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Ten years gone
The unfinished story of Kurt Cobain
BY MATT ASHARE


In Memoriam

Kurt Cobain: 1967 Ė 1994. By Jon Garelick.

State of Nirvana: A conversation with Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic. Interview by Kurt St. Thomas.

This Monday, April 5, marks the 10-year anniversary of the night a 27-year-old reluctant rock star purchased his last dose of heroin, injected himself, put a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger. It would be three long and confusing days before Kurt Cobainís body was discovered by an alarm technician named Gary Smith. And in many ways, that says more than anything about how immense the divide between the myth and the man had already become by the time Cobain made his fateful decision. The gears of the unit-shifting, ticket-selling machine that turned his rebellion into Nirvanaís money rolled forward. The publicity apparatus that had been created to keep the figureheadís true human condition a secret did its best to hide the fact that heíd gone AWOL from an addiction-treatment center in LA. The desperate wife with a young child hired a detective to find her husband. And a body with a shattered head lay lifeless, undiscovered in a room above a garage at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East in Seattle.

In the time thatís passed since, two things have become painfully clear: 1) Cobainís heroin addiction was a much bigger problem than anyone was willing to admit while he was alive; and 2) keeping the condition of a person in his position a secret was the mistake that gave him the opportunity to slip quietly away, forever. Beyond that, there are facts mixed with myths, stories and rumors, pictures and videos, journal entries and interviews, chords and lyrics. Dozens of articles have been written, numerous books have been published, and at least one full-length documentary has seen nationwide release. It all adds up to a cacophonous mass of contradictory information as endless and nameless as the hidden track of the same title that closes out the 1991 DGC CD that created Nirvana for the masses, Nevermind.

In most respects, itís Cobainís own fault. Or perhaps heíd regard it as his final triumph. The fact is, there will always be an aura of mystery surrounding his life and his death. And nothing Courtney Love, Dave Grohl, or Krist Novoselic have said or might say can change that. Kurt himself was no stranger to mythmaking: he told truths and he told lies about his life and his art. He exaggerated and downplayed. He forgot and remembered. The punk-rock prankster in him couldnít resist the temptation to mislead some interviewers; the junkie he was couldnít face reality. And the outcast from Aberdeen who craved acceptance had to compete with the privileged rock star whoíd conquered the world. Integrating the overwhelming reality of all of that, along with living up to the everyday challenges of being a husband, father, and bandleader, couldnít have been easy. But then, life tends to be hard on those who make it so. Anyone touched by the sentiments of a song like "Pennyroyal Tea" or "All Apologies" knows that all too well. In the end, the words that make the most sense to me are just a broken phrase from the suicide note: "The fact is I can't fool you, any one of you . . ."

For years ó in fact until this past week ó the only Nirvana album I could bear to listen to was Unplugged in New York, the live MTV performance Geffen released posthumously in 1994. Thereís irony in that, I suppose, given Kurtís conflicted feelings about the corporate rock culture MTV represents. Then again, he was an active participant in the creation of a video that did as much as, if not more than, the song itself to catalyze the so-called alternative-rock revolution, "Smells like Teen Spirit." For a long time, I listened to only three of the albumís tracks: the haunting, fragile Meat Puppets tunes "Plateau," "Oh Me," and, especially, "Lake of Fire." In large part, that was probably a reaction to an experience I had in New Orleans just a few weeks after Kurtís death. I was staying in an apartment on Bourbon Street that overlooked a karaoke bar, and one night I heard some anonymous drunk butchering "Come As You Are." For a lot of reasons that I canít begin to articulate (and that arenít really relevant), it left me feeling that if I never heard another Nirvana song, it wouldnít be such a bad thing.

But Unplugged in New York gradually drew me back to the band. Iíd always found there to be something particularly appealing about Kurtís giving so much MTV airtime to three songs from an old Meat Puppets album and going so far as to invite Cris and Curt Kirkwood to participate in the performance. And Iím sure that Curt Kirkwoodís playful approach to writing lyrics about human mortality defused some of the negative emotions I had about Kurtís suicide. Beyond that, though, the rootsy/folky feel of those performances seemed to reflect a musical direction that Cobain was considering in the months leading up to his suicide ó a direction that his friend Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan eventually did pursue as a solo artist. Kurt mentioned it in interviews, as did his friend Michael Stipe, who revealed to Rolling Stone that he and Cobain had been in the beginning stages of a musical collaboration described as "very acoustic" and "not loud." The toned-down interpretations of Nirvana songs like "About a Girl," "Come As You Are," and the already melancholy "All Apologies" and "Pennyroyal Tea" (not to mention covers of songs by David Bowie, the Vaselines, and Leadbelly) seem to reflect Stipeís characterization of what he and Cobain had in mind. And at least to me, the Unplugged album will probably always represent where Kurt Cobain, with or without Nirvana, might have been heading.

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Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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