The Unknowing

One of the final chapters of Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven consisted of a long, well-evidenced, but ultimately fictitious recreation of Kurt Cobain’s final day on Earth. Unless one wishes to deny all objective reality and to declare all recorded history a fiction, then sometimes all one can do is use evidence to suggest likely possibilities. I’m certainly not a believer that only those who were present can comment or reveal or I wouldn’t be writing this material.

The world is simply too complex, the result of too many interactions of human and non-human, to succumb to human classification, description and control. The result is ‘the unknowing’, those patches of any story or subject where there’s no way to fill the space. The death of Kurt Cobain is a fine example. As noted in the If She Floats blog post the other month, I’m certainly no believer in the conspiracy theories around his death, but, as an event with no witnesses, taking place at a time when only a few people have been able to report even a small part of Cobain’s movements, there are going to be things that cannot be established without doubt.

Another example would be something as simple as establishing how many times a song was played. Big Long Now was definitely performed live (I summarise this argument in the Songs the Lord Taught Us chapter of Dark Slivers) but it simply isn’t known when or where. The available video footage in the With the Lights Out DVD shows it still required some work in early December prior to its recording for Bleach and subsequent discarding. The likelihood is then that it was showcased on stage during the ten shows of January-April 1989 for which no track listing is known. This gives a physical location of Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Ellensburg, San Francisco or San Jose — we’re unlikely ever to know. Its performance is an imaginary event.

As a further alternative, we can look at things like the Organised Confusion demo of 1982, the loss of planned Cobain songs when his bathroom flooded in 1992, or whatever shredded intentions made it further than his mind in 1994. We’ll likely only ever see some small part of these items — the rest will remain definite factual events…But with no physical substance to give them character, no content to contextualise them alongside Cobain’s other songs.

Immense work can go into filling those holes; quotations sourced; physical relics identified; opinions (including my own — a lot of what I’ve done on here is just conjecture) debated and honed ad nauseum. Yet I admit that often filling the hole brings only a small jolt of satisfaction compared to the depth of tension that comes from contemplation of, and desire to fill, that absence — a full answer is neat, tidy and ultimately disappointing. It often feels like the urge to believe in mysteries is a force in and of itself, one immune to evidence and indeed so ruined by it, that when faced with evidence people need to find new holes to consider.

Brilliantly, the consequence of non-existence in the present day, is to remind us constantly of the genuine existence of that element in the past. We spend more time looking at the lost pieces, because they’re interesting and enthralling, than we do at what is known. Setting something in concrete eliminates a lot of the appeal and the enjoyment. Indeed, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana retain their aura primarily because of death — if they were still around we wouldn’t be as fascinated by them. Nirvana is a hole that our curiosity leads us to peer into.

Which leads me to a final thought; Kurt Cobain’s word can’t always be trusted. The cases of him exaggerating are fairly well-known, likewise cases of outright lying — he claimed for a chunk of 1992 that he didn’t have a drug problem, for example. A lot of the time he can’t be taken as the final arbiter of his intentions or objectives, at least not in his recorded public statements. Kurt was a deeply private individual, who wrote in his Journals of how violating he found it when people stole them, who dedicated substantial portions of In Utero to anger at how his life and loved ones were being used as fodder for others. It’s fair to say he didn’t feel informing the public of his every inner thought was a fundamental desire. This leads me to simply doubt and to dismiss his claims that his lyrics had no meanings, or few of which he was aware. I’m willing to accept he veiled and obscured meanings; and I am sure that many words, themes and phrasings were products of his damaged psyche and therefore that he may not have realised he was reproducing over and over.

I think it’s worth remembering in any consideration of Kurt Cobain, that his priority was protecting his privacy so whether or not he raises his hand in the air and says “swear to God brother” treat his answers with caution. And simply enjoy the discussion because we may never know all the answers or pin down all desired truths of Nirvana’s tempestuous career.


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