Kurt Cobain: Hell (and a Happy New Year)


Written by James Joyce while at college:

“…never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage…ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of the dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony…”

Joyce was describing a visceral vision of Hell as a physical and simultaneously mental experience in which torture took place both upon the body and the mind.

Not that I’m becoming monomaniacal or anything — I’m starting to feel like a vicar on a Sunday morning beginning a sermon “…And THAT made me think of God/the Bible/blah blah blah…” in relation to any experience of life whatsoever — but I’d been trying for weeks to summarise how difficult Kurt Cobain’s life seems to have been. This quotation came closest.

Kurt’s life, by the end of 1993, involved physical pain (from an eternally undiagnosed stomach ailment) along with the damaging effects of persistent drug abuse including overdoses and what must have been regular (and uncomfortable) comedowns; he felt buffeted and lacking control over the persistent demands of music as a career — unable to find peace when called on by management, band, press, fans; he looked to the future with fears including whether his daughter would inherit his wounded nature, whether his marriage could survive, whether he had the money to avoid being flung back into penury and employment (he’d never enjoyed working for a living); as In Utero shows he was a very angry and frustrated man at this point, ferociously defending his family from the intrusions of muck-raking journalists, the authorities, in fact anyone who felt they could comment on his life — there’s a tiredness within In Utero, an exhaustion.

On top of this, his creative muse seems to have burnt itself out — this can’t have failed to escape his notice, that the crucial thing he had achieved in life had ceased to give him pleasure or to flow as naturally as it had until hitting age 25, he must have worried if he was done already. His friendship group, his social life, had shrunk away to nothing, core relationships (primarily with his band and wife) were troubled at best robbing him of a primary confidante and isolating him (semi-deliberately) from others.

A further issue with Kurt Cobain is the way he seems to have had a deeply active conscience ‘upbraiding him.’ His songs lavish nothing but blame and criticism upon his own shoulders; as the clearest cases he writes Lithium on Nevermind and All Apologies on In Utero calling down responsibility for his situation upon his own failings. His suicide note dwells on the same elements; he doesn’t lash out at the world, he simply cracks a sardonic half-smile and points out how useless he feels he is and how much of a danger to his daughter’s future happiness — that’s a phenomenally harsh thing to think of oneself, that one’s personality is so toxic it could pollute one’s child in such a way. There’s not much funny in his regular self-flagellation, no matter how sarcastically phrased — the same joke replayed year-after-year finding different ways to call himself a bad person; he doesn’t even blame anyone for it, not even his parents, he seems to feel that he was an unloved and unwanted child because he deserved it like the figure at the centre of Scentless Apprentice.

With all this going on, what aspects of Hell were not being visited upon him in his view? He had the physical pains, the conscience, the anger, the audiences he felt were gloating over his predicament, the absence of relief or visible hope. Whatever responsibility he bore for this perception of the world, it’s a brutal blend wrapped up in a slim frame and a lot for one being to carry day-after-day.


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