Kurt’s key literary idol was William S. Burroughs and, as we began to explore in part one of this piece, there are clear reasons why the connection was made. Kurt’s teenage descriptions are of hanging out with a gay friend simply as a rebellion against the local rednecks; seeking out a fellow ‘reject’ to win freedom from their abuse and impositions.
William S. Burroughs had, by the Eighties, become the ultimate literary outlaw. Yet, increasingly downplayed was the importance of Burroughs’ homosexuality — even now, if you read his Wikipedia entry, it’s possible to see the drugs and guns and barely notice that he wrote book after book fixated on penises penetrated male anuses, it was gay fiction first and foremost. Most importantly, what Burroughs was attempting to write was the possibility of escape. Burroughs hated effeminate homosexuals and what he wanted to portray and elevate was the idea of the non-effeminate male homosexual; the result was, on the one hand, Burroughs’ own lifestyle with its guns, drugs, rock n’ roll and counter-culture vibe, and on the other hand a series of hero figures within his novels who were almost all explicitly gay while simultaneously being gun-toting, anti-authoritarian rebels, outlaws, gunslingers and warriors.
This was a surprisingly perfect fit to Kurt’s challenge. Kurt Cobain was seeking a concept, a belief, that would allow him to stop feeling un-manly and un-masculine without requiring him to be consumed by the traditional masculinity as emphasized by his father and by school bullies. William S. Burroughs was saying over and over again that a defiantly male identity was possible that didn’t need to rely ultimately on heterosexual coupling (Burroughs was a massive misogynist believing sex to be just another way society held back and retarded human potential.) He was also stating that the new male didn’t have to conform to the view prevalent in the mid-twentieth century that equated homosexuality with effeminacy and didn’t permit alternative visions of what a man could be.
Burroughs’ work therefore was surprisingly tightly linked to the conflicts portrayed in the music of Nirvana (Laminated Effect, Floyd the Barber, Even in his Youth, Stain, Been a Son, Rape Me’s first demo… Plus all the songs in which Kurt portrays himself as diseased or ‘wrong’) and was, most importantly, an escape route. To a young man with a wounded male identity, Burroughs showed that there didn’t have to be a direct tie between sexuality and identity, that identity was malleable and that Kurt’s artistic life was no more a preclusion to heterosexuality than Burroughs’ homosexuality precluded him from being a hard-living, gun-loving, aging redneck…Who happened to find sexual pleasure in other men. Sexuality didn’t dictate lifestyle.
Of course, the intellectual, spiritual escape didn’t wholly succeed. The nearest Kurt seems to have come to a resolution is in his very vocally expressed sexual adoration of Courtney Love; “the best fuck in the world.” The problem though is that his underlying psychological issue posited that the shedding of guilt and a move to ‘wholeness’ would result from his bonding with a woman. Discovering that even though it made him very happy, that expecting one’s partner to provide you absolute happiness is unrealistic; there are compromises involved in sharing a life with another human being and others can only help, they can’t ‘fix’ you entirely.
This makes Kurt’s desire to have Burroughs star in the Heart Shaped Box video an intriguing one. A song that was about his submission to his female love object, that explicitly uses imagery referring to her vagina, was going to feature a man who’s work was about freeing man from his enslavement to vaginal fixation, and from a sense of manliness reliant on acquisition and use of women. Far more than being simply a rich rock star trying to call in a personal idol, the participation of William S. Burroughs in the video would have lent even greater emphasis to the song’s entangled themes of love versus freedom, of the centrality of children whether as renewal (fetuses feeding the IV tubes of an old man) or as oppressor (KKK outfits) and the umbilical noose meaning one can’t escape one’s genetics.