- “There’s something wrong with that boy…” noted William Burroughs when, in 1993, Kurt Cobain dropped in to pay his respects in Lawrence, Kansas. ‘He frowns for no good reason.’
Burroughs was right that something was wrong with Cobain, but wrong that the ‘boy’ frowned for no good reason. Cobain frowned because he was an intensely depressed, chronically drug-addicted young man in a harrowing state of crisis.
At that point he was also the biggest rock star on the planet – a scrawny figure from the small northeastern logging-town of Aberdeen, seventy miles from Seattle, whom fate had transfigured into a messiah of misery, a poster boy for the punk-metal hybrid known as ‘grunge’. Nirvana, a power trio, had broken through with the incendiary anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ two years before. The album the track was taken from, Nevermind, had sold millions of copies.
On tracks such as ‘Lithium’ and ‘Come As You Are’, Cobain’s agonising voice – always straining, always sore – seemed to embody the impotent rage of an American generation, half Sid Vicious, half Jeff Buckley. ‘The kid has heart,’ Bob Dylan remarked after hearing Nevermind’s chilling ‘Polly’.
Cobain was the flannel-shirted Eminem of Twin Peaks country, wracked by the void of his loveless childhood. At 13 he saw Jonathan Kaplan’s seminal disturbed-teens movie Over The Edge, remembering it later as ‘a story of troubled youth, vandalism, parental negligence…’ His parents had separated when he was nine, a split that hugely contributed to his view of himself as a ‘loser’. Cobain never anticipated the scale and resonance of his success, and it quickly overwhelmed him.
Even now, when you watch young boys spilling out of school, there’s always one black T-shirt that spells out, in bright yellow letters, NIRVANA. These middle-class urchins probably couldn’t tell you what ‘nirvana’ means. The youngest weren’t even born when, in early April 1994, the lead singer of Nirvana stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. But for them, the late Kurt Cobain is sort of what Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon or Bob Marley are to their fathers – an icon, a martyr, a patron saint.
The 10-year-olds seem intuitively to grasp that Kurt Cobain was the perfect rock star – a good-looking misfit, a rebel without a cause, a man-boy with a voice like howling sandpaper. Like James Dean – and like Dean’s great disciple Elvis Presley – Cobain was a smalltown punk trashing American values, refusing to conform. Like every other significant rock performer, his act was anchored in dysfunctionality. But, perhaps, the little boys also understand, at some level, that Kurt Cobain was the last real star that rock ‘n’ roll has produced.
In the end, the contradiction-in-terms that was punk superstardom finally made his existence untenable. Last year’s dense biography Heavier Than Heaven, by Charles Cross, already told us as much. Now the singer’s journals make it still clearer just how confused and ambivalent he felt about his fame – and how jaded he felt about rock ‘n’ roll itself.