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Nirvana: The 2004 Cover Story, ‘The Ghost of Saint Kurt’

Romanticized, ripped off, and never quite forgotten, Kurt Cobain still haunts us like no other rock star. But ten years after his controversial suicide, as a new generation begins to experience his music in its own way, what do Cobain, Nirvana, and “grunge” really mean to anyone anymore?  According to Japan’s Shinto faith, when a […]

Romanticized, ripped off, and never quite forgotten, Kurt Cobain still haunts us like no other rock star. But ten years after his controversial suicide, as a new generation begins to experience his music in its own way, what do Cobain, Nirvana, and "grunge" really mean to anyone anymore? 

According to Japan's Shinto faith, when a person dies, his or her spirit passes into nature to reside in the air, water, and rocks. If the person has distinguished him- or herself in life, the spirit becomes a kami, a deity associated with powerful forces like wind and thunder. These deities can be endowed with completely opposite personalities — gentle or violent.

"[He] made women want to nurture and protect him," a friend, Carrie Montgomery, once said of Kurt Cobain. "He was a paradox in that way, because he also could be brutally and intensely strong, yet at the same time, he could appear fragile and delicate." The Japanese believe that after death the spirit is angry and defiled. Relatives perform rituals to pacify and purify it. Those who die happily, among their families, become revered ancestors. Those who die unhappily or violently — usually through murder or suicide — are called yurei, ghosts who wander about causing trouble. The ghosts of suicides are said to be the most dangerous.

She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground. — "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" (Nirvana, In Utero, 1993)

In July 1989, a band recently signed to Seattle indie label Sub Pop appeared at a small New Jersey nightclub. They went on early, played to about 30 people, and, according to a witness, "just incinerated the place." The group had built a strong word-of-mouth following since the release of their first single the previous year, but for newcomers, the show was a revelation. "It was like, 'What the fuck?' " says the witness, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore (who later helped the band sign to DGC). "Not only was every song crushingly great, but at the end, they just smashed their instruments and threw them into the audience. It seemed totally new."

To Moore, the trio looked like the demonic hick kids in the horror film Children of the Corn. "You know, long stringy hair, ragged flannel, and ripped dungarees." The 22-year-old singer's voice "had a teenage Lemmy quality [referring to the gristly, guttural Motörhead singer], and that band knew how to rock. It was so simple: the best parts of R.E.M., the Beatles, the Buzzcocks, Black Flag. But no band was doing that. Nobody in their right mind would reference R.E.M. or the Beatles then. But they did. And it worked."

You might say that. Within two years, Nirvana were the biggest rock band in the world; within three, the biggest of the decade; and within five, kaput. In that time, their small, skinny, singer/guitarist devised '90s rock and helmed a sweeping cultural change of style, attitude, and outlook. Then he ended his life.

Although some Shinto texts talk about the "High Plain of Heaven," or the "Dark Land," none provides any details about the afterlife. In Buddhism, the only true end of suffering is the attainment of total enlightenment. A peace beyond peace. A line in a recently published letter — sent to a friend in 1988 from a young blond punk rocker in Washington state — sounds, even today, far from peaceful and like anything but an ending. It announces, in bold black letters, OUR LAST AND FINAL NAME IS NIRVANA.

Cobain at the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video shoot, August 17, 1991

Kurt Cobain was many things while he was alive — punk, pop star, hero, victim, junkie, feminist, geek, avenger, wiseass. But ten years after his death, he's something else entirely. He's a ghost. His songs play every so often on iPods, jukeboxes, at ball games. An undiscovered one, "You Know You're Right," surfaced in 2002. The same year, his journals were published as a pricey coffee-table hardcover (Journals). Now there's a "classic alternative" radio format that may enshrine Nirvana as the new Led Zeppelin. But these flickers in the current pop world merely highlight his absence, reminding us of a figure who's becoming harder to see.

Cobain's career was short even by rock standards — three albums and out. He was, by his own admission, unprolific, and, after long battles with his former bandmates, his widow, Courtney Love, has established tight control over what remains of his recorded output. And although John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and other rock superstars died young, none had so much of the field to himself in his heyday or quite the exit strategy. Cobain's closest peer, Tupac Shakur, isn't a ghost. He's a full-time rap star. A workaholic in a medium where the tape's always running, he's still collaborating, topping charts, showing up in movies. "I got more to say," you can hear him taunting. "I'm gonna haunt you motherfuckers forever!" A video ("I Ain't Mad at Cha") that depicts him rapping in heaven was released just days after his death.

On the other hand, the bitter finality of Cobain's end became an indelible part of his story, like some sick MasterCard joke. (Debut album: $606.17. Remington 20-gauge: $308.37. Legend: Priceless.) No other chapter in pop music has so much darkness at its center. And no other artist still haunts us in such a powerful, subliminal way.

In a short speech he taped right after his best friend and bandleader died, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic advised fans, "Let's keep the music with us. We'll always have it forever." And he was right: The music speaks for itself. As a songwriter, Cobain was spookily brilliant. He had a way of making his offhand jokes and teen vernacular sound ancient and profound, with a melodic drama that verged on telekinesis. But this also had everything to do with who he was.

"There's part of him that was a cultural revolutionary and part of him that was a classic song craftsman," says Danny Goldberg, a former Nirvana manager and founder of Artemis Records. "This was someone who was inspired by the Melvins, but who also listened a lot to the Beatles. He had that dual talent: an emotional cultural talent and a songwriting genius. Why is why people talk about John Lennon in a different tone of voice than Paul McCartney. Kurt was one of the masters of the craft, in addition to being a voice of adolescents of all ages."

The shirt worn by Cobain in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, photographed at his mother's house  in Olympia, WashingtonSongs like "Pennyroyal Tea," "Heart-Shaped Box," "Come as You Are," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "In Bloom" will outlive us all. But those of us who are living now, who remember when Kurt Cobain the person was here living, talking, and creating — we experienced something else, too. We learned a story that has a certain beginning and a certain ending. And the fact is, Cobain's last work, which is now available worldwide on websites, isn't a song, drawing, or film. It's a piece of writing that reads, THIS NOTE SHOULD BE PRETTY EASY TO UNDERSTAND.

In April 1994, the mainstream media grappled with the death of an icon whose music they'd barely processed. Only two years earlier, the New York Times tried to get with the hip new thing by earnestly issuing a "grunge lexicon," concocted on the spot by a pranking Sub Pop receptionist. Back then, mainstream hoaxes were easier to pull, secrets easier to keep. Less than 10 percent if the population had Internet access. And the era's new, vaguely Brad Pitt-looking "it" boy — the Justin Timberlake of his time — occasionally wore black nail polish or a dress, dyed his hair with strawberry Kool-Aid, and sang, on MTV in prime time, lyrics like "Sell the kids for food" and "Nature is a whore."

But soon after he died, the media gave a specific cast to Cobain's quickly cooling image. The clips that played in the days after his death were from Nirvana's late-1993 Unplugged appearance. They showed a frail 26-year-old who looked both much younger and much older, crouched over an acoustic guitar, clearly in misery. He was bathed in blue light and surrounded by lilies, the traditional American flower of death. The set, designed by Cobain, was specifically meant to resemble a funeral. Of the six songs he played, five mentioned death.

At the height of his notoriety, jazz great Charlie Parker complained that people were paying to see the world's most famous junkie. Cobain, among other things, is his generation's most famous suicide. "I mean, people die," says Moore. "But I can't think of too many musicians of his caliber and celebrity who died that way." When people heard of Cobain's death, they tended to have a two-part reaction, first to the death, then to the method. People who OD, drive drunk, or invite murder threats have a pretty reckless disregard for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. But Cobain's last act was different.

Goldberg remembers him as "the typical artistic control freak, someone who edited his home video meticulously." But years later, it's easy to wonder whether he was a control freak on a level few then imagined. What if he was so attentive, so farsighted in his performance art, that he somehow, maybe unconsciously, had his whole curtain call plotted out? There he is in the last shot of the "Teen Spirit" video. An eerie yellow blur, too close to the camera to be in focus, he scream-sings those last words: a denial, a denial, a denial…. As Dave Grohl's drums crash to a halt, he holds that last word for a drawn-out, head-quivering note. Then suddenly, viciously, he snaps his mouth shut. The end.

Photo by Alice Wheeler

So how does it feel now, when you're driving down the road at night, past Blockbuster and Applebee's, and, just as Trapt's "Headstrong" fades out on the radio, you hear those first strums of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? Is it awesome? Does it totally fucking rock? Or does it feel a bit jarring and sad? "When anything by [Nirvana] comes on the radio, you almost have to pull over — still," says Seattle-based producer and former Fastbacks guitarist Kurt Bloch. "Since he's not around anymore, the music becomes a stronger reminder of that time."

Nirvana may sound somewhat like today's modern-rock playlist, but their music feels very strange. The songs elicit perplexing emotions. For one thing, it's hard to headbang to a saint. And this guy's image pushes some hard-wired buttons. I mean, look at him. The striking clear-blue eyes. The sharp, nobly set features. The thousand-yard smirk coming out of the photos and videos. The unkemptness almost makes him more dusty-prophet biblical. And listen to the oblique, electrifying lyrics and airy vocal lines, the way they waft on surprising harmonies over a neo-heavy metal roar, leaving melodic vapor trails. In a way, the cynicism you feel you should have about all the grunge mythologizing smacks of a naysayer's denial.

Then there's the story. The book of Saint Kurt has it as follows: Our sad, sensitive little Pisces-Jesus man is born in the wilderness of Washington, grows up among the heavy-metal heathens, hears the gospel of punk rock, forms a trio to make joyful noise, is seized by the hypocrites, forced into superstardom, and martyred. "Their music became popular at a time when everything else sounded so stale and manufactured," says Jonathan Poneman, cofounder of Sub Pop. "Nirvana always sounded pure — even at their most compromised, which by most others' standards wasn't compromised at all."

Because of this, many have attributed an almost divine purity to Cobain himself. And after the ensuing decade of chest-waxing Vedder clones and bling-blinging Cribs goons, he looks downright otherworldly. He couldn't have swum in the same crass, commercial water as the rest of us, could he? Goldberg, for one, says yes. "He didn't like all the consequences of fame, but he chose to come to Los Angeles and to sign with a major label. Other artists haven't done that. Fugazi didn't do that. Superchunk, Pavement — all sorts of artists didn't do that. He was going for it; he didn't only write the songs, he designed the T-shirts, he wrote the scripts for the videos, he rewrote the bio."

Nirvana at the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video shoot, 1991Consider "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the song that just happened to rock the reigning order like a force of nature. But look at the journals — there, Cobain's description of the video reads more like a giddy cultural campaign: "The first one, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' will have us walking through a mall throwing thousands of dollars into the air as mallgoers scramble like vulchers [sic] to collect as much as they can get their hands on, then we walk into a jewelry store and smash it up in anti-materialist fuelled punk rock violence. Then we go to a pep assembly at a high school and the cheerleaders have anarchy A's on their sweaters and the custodian-militant-revolutionarys [sic] hand out guns with flowers and in the barrels to all the cheering students who file down to the center court and throw their money and jewelry and Andrew Dice Clay tapes into a big pile, then we set it on fire and run out of the building screaming. Oh, didn't Twisted Sister already do this?"

Cobain's journals are filled with his analysis of the waning generation gap, a sense of the rebellious possibilities in his peers, and a real concern for how he fit in with people his age. Unlike, say, Jack White, who has one foot in some gothic Delta/Nashville past, Cobain was fixed in the here and now, maybe fatally. "He sometimes hated himself for wanting [stardom]," says Goldberg. "He was a complicated guy, and there are things that you don't always know you're getting into. But he became a rock star on purpose. He hired me to do that. No one put a gun to his head. He put his own gun to his head."

This is an older part of the ghost story. You may want to be rich and famous, you may want your music to reach millions, but you don't want to be Generational Spokesperson. It's like, if you're in a Greek myth, you don't want to be the most beautiful heroine or the mightiest warrior. Pretty damn beautiful or mighty freakin' strong is fine. But not the most. That's the one the gods fuck with, the one they enlist as a plot device for wars and mass murders. Odysseus or Eddie Vedder might turn out okay. But Achilles? Kurt Cobain? No Thanks.

In the headline of its front-page obituary, the New York Times bestowed on Kurt Cobain the absurd title "Hesitant Poet of 'Grunge Rock.' " Sociologically, the term "grunge" echoes "punk" — another vague, contested, commercialized catchall applied by various segments of society to a huge array of ideas, sounds, styles, and personalities. It's ridiculously imprecise and inadequate, but that's the unholy deal you cut when you want to make a big noise in the world. You detonate the explosion, change things forever, and the meanings scatter.

A whole generation of musicians was picking through such scattered meanings in the long march from "punk" to "indie" to "alternative" — before Nirvana came to represent the entire decade-plus tradition in the mainstream. From adamantly underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, and Big Black to major-label signees like the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. to countless other arty or freaky institutions, the music scene was very much the "little group" suggested in "Smells Like Teen Spirit." This culture was much too complex and long-percolating to be served in a single Venti from just one Seattle franchise.

But what about now? Has Nirvana's legacy —their irrational rock exuberance — been purged? Or worse? Have we returned to the George Bush/Michael Jackson administration of 1990 — only in a newer, creepier version? As we speak, Nirvana's moment is being packaged for your nostalgic enjoyment, in something that sounds like a late-'90s Saturday Night Live skit: "alternative gold," a paradoxical new radio format pioneered by KBZT in San Diego that plays all your favorite grunge huts. It could be an update of the infamous ad for a classic-rock compilation that aired in the mid-'80s. Two hippie dudes sit outside a van as their boom box blasts the opening riff of "Layla." Hey, is that Freedom Rock, man?" asks one guy, perking up from his private purple haze. "Yeah, man," replies the other. "Well, tuuuuurn it up!"

Cobain with Thurston Moore, 1992

Of course, parts of Cobain's spirit — the violent, the gentle, the weird — are alive in pop music. Is Eminem, for instance, carrying some mystic Cobain gene? Both have alter egos: Kurdt Kobain, Slim Shady. Both were (are) left-handed, mom-hating, daughter-having, dysfunctional-wife-marrying, grossness-loving, rhyme-spitting little guys who were utterly remade by a musical subculture, then tried to represent it as subverting the mainstream —even when it became the mainstream.

But obviously, there's a huge gap between a gay-baiting rapper who "just don't give a fuck" and Kurt Cobain. To write songs like Cobain's, you need more than imagination, verbal dexterity, and a gift for dynamics and melody. You sort of have to give a fuck — about people different from yourself, about problems beyond your experience. "Kurt was really into expressing an allegiance to sensitivity as opposed to [being] Mr. Tough Guy," recalls Moore. "You see kids into the whole Cobain thing [now] who are outcasts from the rap-metal, baseball-hat-wearing Limp Bizkit kids, the middle-class teenage gangstas. It would have been interesting to see how Kurt would've reacted to all that."

Cobain certainly didn't seem thrilled with humanity; it's safe to say he was a snob. But his ability to connect with other viewpoints was almost reflexive. For every lyric that sounds like a piss rant about fame, there's one like "Polly," based on a news story of a rape/murder, that shows a scary level of empathy for both victim and killer. Ruminating in the numb cadence of the killer's thoughts, Cobain nods forward to a conclusion that indicts the dark side in everyone. It's the song Bob Dylan reportedly singled out at a Nirvana concert, saying, "The kid has heart."

So many musical styles exploded throughout the '90s with their genre-hopping, crowd-surfing partisans. But something about the Nirvana ethos spoke to a larger truth about growing up in a particular post-baby boom world. It was ironic, sure, but also vulnerable, self-effacing, conscientious, trying hard to be cool, but not "cool." Come as you are — unless you're a jerk. Even the idea of coolness was associated with an underdog conscience, if only as a reaction to the regressive Republican, hair-metal social order it came up under. Sure, the shortcomings were easy to caricature. Cobain's end briefly stamped a whole scene and cultural experience — if not a generation — with the reputation of being amoral, sarcastic, solipsistic, self-pitying drama queens. Rock triumphalists from Gene Simmons to Noel Gallagher made a point of denouncing the brooding crybabies of '90s rock, as if Nirvana had ridden to massive pop-music fame on a staunch anti-fun platform.

Cobain curls up and dreams of unripped jeans, then lets his Mesa out to boogie, 1991

Megan Jasper, then Sub Pop's receptionist, now the label's general manager, demurs: "They were really, really funny, goofy guys. They'd really 'blow into town' — it was sort of an event. I remember them showing up at the office on mornings after shows, all hungover with makeup running down their faces." Moore, too, had a different sense of what the pre-MTV mosh pit meant. "Punk-rock culture was very celebratory. Anybody who was involved with it was just having the best time of their lives. The nihilism and negativity were sort of elemental tools for attacking boredom, just an affront to conservative standards."

But people are always uncomfortable with something as mainstream as Nirvana that doesn't make its meanings clear or its intentions obvious. Everybody knows how to react to a Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" — with outrage, delight, or indifference, depending on your own little group. But a dress-wearing, golden-boy, junkie, rock-cliché, rock-original, underground superstar whose lyrics mixed jokey word games with agonized confessions and self-destructive tirades? He was always going to be problematic. Even for the little group that raised him.

As Cobain wrote in Journals, "I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork." There's something noble about that honesty and about the attempt to embody both these personalities, maybe even something "American" in the best sense of the expression. But this too had its consequences.

An Egyptian papyrus scroll bears what some believe is the first-known suicide note. It begins "Lo, my name is abhorred / Lo, more than the odour of carrion / On summer days when the sky is hot…Death is before me today / As the odour of lotus flowers / As when one sitteth on the shore of drunkenness." If they'd had irony back in ancient Egypt, the author might've just written "I hate myself and want to die" and jumped in the Nile.

The irony, apathy, and general ennui that pundits attributed to Kurt Cobain's age group was supposedly a reaction to the sense that everything had been tried, every rebellion co-opted, every truth a cliché. So it's doubly ironic — if such a thing is possible — that fans growing up now think of Cobain as a valiant symbol of a time when rock music was more real and meaningful. But they do, and they're not entirely wrong. No one knew what was going to happen when Nirvana began their assault on history and culture (and MTV). Cobain had to traverse the '90s along with the rest of us. And as someone who is exactly his age, I can assure you that he wasn't the only casualty.

Cobain in New York City, 1993

No "poet of grunge rock" could have been a devout practitioner of Shinto, whose central tenet is physical cleanliness. But Cobain's tale fits well into that world of larger, older stories.

For instance, Siddhartha Gotama was his own form of anemic royalty, when, at the age of 29, he left his home, family, and title to find an answer to human suffering. He renounced the world he knew, fasted, searched, attained wisdom, and reached nirvana. He became known as the Buddha, the supremely enlightened being. Kurt Cobain addressed his suicide note to an imaginary childhood friend, someone he'd often talk to as a young, haunted boy. The friend's name was Boddah.

But this isn't religion we're talking about, it's pop culture: pre-packaged, market-tested, owned, and directed by massive corporations that exploit the desires and neuroses of a young and impressionable public. Still, memory lingers, just like the word itself in the chorus of "Come as You Are." And, that ghost is out there. Whether it's sad, pissed-off, or exuberant, it's not going away until we do. One of the best aspects of punk rock, at least the American version Kurt Cobain grew up with, was the power of its audience — the scene, the community. Japanese religious experts say it's very difficult for a foreigner to embrace Shintoism; unlike most other religions, there is no one book that will teach a person how to practice the faith. It's transmitted from generation to generation, as people experience the rituals together. Which is what we're still doing, you and I, right now.