“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.”
Cobain’s Journals–which earned his widow a $4 million advance and graced the covers of Newsweek and the London Observer before their publication earlier this month (they’re currently No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list)–are also something of a suicide note. That they were published at all would be shocking, if we didn’t remember that a recording of Love reading Cobain’s actual suicide note (his second, following an aborted suicide attempt earlier the same year) was played aloud over a public address system, at a vigil held at the Seattle Center.
“I had exhausted most conversation at age nine,” Cobain writes. “I only feel with grunts screams and tones and with hand gestures and my body. im deaf in spirit.”
I feel there is a universal sense amongst our generation that everything has been said and done
Rock and Roll: 30 years = Exhausted!
Verbal communication is exhausted. Sitcoms are scenarios and so is our conversation.
Fuck you to those of you who have absolutely no regard for me as a person. You have raped me harder than youll ever know. So again I say fuck you although this phrase has totally lost its meaning FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU.
What Cobain tries hardest to communicate in his journals is his own inability to communicate, and he seems to recognize, in his own spiritual exhaustion, an exhaustion of the language itself. “WORDS suck,” he writes.
I mean, every thing has been said. I cant remember the last real interesting conversation ive had in a long time. WORDS arent as important as the energy derived from music, especially live. I dont think ive ever gotten any good descriptions from lyric sheets, except WHITE ZOMBIE whos lyrics remind me that theres only so many words in the English language, and most good imagery has been used.
Cobain is the first to admit that “its obvious that I am on the educated level of about 10th grade in High School,” and that “its obvious that these words were not thought out or even re-read.” But even our best writers have felt a similar exhaustion in the language: “More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth,” J.M. Coetzee wrote in Disgrace. “Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.” “The depressed person really felt that what was really unfair,” David Foster Wallace wrote in a story that linked depression to artistic production in the 1990s, and serves equally well as a comment on the Journals as a whole, was that
she felt able to share only painful circumstances and historical insights about her depression and its etiology and texture and numerous symptoms instead of feeling truly able to communicate and articulate and express the depression’s terrible unceasing agony itself, an agony that was the overriding and unendurable reality of her every black minute on earth…or to reach out and communicate and express it to someone who could not only listen and understand and care but could or would actually feel it with her.
Cobain worked in a narrower medium than Wallace or Coetzee–on paper, at least, it can’t help but seem that rock exhausts its stock of clichés more quickly. But rock songs are not confined to lyric sheets. On the page, their meanings are fixed, but unfocused. On the stage, the opposite is true. Cobain’s “Yeah” sounds like a “no,” but he invests it with so much passion, and such energy, that it seems to turn into a “yes” again. And not just any yes, but the yes Lennon found at the top of that ladder, or the kind you find in a lover’s arms–a hard-earned yes, given in real time, and invested with real meaning.
Nirvana’s best songs were composed of clichés–stock phrases, disconnected phrases and fragments of phrases. Cobain saw cliché wherever he turned. But he never claimed to be a poet, and Nirvana’s songs meant more than the sum of their lyrics; to hear Cobain breathe life into the most mundane line was to feel that we could transcend the clichés of our lives. Even at their darkest, Nirvana’s songs were filled with light. But Cobain’s Journals, which consist essentially of the same rhetoric we find in his songs, pull off the difficult trick of making his words sound mundane again–they never break through the darkness.
Which raises the question of why, and whether, to read the Journals at all.
Many years ago, Pauline Kael interrupted a review of Hiroshima Mon Amour to observe that “it’s unfortunate that what people believe to be the most important things about themselves, their innermost truths and secrets–the real you or me–that we dish up when somebody looks sympathetic, is very likely to be the driveling nonsense that we generally have enough brains to forget about.” Kael would not have liked Cobain’s journals. Almost all of the 270 pages reproduced here are facsimiles of pages torn from spiral notebooks, and most are filled with the doodles and daydreams spiral notebooks were made to hold. Cobain seems to have spent his spare time writing letters to rock stars and critics (the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, the late Lester Bangs), and not sending them. Drawing up lists of his favorite bands (The Stooges, Scratch Acid, Saccharine Trust), and repeating them. There are various drafts of press releases (“NIRVANA sees the underground SeeN as becoming stagnant and more accessible towards commercialized major label interests”), autobiographical sketches (“I was a rodent-like, underdeveloped, hyperactive spaz who could fit his entire torsoe in one leg of his bell bottomed jeans”) and lyrics (an early version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” contains the couplet “The finest day Ive ever had/Was when tomorrow never came”). There are recipes (for “Beef Strokin-off”), sketches (of guitars, monsters and, repeatedly, a sniper taking aim at marching Klansmen), abandoned liner notes, ideas for a few videos that were never made (“psychedellic mushrooms get them out of high times”) and notes for a few that were.
For a Nirvana fan, this might sound like a promising assemblage. In fact, it’s torturous. Those of us who once kept notebooks like this (and most of us did) would cringe at the thought of someone digging them up and passing them around the office. The London Observer, which excerpted the journals, had the brilliant idea–inspired by a wisecrack of Cobain’s–of getting Pete Townshend to review them. The result begins cruelly, with Townshend brandishing the crack like a schoolteacher who’s seized upon a student’s dirty doodle–
“I hope I die before I become Pete Townshend,” wrote Kurt Cobain in his journal in the middle of one of his rants against the rock press establishment. Why? Because I had become a bore? Because I had failed to die young? Because I had become conventional? Or, simply because I had become old? In fact, in the early Nineties, when Kurt was struggling with himself over whether or not to do an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, I was not boring, neither old nor young, and I was not dead. I was, unlike Cobain, hardened. Tempered, beaten and subjugated by all that rock had delivered to me and via me over 30 years. Rock is, I think, particularly hard. And in this statement Cobain appears to be hard on me. But perhaps he is sad for me?
but ends in soul-searching and despair–
It is desperately sad for me to sit here, 57 years old, and contemplate how often wasteful are the deaths of those in the rock industry. We find it so hard to save our own, but must take responsibility for the fact that the message such deaths as Cobain’s sends to his fans is that it is in some way heroic to scream at the world, thrash a guitar, smash it up and then overdose.
These may well be the appropriate reactions: Taken by themselves, these notebooks are ridiculous, and ridicule is not inappropriate. Taken in the context of Cobain’s life, they are pathetic, and pity is not uncalled for.
Does this mean that the Journals‘ publication is a travesty–yet another trespass upon a soul that already felt itself to be the victim of innumerable trespasses? And that by publishing them, Love has sunk to the level of Yoko Ono, who let Lennon’s bloodied glasses appear on postcards available at the entrance to the bathroom at my local bar?
The answer, perhaps, is not so simple–and not only because Ono’s transgression was inspired by a widow’s despair over our nation’s gun laws, while Love’s trespass may well have stemmed from the prospect of a multimillion-dollar advance ($4 million might not sound like a lot in rock terms, but it’s more than Cobain made in the course of his entire career). Cobain himself felt more of a connection with music than with his immediate surroundings–the rock industry may have had a hand in his death, but it also had a hand in keeping him alive, and he knew that Nirvana had the same effect on his listeners. Couldn’t he have thought the same to be true of his journals?
“If you read,” he wrote on the cover of one, “You’ll Judge.” “Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,” he wrote elsewhere, on a page used for the Journals‘ front piece. And beneath it, “OK, I’m going to work now. When you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.” We’ll never know who Cobain was writing for, but we do know that he had a habit of leaving his journals around for anyone to find. Did he have his wife in mind, or a friend? Most likely. Posterity? It’s not entirely absurd.
But Cobain is dead, and a better question may be not what he would have thought of the Journals‘ publication but whether a book like the Journals could have saved the life of someone like Cobain, had he read it in time.
In this case, the form the Journals took gives us some indication of Love’s intentions, and the publisher’s. The text is severely edited–we get snatches of five or six notebooks, out of what appear to have been twenty or so Cobain left–and almost everything that’s of interest has already been excerpted in Cross’s biography, Heavier Than Heaven. The contents are barely annotated, and undated. Some of the passages that could, in fact, have made a difference in the lives of the Journals‘ intended audience (which seems to be an adolescent one) are missing entirely. Here, for instance, is an unspeakably sad entry that Cross quotes, but that the Journals do not include:
I just need a crowd, a gang, a reason to smile. I won’t smother you, ah shit, shit, please, isn’t there somebody out there? Somebody, anybody, God help, help me please. I want to be accepted. I have to be accepted. I’ll wear any kinds of clothes you want! I’m so tired of crying and dreaming, I’m soo soo alone. Isn’t there anyone out there? Please help me. HELP ME!
This is heartbreaking stuff–the kind that brings Elvis Presley to mind. “I’m so bored,” Elvis told near-strangers toward the end. “I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley.” Elvis died at 42. Cobain killed himself at 27, but his suicide note, which the Journals do not contain (and which is more eloquent than anything they do contain), expressed almost the same level of exhaustion:
I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to, as well as creating music, along with really writing something, for too many years now…. Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch in time clock before I walk out on stage. I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it, and I do, God believe me, I do. But it’s not enough. I appreciate the fact that I and we have affected and entertained a lot of people…. [But] I don’t have the passion anymore.
Like Elvis, Cobain died alone, with one heroin dealer after another kicking him out of their apartments for fear of having a dead rock star on their hands. You could see the death coming from miles away: Cobain was severely depressed long before he became a rock star, had three other suicides in his immediate family, wrote obsessively about death and decay, and talked about killing himself in countless interviews. His lyrics–“Look on the bright side/Suicide” is typical–didn’t so much confront suicide as court it. Neither his young daughter, whom he adored, nor his music, was enough to save him. “There’s something wrong with that boy,” William Burroughs said after meeting Cobain. “He frowns for no good reason.”
This brings me to one last question these Journals pose: What we read, we judge, but it’s also true that what we read judges us. And if what we have here falls far short of expectations, what, exactly, did we expect in the first place?
In his early novel Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo wrote, “Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide. (Is it clear I was a hero of rock’n’roll?)” That the young Kurt Cobain mistakenly thought Jimi Hendrix a suicide is telling; so are the lyrics to Nirvana b-side “Been a Son,” in which Kurt’s father wishes that Kurt’s sister, Kim, had been born a boy, so that she too may “have worn a crown of thorns.” “Everything written about him and his wife,” Alex Ross wrote, “seemed to wound him in some way. ‘I do not want what I have got,’ he sang on his last album, yearning for oblivion of one kind or another.”
And yet he chose a way of death guaranteed to bring down a hailstorm of analytical blather far in excess of anything he had experienced while he was alive. This is the paradoxical allure of suicide: to leave the chattering world behind and yet to stage-manage the exit so that one is talked about in the right way.
This, Ross noted, was similar to the paradox Cobain articulated most explicitly in his songs: One of the most telling entries in the Journals concerns Cobain’s plan to release In Utero, Nirvana’s final record (originally titled “I Hate Myself and Want to Die”), in its original version, which was engineered by the punk purist Steve Albini,
on vinyl LP, cassette, and 8-track.… Sold to small mom and pop stores or anywhere vinyl can be found….
and one month later
after many lame reviews and reports on the curmudgeonly, uncompromising vinyl, cass, 8-track only release, we release the remixed & re-recorded bass and acoustic guitar version under the title “Verse Chorus Verse” on vinyL LP, cassette, and God forbid CD, with sticker that says: This album is the radio-friendly, unit shifting, compromise version, which, by the way, NIRVANA is extremely proud of.
Which brings to mind a prediction Michael Lydon made in Ramparts, decades earlier: Rock, he wrote, would never be a “revolutionary music because it has never gotten beyond articulation in this paradox [the obvious pleasures America affords, and the price paid for them]. At best it has offered the defiance of withdrawal; its violence never amounting to more than a cry of ‘Don’t bother me.'” Which brings us right back to Cobain’s own, anthemic “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and its refrain of “O well, whatever, never mind.”
But just as Nirvana’s fans heard a “yes” in Cobain’s every “no,” so we heard his “never mind” as a cry of “come here–I hurt the way you do, and neither of us has to hurt alone.” Cobain himself never did resolve the contradiction. “John Lennon has been my Idol all of my life,” he wrote,
But he’s dead wrong about revolution. Sit on your ass and be beaten! BULLSHIT! Arm yourself…. Design manifestos with ideas, contacts, recruits, go public, risk jail or assassination…. Slowly rot the mechanics of the empire
And yet, in the one set of liner notes he did publish (for the outtakes album Incesticide), Cobain implied the exact opposite:
I don’t feel the least bit guilty for commercially exploiting a completely exhausted Rock youth Culture because, at this point in rock history, Punk Rock (while still sacred to some) is, to me, dead and gone. We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us to feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity. To pay tribute like an Elvis or Jimi Hendrix impersonator in the tradition of a bar band. I’ll be the first to admit that we’re the 90s version of Cheap Trick or The Knack but the last to admit that it hasn’t been rewarding.
In the end, the best comparison may not be to Cheap Trick or The Knack, or to Lennon and Presley, but to the author of
the season’s other eagerly awaited rock book, Bob Dylan, who is set to release his autobiography in the coming months. Dylan’s words also tend to die on the page–his last book, Tarantula, was all but unreadable–and come alive in performance. Dylan’s fans, too, have looked to him to resolve contradictions–between revolution and reaction, passion and paralysis–that have come to define American lives. But Dylan and Cobain are not prophets–what could either one tell us that we don’t already know? The answers they provide have nothing to do with their writings, and everything to do with how their songs make us feel.