Kurt Cobain: Destined to Die Young?
“I’D rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.” Such were the moving and widely-quoted words of Kurt Cobain: musician, songwriter, gay rights advocate, pro choicer, father, friend and so much more. Even before I began to investigate his life and death in extensive detail, his character fascinated me. That is to say that his voice captivated, somehow soothed me and – looking through photographs – always struck me that his smile never quite seemed to reach his eyes. Those eyes – so blue and beautiful – hiding a pain: the extent of which only he knew.
On April 8, 1994, the man whose punk rock group burst onto the world stage with the hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, whose fans idolized him and whose enemies could not help but respect him for his honesty was discovered by his electrician at his home in Seattle. A shotgun pointing at his chin and a high concentration of heroin in his bloodstream, the 27-year-old had seemingly decided to end it all, leaving behind a baby daughter (Frances Bean) and a wife (Courtney Love) who would be remembered as having strongly berated him at his public vigil. The suicide note he had left – addressed to his imaginary childhood friend, Boddah – pointed at him having lost his passion for music as the motive. Momentarily putting aside the contrary suggestion of his bandmate David Grohl and taking into consideration the life that he lived, allow us in this article to pose the following question. Could Kurt have been saved?
Was Cobain a hopeless case? A lost cause? A destined-to-die music icon not unlike Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy or the more recent Amy Winehouse? In answering such a profound question we must return to the very beginning, to the economically stagnant town of Aberdeen in Washington, to the house on East 1st Street that he shared with his parents and younger sister, Kimberly. The childhood of the Nirvana frontman – at least, the first 8 years of it – was certainly not as turbulent as many have been led to believe over time. In fact, if first-hand testimonies are to be taken as truth, this caring and easy going little boy, who demonstrated exceptional artistic capabilities and an interest in music from a young age, was adored and encouraged by his immediate and extended family alike, was happy and fulfilled despite their continuous financial struggles. It was at the age of 9 when his parents rather suddenly divorced that this idyllic backdrop came crashing down.
“…I desperately wanted to have the classic…family. A mum and dad” Cobain once explained in an interview. “I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years (after their separation).” Cobain was not the only one to recognize the long-standing impact of this change. Psychologists have identified this as being at the root of many of his later problems. While the first six or so months proved somewhat positive – during which time Kurt’s relationship with his father was strengthened – his remarrying to a woman with three children of her own heralded the end of the quality time they had spent together and a drastic personality change which nobody could ignore. In stark contrast to the attention that he had been paid as the only boy, Kurt was made to feel much less important than his new siblings, left, for the most part, to his own devices and spoken to “only…to be yelled at” according to a school friend. He became withdrawn and cynical and moving home to be with his mother at age 15 – to a school at which he knew nobody – only stood to make matters worse.
There he adopted the image of a rebel and a stoner, scorning the idea of socializing with his classmates and dropping out in the tenth grade – the first of two occasions on which he had done so. At 17, following a particularly bad argument with his mother, Kurt faced homelessness for the first – though not last – time. Important to note is that, in an attempt to erase his deep emotional scars, he had already embarked upon a descent into drug addiction, abusing such substances as marijuana, methadone, LSD and prescription narcotics – rejecting any attempt by his family to reconnect with the happy child they had once known. With no qualifications, no job and no experience, Cobain turned to what seemed the only option available to him: music.
Nirvana. A Buddhist concept of “freedom from pain, suffering and the external world”, it was this which Cobain strove since childhood to achieve, so too was it the band with whom he would gain international acclaim. In 1989, following a lengthy struggle for recognition, Cobain, Grohl and Krist Novoselic found favour with Sub Pop records and were signed. Just two years later, their single Smells Like Teen Spirit found favour with the masses. With great success came further problems however. As the last distorted guitar chords faded into nothingness and the lights flooded an already emptying venue, as rapturous applause rung in the ears of elated fans and the equipment began to be packed up, Kurt Cobain – the man behind the mic and magazine spreads alike – removed an invisible mask and was exposed for that which he really was: a shy boy from a small town, whose parent’s divorce still haunted him daily. His bouts of depression were as crippling as any physical pain and for whom the transition to internationally revered grunge icon was only made easier by removing himself psychologically from the situation through the frequent use and abuse of both legal and illegal substances. Much like the stories of such modern music and film icons as Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan, Cobain’s fame inarguably served to do him more harm than good. “I don’t think he was the sort of person to enjoy the success that he had,” imparted his friend. “I don’t think he was built or made for that…”
While such things as his song-writing abilities and the circumstances of his death may remain the subject of dispute, (suicide or murder, suicide or murder?) one cannot argue that Kurt Cobain was a tortured soul, a tragic tale to be told even many years from now. The mental illness and addiction which permeated his family may leave one to consider him as having been beyond help – attempts to rehabilitate prior to his death proved unsuccessful. However, it remains possible that had he undergone extensive therapy as a child or had he been prioritized by his father after his divorce – the life of Kurt Cobain would not have ended in such a sad way, with a single shotgun wound and a high quantity of heroin. “If you die you’re completely happy and your soul somewhere lives on,” That same man is quoted as once having said. “I’m not afraid of dying. Total peace after death… is the best hope I’ve got…”
Sleep soundly, Kurt, and thanks for the music.
Photos c/o johannasvisions.com, theusindependent.com, paperblog.com