At the Louder Than Words literary music festival in Manchester last weekend I watched Penny Rimbaud (once and always of Crass) speak of his life philosophies and experiences including time spent at a meditational retreat: his conclusion being (I paraphrase) “I stared at a wall for 13 hours a day and discovered I only had enough content for 3 days.” It’s a fun thought, that ultimately the brain gets bored, can’t regurgitate enough of its memory banks to entertain for longer than that. I feel the same at times: writing about Nirvana near every single day from February 2012 to the tail-end of 2016 left me, suddenly, with an absence, a feeling that I didn’t automatically have a reservoir of additional words to draw on. What to do? Well, I’m a strong believer that when inner resources are low, other people are a source of energy.
In this case, I was privileged enough to speak at an event in Carlisle on Friday night for Words & Guitars during which I was asked a fine question (which, again, I paraphrase): “was Cobain unable to bring himself to change?” The question has been whirring round in my mind for a few days now.
The question was a reaction to some of my earnest beliefs regarding Cobain: that music had been a way to live a life free of bosses and free of control, to achieve an unmediated expression of self when, where and how he wanted (an understandably powerful force for a boy/teen who had so many homes, been rejected by so many people, had been so unwilling to exist within the context of a job.) That this way of being had been compromised repeatedly from the days of Sub Pop onward and – in late 1991/early 1992 – became an intolerable imposition on the privacy and freedom he sought. Interviews, intrusion, his personal life and desires, how and when and where he played, the expectations placed upon his performances and his music, the analysis of his lyrics and thoughts, the commercial requirements, legal requirements, managerial requirements: it meant music was no longer an escape, hence the evidence seems to show he virtually ceased to write music, perform music, interview, record music for the remainder of his life.
His attempt at ‘change’ was an interesting one: he essentially reverted to the only other happy life he had ever known – the family that had existed until 1976 (Montage of Heck, the film, portrayed this sense of the mirror image very effectively). It’s 1992, he gets his girlfriend pregnant and instead of insisting on abortion he decides he wants a child and, more so, he wants to get married to create the stability he had never experienced – it’s a strangely conservative move for the world’s foremost punk icon of the era. It creates a retreat for him: a cocoon which his managers, fans, band need have nothing to do with – where he can escape them all. It’s essentially what he does: buries himself in a series of hotel rooms and temporary residences right the way from the end of the Asia/Pacific tour until January 1994 when he moves into his lakeside mansion in one of Seattle’s exclusive areas; hides away with his new family (and his drugs) as long as he can. It’s an attempt to escape, to change the destination his life has reached, to escape the nagging feeling that his genetic inheritance and his owninging condemned him to re-live all that was worst.
It fails. Ultimately he has to return to performance, he’s too polite to turn down a lot of the demands on him (though he might rage in private or engage in mild protest, for example, by never playing Smells Like Teen Spirit for MTV, only turning up to 18 days in studio after the recording of Nevermind, refusing most interviews), he ends up with almost everyone who loves him explaining to him the consequences of his continued drug use…And with his music and his family both no longer providing him a retreat he has a significant spiritual crisis to confront: if the only lives he’s ever known, family and music, are at risk, then can he imagine or foresee a life after them? The answer is no.
So, on the one hand, it’s clear he does make a quite significant attempt at change right there in 1992. But then again, the question really seems to be asking whether there wasn’t a more positive way out – could he stop drugs? Couldn’t he leave music behind (if necessary) or change his engagement with the music industry to suit himself better? Wasn’t there any chance of a continued existence with Nirvana or without it? Couldn’t he envisage life as a divorced father or, at least, a lengthy period of mending the familial bond (not being doped off his head likely helping with that)? My answer at the time came down to the futures I could imagine for him: Cobain was an incredible magpie for the sounds of the underground (think of it: an album at Easter 1986, near entirely new album by Jan 1988, an entirely new album by Jan 1989, a new album by April 1990, a different album by May 1991 with the band saying in interview after interview that they had their next album ready to go and that it’d be out in the summer of 1992 – so fast!) but there’s not much evidence that he could take on the freewheeling Thurston Moore/Sonic Youth cavalcade vibe with diversions into electronica, art/music, free jazz, improvisation – that path would have required something more expansive.
The singer-songwriter, Johnny Cash-vibe doesn’t seem to beckon: people forget MTV Unplugged in New York was a corporately imposed format, that ‘Do Re Mi’ was acoustic because it was a demo not because he definitely intended it to be an acoustic song, that he only placed three fully acoustic songs on any of his albums, that his music had been getting wilder and more aggressive in 1992-1993 (remove the older songs written pre-Nevermind and placed on In Utero and what’s left is a lot of aggro and gloriously punky noise) with the last new songs he played with Nirvana being the raucous ‘You Know You’re Right’ and the small shred played live in November/December 1993 then demo’ed briefly in studio in January 1994. But he was verbally dissatisfied with the repetitiveness of playing loud-quiet, verse-chorus-verse material too: so a more likely path is a dive back into the underground – it was suggested to me that Cobain could very readily have slotted into the noise provocations of Earth, perhaps his continued relationship with Melvins might have inspired him to follow their more aggressively independent path. Essentially if he chose to keep repeating the formula that made him mainstream worthy then he’d have sunk, same as the other alt rock gods of the era (Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam) did when tastes moved on in the mid-to-late Nineties: popular taste waits for no man and few artists get a top flight career for more than a few years.
My favourite vision of him, however, was suggested to me when I thought of another character Cobain is often compared to – Axl Rose. Beyond the mutual abhorrence, the clear differences in style, ego, impetus – Rose achieved what Cobain had wanted: an apparently utter independence from any fresh label demands or requirements. The fading of hard rock hadn’t decapitated Guns ‘n’ Roses, they remained ‘the other’ biggest rock band of the years 1991-1994. I have no desire to see an aged Cobain taking to the reunion circuit looking flabby, plastic, weary and leading audiences in karaoke run-throughs of Nirvana songs: my fondest outcome would be a clean Cobain, retreating entirely into private recording, maybe the odd show here or there, the odd guest appearance with friends, but otherwise devoted to recording the album the world is waiting for…And then never releasing it. Just letting the expectation, the imagining, the myth run wild – while remaining utterly immune to it. It’s pretty much what happened with his death – it’d be lovely if it had been his life too.
So, could Cobain change? The additional thought that came to me was how much change Cobain had already experienced in his life: a vast number of addresses, homes, temporary homelessness and so forth during his young life – he rolled with it. The daily change that comes with touring as one rolls in and out of vans, floor-space or other inadequate sleeping arrangements, on and off stages, round towns and down roads. The changing array of personnel lined up behind his musician vision. The move from demo, to studio, to single, to album, to full label artist, to new label…It seems churlish of me to have forgotten how much change Cobain had endured in a very young life. In many ways he had changed more than most people do by age 27: most people have rolled with the expectations placed on them – from school, to university, to work, to relationship being just one path. People value positive change: quitting smoking, taking up exercise, moving home, moving job – Cobain is maybe not being credited for the amount of change he did endure though it’s very true he remained a man with a particular vision and particular desires until the end.