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Success Doesn't Sell: The Triumph of Kurt Cobain.

11 Apr 2017

The quality of dusk is strained, this evening.

Electrified and still. As though some divine concierge has pulled out the backup generator. Plugged the cursed thing into a forsaken hour. Streaked with memory. Shivering with the abandoned emotions of yesterday's unforgivable promises.

Falkner had it down.. The past isn't dead. Etcetera. Etcetera.

The mistakes of our parents inevitably become our own. And if back at the beginning of the last decade of a worn out millennium we were foolish enough to believe that a tide of change seemed prepared to burst the dam? Loosen the foundations? That a new and fairer prosperity might sprout forth from between the cracks? Certainly, we might be spared some consideration for daring to hope. However fleeting.

After all, we deserved better.

We felt shortchanged. We knew a battle was being fought and mostly lost. And from the vantage point of now we can point to the hard-water stain upon the floodgates. Forensic evidence of just how close we came to cresting. To breaching that fucking wall that kept all us have-nots penned in while allowing the rich and powerful to do as they please.

We were battered survivors. Broken children from broken homes. Left empty and alone in a latchkey decade. Without even a proper descriptor to call its own. The 60s got flowers. The 70s had sex. The 80s? Too much money for its own good. But the 90s? All we got for the 90s was an X to mark the spot where we had been screwed with our pants on.

We were angry. We were ready for something.. Anything. To break our way.

We could sense the truth being twisted under cover of furtive political gestures playing out on CNN minute by minute. Wars in Washington waged by foot soldiers of the one percent against our suffering population. Wars for oil. Wars to loot the promise of a generation. Wars against drugs that were really just a cover for the institutional racism we had been told was over and solved. We had been assured that the fin-aid we were borrowing for education was an investment in our future. That our possibilities were endless.

So many lies. We knew. But kept on anyways.

So when Nirvana broke into the big time? We were more than ready for a change. Flipping the table with music felt something like progress, even if nothing else was looking to go our way. Of course, for anyone who had been paying attention? For those of us plugged into the underground? If you were previously educated by Thurston Moore. By the Pixies. By Punk? This three-piece from Seattle wasn't especially shocking all on their own.

To be sure, the radio was a wasteland back then. And if you had no previous introduction to their influences, hearing Nevermind for the first time was like plugging into a 220 volt socket.

Goodbye C&C Music factory. Goodbye Marky Mark with your Funky Bunch. Goodbye, Michael. Fucking. Bolton.

Yes. Nothing Nirvana was doing was particularly new. But they played hard. Impossibly tight. And Cobain's voice with those lyrics reached deep into your chest in a way that you had never before been able to express. You were vindicated by their ferocity. You were proven right. For whatever small satisfaction one could take in the knowledge that we were all completely fucked. That we were being robbed of the future? One could at least exert a bit of smugness when the soundtrack of our lives was proven valid.

Until it all went bad. Until it all came crashing down.

. . .

It's 1991. I'm nineteen. Freshly arrived at college. I've quickly located the local record store and spent all the money I had brought with me.

I'm unwrapping the plastic from a cassette for a band I've heard a bit of previously from a Sub Pop mix tape a friend made for me. My player is plugged into the 300 watt amplifier I had used last for its intended purpose a mere six months prior. Playing bass in a Christian Heavy Metal band. Don't ask -- Those were odd, misshapen days.

This shit is meant to be played loud. And loud I play it. You can probably hear the crash and thrum of his guitar ten blocks away at the volume I'm cranking. I thrash like a fool around the room. At the end of the first listen, "Something in the Way" comes up, I listen in a kind of rapture. The pain in that song. A voice that bleeds. I stop the tape. Rewind. Listen again. And again. I must have listened to that one song some twenty or thirty times that afternoon. Floored. I turn the tape back over to side one, and do it all over and over.

. . .

It's 1993. I am twenty-one. I did way too many drugs, flunked out of college, and have returned home. Well.. Really, I'm on the street. But I have friends who are willing to let me hang here and there so it's all cool. I'm high as a fucking kite at one of their houses. We're watching MTV on his mother's cathode ray tube television.

Catching that unplugged special today, you're struck by how alien it all seems, now. People smoking cigarettes indoors. You forgot that that was a thing back then. Light up in a room now, and people look at you like you're a criminal. There is an immediate and usually physical restraint performed. Your garments may be rent asunder as you're tarred and feathered and run on a rail out of town.

You forgot that Grohl came off as a bit of dork, most of the time. Far from the self assured, confident frontman he's destined to become. You forgot that Novolselic had a full head of hair back then. That he wasn't anywhere near as urbane as he is now. You forgot how fucking young Kurt actually was.

You watch Cobain rip through music that feels intensely personal. As though he's speaking a language that only the initiated can truly comprehend. Secret songs for the dispossessed. For the alienated. For those of us who had the good sense to be angry, early. The language of the Vaselines. The Meat Puppets. Bowie. Building to a soul splitting crescendo with that old criminal, Huddie William Ledbetter. A man who needed handlers so that he could be kept from murdering some unfortunate random fucker in between shows.

You watch. Glued to the screen. Understanding that you're witnessing a moment that will never come again as the song unfolds. In the pines. In the pines. Kurt has impossibly transformed his entire being into this obscure, raggedy old Blues standard. He is ascendant as it draws toward the final refrain, when unexpectedly, he shifts octaves and reveals a true face. The face of a wounded animal. A frightened coyote. Profoundly aware of it's impending mortality. And tired.

So.. Tired.

He snaps out of it, opening his eyes. Startled. Horrified by where he is. By what he has become. And then, stepping out of the moment.. He breaks for a pause. Recovers. Draws a deep breath. Exhales. And finishes.

Spent, he half-heartedly mimes smashing the expensive 1959 Martin D-18E guitar. And then wanders aimlessly around the stage before stepping off to sign some autographs.

. . .

Less than a year later, Kurt would be found in a room of his home in Seattle. A shotgun sitting next to his prone form. Hand resting on a box of shells. Burnt up spoon on the floor.

The news was terrifying. A broken, hollow man. Unwillingly saddled as the supposed voice of a generation. We all knew that this was inevitable. We had overburdened our hero. Asked too much. He couldn't save us.

Hell, he couldn't save himself.

The great terror of adulthood is realizing how random existence actually is. That anything can happen at any point and there is nothing you can do to stop it. That Cobain could have died at any interval before one especially fateful day in Spring is indisputable. That he lived his life in such a way that ending it as a suicide is an unavoidable given. That we would wake up one morning to the news that he was gone? No bookie would have taken bets against that. Just as easily, he could have gone on any number of days. Certainly the possibilities spawn endless scenarios -- Alternate planar latitudes with an infinite number of outcomes. One where Kurt's parents stayed together and he was never imbued with the pain that would go on to fuel his art. One where he died on the streets of Aberdeen as a teenager. One where his first attempt to end things in Rome was successful. And yes.. One where his body was found by an electrician scheduled to work on the house late on one heartbreaking April morning.

But in a universe where anything can happen? Why not one where Kurt made it through? Scathed and scarred, to be sure. But whole.

Why not one where, against all odds? He lived.

. . .

It's 2017.

I'm being led backstage before the show for this interview by a roadie. A grizzled old dude in a Black Flag shirt stops us. "Is this the guy..?" My roadie nods. "Okay. Yeah. He's in the Green Room. Go right in. 20 minutes. Then you're gone. Got it?" Forty five seconds later I'm shaking Kurt Cobain's hand. In the flesh and seemingly well. Grayer, of course, than the last time I saw him. But who isn't these days?

The pleasantries are observed. I take a breath and half a second to appreciate where I am and who I'm talking to. He's here alone, of course. The band broke up some twenty years back. I shove the queasies down into the recesses of an empty stomach. I am, after all, here to work. Not stare all googly eyed at one of the icons of a misspent youth. Lester would be ashamed of me. Music critics aren't allowed to have heroes. I ask how he's feeling. He smirks. "Man.. Hah. I don't know. Fine, I guess. I'm looking forward to just playing." You look good, I remark. "Do I? For an old guy, you mean? Or for a guy who's.. 'Lucky to be here?'" I must blanche a bit at that, because he's chuckling wryly. I marshal my courage and venture, "Fine. You brought it up, asshole. Let's go, then. You just turned fifty. Do you feel lucky to be here?"

He nods. "All things being.. You know. Equal? Sure. Why not? Life is good. I have a beautiful wife. A beautiful daughter who's amazing. I'm not really a rock star anymore. And you know.. I don't have a hole in my head."

Good answer. Well played, Kurt. Well played.

"What turns you on today?" I ask, "The music you're playing now is so different from what got you here.. What's on your.. What do you listen with? Phone? That just seems wrong." He shrugs. "I actually still use my old iPod. Courtney got it for me when my Walkman bit it. I don't like to carry a phone around. You know? It feels too much like a leash. Like someone's keeping track of me. Uh.." I interject, "You've been reading Billy Burroughs again, haven't you." He laughs. "Yeah.. No.. Not really. But he tends to stick in you if you've had him at all."

"You.. Did I read somewhere that you spoke at his funeral? When was that? '96? '97?"

"It was.. Well.. It wasn't really a funeral. It was a small.. It was more like a goodbye dinner. John Giorno.. The poet? He came. Anne Waldman was there.. You know her? She.. I applied to her school.. The Kerouac school, that she started.. When I was a kid. But they didn't want me. I wasn't good enough to get in." He chuckles again. "Yeah. I said a few things. He was.. Ah.. They were all sitting in the back yard. Lighting off fireworks. Smoking the last of his weed.." Despite myself, I laugh at the visual -- "He would have approved of that." Cobain is smiling at the memory. "Yeah. He.. He reached out to me a few years before he passed. Asked me to come visit. He was.. Sort of a.. I grew up idolizing his work, really. It was really good to see him."

I've not heard this. Leaning forward, as though I'm about to hear a tasty bit of gossip. I ask, "What did he.. What did you guys talk about?"

"Oh.. You know. We.. Worked together.. Sort of. Once before, on a recording. But it was all long distance stuff. I actually got the chance to meet him in person. Back in.. '93? I can't remember. It's all so soft, sometimes. Those days. The last time I saw him? He said to me.. Ah." His voice grows quiet. "He said that the last time he saw me, he thought I was a dead man. And he had heard about.. You know.. And that he wanted to find out if I was alive, now." He trails off.. "Uh. What were we talking about? How did we get here?"

"Music." I stammer. "I was asking what you're listening to now?" He nods. "Oh yeah.. Um.. A lot of different stuff really. There's.. Uh.. Do you know Courtney Barnett? I like her a lot. She's fucking great. Ty Segall. I've been.. Someone recommended him to me and I had missed him somehow.. William.. Ah.. Bonnie Prince Billy? I don't think that's his actual name. A lot of just.. You know.. Weird stuff. I've been on a classical kick lately. Profkiev. Rachmaninoff. Russian composers, man. There's use something about them. Oh.. I heard the new Pixies album the other day.. Um.. Head Carrier? It's fantastic."

"I've to to ask.. I know you don't really do politics.." He winces. "You want to ask me about Trump?" I nod. "Ah. You know.. That's really Krist's spiel. I stay out of that bullshit.." I hold my tongue. Waiting him out. "Hah.. You're not gonna let me get away with that? Yeah.. Okay." He leans back in the couch and brings his hands together. "Look. I'm.. I'm not super political. And I know a lot of people hated Hillary for whatever.. You know. I think they're all just. Corrupt. Crooked.. It's just.. Which way are they going to screw you over in particular.. But this guy? He.. The way he talks about women? That's.. It's the same old crap. I don't like that. It's disgusting. And he's a piece of shit. We elected a rapist. Which, I guess makes sense when you look at the history of this country."

I mention that he's always been strong about women's rights. "Yeah.. I guess. I mean.. You look at the numbers? I read that something like fifty-three percent of white women voted for him. And at first.. You have to ask yourself.. Why? Why would they do that? But.. I grew up in a small town. And I get it. The women in these shit towns all across the country? They're just.. They're oppressed every day. They take it for granted. It's like.. What do they call it? Stockholm syndrome."

"Look.. I'm married to a strong, insanely talented woman. She can be a pain in the ass, sure. But Live Through This is at least as good as anything I've ever written. Better in some ways. She can act. She's won all sorts of awards for her movies. She's kept my dumb ass alive all these years. I sometimes.. I wonder what she might have done if she hadn't had to take care of me, you know? How much energy did she spend on me that could of… And instead of.. You know? Instead of getting the respect she deserves? Shit-talkers. Assholes. Sayin' stuff like.. Oh.. I must have written it for her. Oh, she can't really play guitar. Neanderthals in backwards baseball caps at her shows yelling' for her to take her shirt off. It's fucking awful.. I.. When I was playing full time with Krist and Dave? I could barely play the instrument. I mean.. I was okay. But I didn't know what the names were for half the chords I played. And nobody said shit. If women are crazy at all? It's because of garbage like this. And if we're going to suffer for the next four years? Maybe we deserve to. Maybe that's the price we pay for making everything so fucked up in the first place."

There's a knock at the door. It's his manager. My time's up. I thank him, and mosey out to the floor to wait for the show. On the way out, Kurt motions for me to wait. "You're.. Ah.. You're writing about the music?" I smile. "Good luck," he drawls.. "Nobody knows what to make of it. Success doesn't sell. It's like.. They really would have rather I died.."

"They'd have known what to do with that."

. . .

You will, of course, be wanting to hear what the show sounded like. As Cobain has released no recordings since his '95 collaboration with Michael Stipe, we are left at the mercy of the descriptive powers of the few who go to his concerts. Which are sporadic, and of late, sparsely attended. Indeed, Kurt stopped playing music of any sort for many years after the overdose. Turning to painting and sculpture. Poetry books that sold well yet mostly sit unread on coffee tables as a sign of indie cred.

His turn of the century "comeback" was roundly shellacked. Critics mostly found the strange, detuned performances to be non-inspired noise. Ticket buying audiences expecting him to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were left severely disappointed. The events usually descended into angry booing from the crowd. And after a few years of that, most people stopped coming. Only the diehards remain.

Cobain's tours are anomalies in today's music world. There's no merch. No t-shirts. No record to buy. Those few hardcore fans brave enough to shell out the cash for entry are warned to leave their cellphones at home. Everyone is searched before being allowed to pass into Cobain's forbidden, cloistered underworld. No photography is allowed, and my camera was checked at the door.

. . .

So? What's the verdict? Is his music still good?

That's.. Complicated.

Cobain's oeuvre today seems to be more about.. Textures. He's playing with an almost orchestral dissonance. Mostly with acoustic instrumentation. Building into patterns that slip in and out between atonal and meandering bits and pieces before miraculously bursting into harmonies. Occasionally, you're treated to a shocking and unanticipated melody. He sings sparsely, but the voice is still golden. Scraps of old folk song lyrics. Pieces of the Blues. Random poetry. Some stuff that I will swear to you is in all probability completely improvised on the spot.

It's important that you understand.. If you buy a ticket for one of these shows, you're not going to see Nirvana. Instead, you'll be treated to an experience entirely unexpected. You're not going to hear him sing any of your favorites.

You go to this show to see Kurt Cobain. Happy.

It's no longer about whether or not it's actually any good. It's about seeing someone who gave so much to so many of us manage to save himself in the end. It's about the great escape. It's about hope. It's about love. It's about acceptance.

And for this?

There are no apologies necessary.


. . .

Photo manipulation by Jeff Hewitt. Kurt Cobain was found dead of his own accord on April 8th, 1994 -- Twenty-three years ago as of this past weekend. Obviously, none of this is real. But it should be. Indeed, the world would be a better place today if it were.

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11 Apr 2017

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