The Nation : Personal Perspective : Cobain: Generation’s Failed Effort to Redefine Success

<i> Jay Fielden is on the staff of the New Yorker. </i>

Kurt Cobain’s death isn’t exactly like Victor Hugo’s--when all France wept. His lyrics aren’t prophetic, or poetic, or even as catchy as his music. But grief is present here for some, and rightly so--Cobain, by the time he died, had fathered the alternative rock movement for the ‘90s; turned some of the most famous fashion houses toward thrift-shop flannel, and pulled a wave of young people to the Pacific Northwest.

So far, media coverage has been hung out like a flag at half-staff in tribute to this generation’s hard knocks and lack of direction. Explanations have taken the same kind of tenebrous tone as front-page stories about shockingly low employment rates for college graduates and the grim future they face.

But our happiness and “success” might be built with plainer stones. Cobain’s suicide is an indication that money isn’t everything to this generation. His end is our cold orientation in death--but in his suicide note may be a clue to our identity.


Referring to the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, Cobain’s mother told reporters, “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club.” And so have we--my generation--the twentysomethings, called “Generation X” for lack of a better name. Now we have an icon of mystery and allure and silence.

The suicide of a pop icon is not the usual initiation into generationhood--it’s not war, or an encompassing political or social movement; it’s not a convergence on a certain philosophy of life--but it seems major. Nirvana fans or not, as individuals we are a generation inextricably tied up with the news of his death. Cobain was one of the first to venture forth and succeed , by the common definition of that term. Though he still frequented 7-Elevens for meals, he had all the trappings of a partner at Goldman Sachs. The miserable end to his life is proof that the idea of “success” for us may have to be adjusted.

Unwashed, scruffy, blue-jeaned, with a closet full of Chuck Taylor’s (no doubt), Cobain was taken from his alternative, anti-Establishment roots and placed among the wealthy by unexpected success. Suddenly, he had enough of a fortune to fill an empty volcano, but too little understanding of how to adjust, how to tailor such wealth and fame to his sensibility. Soon, there was too little happiness even in his music-making to keep him from turning his house into his grave--like the shade Dante meets in the pathless wood of the suicides. We might be quick to blame the suicide on a psychological defect or drugs or the unique demons that come with stardom. These are rightly suspicioned but not wholly at fault.

In the patrician suburb of Seattle called Madrona, where Cobain bought a million-dollar home, they have had and will have strange visitors--as they do at Pere-Lachaise Cemetery--lurking to get a view of the gray, three-story house, where you can see Lake Washington from the front balcony. In an apartment above the garage, Cobain was found lying on his back with a shotgun across his chest. Not far from him was the note.

Out in that suburban topography, sprinklered lawns, gates and winding lanes, Cobain must have begun to feel lost, a cog in the wheel, a taxpayer, a father, a homeowner, with all his ideals slipped from his pocket. The reaction would be common for almost anyone not brought up in affluence--especially a high-school dropout from a blue-collar logging town.

Immense wealth can be difficult to come to terms with. But for a generation that has had the ideal of equality impressed on it from an early age, we in Generation X cannot avoid having a particular sensitivity for issues of fairness. If this generation has a new social sensibility, then we must adjust our financial expectations to it.

Surely, the seeming subversion of these ideals played a role in Cobain’s death. As he scrawled in his suicide note, “I have tried everything . . . to appreciate it and I do . . . . But it’s not enough . . . . I still can’t get out of the frustration, the guilt and the empathy I have for everybody.”

This has the distinct tenor of rock-star cliche, yet it is also full of a strange anxiety. Empathy? What else could he mean than that he couldn’t help feeling culpable for having so much more than most anyone else he knew. Cobain often talked in interviews about his guilt over the wide disparity between star and fans.

At every stop on Nirvana’s last tour through packed coliseums and domes, Cobain must have been reminded by the mosh pit below that he no longer shared the same hardships and concerns. At the same time, the more TV shows and newspapers and magazines that tagged him the leader of the new youth movement, the more he seemed to feel like a mountebank--as he confessed in his suicide note: “The worst crime I can think of would be to put people off by faking it.”

Onstage, Cobain was like a semaphore with voice and hands and lank hair. How he groaned or howled or squawked, and where he placed his fingers on the strings of the guitar sent the hands of an audience keeling like waves. In the din of feedback and throttled amps, he was known to charge into a pandemonium of kicks and thrashings or sing like a frozen bird. Now the past seems as readable and open as a chart. Cobain’s interior and family life, his stage act, his manic musical and songwriting styles, even his suicide note, remind one of a seismograph, tracing hourglasses end on end. Thirty-seven seconds into “Lithium,” the melody turns on a dime into a metal-raving litany of “Yeah, yeah, yeah’s.”

His suicide note is a similar creation, characteristically alternating, contradicting, bemusing. It reads like the mutterings of a man at a mad task: “I haven’t felt excitement in listening to, as well as, creating music for too many years now. The fact is I can’t fool any of you.” But he did. Even after the champagne-and-painkiller-induced coma in Rome, we weren’t expecting this. And a shotgun to the head is an exclamation point. The egg we have not yet pecked ourselves out of is now cracked.*