a regional musical scene — later inevitably packaged and promoted as “grunge” — that venerated punk rock as the ultimate expression of musical purity, freedom and resistance to corporate co-optation, but which by the time of his death had not only become one of the most lucrative new marketing opportunities for a struggling industry, but was already being processed and re-packaged — frequently as “alternative” music — as a kind of grunge lite. As it had post-Elvis, post-Beatles and post-Punk, the music business was again doing what it was born to do, which is take dissent, the charismatic veneer of rebellion against consumerism and conformity, and sell it back.
Cobain worshipped punk because it spit on the machinery and offered the promise of equal-opportunity inclusiveness for all, a place where even losers were welcome. But it was a myth (and always has been), and the contradiction between it and reality was, by 1994, nowhere more vividly embodied than by the multi-millionaire rock star in sneakers, ripped jeans and plaid shirts, the guy who stood on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine wearing a shirt that said “Corporate Magazines Still Suck,” and which you can now buy online for $40.00 U.S. from the estate of Kurt Cobain.
Rock music’s defining mythology was always straining to contain that contradiction between rejection and exploitation. As the musical force that galvanized the postwar generation of affluently disaffected white teenagers, it at once appealed to a desire for the assertion of independence and rendered it into a formidable commercial enterprise. By the time punk broke, twenty years after Elvis Presley had stormed the pop cultural consciousness as a force of seemingly uncontainable exuberance, youth and sexuality — only to be neatly trimmed and enlisted in the Army — rock had declared intergenerational war on itself. Punk’s first wave splashed against the edifice of early ’70s commercial rock by insisting that the music had lost its original calling, which is to say to offer a way of refusing the status quo through music. And now that it was the status quo, it was time to get back to the down and dirty roots, to restore it to the kids from whom it had been hijacked and betrayed.
But punk itself quickly became a label, a marketing category and a fashion statement, but never so that it’s core value ever lost its romantic appeal. If anything, punk triumphed as the persistence of rock music’s fundamental idealism, the idea that the music somehow mattered more than the industry that sought to corrupt it, and this was the spirit — teen spirit — that the aptly named Nirvana surged to assert.
Nevermind, perhaps the last rock album that held the promise of this naive conviction, also bore a cover upon which an underwater baby is being lured toward a fish hook puncturing a dollar bill. In that image rock’s own inherent contradiction and inevitable demise was boldly articulated, and Kurt Cobain’s death metaphorically foretold. Of all the fatuous claims laid to his legacy in those first days following the discover of his body, none were truer than those which called him the last rock star. Truly, it was over.