Reading the comments below any piece on Kurt Cobain or Nirvana it’s stunning how rapidly someone pops up and blurts “Kurt was murdered.” No matter what the topic, what aspect of the band or the individual is under discussion, someone’ll slap the statement down making clear they see nothing as important to the band’s story as the lead singer’s exit. The reduction to a singularity is understandable; musical tales that transcend and become part of wider cultural conversation stop being about music and become part of wider threads speaking to ambition, comedy, tragedy, sex, death – often all at once. Thus John Lennon is reduced to ‘Imagine’ or to quotes about being ‘Bigger than Jesus;’ Elvis becomes Vegas judo moves and bathroom death; Sid Vicious is a safety pin and a swastika; Michael Jackson becomes white skin and odd squeals. I saw a beautiful Kim Gordon quotation the other day stating that pop culture is all about how “people pay money to see others believe in themselves.” Musicians don’t need to overtly stand for a cause, or a declared meaning, to be bound into the desires, wants, needs, fears and wishes people project onto them. What intrigues me in the case of Cobain is how impossible it’s become to speak of him, without speaking of the conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
This isn’t about my views on the theories themselves, it’s about the conversion of a perspective harboured by a small minority of individuals in early 1994, becoming a far more widely held belief among audiences who don’t necessarily have a dedicated adoration for Kurt Cobain’s music. It’s a wider cultural theme in line with popular threads of commentary and discussion rather than a topic rooted in music or Nirvana’s actual existence as a band. Why should a topic so unrelated to Nirvana’s life become so unavoidable after the lead singer’s death?
Firstly, stand-out events in the popular imagination are never the ordinary, the everyday, the common experience. Quite regularly recently people have mentioned to me how worried they are by events like the murder of several dozen tourists on the beaches of Tunisia, that they believe ISIS will undoubtedly attack in the west soon, that terrorism is a major fear for them. I’ve grown an unhelpful tendency to respond with the latest death statistics to explain why I’m totally unconcerned; in the U.K. in 2013 there were 17.8 deaths per 1,000 people – a grand total of 506,790 dead in a single year with barely a tremor of disruption to reality. Death is everywhere – we lose Britain’s fifth largest city every single year with barely a murmur. The U.S. lost 2,600,000 in 2013 – that’s Chicago or Houston wiped out annually. I’ll next point out to them that the U.K. murder rate dropped to 526 in 2014 (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2013-14/rpt-chapter-2.html) which, given a population of 64,800,000 means a miniscule chance. Now compare that to the presence of violent death on your TV, newspaper, comic book, latest record… There’s a massive disproportion between the amount of time people spend thinking about or learning of violent death versus its actual presence. Near all of us are going to die of petty injuries or disease peoples.
(Here’s a beautiful visualisation of the 2009 death totals – http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2011/01/14/Factfile_deaths_v2_2011.pdf – showing the death rate hovering merrily around the half a million a year mark. For the U.S., here’s a quality historical review of death from 1935-to-2010 from the Centers for Disease Control; http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db88.htm#x2013;2010</a>).
The commonplace nature of death is what elevates certain deaths to a higher level; society needs ‘spectaculars.’ The deaths that become part of wider discussion and popular memory need to happen to someone of ‘significance’ on the public stage; need to be outside the everyday experience; need to come wrapped in a wider story worth retelling. Other aspects might put some deaths ahead of others in the popular imagination, as an example, Dr. Harold Shipman committed a series of quite boringly ordinary murders – injection of drugs, people slipped away. The deaths on their own were so ordinary they were barely worth of note and beyond friends and family the names go unrecalled – the elevating factor is that Shipman is likely to have committed 250 such murders making him one of the world’s biggest serial killers. The scale of the exercise makes Shipman the significant figure while the deaths become anonymous. Think of a stamp collection; one Canadian stamp might be more or less interesting – but a complete collection of every Canadian stamp ever issued, now that’s significant. Size, timing, method of exit – they all make a difference to what’s recalled and repeated across the media and among circles of people. As another example; Eazy E, rap impresario, major figure in the formulation of gangsta rap, multi-platinum selling artist…His death is barely mentioned because dying of AIDS in a hospital bed was neither photogenic nor even particularly exceptional. Tupac Shakur, multi-platinum artist, one of the most diverse rappers ever, dies at peak of career in a gloriously dramatic manner – tie the Notorious B.I.G.’s death just before releasing an album called ‘Life After Death’ and with the East/West media thread, gang connections, the fall of Death Row Records – it’s Hollywood baby!
Cobain easily passes the test for a spectacular; dies young, dies close to peak of fame, plenty of controversy keeping him in the papers 1992-1994 and reaching a peak after the Rome incident so lots of eyes already waiting to see what would come… But why should the conspiracy theories have become so loud? Well, it’s about cultural production. A concluded story can only be re-told so many times, that’s why articles on Nirvana constantly need to have a new angle, new pitch, new info – some claim to being NEW. That’s simple logic; why buy precisely the same information one already possesses? The human desire for culture is for novelty. Retelling requires there to be a gap between known and new in order to create tension – so, Dave Grohl has been asked about Nirvana several thousand times over twenty years, he’s told and retold every tale – but he might emphasise different details, will usually use different words, tell it a different way – this grants a degree of longevity to known material as it’s new to those who haven’t heard it and there’s a nugget of freshness for those who do. The same impulse is at play in the collection of bootleg renditions of Nirvana material; will the quality of what’s found live up to the power of what’s on the official records? Rarely, but it might. Will something truly new occur? Rarely, but it might. That potential, that deviation from the known, that slight tweak is vital to keeping a cultural object – whether a memory, a song, a story – alive.
This is the terrain where the conspiracy theories work perfectly. They overwrite the closed and complete story with one where there’s still an open potential and where the tension that makes it interesting exists in the gap between the known (i.e., listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit for the thousandth time doesn’t create the same kick as first hearings) and the unknown (i.e., a ragged bootleg rendition providing the unexpected and the potential to give something new.) It’s why there’s a far greater market for Nazi memorabilia than other World War Two ephemera, why playing the Nazis in a computer game for the umpteenth time, or films about Nazis on the moon, documentaries about secret weapons and research all get a listen because the tale of what might have but didn’t is an open space into which imagination can be poured and excitement found when re-reading what actually did happen and what the victors actually did do is already closed down and clear. You don’t see books around proposing counterfactual tales of what if the Allies had won the war a different way – there are quite a few re-fighting the battle from the German side. Secret histories turn dead stories into repeatable, re-playable experiences that the present-day consumer can explore.
Similarly, the interest in what didn’t happen is a reaction against the everyday quality of what did; again, it’s about the spectacular versus the lived experience of the average person. Malcolm X became the poster boy of the hip hop generation despite having contributed little beyond thought to the civil rights struggle because he was a figure who was unsullied by reality. Martin Luther King Jr. personally engaged with the Presidents of the era, staged the greatest march in the nation’s history to that point, was present at numerous flashpoints of the struggle while acting as talisman, figurehead and voice of what was occurring. He’s become an accepted ‘hero’ figure of the establishment however, identified with the reality of what did and did not happen for the racially oppressed in the U.S., his views are deemed to have been played out and the results seen which makes him a harder figure to rally excitement around. Malcolm X, by contrast, died at the start of a new journey into greater engagement with the wider civil rights cause, a different vision and set of beliefs – an untapped future potential. His views – simplistically reduced to an openness to self-defence and the application of revolutionary violence – never had the chance to play out across society, they remain an unrealised potential possessing the excitement of the unknown. On top of that he retains the allure of the rebel, he hasn’t become part of the dominant culture so there’s space for the marginalised, those believing in themselves as outsiders, to tag onto him. The fact his views can never be truly tested, his methods and ideas never fully explored or known makes him invulnerable to the boredom inherent to society’s winners.
To move to a symbol, why does the confederate flag persist? It’s the symbol of traitors to the current United States of America, of a group of people who chose to stand for racist exploitation of slave labour against what we would consider modern quality – so why fly their flag? The reason is that it stands for an independent identity against a central, dominant identity – the United States of America, the Union, Washington, is the being against which the flag declares independence, resistance, rebel status. Those who fly it once upon a time were holding on to a vision of society that they felt would be better than what came to exist – the disappointment of the everyday had set in, they had an untested alternative they could hark to. There are few now who wave the confederate flag in support of the 1860s vision of what the south was or could be. It’s become a wider rejection of the everyday standing in for whatever the individual wishes it to – a blend of those who are and are not deliberately raising one part or another of its actual historical meaning. The same process has happened to Cobain – as it does most historical figures – he’s now a symbol of ‘live fast, die young,’ of the outsider, of the person wanting to claim readymade rebel status with a t-shirt or a bedroom poster.
In the case of Cobain, he never had the chance to reach the disappointment that every musical figure eventually creates when they get old and no longer align to the latest thrill of the new zeitgeist. While every other musical figure of note – from Dylan to McCartney to Bowie to Pop to Rotten – has had to endure a period of dismissal before being admitted to the lexicon of ‘all time greats’, Cobain was never dismissed, hadn’t done enough to disappointment critical opinion as yet. That opens up a huge space for imagination, to ponder the hints of what might have come next, to tease out what avenues weren’t pursued – to draw one’s own designs (however logical or well-reasoned) on blank white space. Living musicians of that era – Eddie Vedder, Courtney Love, Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl – are a closed space, there are few surprises left after a further twenty years in which to perform them. Cobain is still open because the question can never be closed; what would he have done next?
Suggesting Cobain’s murder opens that space up even further, adds a fresh ‘what if’ to a known tale. There isn’t much interest in asking ‘what if Nirvana recorded Nevermind for Sub Pop not Geffen?’ because that’s a point about music – Cobain’s murder or otherwise resonates with the wider cultural interest in violent death, in themes of justice, redemption, tragedy…It’s Hollywood. It also permits individuals to retell a closed incident in as many ways as they wish – it creates ‘new’ where it didn’t previously exist. Into a space with “Cobain commits suicide,” one can write ‘accidental overdose and cover-up by multiple suspects,’ ‘deliberate assassination by one or more of a variety of suspects,’ ‘earlier discovery by a variety of individuals subsequently covered up,’ ‘death at location other than where he was found,’ ‘CIA MK-ULTRA campaign against seditious cultural figures,’ ‘improper investigation by incompetent or complicit officials,’ it’s a universe of new stories opened up for consideration. This allows the tale to be remoulded across time and space, to be fitted to individual views and experiences, in a way that an official, established and documented story cannot.
It also comes stamped with the spirit of the rebel, the idea that this is a counter-view to that of an amorphous ‘powers that be’. Cobain’s rebel status – the Nineties repetition of the archetype – is reinforced by pledging allegiance to the idea that even his death wasn’t what the squares in the media, government, police say it is. That call may only get stronger among newer Nirvana fans given the reality of Nirvana’s career has long since faded into imagination which makes written versions of the tale all seem equally valid but increasingly it’ll be a way to resist the view of elders and parents; a neat generational gap. The individual can own their own vision of what happened to Cobain and no one can take that away from them. The paucity of evidence is indeed a large part of the appeal of the conspiracy theories, the sense that there’s the potential for something new to occur or appear, that the story isn’t closed and might be radically revised, that there’s the possibility of discovery rather than just a dead certainty. The sense of being part of a community resisting a central view or vision, a lone warrior, seeker after truth, open-minded, is a neatly self-justifying addition to an individual’s identity and view of themselves.
Cobain’s death is therefore, understandably, a perfect candidate for posthumous revisionism. It had the ‘spectacular’ nature that propelled Cobain from being solely a piece of music history, to being a wider cultural cypher and figure. That moved him from conversations about music into conversations about larger societal themes – drugs, love, suicide, divorce, sickness, capitalism, conformity, submission, hypocrisy. There’s the reality that Cobain’s full potential can never be answered so he possesses a permanent appeal that the majority of artists can’t match. The need for novelty and newness made counterfactuals, alternative histories, more appealing. The existing ‘what if’ of Cobain’s tale laid open imaginative space into which people could project their own theories and imaginings – claims of murder push that even wider. The rebel status accruing to Cobain and adopted by those adopting him as an idol is reinforced and made more current, individual and personal by claiming his death as a resistance to the official history.