When Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was furious.
I didn’t cry because I never met the man. I didn’t dim the lights and spark a candle and huddle around the stereo cranking his music and offering a vigil. I didn’t immediately view Cobain as a martyr, or a man too beautiful for this world, or an incredible talent who, Icarus-like, flew too close to the sun and fell to earth with melted wings.
I did none of this. Instead, I went to the Pink Flamingo on Allen Street and stewed over a few cold beers. And I ruminated on the fact that Cobain did not represent my generation, though we were the same age. He was not a poster boy for the supposed nihilism and ennui that, we were told, were the mark of my generation. (“Generation X,” they needed to call it, so they could sell stuff based on the gross misunderstandings of cooperate types who were never a part of it and wouldn’t know who the Melvins or Husker Du or the Meat Puppets were if they stumbled upon them in their living room.) “Grunge” was not a fashion statement. We bought our clothes at the Salvation Army thrift shop because that’s all we could afford.
Cobain was a junkie, plain and simple. And he died a junkie’s death, alone and bereft of hope, unable to take sustenance from the music he had created – music that so many people who were strangers to him had indeed found sustenance, strength and hope within.
That music has endured, and will continue to do so. Cobain wrote great melodies and lyrics, and he bridged the gap, for me, between the ever-tuneful underpinnings of ’70s power-pop and the grimy, roughshod irreverence of punk rock. The albums “Bleach,” “Nevermind” and “In Utero” all are classics now, and deserve to be considered so. So, too, does the live document “MTV Unplugged in New York,” and not just for the unquestionable majesty of Cobain’s take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
Next week, Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and this is certainly a well-deserved honor. It’s also an honor that, one suspects, Cobain would have found a bit dubious.
But the widespread reports of the resurgence of heroin as a drug of choice for young people coming concurrently with the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s suicide are more than troubling. And attempts to gild the lily – to treat Cobain as a martyr – must be considered through this prism, and thus, are more suspect than ever.
I always have agreed with Cobain’s take on the music business – that it is a cold universe populated by shallow men and women who value money over music, and have absolutely no qualms about doing so.
In an era of “American Idol,” “The Voice” and social media access to all but instant fame prefaced on the belief that everyone is a star, it might be hard to believe that not every musician seeks worldwide fame and adulation. Some are merely looking to turn their art into a reasonable means of sustenance, so that they can keep making it until they die.
Cobain was one of these, and he was brave enough to say as much. But he bailed before he won the battle. The greatest tribute we can pay to him is not to gloss over the disturbing fact of his heroin addiction and enshrine him, like some sort of tragic Arthur Rimbaud figure, stolen from us too young. Rather, the greatest tribute we can offer him is to continue to fight the fight he left unfinished.