I was 11 years old, about to be 12 in a few short weeks, sitting at the back of a double-wide trailer that my junior high in a small city in Central Louisiana was “temporarily” using as an art studio. Our teacher had about 25 of us crammed in that tiny, poorly ventilated space, and we were loud, obnoxious, bratty kids, the oldest sons and daughters of my hometown’s newest generation of doctors, bankers, entrepreneurs, and real estate developers. Don’t be distracted by the trailer: This was a private school, and it was the best one within 110 miles in every direction.
When my parents were my age, the Beatles broke up, but I imagine the scene at their school was nothing like what my classmates and I experienced when the overly-caffeinated morning disc jockey on the town’s generically zany Morning Zoo program broke character and solemnly read the breaking news that had just come across his desk: Kurt Cobain was dead at the age of 27. Children, boys and girls who were all too young and who lived too far away from ever having the experience of seeing Nirvana in concert, began crying– some softly to themselves, others, particularly a few of the popular, preppy girls, more theatrically.
Those girls annoyed me, I remember, because, as junior high girls are known to do, they were more concerned with Cobain’s striking good-looks than his musical talents. “He was so, so hot,” one of my classmates managed to hiccup out through tears. In hindsight, I was probably too judgmental and dismissive, believing that the sudden, effusive, public grief by these beautiful, pampered white girls- girls who were already wearing their grandmother’s pearl necklaces and smaller versions of their mother’s lithe sundresses and preparing for the next few years of Cotillion, Mardi Gras, and Debutante Balls- was, to borrow a word from Holden Caulfied, “phony.”
Today, 21 years later, I realize that those girls may have cried loudly for the same reason that some of the boys, myself included– boys who wore ugly Tommy Hilfiger polos and oversized basketball jerseys and soccer shorts no matter how cold it was outside– had allowed themselves to shed a couple of tears.
We were 11 and 12 years old. None of us were really into grunge or punk rock. Many of us still had our parents picking out our clothes for the day, and most parents would have never allowed their child to own Nevermind, not because of the music but because of the cover art. (For the record, my parents were cool. They bought me Nevermind, and then, they got me a copy of Green Day’s Dookie, which I couldn’t bring to my best friend’s house because his folks thought it was satanic).
On that day in April, my junior high class wasn’t crying or even distraught over the tragedy of a tortured genius, a husband, and a father ending his life. When you’re in junior high, 27 seems ancient, and even as an adult, it is often difficult for some people to muster any evidence of human empathy, particularly for strangers.
We were kids, and we were upset because kids are selfish and jealous. We had seen the mosh pits in his videos and concerts, the recklessness and the boundless energy, the ways in which Cobain, in particular, was constantly attempting to reconcile his artistic ambitions with his desire to appear apathetic. He may have been 27, but in his fame, he reinvented what it meant to be a teenager: Smart, handsome, poetic, shy but somehow fearlessly, even uncomfortably honest. He seemed to have walked off of the pages of a William Burroughs’s novel and directly onto the stage. Once he died, even those of us in junior high, realized a potentially golden age for music had been evaporated, made all more obvious when MTV elected to publish his emotional, heart-wrenching unplugged show the next December during which the world learned that Kurt Cobain could actually, genuinely sing. Although none of us would have ever been able to articulate it, we grieved because we wanted Kurt Cobain to share this experience we would now never have, something raw and unflinching about teenage angst, alienation, flipping the script.
But perhaps it was already over. In his final studio album, he began his first song with the lyrics, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old / Self-appointed judges judge.” A few years later, mosh pits were securitized by para-military security forces, and Americans languidly discovered the next “big thing” on television competitions behind the comfort of their own big screen sets, in which contestants sang cover songs like these:
His first hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an introductory anthem that extols teenage sex. “Teen Spirit” is a female deodorant, and “Hello? How Low? How Low? Hello?” is a fairly provocative line. So too is the line: “With the light’s out/ It’s less dangerous/ Here were are now/ Entertain Us/ I feel stupid. /And contagious./ Here we are now, entertain us.”
In January 1992, Nevermind dethroned the King of Pop’s Dangerous at the top of the Billboard 200. This, for many reasons, is considered a pivotal moment: Michael Jackson may have earned a fortune pitching Pepsi, but Kurt Cobain actually ushered in “a new generation.” Jackson’s song “Dangerous” is intended as cautionary tale of avoiding intimacy with self-empowered and sexually liberated women, quite the opposite of Cobain’s message. Ultimately, both Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson lost their lives to drugs, addiction, and intense self-loathing, but their lives and their public personas could never have been more different. Two decades later, Cobain’s songs about homosexuality (“All Apologies”), child rape (“Polly”), and abortifacients (“Pennyroyal Tea”) are perhaps even more relevant now than they were then.
Yesterday, HBO debuted the documentary Montage of Heck: Kurt Cobain, one of the finest biographical studies ever produced. I’ll let Sarah Larson of The New Yorker explain:
Watching this movie, it’s hard not to be struck by difficult questions, including how to best parent and care for sensitive kids, like Kurt Cobain, that little sweetheart waving from his stroller, and how to help people prone to addiction—the fledgling musician with stomach pain and angst. Were there points that could have been handled differently? Could Cobain’s existence have been made less painful? Could he have sorted it out and lived?
You may also be struck by a strange parallel: Kurt’s mother, at the film’s beginning, and Courtney Love, toward its end, both say that as young married women they wanted to have babies right away. Wendy O’Connor thinks of having Kurt as a fresh start that will put all her old problems behind her; Courtney, keenly aware of Kurt’s need for love, sees babies as the creation of love, and a corrective. “We were all we had, so making a baby as fast as possible was important,” she says. In their case, it seems not just naïve but like a recipe for disaster.
Frances Bean Cobain, who doesn’t appear in the movie except as a baby, was raised by Love and by Cobain’s relatives when Love continued to use drugs. Cobain is now twenty-two and a visual artist. By all accounts, her maturity and her interest in telling her father’s story honestly made “Montage of Heck” possible. Kurt feared humiliation; Frances understands that painful honesty and love can coexist. So far, that baby has turned out to be O.K.
The documentary’s denouement was Cobain’s haunting cover of Ledbetter’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The filmmaker did not need to re-litigate Cobain’s suicide, but if he had, I would have focused on his suicide note, particularly the passage in which he quotes Neil Young. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Cobain never actually burned out, and 21 years later, he shows no signs of fading away: A new solo album is due later this summer.