“I was in a highly unshaved and tatty state,” John Lennon said of his 1966 meeting with a certain conceptual artist, then mounting her first show at London’s Indica Gallery. “I was up three nights. I was always up in those days, tripping. I was stoned.”
But not so stoned as to be impressed. “Fuck,” Lennon thought. “I can make that. I can put an apple on a stand. I want more.” Only as he was getting ready to leave the exhibit did something interesting happen: “I saw this ladder…leading up to the ceiling,” Lennon remembered.
There was a spyglass hanging down. It’s what made me stay. I went up the ladder and I got the spyglass and there was tiny little writing there. You really have to stand on the top of the ladder–you feel like a fool, you could fall any minute–and you look through and it just says “yes.”
Well, all the so-called avant-garde art at the time and everything that was supposedly interesting was all negative, this smash-the-piano-with-a-hammer, break-the-sculpture, boring, negative crap. It was all anti, anti, anti…. And just that “yes” made me stay in a gallery full of apples and nails instead of walking out saying, “I’m not gonna buy any of this crap.”
I bring this story up not to introduce the inevitable comparison between Lennon’s muse (Yoko Ono) and Kurt Cobain’s wife (the equally despised Courtney Love), but to suggest both how much power the smallest affirmation–a single word, seen through a spyglass–can have, and the effort–the ladder, the telescope, the threat of falling–it can take to get that affirmation across.
Cobain idolized Lennon, listened to his music obsessively, and thought of his own compositions as botched attempts at writing new Beatles songs. He shared with Lennon the ability to capture extremes of misery in every crack and waver of his voice, and, in capturing those extremes, he implied the possibility of transcending them. That voice explains why Cobain’s band, Nirvana, eclipses its contemporaries, and it explains why, in the rock world, the tragedy of Cobain’s death is comparable to Lennon’s. But by the time Cobain began composing, almost a decade after Lennon’s murder, affirmation was an even trickier proposition. Lennon, who was perhaps music’s most fluent melodist, progressed to recordings of primal screams. Cobain started with the screams, and worked his way back to melodicism. Throughout, he reveled in his own negativity: “I’m a negative creep,” he sang on Nirvana’s first record, which has a reverse negative photo of the band for a front cover. “I’m a negative creep/And I’m stoned.” Lennon’s death, at the hands of a madman, was shockingly meaningless. Cobain’s suicide seemed inevitable; less like a rock star’s death than a junkie’s.
“It’s easy to make too much of these inevitable chemical tragedies,” Alex Ross wrote in a New Yorker eulogy that still stands as the best thing written about Cobain. “If people still listen to Nirvana ten years from now, it will be on the strength of the music, not of Cobain’s nascent martyr legend.” But that legend was a long time in the making, and it’s become almost impossible to resist: Cobain’s biographer, Charles Cross, describes the singer at the age of 14, expressing a confused desire “to be rich and famous and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix.” Even Ross had to concede that Cobain’s “lyrics all sound like suicide notes now.”