It’s hard to believe that it was twenty five years ago that I ran out of my parents’ bedroom crying melodramatically that ‘Kurt Cobain’s dead!!!’ after emergency tele-communications from a school friend on a Spring Sunday morning (oh for the days pre-internet/mobile phones, when such shattering news could be delivered so personally). At 13, my tribute to Kurt Cobain passing was to build poster shrines, and I grieved lost opportunities – to listen to more great music from a true master, and to see my favourite band live (an obsession as a teenager, to see one’s heroes in the flesh).
As the years rock n’ rolled on, marking the 5-8 April became a celebration of self-indulgent nostalgia for what that music meant to 13 year old me, and the teenage friends who became adult confidantes. Would I have enjoyed the teenage shelter of gigs and getting into Camden pubs underage and dyeing my hair flamingo pink and snogging boys with guitars/questionable hygiene practices, had it not been for the aforementioned school friend’s gift of a taped copy of Nevermind during my first year of secondary school? What would have been my teenage identity, what would I have held onto during those spotty, exam-machine-dominated years, had it not been for that quintessentially 90s token of friendship, and the love of a certain type of music that it led to, where the women were strong and the men more nuanced than male bravado usually allows?
My gratitude to this stranger from Aberdeen, Washington, whom I never met but who shaped my life, has long prompted a passionate response each April, especially on ‘significant’ anniversaries – on the twenty year anniversary of Kurt’s passing I used my lippie to graffiti ‘NIRVANA 20 YEARS’ on the wall of my communal landing in my Dalston block (because effectively sh*tting on your own doorstep is legit where grief is concerned); on the twenty five year anniversary, I attempted a stage dive from the DJ booth at my cousin’s wedding disco during Smells Like Teen Spirit (because headbanging mercilessly in front of some very classy wedding guests did not sufficiently demonstrate my allegiance to the grunge cause). Lord knows what 2024 will bring.
But Kurt is still a stranger, whatever claims I think I have on him, and I relished these books for their poignant insights into the man beyond the famous dude who gave us this great music. Anthony Kiedis’s description of growing up with a drug dealing father (which borders on a description of child abuse at times – who gives their 11 year old kid pot?) and his (perhaps inevitable) own substance abuse carries some brotherly references to Kurt – of his stage presence, his ‘mad style, wearing the best combination of colors and sweaters and mismatched stuff’ and the ’emotional blow’ when he passed:
… everyone on earth felt so close to that guy; he was beloved and endearing and inoffensive in some weird way. For all of his screaming and all of his darkness, he was just loveable.
Kim Gordon’s engrossing tale of growing up in the shadow of a schizophrenic brother, navigating the 1980s New York art scene, being a ‘girl in a band’, and her relationship with Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore (what a rotter!!! My mate mistakenly threw him out of a pub in Stoke Newington once, but that’s a story for another time) is more intense in her references:
It’s funny how often I think about Kurt. He was always so susceptible to kindness, with his vulnerable, passive side…I’ll always remember, too, his smallness, his thinness, the frail appearance, like an old man, with those big, illuminated, innocent, childish, saucer-sized eyes like ringed planets. Onstage, though, he was fearless as well as something even scarier…where fearlessness twists into self-annihilation…as he hurled himself into the drum set as if in some privately negotiated death dance.
A few years ago, [his daughter] Frances came to see us play at the Hollywood Bowl, and afterwards she came backstage…We gave her some old photos of herself and her dad when she was little. I will forever wonder about her, how she’s doing.
However, it is Eric Erlandson’s (guitarist in Kurt’s wife’s band, Hole) stream of consciousness collection of poems on Kurt, rock n’ roll and suicide which packs the real emotional punch. Between the rambles and geeky grunge references (song titles/band names employed as descriptors, veiled references to events which only the most ardent fans would recall) it reads like the confessions of a guilt-laden friend. He closes the book with a description of their last meeting, when he escorted Kurt to the rehab centre from which he escaped in order to end his life:
I watched as you packed a shirt, some pants, underwear, and a Walkman into your leather bag. Not much. You knew you’d be back sooner than everyone expected. The plan chirping in the back of your mind already hatched. Another buzzing of sorts, not of the love kind….I wish our final parting could’ve been more inspiring…I saw you to the (airport) gate, an almost-dead legend limping onto another plane, your plan moving along like light. A double nod and you were gone. If I could do it again I would. Look into your eyes, give you a hug, tell you I loved you. But it wouldn’t matter much anyway. Just for me, not for you. The only matter than matters now is fecal. I live on, striving to be a lotus in the mud you left behind, your scent still here in my recovery…
It’s a powerful reflection on how hard it can be to help people in despair, and the ruins we leave behind when we leave this earth prematurely. So perhaps the best tribute we can pay to Kurt Cobain – rather than defacing private property or humiliating oneself at wedding discos – is to do a bit more of the old Love Thy Neighbour (And Actually Mean It) ting and work together to help those around us through the emotional mud of life. Peace, love and empathy to you all.