KURT COBAIN, 1967-1994 : In Seattle, a Mood of Teen Dispirit : Legacy: ‘The hard part is that my folks just don’t understand what he meant to me,’ says one fan at singer’s memorial.
The mood of broken teen spirit hangs over this citadel of ‘90s rock in the aftermath of the suicide of rock star Kurt Cobain.
The words most often heard as you passed through the crowd of 5,000 who gathered in the chill on Sunday evening for a public memorial at the Seattle Center were “why” and “sad.”
Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow and a rock singer herself, tried to explain the “why” in a message taped for the memorial. It contained excerpts from the suicide note found next to Cobain’s body Friday at the couple’s lakefront house here.
“I haven’t felt the excitement for so many years,” Love read from the note, her voice trembling on the tape. “I feel guilty beyond words about these things. . . . When we are backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me. . . .”
To many of the young people listening to his words, Cobain’s lyrics of alienation and anguish were reflections of their own lives. They found comfort in songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies” that made them turn to Cobain’s music with the band Nirvana the way earlier generations turned to John Lennon or Bob Dylan.
Yet Cobain, who often spoke about his own difficult childhood, felt inadequate when people looked to him as a spokesman for his generation. He hated the corruption he saw in mainstream rock and worried that he might be adding to that corruption by assuming the role of a spokesman.
“The fact is,” Love continued reading Cobain’s note, “I can’t fool you, any of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or to me. . . . The worst crime I can think of would be to (trick) people by faking it and pretending as if I were having 100% fun.”
He ended the note by quoting Neil Young’s lyric: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
An emotional Love followed the line with a bittersweet aside, calling that philosophy “a (expletive) lie.”
Tearfully, she added a personal note. “I’m really sorry and I miss him the way you do. . . . I don’t know what else I could have done.”
But neither Cobain’s nor Love’s words of explanation eased the sadness in the crowd, most of which was dressed in the loose-fitting flannel shirt and pants identified with the city’s grunge rock movement.
“I think the hard part for me is that he really was the voice for most of us,” said Rusty Reichert, 18, sitting beside six candles friends had placed on the ground. “He was the one who let the world know that we were here . . . that we were alive and how we felt.”
Realizing the degree of disillusionment, memorial organizers invited representatives of the city’s Crisis Clinic help group to attend the memorial to counsel youngsters. The first speaker on the program opened with the words, “We’re going to get through this. It’s OK.”
“The hard part is that my folks just don’t understand what he meant to me,” said another teen-ager, who asked that his name not be used. “The night he died, my dad yelled at me for moping around the house. That just makes it all hurt all the more.”
Indeed, the mood around Seattle was far different from similar memorials to earlier, more established rock heroes. At tributes in Memphis following the death of Elvis Presley in 1977 and in New York City after the murder of John Lennon in 1980, you could sense the entire cities in mourning.
You’d hear people of all ages talking tenderly about the singers wherever you went, and see messages on business marquees saying, “We miss you, John” or “R.I.P., Elvis.”
Here on Sunday, however, only the young people mourned. For most of the city, it was business as usual on a weekend--shopping, relaxing in the parks or riding bicycles in the exclusive Madrona area where Cobain lived. There were no messages spotted in the downtown area or along the route to Cobain’s house.
Despite all the publicity about the suicide, people living as close to the house as three blocks didn’t recognize the name Cobain when asked for directions to the house. The only signal of recognition was when Cobain was identified as the rock star who had committed suicide.
“Oh, him. Three blocks down and turn to your left,” a man said before resuming his walk.
The generation gap was only natural.
Cobain didn’t live long enough for his fans to grow up and be able to look upon him with affection, the way Lennon’s and Presley’s did.
Even though his band sold an estimated 15 million records around the world, he was still, in terms of the mass pop market, an underground force.
One of the local newscasts underscored the point.
“Before this weekend, you may not have known much about Kurt Cobain . . . ,” said the Channel 4 newscaster in the star’s hometown.
The fans at the Seattle Center, however, spoke of Cobain with much the same intensity and passion as fans spoke in 1977 about Presley or in 1980 about Lennon.
Jon Ballard, a disc jockey on one of the rock radio stations sponsoring the memorial, said that the station was flooded by calls from despondent Nirvana fans after news of Cobain’s death was learned. He equated the reaction to “what it must have been like when Kennedy died.”
By the end of the public memorial, some fans turned unruly and ignored police instructions as they crowded into a giant fountain on the grounds of the center.
While the media attention was directed at the public memorial, about 200 of Cobain’s family and friends gathered privately a few blocks away at Unity Church of Seattle for their own, unannounced funeral services. (Cobain’s body was to be cremated and Love, his mother Wendy O’Conner and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic were to decide where the ashes would be spread.)
At the funeral, soft chamber music was played over the sound system as mourners, including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who now lives here, took their place in pews, which were lined with childhood photos of Cobain.
Novoselic led off a series of spoken tributes. Dressed all in black, Love read from the Bible and then read again from the suicide note.
At the end, mourners listened to a tape of some of Cobain’s favorite music. One selection offered a clue to what the man who brought comfort to a generation of young people turned to himself in times of need.
The song on the tape was John Lennon’s Beatles song “In My Life,” a comforting celebration of life that opens “There are places I’ll remember all my life, though some have changed. . . .”
Before returning home, Love stopped by the Seattle Center with a few friends, but the area was largely deserted by then.
Nearby, however, some fans stood around a car listening to Nirvana music blaring from the tape player. The song from the “In Utero” album seemed to offer a final benediction to the long, draining weekend:
Hate, hate your enemies Save, save your friends Find, find your place Speak, speak the truth.