“…that part of town ( 2nd street ) has looked like that since i can remember and i’m old. also, why make cobain out to be such a ‘son.’ You talk of the positive effect his music has had or something like that, what about the negative effect that idolizing him has had. It has glamorzed drug addiction and and made it seem hip to do nothing but cling to someone who did not value his life. And I’m no angel. All the ugly signs and memorials should be taken down and laid to rest. One more thing, they have memorialized the location that he got loaded at …really?”
I’ve said it before, I like receiving contrary views because even if I disagree at least it makes me hold up for a second and think before barrelling on down my own lil’ path of self-righteousness. The other day the comment above was placed with one of the posts regarding my visit to Aberdeen, WA last September (gosh, is it coming up to nine months gone already?!) I admit I rather like it! There’s a lot going on in there so I’m hoping (fingers crossed) to both respectfully agree with some of it and respectfully disagree with some other bits of it. Let’s see how I do shall we?
There are a number of angles here; to clear up one of the easy ones post-haste, I’d suggest that there’s nothing in the story of Kurt Cobain that glamorizes drug addiction. The majority of onlookers see heroin addiction as the most crucial factor in his demise, the majority of fans feel they’d have seen far more glories, far more music, from him if heroin hadn’t hastened his demise. As a 14 year old at the time my main reaction was to immediately take on a pretty solid mantra of “injecting untrustworthy cocktails of heavily cut chemical byproducts is a really bad idea.” I can’t imagine many people watched the wasting away visible in 1992 photos of Cobain, the massive reduction in his writing and creativity (more than three quarters of his songs are written prior to the Nevermind album’s release), his disappearance from the public eye, the stories (untrue) of junky babies, the intervention and observation by social services (I’d say quite rightly until the situation was clearer despite the parental protestations of innocence), the general spiral…And coming away thinking that his drug addiction was in anyway positive. Cobain was a great antidote to the Eighties’ rock vibe in which one’s drug consumption was a sign of your superhuman endurance, of your masculine wildness and also to the yuppie drug takers either focused on the glamour of drugs or on the ‘mind expansion’ and ‘experimentation’ nonsense – Cobain made it look really unsexy, unglamorous and unwelcome.
It also showed the music industry doing its best to cover and conceal everything to try to keep that sexy druggy vibe alive – the PR teams were OK to admit his drug-taking to score ‘bad boy’ points but didn’t want to full squalor to be visible. Cobain did truth a big favour by his constant statements regarding how unwelcome an experience drug addiction was. It’s so saddening that he clearly didn’t enjoy what was occuring – at least five spells in rehab trying to clear the situation and unable to ‘win’. The degree of self-hatred welling up from his feeling of weakness, again, makes it look so unattractive – he wasn’t a man who revelled in his excesses or celebrated hedonism.
The point about Cobain as Aberdeen’s “son” is a really good one. It’s so understandable why there’s an ambivalence in the posthumous commemoration of Cobain – he was pretty overt about his distain for the town, he even protests too much to be honest, I think there’s a sense in which he overeggs how much he dislikes it in order to emphasise the “I had it tough” aspect of his youth (no, Kurt did not sleep rough under the bridge, no, Kurt was not beaten up by homophobes, no, Kurt did not spray ‘Homo Sex Rules’ on a building, no, Kurt did not do anything more under the bridge than hangout drink beers and maybe smoke pot, no, Kurt wasn’t anyone of real interest in Aberdeen.) I imagine he’d be more than happy to go un-memorialised.
Alas, on the other hand, why does anyone know or care that Aberdeen, WA exists? Kurt Cobain is the only figure from the town to achieve truly globe-spanning fame – he’s one of a bare handful of cultural figures who can occupy that Elvis, Michael Jackson, John Lennon realm (as a sidebar, each one an individual with personal flaws and chemical flaws, but also ALL amazing artists of global significance) – that’s an amazing achievement and it’s certainly a significant impact on Aberdeen. I would perhaps think of the activities done in his name in Aberdeen less as celebrations and more as commemorations – yesterday, June 28th 2014, commemorations were held for the moment when the Serbian revolutionary executed a representative of the Austro-Hungarian empire (and his wife) and set off the First World War. It isn’t a celebration, it’s a memorial, a chance to remember both the good that came – the heroism, the comradeship, the bravery – as well as the all-too-apparent awfulness. Remembrance is a valuable thing and Kurt Cobain is, without a shadow of a doubt, a significant part of the past of Aberdeen and one worth commemorating.
Having said that, I would definitely say that when commemoration becomes an application for sainthood I start feeling a bit sick. Kurt Cobain wasn’t a saint, he wasn’t just an unambiguous cardboard cutout of wholesomeness. He was an incredible artist, he was a man who worked extremely hard at his art, he was a man who inspired and comforted and excited and entertained millions the world over…But a memorial speech that didn’t recognise the sadness and the harsh side of his tale would make me uncomfortable – it would be a lie. An awful lot of Cobain’s art came from his pains and discomforts and his failings. The appropriation of his image to recognise the town’s past, acknowledge the town’s most famous son, encourage a warm welcome to the many people who will someday take a pilgrimage to the town, to bring a benefit to the town in terms of its image and potential dollars to support livelihoods and lives in the region – this is all good. I’d just be hoping it wasn’t one-dimensional praise because that wouldn’t be honest. Cobain deserves his status in the pantheon of music…And he was still a man destroyed by drugs and demons. What’s that cliche? ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’? I’d go with that.
Tapping away on this blog has been a privilege – why? Because I’ve been introduced by person after person to their creative endeavours – inspired by Kurt Cobain. The effect of his death, of people’s admiration for him, has not been a fixation on doom – it’s been a desire to build and make things. I’ve heard from people who used his music at wedding celebrations, from people making music interpreting Cobain’s material or who started bands that are now completely unique but started just covering his songs, I’ve caught up with artists who created work built around Cobain as a source of inspiration, I’ve met other people as inclined to write as I am partially because Cobain led them in certain directions. I’ve heard from people living in every continent on this planet, all doing positive things with their lives and celebrating their lives AND all acknowledging that Kurt Cobain was a part of that. The sorrow of losing an idol, the thrill of hearing music that inspired them – it didn’t give them a death wish or a worthless shrine-building cult-forming death drive, it took them to new places.
I’m not sure that admiration for Kurt Cobain has had many negatives though I’m very sure some lazy ignorant kid somewhere did indeed skim-read Cobain’s life and take the message “die young, leave a good looking corpse” or “drugs are good, mmm-kay.” Unfortunately there’s no controlling the acts of the ignorant – one could wrap the world in cotton wool and some people would still find ways to hurt themselves and others. Does Kurt Cobain deserve the blame for that? You’re right, he can’t control who takes what inspiration from him or whether people choose him as a role model or idol, but the people venerating him certainly can receive a degree of blame…Except no one responsible for public celebrations of Kurt Cobain seems to have been celebrating drug usage, or self-destruction, or death. So, again, those who take that trinity of elements as the main messages of Cobain’s life and as elements to be emulated…Hmm. Worrisome. I don’t have an answer to the desire of some people to destroy themselves not because of great pain but simply because, nor an answer to the desire of some people to destroy others not because of great threat or need but simply because. But in a world of motivating factors I’m pretty sure Kurt Cobain is an extremely minor factor.
So…To head back to the title question, why commemorate Kurt Cobain? Firstly, he’s historically significant globally and more precisely a part of the history of Aberdeen, WA. Erasing things one doesn’t like from history heads into the realms of Stalin or of North Korea. Secondly, his status really is deserved – he’s the creator of a persistently admired bedrock of music and music did undergo a sea-change for which he was the figurehead as well as a core catalyst (though an unwitting one.) Thirdly, he’s one of a tiny number of musicians to die while still within reach of the peak of their career and to therefore leave this sense of incomplete work and a longing for more – most commentary on Kurt Cobain carries that silent “what if…?” within it which helps create and sustain the fascination and the curiosity. Fourthly, unwillingly, he’s become a modern morality tale and it’s worth speaking honestly of his life to recognise that he was a man trying to do good and with many admirable qualities who was brought low by his flaws – that isn’t a condemnation nor a hagiography, it’s just a shame. Fifth, he put Aberdeen on the map and has contributed economically through the publicity he brings to the area as well as the direct contributions made by visitors – there’s the potential for his name to do many lifetimes of good to the region and that’s worth shooting for. Sixth, he’s inspired people to create and to make something of their lives on a scale and with a breadth most people will never achieve – that’s a truly exceptional achievement.