Part Two - Number 124 / June 1995:
LIVE THROUGH THIS....
In English pop, the punk revolution changed everything on the surface and nothing at the core; Dave Rimmerís lost classic, Like Punk Never Happened, a book that traces the punk kids who became Culture Club, captures the result perfectly. Unless you believe that Morrissey is the voice of a generation, punk left British rock spent as a market force and laughable as a culture, depending as it now does on cannibalizing last yearís version of the recycled fads of some previous era.
But those first punk kids in London envisioned waging a revolution against the corruption that had undeniably crept into a becalmed and boring rock scene. The terms in which they expressed their disdain for hangers-on and those whose post-hip credentials didnít quite make it came straight out of the authenticity movements: "Poseurs" was the favorite epithet.
It was back in the States that rockís two streams of authenticity finally come together. You can pinpoint the moment in a single song: Neil Youngís 1979 "Out of the Blue and Into the Black," the song that Kurt Cobain quoted in a part of his suicide note that Courtney Love did not read. Remember that when punk first began to take shape in New York in the mid-Seventies, Young seemed the archetype of the laidback California singer-songwriter, whining "Heart of Gold" and other such gems through his nose. By 1979, though, Young had undergone a couple more of his Dylanesque transformations and he sang "Out of the Blue" twice, once in a folkie acoustic guitar and mouth harp arrangement at the beginning of his album, and then again at the end, against a grinding grunge guitar: "Hey, hey, my, my / Rock & roll can never die," he sang, making it seem like a vampireís curse, and then, a verse later, "Out of the blue and into the black / You pay for this but they give you that / And once youíre gone, you canít come back / When youíre out of the blue and into the black." As a critique of suicide, itís hard to beat.
But those arenít the lines Kurt Cobain remembered when he wrote his note. The line he quoted is the line everyone remembers: "Itís better to burn out than to fade away." But those words donít appear in the grunge version at all. Only in the folkie one.
Rock's quest for authenticity reached Kurt Cobain as legend as much as history. Cobain was eight years old when Patti Smith made Horses and the Ramones stormed England; nine when "Anarchy in the UK." came out; all of 15 when the Clash broke up. These events took place so far from Aberdeen, the little Washington logging town that was his Castle Rock, that they might as well have happened in an entirely different generation.
What Cobain received from the first generation punks was inspiration and a set of assumptions. If Kurt Cobain had grown up in the í50s or í60s or even the early í70s-if he was anybody from Lou Reed to Melissa Etheridge-his early encounters with rock & roll almost certainly would have represented a glorious possibility, a chance to communicate across all the gaps in our society-gaps of class, race, region, gender, generation, education, you name it. Used this way, rockíníroll became not just a "way out" of impoverished working class or straight-jacketed middle class existence but a method of absolutely transforming yourself, a means of becoming who youíd always dreamed of being, confronting your fears with the power to transmute them into assets, a chance to be a hero not only to others but in your own life; to articulate out loud a vision of the world youíd previously have been terrified to whisper into the mirror. Of such things is freedom constructed.
But for Cobain, and lots of kids like him, rock & roll offered no such hopes. Instead, it threw down a dare: Can you be pure enough, day after day, year after year, to prove your authenticity, to live up to the music? In short, can you prove youíre not a fake and keep on proving it, without respite? And if you canít, can you live with being a poseur, a phony, a sellout?
Those questions present a classic double-bind: In the first place, demanding "purity" really means proving something you donít have-that you lack all corruption-and no one can prove a negative. Besides the elusive notions of purity and authenticity here can barely be articulated, let alone put on display; they are like the Puritans idea of grace, supposedly evidenced through worldly signs, here presented as a kind of hipness or "independence." But establishing such rigid qualifications immediately eliminates ease and freedom, the true hallmarks of independence and emotional authenticity. This setting really does make it easier for a professional poseur like Freddie Mercury than for a raw and amateurish, but heartfelt and insightful, artistic spirit like Kurt Cobain. So Cobain-but not Cobain alone-groped blindly, looking for a transcendence he could feel but which the rules of the game he was playing-at least, the game he thought he was playing-prevented him from reaching. Yet if you donít reach that transcendence, then, in ways far too lethal to enumerate, you really are a fake. Thatís the double-bind and Cobain buffeted around in it for a decade. No wonder his guts ached.
Again, thereís nothing inherent about rock stardom in this. John Lennon, to choose a performer in many ways similar to Cobain in his drives and insights, never had to worry about such things. Even at his most despairing, on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon never descended into nihilism, because he expressed his despair in terms that implied that any such obstacle could be overcome, if only the right mechanism-political, personal, psychological, religious-could be located. Even Iggy and the Stooges, by far the darkest band of rockís first two decades (no "linger on, your pale blue eyes" for the Ig), sounded as if they believed in a way out-or, for that matter, as if the life force in their death trip songs might be so powerful it could drag them out of its own murderous maws. That way out might be painful, dangerous and not a little self-threatening, but it was a pathway out of nothingness, not just another route to describing it but a means of obliterating the hollow core of the everyday and bursting through into free space, beyond all doubt. When you did that, the music promised (and early results demonstrated), the world would change, at least as it presented itself to you, because you had changed.
Beyond any of that, Lennon and the Stooges played rock & roll as hedonists, for whom pleasure was central, not foreign. By maintaining their links to the world of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Elvis, they somehow managed a last stand, out of which they took solace, relief-a good time. They could affect any pose they chose from village idiot to irascible artiste, snarling snob to bemused bohemian, so long as it worked-and what worked wasnít what kept them pure, it was what let them experience this liberating sense of play. "Fake"í might have been an epithet in which artists like Lennon and Iggy delighted. At the very least, "No Fun" was a situation they didnít intend to put up with.
Kurt Cobain didnít hear "No Fun" as a protest; he heard it as a description of how things were and how they would stay. In the world he was born to, he literally couldnít imagine changing things. The best he could hope to achieve was to stay outside the corruption, stay true to his principles, not sell out, never become phony, never fake it. Iím not saying Kurt took no pleasure or solace in music. You can hear that he did all over Nirvanaís records, particularly in the beautiful Unplugged, where he sings songs by everybody from Leadbelly to David Bowie to the Meat Puppets. The love Kurt had for this music-and for his own songs, too-shines bright and hard, like a crystallized essence of what heís trying to say through the petulance and recriminations of Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide and In Utero. (One of the greatest series of album titles in rock history, incidentally, a set of images as bloody and beatified as the stations of the cross.)
On Unplugged, you can hear Kurt being all the things he dreamed: Unbridled combatant, at war with everyone and everything; self-defeating cynic ("I guarantee you I will screw this song up," he says, by way of introducing "The Man Who Sold the World," and then, so far as I can hear, redeems it); little boy ("Jesus Donít Want Me for a Sunbeam"); and his final, lingering, incarnation as a man not yet dead but already haunted on Leadbellyís "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"
Cobainís version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", an ancient song known primarily in folk and blues circles (the New York Times ran a marvelous history of it last summer), may be as great a performance in its own way as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which is only the greatest single rock & roll record of this decade. You can hear Cobain as the pure product of punk and postpunk culture in those songs, but you can also hear him struggling to break free from the cliches imposed upon him. Cobain is looking for several things here. First of all, heís trying to find a route to community, as the only alternative to the atomized isolation that was killing him and his society. And secondly, he was trying to feel good about it, to locate that momentís respite that could only come from opening his heart to the embrace offered by so many people who had mocked and ridiculed the geek he used to be. A terrifying possibility but the only life raft he could reach.
Undoubtedly, Kurt Cobain came to feel trapped by the adoration of the geek-bashers, the squares, the frat boys who heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a party song and saw in its bizarre cheerleader video not an anomaly but a true reflection of the world they so comfortably lived in. Trapped, in short, just as Punk Rock 101 told him he would be. When he sings "Thereís a friend, thereís a friend, thereís an enemy," he sounds like heís counting the house at a post-Nevermind show. But oppressive as their presence may have been, the geek-bashers and squares and frat boys arenít what pushed Kurt Cobain to suicide. How could they have done that? They lacked the imagination and the interest. If philosophical questions about how stardom backfires had arisen for the beer guzzlers in the mosh pit, theyíd have moved on. No, I donít think that Kurt Cobain killed himself to escape the intrusions of Nirvanaís legions of unpunk fans.
Which brings us to the punks themselves: an answered prayer to those who lamented the corruption of rock and the rest of popular culture, perhaps, but a sect with, shall we say, certain problems of its own. In a 1979 Village Voice essay, "The White Noise Supremacists," Lester Bangs identified the problems as racism and sexism, and maybe 15 years ago you could limit them to that: "Sometimes I think nothing is simple but the feeling of pain," Bangs wrote at the beginning of his essay, concluding, 5000-odd words later by remarking that he had written "not because you want to think that rock & roll can save the world but because since rock & roll is bound to stay in your life you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world."
If we have learned anything since then, itís that while feeling pain may be simple, figuring out how to stop feeling it is incredibly difficult and dangerous (maybe Kurtís stomach really did hurt that bad, maybe the heroin really was the only thing that helped), and that within the bounds of hipness, itís damn near impossible to figure out how to quit inflicting it-because that can only happen when you learn to feel the pain that youíre causing others, and that can only happen when you let go of your worries about purity and begin the very impure, perhaps unhip process of communicating your most vulnerable hopes and fears with others. In short, when you admit out loud that you can and do hurt, not in any mewling or fashionable fashion but right at the core of your being, which good little alternate rockers are supposed to shield with the true armor of their authenticity. I guess.
God knows, this defines perfectly well the dilemma of Kurt Cobain, who wore his abraded empathy more poetically than anyone since Lester Bangs himself. What I have come to love most about the grunge bands-beyond the sheer sonic fury, the slash and snap of their attack and its dark, muddy-yet-crystalline musical ambition that brings me back to my days with the MC5 and the Stooges more directly than even the punks of the í70s-is their absolute disinterest in the art of the compromise. In the past two years, bands like Green Day and Pearl Jam have completely disrupted the American concert business and given time, they will do the same for records, radio, retail, and maybe even their audiences.
They will do this because such musicians operate out of some values that also emerge out of this very history I have spent so much time here describing and criticizing. But they donít proceed to create from this history the anything-goes decadence that gave us Culture Club and a slew of other interesting British bands who then crashed, full speed, into a brick wall because, if nothing is true and everything is permitted, then finally, making distinctions of any kind becomes an absurdity. Everybodyís a fake.
The grunge bands upended that aesthetic by standing up and saying, "No. These things are true, and those things are not permitted." And in this respect, it is unquestionable that the original grunge / neo- punk standard bearer was Nirvana, which took such risks-and standing up for what you believe in, whether that means wearing a "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" tee-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone or playing a pro-choice concert on the site of the first abortion doctor murder, is a risk in truth, a risk among other things of getting caught being sincere but wrong, in either attitude or action, which could cause some to label you: Fake. Phony. Poseur. So not compromising, all by itself, becomes as much a dead-end as just shilling for the bucks. Proving youíre not a fake doesnít make you feel real-thatís what his suicide note struggled to tell us. And it was then, if at no other time, that Kurt Cobain really did become a spokesperson for his rock & roll generation.
"Nothing is true, everything is permitted." At one time, back when it became so beloved of Situationists and Satanists, this statement completely invalidated social conformity. But today everybody feels that way: Newt Gingrich, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, O.J. Simpson, CNN, and most likely, you and me. The credo no longer expresses an undercurrent of rebellion; itís the prevailing value at the center of everything from the Contract with America to Steve Albiniís production on In Utero to Youngís sad attempt to explain away the consequences of writing "Itís better to burn out than to fade away" on Sleeps With Angels.
The song "Sleeps with Angels" doesnít say a thing to me, although I think itís the song thatís meant to eulogize Cobain. What does connect to the tale Iíve been trying to tell is "Change Your Mind," a melodic rewrite of "Heart of Gold" and "Down By the River," whose lyric sounds like Neil pleading with Kurt to do the one thing that Young derives his alternate rock credentials from not doing: Consider the consequences. It's Youngís dilemma that touches me most deeply, maybe because nobody whoís spent the past 25 years helping create and define the rock & roll world can help but feel some similar complicity in the Kurt Cobain story, maybe because Young struggles so palpably to convince us (convince himself?) that his ideas could not have had such consequences-and fails.
Today, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" rebels against nothing and liberates no one-and what is rebellion without liberation except the essence of what Kurt Cobain is talking about in that suicide note? What the ascendance of this form of nihilism has given us is another heartless rebuff to a world conceived in exactly such terms: Dirt to those who donít have riches, spit in the eye for the ones who ainít hip, contempt for anybody whoíd actually try for connections, and above all, a suspicion verging on contempt for anybody whose empathic resonance is so great that an entire generation or even an entire nation would respond to it. The saddest, most pathetic moment in his suicide note comes when Kurt Cobain talks about how much he lacks empathy, how much he envies those who possess it-this from the author of all those songs!
And yet, he did connect. No one, not even him, could entirely deny it. People may have taken what they heard, not what Kurt wanted them to hear, but they took great things from Nirvanaís scabrous and beautiful music. In the end, Kurt Cobain may have found this the most frightening aspect of his whole life and career. He thought he was alone in what he felt, and it turned out that in feeling alone, he connected to just about everybody. Such a realization would scare almost anybody; having to live with a truly penetrating awareness of how isolated and beyond solace most everybody in our world feels could scare almost anybody to death.
In this respect, Kurt Cobainís death differed utterly from 1994ís other nihilist suicide, that of Guy Debord, the philosophical eminence behind Situationism and thus a grandfather of punk. Debord shot himself to death last November 30. His friends werenít surprised and nobody else paid much attention. For a philosopher who devoted his work to writing about representation and communication, it would be hard to define a greater failure. But Debord was no Icarus; he didnít soar. His theory kept him grounded. Or mired.
Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, died as something more than a star, a symbol, or even a generational martyr. He died like the painter Mark Rothko, who killed himself, it would seem, from an excess of feeling. Unlike Rothko, though, Cobain died from being a modernist (a modernist being a person "whose social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world," as Robert Motherwell wrote fifty years ago) who tried to live up to postmodern values. What I have come to believe is that Kurt Cobain did not die because he could not fit in, but because he did. Which is why I can take my solace not from Neil Youngís stumbling for an explanation (much as I relate to it) or from Courtney Loveís vainglorious effort to put the principles that doomed Kurt into practice (compelling as I find Live Through This) or in my friend Gina Arnoldís bittersweet efforts to put the passion of Nirvanaís fans into words, but only in the half-intelligible singing of Michael Stipe on Automatic for the People-a fit epitaph for rock & rollís first celebrity shotgun suicide, if there ever was one.
Stipe said later he and Cobain had been talking a lot, while planning a collaboration; I donít know what Michael tried to say to Kurt in their last few conversations, but in my imagination, he sings him a lullaby that says, "when youíre sure youíve had enough / Of this life...well, hang on."
I donít know what really happened-in those talks or in the last days of Kurt Cobainís life. I do know that those of us left behind had better start singing such things to one another or we will find our way to the ocean, not like the water that runs down so beautifully at the end of Automatic for the People in "Find the River," but like lemmings.
Hang on.--Dave Marsh
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