A Denial

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

And that's probably true. At 37, he'd happily sift through the millions of guitars stockpiled in his mansion, and at 47 he'd happily accept a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Had he survived up to now, Kurt Cobain most likely would've abandoned all his high-minded punk ideals, and the star-making Culture Industry would've chewed him up and spit him out as it does so many aging icons. One thing his suicide has spared him is an embarrassing reunion gig at Konocti Harbor.

Although Nirvana's sales are still pretty high -- a total of 23 million units -- symbolically speaking, the band's music is out of fashion now. College students who love Radiohead and the White Stripes are barely familiar with "Lithium" or the tenets of grunge: its celebration of loserdom and male bonding, its rejection of success and consumer culture in general. (Even the female stars of grunge would wear the same two shirts all tour and cut their own hair, an unthinkable proposition today.) Cobain's suicide formally finished off the punk era, when anticorporate DIY ethics at least paid lip service to the idea that the commodification of rock was an ugly process. You'd think killing himself would have been enough to make this point, but the subsequent career of his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Love, has provided a coda, or at least an exclamation point, to the whole affair.

The week Cobain died, Love's band Hole released its record Live Through This, and she has subsequently parlayed the notoriety his suicide gave her into a very long run in the Zeitgeist. She was on tour nine weeks later, and although her musical career has long since faltered (and her film career barely got off the ground), she has seldom left the headlines for long. She stumbles high-heeledly across the big sky of American celebrity, desperately trying to garner some cheap facsimile of Kurt's phenomenal fame, having understood less than nothing of its implications or its denouement.

Better to burn out? Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain and 
Dave Grohl were Nirvana.
Anton Corbijn
Better to burn out? Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl were Nirvana.

Love's indelible presence in the media is a real testimonial to craven opportunism. Perhaps the saddest thing about it is the way it constantly flies in the face of her husband's tragedy: She has denied what he stood for and embraced everything he rejected.

The week Cobain died, I flew to Seattle for that mass mourn-in at the Seattle Space Needle, at which Love read aloud a portion of his suicide note. "I feel guilty beyond words about these things," it said in part. "For example, when we're backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd.... The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100 percent fun."

It makes me even sadder to read those words now than it did to hear Love speak them then, because it seems to me in retrospect that her whole career has been a desperate attempt to relish the love and adoration of the crowd. That she hasn't done so (and keeps on trying) isn't because she doesn't have the talent of her husband's magical band. He himself couldn't feel that roar either. Was she even listening?

I think Kurt Cobain's death could teach us a lot, but no one wants to listen. This may explain why so many people like to portray his death as a possible murder: The implications of his great refusal are just too disturbing. They mar not only our perpetual American dream state, but the willing suspension of disbelief that made rock & roll possible.

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