Kurt Cobain Is Not Defined By How He Died
Kurt Cobain was a complicated creative, a champion of outcasts, an enigmatic artist, a funny man with a macabre sense of humour, a father, husband, and a ‘probably bisexual’ band mate.
In death, however, he was transformed into an unwitting icon. A two-dimensional image, forever in his twenties with a mop of blonde hair and dopey smile, symbolic of the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the late eighties and early nineties.
Those who knew Kurt still fondly remember much more than a static masthead of the grunge tribe. But, in popular culture, the conversation has undoubtedly been overwhelmed by his death.
Dr Jennifer Otter-Bickerdike, a music academic specialising in fandom, the cult of dead celebrity, pop culture, and Why Vinyl Matters told UNILAD the man she knew, even briefly, is so much more than what’s been written about him.
In fact, she says some of what is said now is ‘not actually true but gets repeated so often it has blurred into his mythology’, calling it ‘some 1984 shit’.
Moreover, the mythology itself, based on his own journals, are scattered with half-truths, revisions, and what band mate Krist Novoselic later would call ‘his own revisionism’, specifically referring to Cobain’s claim he was homeless and living under a bridge.
We do know this: Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on February 20 1967 to the musical Cobain family. It was exactly a week after The Beatles released Penny Lane.
He started singing at two years old, picked up a drawing pencil even earlier, was ashamed of his parents divorce by the time he’d lived a decade, smoked his first joint by the age of 13, and was bought his first guitar on his fourteenth birthday.
He’d been kicked out of his mum’s home – which he shared with her abusive boyfriend – after dropping out of high school, where he’d taken to lashing out and skipping class.
He found Christianity while living with a friend, and lost it again as he regularly hot-footed to Seattle and Olympia to immerse himself in the the thriving Pacific Northwest punk scene.
At 22, Bleach was released and Nevermind – featuring new drummer, Dave Grohl – came out two years later, when Nirvana experienced mainstream recognition and MTV slots.
A young Jennifer met Kurt Cobain when she was, in her words, an 18-year-old kid in thigh high Doc Martens working on marketing campaigns for a Sony Music band opening for Nirvana on their West Coast dates between 1991 and 1992.
‘You can really pin him to a certain time, place, and set of ideas,’ she tells UNILAD from her London offices, recalling how they developed ‘this short-lived temporary family vibe’ on the road.
At the time, he was a ‘polarising figure’ with ‘revolutionary drive’, she recalled:
In death he’s a spokesperson for a generation, but in life he was this icon that you could look to as someone who kind of crashed through.
If you were weird or wacky or an outsider, here is one of your tribe who has somehow maneuvered into the system and crashed the system.
Nirvana – and by extension, Kurt’s life – meant so much to so many people during the era of Bon Jovi, big hair and Mötley Crüe, pre-Internet when ‘you didn’t see people who looked like you in popular music’, Otter-Bickerdike explained, especially not on the front cover of Rolling Stone decrying corporate magazines.
‘Nirvana meant so much to me’, she said, adding:
It was so amazing and refreshing to have someone from a lower middle class background like Kurt shopping at thrift stores because that’s all he could afford, to have someone talking about sexuality and feminist issues on that kind of a platform.
[To hear] one of my tribe speaking made it okay to have these outsider ideals. I looked up to him.
His real legacy is not how he died. It’s his long-lasting ability to make a new generation of young people feel less alone in living.
Nirvana, his brainchild, was – and is still – tribal.
Otter-Bickerdike recalled feeling as though ‘something had been taken away from me’ when she, as an out-of-place alternative grunge girl attended a frat party at college and saw the ‘most consenting, non-questioning’ frat bros ‘smacking their chests’ to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Today marks 25 years since Kurt’s life ended. In two years’ time he’ll have been dead for longer than he was alive. But today, on the 25th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain, it’s important to remember how he lived.
The academic, who once had a poster of Kurt in her old college dorm room, said:
You’re an outsider if you even dare to think these ideas and if you hear someone verbalising them in music when you can’t even verbalise them yourself, you’re gonna be drawn to that person because you see that as the signs and symbols of the subculture.
When he died, Otter-Bickerdike recalled, it came as ‘more of a shock’ to see the suicide of a man she’d spent three months with in the confines of a bus splashed across the front pages of national newspapers.
At this moment, everything changed; how we immortalise talent and put the dead in a metaphorical box. It really started with the mythology of the 27 Club.
Indeed, even though I was only two years old when Cobain died, I have a vivid – but presumably falsified memory – of the event, largely forged by the annual rolling news coverage of his death.
I asked an adult – namely Jennifer – why and she replied it’s because ‘he has been a part of the public consciousness and a part of the culture you’ve grown up in’.
Kurt’s death, she says, ‘was the death of an idea and a movement when it was just starting’ and it has completely shaped the way we treat the death of public figures.
It was like the ‘death of possibility’ because he died at 27 – like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison before him – ‘on the brink of fully-formed adulthood’.
But where did the mythology of the 27 Club start? And is it fair to commodify the lives of our idols – remembered more for their deaths and this disparate club of which no one wants membership now than their lives – into a numerical cult of coincidence to help us grieve?
Otter-Bickerdike recalls the origins of the mythology, and explains:
I’ve never heard of a person being credited like, ‘I started that thing’, but you see people start to use the phraseology and put together those icons as a group under this catchphrase with the death of Kurt Cobain.
Sure, this commodification makes certain he will never be forgotten to future generations of kids who need someone to look to for validation.
Indeed, I am grateful to have encountered Kurt through a hard back coffee table-edition book of his journals, published years after his death, which so entrapped me I went on to discover his music.
I never looked back. Yet, with hindsight, I wonder if this book would ever have existed if it weren’t for the timing and the nature of Kurt Cobain’s death.
Otter-Bickerdike says his death was one of many which unwittingly fanned the flames of the commercial modern music economy.
The 27 Club in itself, she muses, is ‘an easy way for us to exploit the person long after they’re alive’ and ‘repackage the dead star’, just as The Smiths predicted in their track, Paint A Vulgar Picture.
She exclaims she once stumbled across ‘bog roll with the Unknown Pleasures logo’ emblazoned across the sheets, evidencing just how far commercial industries will go to commodify a former genius who, frankly, makes more money dead than they would have alive.
Make no mention of the damaging effect of this kind of glamorisation of addiction and suicide ideation on young, vulnerable minds.
Even Otter-Bickerdike, who hit her teens before the onset of social media, said coverage of Kurt’s death ‘galvanised the idea in my mind’ that this window before you hit your thirties ‘was the time to burn bright and fade fast and if you hadn’t done it by then you weren’t going to do it’.
To put so much stock in Cobain’s death does him a disservice and completely alters the yardstick of success by which his young fans garner their own self-worth.
Cynicism aside, at the very best, it’s a Western way for us to organise our grief.
The last time I checked, people practicing traditional death rituals pride themselves on celebrating the dead, not for their last moments on this mortal coil, but for the memories they made and the legacy they leave.
After all, they say it’s not the years in your life but the life in your years which count.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.