Number 124 / June 1995:
LIVE THROUGH THIS.... Last April 6, Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. On April 8, a workman discovered his body. In millions of heads, including my own, the echo of that shot still has not died.
For all thatís been written about Cobainís death, its foreshadowings and its aftermath, whatís inside that echo has barely been explored. The power that his death holds over our emotions and imagination remains, for the most part, a mystery. It doesnít come down to anything quite so simple as great songs, a great band, a great singer, or "the voice of a generation." The answer doesnít lie in poring over the details of his life, either. There was nothing simple about what drove Kurt Cobain to leave this world; thereís nothing simple about what leads any person to choose death (or, in the most desperate instances, to reject death and continue living).
But if we can never know what combination of biochemistry, family background, drug addiction, neglect, celebrity, and self-hatred caused Kurt Cobain to obliterate himself, itís still worth pondering what it says about the rock world, stardom, and our own complicity in it-as fans, critics, partisans, brothers and sisters within a generation and across the gap. If we canít figure out what Cobainís suicide says about him, we should at least try to grasp what it says about us.
Alternative rock may believe that it discovered the idea that stardom is lethal, that embracing fame and fortune represents a death wish not only for the star but for everyone involved in the process, but thatís a joke. The idea is there in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, and before that in the story of Icarus, who soared too high in emulation of birds and the gods. But there is something new about the current rock sceneís attitude toward stardom, fame, and its own sense of community. The night that the electrician found Cobainís body, someone who worked for him approached me in real distress. "I donít understand how this happened," he said, in genuine mourning. "How do you get through to a guy who feels like a bigger and bigger failure the more people respond to him? And the more he says heís a failure, the bigger the response."
For me, that exchange became part of the echo. It determined how I interpreted his suicide note, and that note deserves more analysis than itís received. The excerpts Courtney Love read at Cobainís memorial service last April reveal a lot about the thinking that led him to kill himself. And while it would be crazy to take anybodyís suicide note as the last word on why they did it, itís equally crazy to ignore it and refuse its implications.
"This note should be pretty easy to understand," he wrote. "All the warnings from the Punk Rock 101 courses over the years since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and embracement of your community, itís proven to be very true. I havenít felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing something, for too many years now.
"I feel guilty beyond words about these things-for example, when weíre backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesnít affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd..." At which point in her reading, Courtney Love paused and commented, "Well, Kurt, so fucking what-then donít be a star, you asshole."
Then she read on: "...which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact that I canít fool you, any one of you, it simply isnít fair to you or me. The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if Iím having one hundred percent fun."
"Well, Kurt," she interjected, "the worst crime I can think of is for you to just continue being a rock star when you fucking hate it, just fucking stop."
Well, he did.
Cobainís commentary on his own demise is a muddle of half-digested contradictions that, in my view anyway, reveal a fundamental quandary that has beset pop stardom since before the advent of punk-since it began to incorporate ideas from the folk music world, really.
The "warnings" he mentioned are about selling out, a category that may or may not include commercial success. Selling out in this context really means displaying personal inauthenticity, which is the reason Cobain can express such admiration for Freddie Mercury, a star who lived his life in a closet but one who was true to his own fakery. Punk Rock 101 teaches that the greatest sin is not meaning what youíre doing; and as a perverse corollary, that if you really mean it, it doesnít matter how jive you are. So we get acts of self-destruction like the Replacements drinking themselves half to death and making it look less like fun than an obligation; Courtney Love insisting her Madison Square Garden audience join her in bellowing racist insults; ordinary fans bruising each other, even breaking bones, in the mosh pit, all in order to "prove their cred."
Such an edict represents a curious thing in the annals of popular music. It is not an idea inherent in rock & roll. Who knows if Elvis really meant what he sang in "Mystery Train" or "Heartbreak Hotel"? (He obviously didnít mean "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," and some people never forgave him for it, a fact Cobain might have found useful.) Who cares if Pete Townshend really wanted to die before he got old? Who is crazy enough to believe that Mick Jagger genuinely could not get any satisfaction?
Whether Bob Dylan really heard those answers blowing in the wind is another matter, though, and it was the arrival of Dylan and the folkies that begat rockís cult of authenticity. Dylan was said to be a phony when he tried to sing like Blind Lemon Jefferson on his first album; when he failed to devote "enough" of his time to playing civil rights and other movement benefits after "Blowiní in the Wind" hit, when he stopped writing and performing "protest" songs after The Times They Are A-Changin', and, of course, when he began playing with a band and electric instruments in 1965. Similarly, rock bands got away with all sorts of folderol in the studio for years, but when the Byrds, the first important folk-rock band, recorded with session musicians rather than just using band members, they found themselves excoriated for it.
The roots of the folk sceneís quest for authenticity are deep, going back to the turn of the century when scholars like Francis Child first scoured Appalachian communities for the remnants of Elizabethan balladry and found a host of such songs, akin to the version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that Cobain learned from Leadbelly, who called it "In the Pines." Child and others found great songs, musical treasures and some of the greatest examples of vernacular poetic and narrative writing in the English language, material that still informs the writing of Dylan, Neil Young, and Allen Ginsberg, among others.
The authenticity issue arose in trying to make sense of what happened to these songs when they moved out of the preliterate traditions of the Appalachians (or British village life) and into the stream of urban music-making. Folk music scholars insisted for the next century-some, like Alan Lomax, still do-that Tin Pan Alley songwriters who used folk elements created "inauthentic" songs; folk music arose and was passed along anonymously and orally. There were even supposedly inauthentic instruments on which folk music could not be played-the piano, for example, supposedly existed only in bourgeois households, though a single visit to a juke joint would have blown that idea out of the water.
Such thinking suffused the folk song movement as it developed an urban "topical" or socialist realist aspect during and after the Popular Front era of the 1930s. Thus, Woody Guthrie attacked the jukeboxes that entertained Americaís working class, in part because such machines put live musicians like him out of work but mainly because, as he put it in a 1947 journal entry, "A folk song tells a story that really did happen. A pop tune tells a yarn that didnít really take place." Well, after writing "Goodnight Irene," Leadbelly didnít jump in the river and drown and I presume that Woody wouldnít have wanted him to.
Nevertheless, this ideology had real staying power, finally foundering only when it met Dylanís impossible challenges, beginning with "Restless Farewell" at the end of The Times They Are A- Changiní. Dylan stopped writing protest songs, I think, because the stream-of-consciousness material seemed "truer," more "real." Meaning that he hadnít changed his position on authenticity at all, which was just as well, since neither had his audience, as the folkies proved at Newport í65 by booing, and thereafter, by scrambling to catch up by immersing themselves in ever more "intimate" confessional material, until finally that whole stream came to a deadend in a welter of singer / songwriters as self- pitying as they were self-parodying, who were prominent among the artists who demanded the response punkís initial assault provided. (Dylan had by then moved on to other things, including the wearing of masks and face paint.) The most prominent Dylan followers today-Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen-have made their strangest, bravest, and most ridiculous moves in the name of being true to themselves on those same old terms.
The shaky and querulous alliance between rock and the student left in the late 1960s reinforced the primacy of "authenticity." Political movements, particularly those as rootless and disaffected as the New Left, necessarily require a great deal of suspicion: Radicals need to prove their "authenticity" from time to time to demonstrate that they are not traitors, agents provocateur, or otherwise in league with the bad guys. But the anarchist ideologies of the terminal portion of the Sixties (and almost all of the post-civil rights movement Left, especially in America, became dominated by anarchist thinking) demanded authenticity of another sort: They demanded that people really meant what they said about making the personal political, and so we got, among other things, communes with enforced bisexuality run by the Weathermen, and the drop-out sloganeering of the French and English Situationists.
The Situationists were on to something-no need to keep a long face any longer, thereís more than enough material wealth to go around-but their elitism toward activists who did grassroots political work, as opposed to various sorts of "art" and media manipulation, scuttled whatever genuine revolutionary potential they brought to (and took out of) the crisis of 1968. Itís probably more appropriate to think of the Situationists as philosophers than as political radicals, and their philosophy was a species of nihilism: The central tenet, after all, was "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
Punk inherited all this when Malcolm McLaren and his cohorts, notably graphic designer Jamie Reid,
expropriated Situationist ideas to help build the image of the Sex Pistols, and Clash Svengali Bernie
Rhodes followed suit. McLaren, Rhodes, and other punk entrepreneurs essentially took Situationist and
anarchist ideas into the realm of promotion, marketing, and advertising. The Pistols, in particular,
employed a phalanx of PR. men so numerous and so astute they might have made Michael Jackson blush,
which rather makes hash of the recent article in B.A.M. that looked askance at Epitaph Records for
being so unpunk as to have marketing and promotion departments. Managers like McLaren, Rhodes, and
even Miles Copeland, the decidedly non-anarchist C.I.A. scion who handled the Police and founded I.R.S.
Records, found such rhetoric useful for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that it allowed them to
assume superiority over the acts, who were supposedly mere instruments of theory, after all. (McLaren
seems to remain unaware that the Pistols were a great band, or that they had an existence independent of
his enterprise, even after he got his clock cleaned in court by John Lydon.)
Part Two Number 124 / June 1995: LIVE THROUGH THIS....
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