The Ghost of Kurt Cobain

Friday, April 5, marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain, and the 15th anniversary of a Spin issue dedicated to his memory. I was finishing my tenure at Spin when I wrote this article for that issue and it definitely feels (and reads) like ages ago. When it ran, the U.S. was a year into Iraq, the top-selling rock band was Nickelback, and the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” referred to a stunt at the year’s Superbowl show and not click-bait  driving half the world’s Internet traffic. Yet I flatly don’t believe this last decade was as long as the one that preceded it. The years that ended the 20th century brought in the age of terror, two full-scale wars, and a digital-media tsunami that upended the world we at Spin had grown up in. I wrote this piece from that world; today, it seems written about that world. Although this version is essentially the same as the one Spin printed in 2004 and Da Capo reprinted in their best-music-writing anthology, I made some minor revisions for clarity, most to typographical tics I considered errors when the piece came out.  I tried to let the sketchy syntax, shaky arguments, and first-draft mumblecore  remain as they are, as they were, as we must have wanted them to be.

According to Japan’s Shinto faith, when a person dies, his or her spirit passes into nature to reside in the air, water, and rocks. If the person has distinguished him- or herself in life, the spirit becomes a kami, a deity associated with powerful forces like wind and thunder. These deities can be endowed with completely opposite personalities–gentle or violent.

“[He] made women want to nurture and protect him,” a friend, Carrie Montgomery, once said of Kurt Cobain. “He was a paradox in that way, because he also could be brutally and intensely strong, yet at the same time, he could appear fragile and delicate.” The Japanese believe that after death the spirit is angry and defiled. Relatives perform rituals to pacify and purify it. Those who die happily, among their families, become revered ancestors. Those who die unhappily or violently–usually through murder or suicide–are called yurei, ghosts who wander about causing trouble. The ghosts of suicides are said to be the most dangerous.

She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground.  –“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” (Nirvana, In Utero, 1993).

In July 1989, a band recently signed to Seattle indie label Sub Pop appeared at a small New Jersey nightclub. They went on early, played to about 30 people, and, according to one witness, “just incinerated the place.” The group had built a strong word-of-mouth reputation in the year since releasing their first single. But for newcomers like our witness, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, the show was a revelation. “It was like, ‘What the fuck?'” recalls Moore, who’d soon help sign the band sign to DGC.”Not only was every song crushingly great, but at the end, they just smashed their instruments and threw them into the audience. It seemed totally new.”

To Moore, the trio looked like the demonic hick kids in the horror film Children of the Corn. “You know, long stringy hair, ragged flannel, and ripped dungarees.” The 22-year-old singer’s voice “had a teenage Lemmy quality [referring to the gristly, guttural Motörhead singer], and that band knew how to rock. It was so simple: the best parts of R.E.M., the Beatles, the Buzzcocks, Black Flag. But no band was doing that. Nobody in their right mind would reference R.E.M. or the Beatles then. But they did. And it worked.”

It certainly did. Within two years, Nirvana was the biggest rock band in the world; within three, the biggest of the decade; and within five, kaput. In that time, their small, skinny, singer-guitarist devised ’90s rock and helmed a sweeping cultural change of style, attitude, and outlook. Then he ended his life.

Although some Shinto texts talk about the “High Plain of Heaven,” or the “Dark Land,” none provides any details about the afterlife. In Buddhism, the only true end of suffering is the attainment of total enlightenment. A peace beyond peace. A line in a recently published letter–sent to a friend in 1988 from a young blond punk rocker in Washington state–sounds, even today, far from peaceful and like anything but an ending. It announces, in bold block letters, “our last and final name is nirvana.”

Kurt Cobain was many things while he was alive–punk, pop star, hero, victim, junkie, feminist, geek avenger, wise ass. But ten years after his death, he’s something else entirely. To many of us, he is a ghost. The songs are all alive. They play every so often on iPods, jukeboxes, at ball games. An undiscovered one, “You Know You’re Right,” surfaced in 2002, the same year his journals were published as a pricey coffee-table hardcover (Journals). There’s even a “classic alternative” radio format that may enshrine Nirvana as the new Led Zeppelin. But these flickers in the current pop world merely highlight an absence, reminding us of a figure who’s becoming harder to see.

Cobain’s career was short even by rock standards–three albums and out. He was, by his own admission, unprolific, and, after long battles with his former bandmates, his widow, Courtney Love, has established tight control over what remains of his recorded output. And although John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and other rock superstars died young, none had so much of the field to himself in his heyday, or quite the exit strategy.

Cobain’s closest peer, Tupac Shakur, isn’t a ghost but a full-time rap star. A workaholic in a medium where “record” is always pushed, he’s effectively still collaborating, topping charts, showing up in movies. And his postmortem role seems in many ways like wish fulfillment. “I got more to say,” you can almost hear him taunting. “I’m gonna haunt you motherfuckers forever!” A video (“I Ain’t Mad at Cha”) that depicts him rapping in heaven was released just days after his death.

On the other hand, the bitter finality of Cobain’s end became an indelible twist at the end of his story, almost like a sick MasterCard joke. (Debut album: $606.17. Remington 20-gauge: $308.37. Legend: Priceless.) No other chapter in pop music has so much darkness at its center. No artist haunts us in such a powerful, subliminal.

In a short speech he taped right after his best friend and band leader died, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic advised fans, “Let’s keep the music with us. We’ll always have it forever.” And he was right: The music speaks for itself. As a songwriter, Cobain was spookily brilliant. He had a way of making his offhand jokes and teen vernacular sound ancient and profound, with a melodic drama that verged on telekinesis. But this also had everything to do with who he was.

“There’s part of him that was a cultural revolutionary and part of him that was a classic song craftsman,” says Danny Goldberg, a former Nirvana manager and founder of Artemis Records. “This was someone who was inspired by the Melvins, but who listened to a lot of the Beatles. He had that dual talent: an emotional cultural talent and a songwriting genius. Which is why people talk about John Lennon in a different tone of voice than Paul McCartney. Kurt was one of the masters of the craft, in addition to being a voice of adolescents of all ages.”

Songs like “Pennyroyal Tea,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Come as You Are,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “In Bloom” will outlive us all. But those of us who are living now, who remember when Kurt Cobain the person was here living, talking, and creating–we experienced something else, too. We learned a story that has a certain beginning and a certain ending. And the fact is, Cobain’s last work, which is now available worldwide on websites, isn’t a song, drawing, or film. It’s a piece of writing that begins [all caps] “this note should be pretty easy to understand.”

In April 1994, the mainstream media grappled with the death of an icon whose music they’d barely processed. Only two years earlier, The New York Times tried to get with the hip new thing by earnestly issuing a “grunge lexicon,” concocted on the spot by a pranking Sub Pop receptionist. Back then, mainstream hoaxes were easier to pull, secrets easier to keep. Less than 10 percent of the population had Internet access. And the era’s new, vaguely Brad Pitt-looking “it” boy–the Justin Timberlake of his time–occasionally wore black nail polish or a dress, dyed his hair with strawberry Kool-Aid, and sang, on MTV in prime time, lyrics like “Sell the kids for food” and “Nature is a whore.”

But soon after he died, the media gave a specific cast to Cobain’s quickly cooling image. The clips that played in the days after his death were from Nirvana’s late-1993 MTV Unplugged appearance. They showed a frail 26-year-old who looked both much younger and much older, crouched over an acoustic guitar, clearly in misery. He was bathed in blue light and surrounded by lilies, the American flower of death. The set, designed by Cobain, was specifically meant to resemble a funeral. Of the six cover songs he played, five mentioned death.

At the height of his notoriety, jazz great Charlie Parker complained that people were paying to see the world’s most famous junkie. Cobain, among other things, is his generation’s most famous suicide. “I mean, people die,” says Moore. “But I can’t think of too many musicians of his caliber and celebrity that died that way.” When people heard that Kurt Cobain had died, they tended to have a two-part reaction: first to the death, then to the method. Anyone who ODs, drives drunk, or invites murder threats shows a reckless disregard for their own life and the people around them. But the shotgun suicide suggested a Kurt Cobain we hadn’t quite imagined.

Goldberg remembers him as “the typical artistic control freak, someone who edited his home video meticulously.” But years later, it’s easy to wonder whether he was a control freak on a level few had imagined. What if he was so attentive, so farsighted in his performance art, that he somehow, semi-consciously, had his curtain call plotted out? There he is in the last shot of the “Teen Spirit” video. An eerie yellow blur. Too close up to be in focus. He scream-sings the song’s final words: a denial, a denial, a denial…. and as Dave Grohl’s drums crash the song to a halt, he holds onto that final word, the last “denial,” in one drawn-out, head-quivering note. Then suddenly, viciously, he snaps his mouth shut. The end.

So how does it feel now, when you’re driving down the road at night, past Blockbuster and Applebee’s, and, just as Trapt’s “Headstrong” fades out on the radio, you hear those first strums of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Is it awesome? Does it totally fucking rock? Does it feel jarring? Is it sad? “When anything by [Nirvana] comes on the radio, you almost have to pull over–still,” says Seattle-based producer and former Fastbacks guitarist Kurt Bloch. “Since he’s not around anymore, the music becomes a stronger reminder of that time.”

Nirvana’s sound fits into today’s modern-rock playlist, but the songs leave a strange aftertaste, spin you out into an awkward mental space. For one thing, it’s hard to headbang to a saint, and just look at the iconography: The striking clear-blue eyes. The sharp, nobly set features. The thousand-yard smirk looking back at you in photos. Then trend-setting unkemptness now reads dusty-prophet Biblical. The oblique, electrifying lyrics and airy, suprising vocal lines weave eerie vapor trails through the heavy-metal roar. In a way, cynicism you feel you should have about post-grunge mythologizing smacks of a naysayer’s denial.

Then there’s the story. The book of Saint Kurt has it as follows: Our sad, sensitive little Pisces-Jesus man is born in the wilderness of Washington, grows up among the heavy-metal heathens, hears the gospel of punk rock, forms a trio to make a joyful noise, is seized by the hypocrites, forced into superstardom, and martyred. “Their music became popular at a time when everything else sounded so stale and manufactured,” says Jonathan Poneman, cofounder of Sub Pop. “Nirvana always sounded pure–even at their most compromised, which by most others’ standards wasn’t compromised at all.”

Perhaps because of this, there’s a tendency to attribute a kind of sacramental purity to Cobain himself. After a decade of chest-waxing Vedder clones and bling-blinging Cribs goons, the man does look downright otherworldly. Could he have ever swum in the crass, commercial waters that today’s pop stars do? Goldberg says yes. “He didn’t like all the consequences of fame, but he chose to come to Los Angeles and to sign with a major label. Other artists haven’t done that. Fugazi didn’t do that. Superchunk, Pavement–all sorts of artists didn’t do that. He was going for it; he didn’t only write the songs, he designed the T-shirts, he wrote the scripts for the videos, he rewrote the bio.”

Consider “Smells Like Teen Spirit. Legend has it, this song just  happened to rock the reigning order, just exploded like a sudden force of nature. Now consider the pages in Cobain’s journals where he plots out this fluke success, describing the music video like it’s stage one of a giddy agitprop campaign that would overthrow the Mall of America. “The first one, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ will have us walking through a mall throwing thousands of dollars into the air as mallgoers scrambles like vulchers [sic] to collect as much as they can get their hands on, then we walk into a jewelry store and smash it up in anti-materialist fueled punk rock violence. Then we go a pep assembly at a high school and the cheerleaders have anarchy A’s on their sweaters and the custodian-militant-revolutionarys [sic] hand out guns with flowers in the barrels to all the cheering students who file down to the center court and throw their money and jewelry and Andrew Dice Clay tapes into a big pile, and then we set it on fire and run out of the building screaming. Oh, didn’t Twisted Sister already do this?”

Cobain’s journals are filled with his analysis of the waning generation gap, a sense of the rebellious possibilities in his peers, and a real concern for how he fit in with people his age. Unlike, say, Jack White, who has one foot in some gothic Delta/Nashville past, Cobain was fixed in the here and now, maybe fatally. “He sometimes hated himself for wanting [stardom],” says Goldberg. “He was a complicated guy, and there are things you don’t always know you’re getting into. But he became a rock star on purpose. He hired me to do that. No one put a gun to his head. He put his own gun to his head.”

This is where the ancient fables start to resonate. You may want riches and fame, you may want your music to reach millions, but no one wants to be Generational Spokesperson. If you picked up any Homer by osmosis  you know you not to be the most beautiful Trojan girl, or the mightiest Achaean warrior. Pretty damn beautiful or freaking strong is just fine. The gods enlist superlative mortals to use as plot devices, to start wars or mass murders. Odysseus? Eddie Vedder? They’ll do fine. Achilles? Kurt Cobain? No thanks.

In the headline of its front-page obituary, The New York Times bestowed on Kurt Cobain the awkward title “Hesitant Poet of ‘Grunge Rock.’ ” Sociologically, the term “grunge” echoes “punk”–another vague, contested, commercialized catchall applied by various segments of society to a huge array of ideas, sounds, styles, and personalities. It’s ridiculously imprecise and inadequate, but that’s the unholy deal you strike when you set out to make a big noise in the world. You detonate the explosion, change things forever, and let the meanings scatter.

A whole generation of musicians was picking through such scattered meanings in the long march from “punk” to “indie” to the “alternative rock” that was tasked with representing an entire decade’s worth of far-flung people and styles. From adamantly underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, and Big Black to major label signees like the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. to countless other arty or freaky institutions, the music scene was very much the “little group” suggested in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This culture was much too complex and long-percolating to pour quite so neatly into a single Venti served by one Seattle franchise.

What does that brand look like today? Has Nirvana’s legacy–their irrational rock exuberance–been purged? Or worse? Have we returned to the George Bush/Michael Jackson administration of 1990, just newer and creepier? As we speak, Nirvana’s moment is being packaged for your nostalgic enjoyment, in something that sounds like a late-’90s Saturday Night Live skit; “alterative gold,” a paradoxical new radio format pioneered by KZBT in San Diego that plays all you favorite grunge hits. It could be an update of the infamous ad for a classic-rock compilation that aired in the mid-’80s. Two “hippies” sit outside a van as their boom box blasts the opening riff of “Layla.” “Hey, is that Freedom Rock, man?” asks one, perking up from his purple haze. “Yeah, man,” says the other, prompting hippie one’s exuberant, “Well, t-uuuuurn it up, man!”

Of course, parts of Cobain’s spirit–the violent, the gentle, the weird–are alive in pop music. Is Eminem, for instance, carrying some mystic Cobain gene? Both have alter egos: Kurdt Kobain, Slim Shady. Both were (are) left-handed, mom-hating, daughter-having, dysfunctional-wife-marrying, grossness-loving, rhyme-spitting little guys who were utterly remade by a musical subculture, then tried to represent it as subverting the mainstream–even when it became the mainstream.

But obviously, there’s a huge gap between a gay-baiting rapper who “just don’t give a fuck” and Kurt Cobain. To write songs like Cobain’s, you need more than imagination, verbal dexterity, and a gift for dynamics and melody. You sort of have to give a fuck–about people different from yourself, about problems beyond your experience. “Kurt was really into expressing an allegiance to sensitivity as opposed to [being] Mr. Tough Guy,” recalls Moore. “You see kids into the whole Cobain thing [now] who are outcasts from the rap-metal, baseball-hat-wearing Limp Bizkit kids, the middle-class teenage gangstas. It would have been interesting to see how Kurt would’ve reacted to all that.”

Cobain certainly didn’t seem thrilled with humanity; it’s safe to say he was a snob. But his ability to connect with other viewpoints was almost reflexive. For every lyric that sounded like a piss rant about fame, there’s one like “Polly,” based on a news story about a rape/murder, that shows a scary level of empathy for both victim and killer. Ruminating in the numb cadence of the killer’s thoughts, Cobain nods forward to a conclusion that indicts the dark side in everyone. It’s the song Bob Dylan reportedly singled out at a Nirvana concert, saying, “The kid has heart.”

So many musical styles exploded throughout the ’90s with their genre-hopping, crowd-surfing partisans. But something about the Nirvana ethos spoke to a larger truth about growing up in a particular post-baby boom world. It was ironic, sure, but also vulnerable, self-effacing, conscientious, trying hard to be cool, but not “cool.” Come as you are–unless you’re a jerk.

Even the idea of coolness was associated with an underdog conscience, if only as a reaction to the regressive Republican, hair-metal social order it came under. Sure, the shortcomings were easy to caricature. Cobain’s end briefly stamped a whole scene and cultural experience–if not a generation–with the reputation of being amoral, sarcastic, solipsistic, self-pitying drama queens. Rock triumphalists from Gene Simmons to Noel Gallagher made a point of denouncing the brooding crybabies of ’90s rock, as if Nirvana had ridden to massive pop-music fame on a staunch anti-fun platform.

Megan Jasper, the Sub Pop’s receptionist, now the label’s general manager, demurs: “They were really funny, goofy guys. They’d really ‘blow into town’–it was sort of an event. I remember them showing up at the office on mornings after shows, all hungover with makeup running down their faces.” Moore, too, had a different sense of what the pre-MTV mosh pit meant. “Punk-rock culture was very celebratory. Anybody who was involved with it was just having the best time of their lives. The nihilism and negativity were sort of elemental tools for attacking boredom, just an affront to conservative standards.”

But people are always uncomfortable with something as mainstream as Nirvana that doesn’t make its meanings clear or its intentions obvious. Everybody knows how to react to a Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”–with outrage, delight, or indifference, depending on your own little group. But a dress-wearing, golden-boy, junkie, rock-cliché, rock-original, underground superstar whose lyrics mixed jokey word games with agonized confessions and self-destructive tirades? He was always going to be problematic. Even for the little group that raised him.

As Cobain wrote in Journals, “I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork.” There’s something noble about that honesty and about the attempt to embody both those personalities, maybe even something “American” in the best sense of the expression. But this too had its consequences.

An Egyptian papyrus scroll bears what some believe is the first-known suicide note. It begins “Lo, my name is abhorred / Lo, more than the odour of carrion / On summer days when the sky is hot… Death is before me today / As the odour of lotus flowers / As when one sitteth on the shore of drunkenness.” If they’d had irony back in ancient Egypt, the author might have just written “I hate myself and want to die” and jumped in the Nile.

The irony, apathy, and general ennui that pundits attributed to Kurt Cobain’s age group was supposedly a reaction to the sense that everything had been tried, every rebellion co-opted, every truth a cliché. So it’s doubly-ironic–if such a thing is possible–that fans growing up now think of Cobain as a valiant symbol of a time when rock music was more real and meaningful. But they do, and they’re not entirely wrong. It’s strangely easy to forget that no one knew what would happen when Nirvana began its assault on MTV, culture, and history. Cobain had to traverse the ’90s along with the rest of us. And as someone who is exactly his age, I can assure you that he wasn’t the only casualty.

No “poet of grunge rock” could have been a devout practitioner of Shinto, whose central tenet is physical cleanliness. But Cobain’s journey is settling among the stories of truly ancient texts. Siddhartha Gotama was anemic royalty of a kind, when, at the age of 29, he left his home, family, and title to find an answer to human suffering. He renounced the world he knew, fasted, searched, attained wisdom, and reached nirvana. He became known as the Buddha, the supremely enlightened being. Kurt Cobain addressed his suicide note to an imaginary childhood friend, someone he’d often talk to as a young, haunted boy. The friend’s name was Boddah.

But we’re not talking about religion, are we, we’re talking about pop culture: prepackaged, market-tested, owned and directed by massive corporations, designed to exploit the desires and neuroses of a young and impressionable public. Still, memory lingers, just like the word itself in the chorus of “Come As You Are.” And, that ghost is out there. Whether it’s sad, pissed-off, or exuberant, it’s not going away until we do.

One of the best aspects of punk rock, at least the American version Kurt Cobain grew up with, was the power of its audience–the scene, the community. Japanese religious experts say it’s very difficult for a foreigner to embrace Shintoism; unlike most other religions, there is no one book that will teach a person how to practice the faith. It’s transmitted from generation to generation, as people experience the rituals together. Which is what we’re still doing, you and I, right now.