I came to know Kurt Cobain well enough to tell you that he was sincere and incredibly honest, to a fault: He spoke without thinking about the commercial consequences. The much ballyhooed Nirvana “backlash” that preceded and enveloped their album “In Utero” was the creation of those people Cobain disappointed by not acting the role of rock star. Hell, when you become as successful as he became, you’re not supposed to still be one of us. It’s offensive to some consumer aesthetic or other to try. He wasn’t supplying the requisite fantasy. He genuinely hated the success because he realized, with horror when he reached it, that it involved being an image other people wanted, no longer what he wanted.
That was the part of the job description no one could prepare a guy like Kurt for. He didn’t have the emotional structure to support the incredible weight of millions of peoples’ expectations. Every artist wants to matter as much as they possibly can, but most take so long to get to that position that they develop their sense of self and perspective on the way. Rocks stars like Kurt are catapulted to positions of exaggerated importance so quickly that they can no more handle themselves perfectly than an astronaut can calmly walk around as his spaceship takes off.
His torment was real and so was his genius, another thing that he didn’t understand. He lacked the ego of great genius, the self-belief, not necessary to make you create, but essential for you to believe that you should, to sustain you through the travails of being different.
We should not, while memorializing him, glorify or excuse that he took his own life or the fact that he was a heroin addict who tried, unsuccessfully, to kick it. But it would be just as wrong to villainize or dismiss him as an irresponsible screw-up. He was a tragic man and we should try to understand what we can never know.
He was the poet of this generation. It will be easy in the coming months, especially for older people, to downplay Kurt’s significance and contribution, but that would be wrong. Like Rimbaud, he died too young, lived too unflatteringly and left too little compared with what we hoped for, but it was enough for him to be one of the pillars in the artistic pantheon. The horrible manner of his death and the anger we feel because he destroyed something we loved creates a cultural blood clot. Other heroes died mythical deaths. James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin flew too close to the flame. John Lennon was martyred. But Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. He pulled the plug on his pain and there’s nothing remotely romantic or mythical about that.
Watching MTV’s umpteenth airing of Nirvana’s “Unplugged” the night after Kurt’s body was discovered, I felt I was watching a ghost. He seemed that alive, that charismatic, simultaneously comfortable and painfully uncomfortable, insecure in front of his audience. Just that, insecure. A musical genius, equal to anyone in the history of rock ‘n’ roll but more delicate, finally unluckier than most of his peers, singing how “When bad boys die they don’t go to where the angels fly, but to a lake of fire where they fry,” oblivious to the irony that he was singing a twisted version of his own eulogy, or that this neutered format of acoustic grunge was the first opportunity for many people to understand the words to Nirvana’s songs and see what a great writer he was, and what a great and special light has gone out.