A Denial

Ten years ago, Kurt Cobain put a bullet through his brain -- and killed rock & roll as well

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."

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