Kurt Cobain: Could He Have Changed?

Posted: November 16, 2016 in In Utero 1992-1993

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.

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Comments
  1. Jim says:

    I think he wanted to become a Hendrix , Joplin type of person . Someone who we will always talk about . Why else blow ur head off when u can just fall asleep . But a Ibogaine trip could maybe set him str8

    • selena says:

      No, he shot himself because his previous overdose wasn’t effective. I am so fucking sick of people saying he killed himself to become “immortalized.” Way to cheapen mental illness.

    • Brutus The Barber says:

      I think he wanted to make sure he was dead this time. He deliberately OD’d in Rome and nearly died.Unless you believe conspiracy stuff.

      As Selena mentions in this thread – it is bit shocking how little consideration is made of Kurt Cobain’s mental health (not by Nick here btw). even today.

      Re-read his suicide note. Nevrmind the music biz bits or the Neil Young quotes some of it is like a crude self diagnosis – refering to himself as a narcissist , saying not knowing why he isn’t happy , not wanting his daughter to be like him , the bit about being sad because he hates / loves ppl too much- it reeks of textbook depression talk – of someone ill with depression.

      That’s not to say Kurt was neccesarily a manic depressive (he was far as i know never diagnosed with anything) but he was using a LOT of heroin late on by most accounts , and popping a lot of uppers and downers and well you burn a lot of serotonin and Kurt knew how nasty drug withdrawl could be (he wrote about going cold turkey in one his journals). You can invoke clinical depression by opiate abuse itself.

      Heavy opiate abuse will muddy most peoples minds and is physically and mentally draining.

      I think its clear he was prone to depression or depressive thinking and by 1994 seemed to be ill.

      And if truth be told Kurt seemingly did take things harder than most. I do think he was type who would kill themselves over a possible divorce. Sadly he was that devoted.

      And to echoe some things Selena already said – Kurt was seen to many as a cash cow – most of his close circle late on were also junkies. Nirvana’s management priority was no existential crisis it was getting back Kurt on stage.

      TLDR? : Kurt was likely not in good mental health by 1994.

  2. The only thing he wasn’t able to change was being a slave to his addiction or alleviate his state of depression (the two are inextricably linked imo). If he’d been able to get a handle on those then the sky would have been the limit. Like Krist says in MOH, (I think it’s MOH – he says it in some filmed interview), Kurt chose a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

    • selena says:

      People who experience clinical depression know that it’s not a temporary problem.

      • Krist never said that, that’s a suicide cliche.

        What Krist said was that he thinks it was just a bad call at the moment, with the heroin clouding his mind (“I think he was out of his mind on heroin. I remember seeing him those last days. He was just… he was *loaded*. He wasn’t thinking clearly when he did that. He tried to kill himself in Rome. He was really weird after that. Just quiet, and… he should have never done that. [But]he did it.” being Krist’s actual words).

        Other than actually knowing the guy and interacting with him in those last days, I don’t know that Krist necessarily has any special insight into the man’s mind, but this is at least how he interprets the suicide 20 years later – and it seems to me that Krist’s view is that if he just hadn’t done it as that moment, the next day might have been different. Remember, Kurt was suffering depression, or at least exhibiting depressive symptoms, *and* talking about killing himself for years. There were many times he thought of it that he didn’t actually try it. Although he did try it twice in 6 weeks there, so maybe viewing it as a temporary bad judgment call is wrong. Or maybe a man battling demons like that might have hesitated, but then would have done it anyway in 2004 or in 2014 or in 2024.

        Putting aside the suicide, with his other major problem it feels like we got a glimpse into the eventual fate of a Kurt Cobain that had made a different decision that day, and that’s what happened to Layne Staley and thousands of others who do not make it out of the death grip of heroin.

      • nsoulsby says:

        Even when it comes to suicide, the diversity of human beings shines through in the multitude of approaches and answers and results. Ian Curtis of Joy Division tried it (then called the ambulance himself) before succeeding a little while later. On the other hand, I had a friend who made a stunning attempt at it which has left him with physical challenges to this day – but that one attempt ‘got it out of his system’. There’s no telling what an individual might do even if percentages make one more likely than another.

        Love that you raised the Layne Staley case – yes! Such an appalling spiral, that image of how he was found sticks in my mind a lot on this topic when people muse on how Cobain might have turned out if he’d lived through 1994…Harsh.

  3. selena says:

    Could he have changed is the wrong question. For whom would he have been changing? Courtney and the record company were interested in changing him because he represented a significant investment to them. But let’s face it, that’s all Kurt was to the majority of the people in his life, an object they could exploit for their own gain. It started early on with his dad trying to mould him into the ideal son and his mom continually kicking him out of her house because he was an inconvinience to her. After he attained success, Courtney latched onto him as a ticket to fame and fortune (sorry, I’m not convinced that she really loved him). His mom also re-entered his life at this time, despite never having supported him early on. Even the people who acknowledge his depression try to say it’s somehow “his fault” for not getting over it. Typical of our culture’s selfish response to people who suffer from depression. “You’re being selfish by having these feelings. Subjugate them because they’re annoying to me.” None of the people at his intervention considered that Kurt was a human being with feelings. He was only a money-making machine to them. The only person who might have motivated him to change was Frances, but he felt he wasn’t a good enough father to her. Over two decades after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, we’ve still learned nothing from it, even though other celebrities have suffered similar fates (e.g. Amy Winehouse). Even Kurt’s so-called “fans” are subtly blaming him by saying he should have “got a handle on it” and dismissing his depression as a “temporary problem.”

    • nsoulsby says:

      A lot of agreement with you Selena – in the end, the only reason to change is if one wants to for one’s own reasons. By the end I doubt Cobain had much interest in any aspect of the life he had up to that point – and yes, how could he have seen that there might be a life ‘beyond’ whatever he was going through in the throes of depression with his options and experience whittled down to pain? Hard to imagine. Cheers for commenting and musing so thoroughly on this. Appreciated.

  4. Billy says:

    Hi Nick, Great site!
    With the release of Kurt’s Home Recordings that came out with Montage of Heck, I was wondering if you could give your thoughts on releases of Kurt’s music of this nature and should they be released?
    I ask this after having just read an old interview with Kurt in Flipside where Kurt said, “But when embarrassing things come out like stuff that I’ve done in my basement on a 2-track or a boom box that are basically just unwritten songs or pieces of songs, songs I’d like to put together someday into a song – when those come out it’s really embarrassing and it frustrates me.”
    You can read the entire article here:
    http://www.nirvanaclub.com/info/articles/05.00.92-flipside.html

    Does the fact that Kurt passed away justify releases that betray his wishes or what he would’ve done (basing this on his own words of course)? Or since he’s gone, or since he did choose to officially release music with his consent during his lifetime, does that mean it’s ok to just release whatever he recorded, regardless of whether he never wanted it to see public release or not, simply because he’s no longer around to give us new music, so he must then posthumously sacrifice these recordings to whoever wants to hear them in return?
    Pretty much, does an artist’s wishes matter? And if you go against the wishes of an artist (or even if you don’t), is the simple fact that said person is an artist justification for this sort of thing? Does it not matter what the artist thinks? That so long as you enjoy their music (or any art), it’s therefore ok to do whatever is in your own (the listener’s) interests, while somehow still trying to say you’re a fan of said artist, while pretty much flat out disrespecting said artist?
    And if you specifically go against (or “rape” as Kurt may have put it), their wishes and disrespect them, can you still really call yourself a fan?
    Sorry to get so philosophical on you, but since you’ve researched this band so much, I’d love to get your thoughts.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Hiya Billy – cheers for the deeply articulate comment and time taken over it.
      http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2015/11/kurt-cobain-montage/
      This was my reaction to Montage Of Heck and I admit I’m still delighted by that record (though not the commercial decisions/packaging/approach/over-hyping wrapped round the music.)

      Your wider point has echoes in quite a few pieces I’ve written on here over the years – think I’d feel better though bringing my thoughts together and creating a coherent statement before responding. There’s a lot to cover! And ‘getting philosophical’ is great – heck, what else is all this?

      • Billy says:

        Hi Nick, thanks for responding! I did ask a heck of an involved question (for me at least), I suppose, but I look forward to you covering the answer sometime in the future. In the meantime I’ll check out the direct link you sent. thanks!

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