Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nirvana, Nostalgia and the Collective Experience of Suicide

Around two weeks ago I started to search the public library catalogue for Nirvana albums. I don’t remember why; maybe I read a Kurt Cobain retrospective in a magazine or maybe a patron checked out one of their CD’s. I wanted to hear the music again and see how it sounded “again, for the first time.”

I remember when Smells Like Teen Spirit made a splash and Nirvana became a household name. In 1991 I was 15 and just starting to explore music beyond my parent’s record collection in a fairly aggressive way. I ended up as a devoted and definitely geeky (but completely unrepentant) Rush fan for a number of years; as such, I was also sceptical (hell, I’ll be honest: hostile towards) music that was trendy and popular. I mean, if lots of people are crazy for it how can it be good, right? (This attitude is certainly not exclusive to me. It was common among many people I knew when I was younger and persists in myself—and others—to this day, albeit in a somewhat repressed, embarrassed way. My ventures into music that lots of other people actually liked but was still considered “alternative” might be archived on this blog in the future. Possible title: “Northender gets into cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, and rediscovers the Pixies”) I secretly enjoyed Nirvana, but because I never picked up one of their records my knowledge of their discography remained limited to radio and MuchMusic rotations.

I remember listening to Nevermind on a ghetto blaster in my brother’s room with the music spinning off a cassette and thinking about how aggressive and catchy it was. Like I said, I liked it at first but kept my distance when the Nirvana explosion propelled them into superstardom, which must have happened in the few days that followed that first exposure.

Now, I seem to remember that Nirvana was always considered a “genius” band that wrote “innovative” music and established a new genre (“grunge”—essentially the Pixies with good looking frontmen, slightly more normative songs, and no Spanish flavour). It seems like Kurt Cobain’s strung-out stare framed by stubble and bleached hair was staring out of magazine covers during their whole career, and that the critics and fans were always devoted.

However, it’s been 15 years since the night with a cassette and ghetto blaster, and 12 since Kurt was found dead with a shotgun nearby (in his hand? beside him?). Like all prophets and true heroes Kurt was taken from us “too soon”, i.e. before he could release a bad record, then several more, then turn up 20 years later alongside Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins at Live 8 II: People Still Need Rock! In other words, he did his career a remarkable favour by dying while on top.

Every time I see Kurt Cobain’s face staring out of an Imaginus poster, or in the liner notes to Nevermind, his stare isn’t strung-out, or edgy, or angry; no, by virtue of his violent death his face is haunted and burdened, his eyes piercing and sad. And I can’t tell whether this was the Kurt that existed before his death, or whether this was the Kurt created by his death. If I looked through a large selection of reviews and articles written while he was still alive, would the band seem like a legend? Would Kurt appear in the guise of a troubled (and therefore prescient) artistic genius or the trappings of an angry, rags-to-riches white trash rocker? When I read the paper that announced the death of Kurt Cobain and also the following press that covered the vigils held by weeping teenagers and young adults, some of whom (apparently) were threatening to kill themselves as well, I wondered, “whoa, where the hell did all this come from?” I also understood that it no longer mattered what anybody thought about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain up until that point, because now it was all certain: Kurt was an artist who was too much with this world and his band was his creative instrument (I frequently wonder what happened to Krist Novoselic…).

I write “when Kurt was found dead” and not “when Kurt committed suicide” because I’m one of the many who suspects foul play. Now, I certainly never knew the man nor do I find it particularly hard to believe that he would kill himself, but there’s something so perfectly juicy about a murder story. Also, and perhaps this is part of my rationale as well, a murder plot exonerates him.

Two of my friends from high school killed themselves, and both events were disturbing and sad; these suicides are characterised in my memory as bizarre fluctuations in my life rather than catastrophes. I wasn’t close to either or these guys, and that distance explains a lack of devastation in my reaction; but at the same time the tragedy of their deaths—both of them were around 20—was mixed with an inescapable understanding that both of them chose to die. If they had been murdered, perhaps their memory wouldn’t be touched with the wilful self-destruction of suicide.

I’m also very interested in the Courtney Love conspiracy theory. I watched the documentary (don’t ask me the title; Kurt and Courtney?) directed by a British journalist who was convinced that Courtney had Kurt murdered. Like all skilfully directed documentaries it was persuasive; and yet perhaps some of this persuasiveness derives, in part, from the desire to deny the reality of a suicide, the desire to hold another person accountable for a deliberately inflicted human death when the culprit is paradoxically annihilated in the same moment.

It’s possible in the end that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had made more of an impression on me than I thought. That all my rejection of him and his band was an effort to distance myself from a media-enabled experience of a personality linked to an exciting moment in music. The awareness that “we” were being sold a product tainted the music at the time and it still does. But at the same time, as a denizen of this culture in this place in time it’s very interesting to realize that all the press and all the narratives that circulated over the years did get their hooks into me, and that it’s possible to react in a fairly profound way to the suicide of a man that you’ve never met who fronted a band whose albums you never bought.


Blogger napalm bomb said...

Kurt also had the 'presience' to leave the world at the height of his artistic and commercial success; like Janis, Jimi, James, etc, who all checked out around the age of 27, we as the public never have to watch the star fade, the hairline recede, the embarassing Elvis pot-belly. There is of course that old romanticism attached to a star dying young just as there is an air of romanticism attached to suicide.
(see Romeo and Juliet, Romanticism, the Suicide Girls, etc.)

For the fans who wholly bought in to the man and the music (i'm a few years younger than you Paul, and thus more impressionable, or at least I was in grade 9) there were clues to Cobain's unhappiness. He was a sensitive misfit and not ego-driven enough to handle the sudden fame, he suffered from debilitating stomach pains, etc. I read something once that suggested Kurt's undiagnosed lactose intolerance was a mitigating factor in his death (!) But to me those eyes were always piercing and sad; Kurt Cobain was always a melancholic genius, which is why/how I could relate to him in the first place.

The issue of Courtney's culpability is more complicated for me because the artist's woman always gets blamed for everything, so I hate to fall into that narrative. But she did seem to be the destructive force in that relationship; she may not have pulled the trigger but we can figure her as the Eve leading Kurt/Adam down the garden path.

My own brush with suicide two years ago shocked me with the force and the breadth of its violence. I had never met the man but he was someone my partner loved deeply. And I had intellectualized suicide many times before, the way that we are right now, and I had considered it myself as a way to end my unhappiness -- but it was not until after a man I didn't know; a man who was loved by the man I loved; chose to end his life in this way that I apprehended the absolute violence of the act. I think the suicide feels that they are doing their loved ones a favour by getting themselves out of the way, but that act of annhilation sends shockwaves out that reach far beyond that individual's immediate circle.

Of course the teenagers all threatened suicide after Kurt died; adolescence is a vortex of heightened melodrama and intense ego-fixation, mercurial mood swings and angst, and Kurt was our poster child. If he couldn't hack it, how the hell could we?

Just two cents.

9:36 p.m.  

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