On April 8, 1994, the world woke up to the news that a blond young man lay dead of a gunshot wound in the carriage house of the mansion owned by rock star Kurt Cobain. "Maybe it's Beck," we all thought hopefully -- not because we hated Beck, who had had only one hit at the time, in which he himself pleaded to be killed -- but because we considered the alternative too damn awful. But no: As feared, Cobain himself had committed suicide, and that weekend, his distraught fans staged mass mourn-ins, all similar in tone to one held at the Seattle Space Needle where, at its conclusion, thousands of tearful fans jumped in the International Fountain and howled, "Asshole!"
It was impossible not to wonder, while witnessing this outpouring of rage and grief, what had made normally impassive and emotionally distant grunge fans so emotional. In fact, the answer was fairly simple. Plenty of rock stars had died in their twenties, some -- such as Jimi, Janis and Jim (all three, like Cobain, dying at 27) -- at the height of their success. But not through suicide. Cobain's gesture represented the ultimate negation of the negation and an eloquent rejection of America's core fantasy: that fame and wealth and power beyond measure will make a person happy.
Quite frankly, by killing himself, Cobain blew a hole in pop culture's psyche that has never mended. Since that day, rock & roll itself has diminished drastically in importance, a process only exacerbated by the crappy economy, the rise of the MP3 and Britney Spears.
When Kurt Cobain killed himself, he killed rock & roll -- or at least the idea of what rock & roll was and what it could mean. He died in the service of what the Frankfurt School -- a group of mid-20th-century philosophers whose writings helped define our enthrallment with capitalism -- once dubbed the "Culture Industry": institutions such as grunge, MTV and Spin magazine that unwittingly serve to alienate us from our true selves. The Culture Industry is what compels us to worship rock stars and makes us desire to be worshipped ourselves, to want what we really don't want and need something we can never have.
Or as Kurt himself describes the process in his biggest hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious," followed by that anguished shriek of a chorus, "A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial."
Along with his friends and colleagues in the grunge and punk world, Cobain (naively) sought to make art for art's sake -- not to become another product, another media sensation, another commodity. Can you imagine how terrible he felt upon realizing he'd turned into exactly that? Some people who knew him back then argue that he wanted to "make it" as much as anyone else, and this is true up to a point: As one of my old grunge pals says, "All white guys with electric guitars just want a large audience to listen to them bitching about life," and Kurt certainly wanted (and got) that in spades.
But at the same time, he really bought into and believed the idea that he had to be entirely indifferent in order to make good music. To him, there was no such thing as cultural legitimacy. He actually used to say he didn't like the idea of the records he made sitting next to "bad" records in someone's collection, and it made him sick to know jocks liked his music. You can call that narcissistic, naive, insulting or whatever, but I think deep down the eventual recognition that he'd become part of the rock-star industry was the death knell for Kurt. Having immersed himself in a specific mode of production, he simply couldn't reconcile himself to the spin cycle of commodification.
There are, of course, other facts that contributed to Kurt Cobain's demise: a chronic stomach ailment, a heroin addiction, a rotten marriage, hereditary depression, gun ownership. As a white male in his twenties, he was in the prime age group for suicidal tendencies, and he lived in an environment of utter sycophancy, surrounded by industry flacks who had a huge financial stake in keeping him happy enough to be productive -- but not necessarily any happier. No one ever said "no" to Cobain: not the drug dealers who knew he'd tried suicide once, not the rock star who helped him escape from rehab, not the best friend who bought him a gun when his own was confiscated, not the music industry that harped on him to do a lot of things -- such as sign a contract to headline Lollapalooza -- that he really didn't want to do.
But this may all be wishful thinking on my part: a wish born of a memory of a time before Nevermind, holed up in sweaty clubs with hardly any patrons, dancing alongside people whose music was meant as a personal affront to the status quo. When confronted with this theory about his death -- that is, that he died because he couldn't stand being a commodity -- a friend who knew Kurt better than I did said, "But he was only 27! Maybe he would have appreciated what the business brought in at 37 or 47 in a different light."
And that's probably true. At 37, he'd happily sift through the millions of guitars stockpiled in his mansion, and at 47 he'd happily accept a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Had he survived up to now, Kurt Cobain most likely would've abandoned all his high-minded punk ideals, and the star-making Culture Industry would've chewed him up and spit him out as it does so many aging icons. One thing his suicide has spared him is an embarrassing reunion gig at Konocti Harbor.
Although Nirvana's sales are still pretty high -- a total of 23 million units -- symbolically speaking, the band's music is out of fashion now. College students who love Radiohead and the White Stripes are barely familiar with "Lithium" or the tenets of grunge: its celebration of loserdom and male bonding, its rejection of success and consumer culture in general. (Even the female stars of grunge would wear the same two shirts all tour and cut their own hair, an unthinkable proposition today.) Cobain's suicide formally finished off the punk era, when anticorporate DIY ethics at least paid lip service to the idea that the commodification of rock was an ugly process. You'd think killing himself would have been enough to make this point, but the subsequent career of his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Love, has provided a coda, or at least an exclamation point, to the whole affair.
The week Cobain died, Love's band Hole released its record Live Through This, and she has subsequently parlayed the notoriety his suicide gave her into a very long run in the Zeitgeist. She was on tour nine weeks later, and although her musical career has long since faltered (and her film career barely got off the ground), she has seldom left the headlines for long. She stumbles high-heeledly across the big sky of American celebrity, desperately trying to garner some cheap facsimile of Kurt's phenomenal fame, having understood less than nothing of its implications or its denouement.
Love's indelible presence in the media is a real testimonial to craven opportunism. Perhaps the saddest thing about it is the way it constantly flies in the face of her husband's tragedy: She has denied what he stood for and embraced everything he rejected.
The week Cobain died, I flew to Seattle for that mass mourn-in at the Seattle Space Needle, at which Love read aloud a portion of his suicide note. "I feel guilty beyond words about these things," it said in part. "For example, when we're backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd.... The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100 percent fun."
It makes me even sadder to read those words now than it did to hear Love speak them then, because it seems to me in retrospect that her whole career has been a desperate attempt to relish the love and adoration of the crowd. That she hasn't done so (and keeps on trying) isn't because she doesn't have the talent of her husband's magical band. He himself couldn't feel that roar either. Was she even listening?
I think Kurt Cobain's death could teach us a lot, but no one wants to listen. This may explain why so many people like to portray his death as a possible murder: The implications of his great refusal are just too disturbing. They mar not only our perpetual American dream state, but the willing suspension of disbelief that made rock & roll possible.