No Player Royalty: Teen Cobain and the Music Revelation

While genetics is, day-after-day, providing further evidence of how a child is far more than an empty vessel, there’s still no denying that the overlay of lived experience crucially shapes and moulds that raw material; that there are few guaranteed outcomes in human form.

According to latest assessments, a human ego (Freud’s “das Ich”, ego was a translator’s Latin phrasing) —crucial in allowing an individual to wholly distinguish external from internal realities, to develop fully abstracted thought, and to defend sense of self against stress and external threats — only fully develops from around age nine. Prior to that age its far harder to experience or witness an external event and not ingest it into one’s personality; witness Kurt Cobain’s reaction to parental break-up, for one example. This movement from merely experiencing the world, to defining one’s own reality and the part events play within one’s mind forms part of the reason why teenage years are so flooded with significance — what occurs and what one discovers is new not because one has not experienced related moments before but because one can bestow higher meanings upon them and can give them significance within the constructed framework. Having built a wall between self and other its finally possible to choose to make things part of who one is.

The result is a series of events that can take on the significance of origin myths. Partly it’s that things truly are new — “you’ll never forget your first kiss.” To some extent it’s that a not necessarily new experience, becomes renewed as meaning is actively poured into it. In the case of Kurt Cobain, he’s very overt about what these crucial events were. In Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are, the subjugated misery of the parental breakup gives way to a far more active embrace of experiences such as teen rebel status, first experiences with girls (which seem to embed certain feelings of inadequacy and misfortune), and, most significantly in Kurt Cobain’s own eyes, the discovery of meaningful music in the form of punk.

Authors and commentators have pointed out that Kurt Cobain didn’t stop listening to more mainstream and metal fare; they imply also that Cobain is overemphasising his punk roots as a reaction against his discomfort at mainstream status in late 1992; they suggest there’s a touch of posing and self-mythology in the kid who had been singing along to The Beatles since he was a child suddenly claiming a punk revolution. They miss the point.

They’re seeking some moment of ideological purity, a cut-n-dried real world moment in which Cobain immediately hurled his previous record collection into a ditch and torched it. What occurred was an internal experience, a less tangible psychological experience in which punk music coincided with the teenage desire to grab hold of things that one could call one’s own and that could be used to define oneself. Kurt Cobain defined himself as a punk, the presence of other music within his taste palate doesn’t annul the depth of the discovery.

Cobain describes the discovery of punk as a near religious conversion, a veritable “seeing the light” moment for a boy still in his early-to-mid-teens. There’s no reason to doubt that it was a foundational moment for him; his life through until his death was spent absorbing and owning different currents from within the alternative/punk scene ranging from Melvins’ slow grind, through new wave vibes, Greg Sage guitar tone, David Yow/Buzz Osbourne vocals, grunge, power-pop/K Records/Vaselines’ vibes, Pixies dynamics… There’s no doubting also that this was a man who identified sufficiently with punk as an ethos that he felt genuinely conflicted about the consequences of the major label move and subsequent success. When he points to the discovery of those first tapes exposing him to the post-1980 U.S. take on punk as truly significant; believe it. His musical life would always have a string tying him back to that moment when he decided punk was the ingredient he was looking for in his quest to be someone.

What happens to us as children stays with us throughout our lives; what happens to us as teenagers, we sift for what will be WHO we are in the life to follow.


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