The Re-Awakening: Still Smells Like Teen Spirit

At the recommendation of a good friend, I watched Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. She was a late discoverer of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and their seminal album ‘Nevermind’ and by late, I mean now, in year 2015, after the release of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Like all Gen Xers, the album ‘Nevermind’ and especially the song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ spoke to me, put into words how I felt about my surroundings, my family, my elders, my education (or lack of) and how it was all a load of crap. Teenage angst expressed at its finest. In 1991, I was only just a preteen but due to certain situations thrust upon me, I felt a lot older than my years. It was considered inappropriate material for my age, but I was able to get my hands on a copy of the album and like millions of people then, it’s was like being slapped awake by the truth and that we are all being lied to by the Establishment.

Of course adding to the allure of the album and the music was the troubled and turbulent private life of Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain. He was grungy looking, which by now had become a fashion trend. He was very handsome with delicate features and would be more noticeable if he would only shower, shave and comb his hair once a fortnight. His wife Courtney Love described him as being better looking than Brad Pitt but not knowing it. He came from a broken home and was ’embarrassed’ about his parent’s divorce and since the age of 9, he was basically off the rails. By the time he became famous, he was a habitual drug user and not particularly repentant about it. He suffered from anxiety, depression and severe stomach pains that went undiagnosed his whole life, which he used heroin to dull the pain and of course to numb his psychic pain. And like so many others before him, at the age 27, it all came crashing down and he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on April 8, 1994, he left behind his wife Courtney Love and his 20 month old daughter Frances Cobain. It was all over for him. Like those before him, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, all perished at the age of 27. Some believe the age of 27 is a curse, but it really isn’t, the human body and psyche can only take so much abuse and for these individuals (and Amy Winehouse after them), their bodies and minds simply gave out at age 27. There’s no curse or cosmic conspiracy, it’s biology.

Kurt Cobain is forever transfixed in our collective imaginations as a troubled 27 year old who never beat his demons, never found his happy ending to his troubled life. To his fans he will forever be the wild-eyed man-child with a blond mane, who looks as if he rarely showered or shaved. During the height of grunge fashion, personal hygiene became optional because Kurt Cobain made it cool to look unkempt. Almost every minute of his short tragic life has been discussed, analyzed and dissected ad nauseum, many attribute his sadness and final downfall on his family and his wife, very few people actually held the man himself accountable for his own feelings, behaviors and getting treatment for his medical conditions (mental and physical) – he certainly could afford it. And because his life ended so early, in a way he never grew up and so there was no need to hold him accountable.

As a fan of Kurt Cobain and his music, and as a fan who did ‘grow up’, I will attempt to hold him accountable for his own actions. I will pretend that he did get to live to be middle age and actually grew up (mentally). In the Montage of Heck, by all accounts, his troubles stemmed from the divorce of his parents, it was a particularly nasty divorce and it forever shattered the image of the ‘perfect’ family he had in his head. His father made the mistake of telling his son that he won’t ever remarry but eventually did when he met his stepmother. She had 2 children from a previous marriage and had one more child with Kurt Cobain’s father. Due to his difficult temperament, his mother gave up custody of him. His father’s new wife attempted to be a good maternal guidance to him but because he was bullying the other kids, she had no choice but to ask him to leave. For awhile, he was bounced around between relatives and basically stayed with whomever would take him in. It was at this time he begun to suffer from depression and anxiety and had already attempted suicide by laying down by the train tracks. No one much noticed or cared about the reasons behind his bad behavior and wrote him off as a lost cause. His performance at school was poor but showed a great gift in art and writing. On top of his mental illnesses, he had undiagnosed stomach pains that plagued him his whole life. He dulled his pain (physical and mental) with drugs and alcohol. The drugs went from pot smoking to ultimately heroin. He became a hopeless addict and he knew it. In fact he ‘chose’ to become an addict. After the success of ‘Nevermind’, he basically shut himself in his house and did drugs, during which time he had a baby too.

On what planet did he and Courtney Love think that being junkies and having a child is a good combination, I shall never know. They were very wealthy by then and could do as they pleased. When they did a joint interview with Vanity Fair Magazine, admitting to their junkie lifestyle and Courtney Love admitted to using heroin while pregnant which then raised an alarm with social services, she herself received a lot of criticism from fans and public alike. Nirvana fans in particular never liked her, felt her to be an opportunistic groupie who ensnared a vulnerable man, so this was a chance to jump on the Courtney Love hate wagon: she shot up heroin while pregnant, so she’s a horrible person. She clarified in this film that she did use heroin while pregnant with Frances but just once and Frances was born healthy, and to be fair to them, regardless of their personal state, their daughter Frances was always a healthy cherubic child who was not neglected, as evidenced by video footage and photos. I will not attempt to analyze their relationship, as marriage between 2 people is very complicated, what is clear is that the marriage was mutually reciprocated, it was not a case of Courtney Love ensnaring a vulnerable man who was powerless to resist her, he was a full participating partner in the marriage. Kurt Cobain himself was very ‘upset’ with all the criticisms hurled at his wife, with people saying ‘mean’ things about her. Well dear, you can’t go on the record for a national publication admitting that a) you are junkies and proud of it, b) your wife admitting to using heroin while pregnant and then complain that people have an opinion about that. Do what you will with yourself but harming an unborn child is unacceptable even in very liberal musician’s circles. This shows extreme lack of maturity on his part, kind of like a stroppy teenager who didn’t get his way. However, the public’s idolization of him was such that he could do no wrong and it was all his wife’s fault.

For a boy so traumatized like Kurt Cobain was, it’s hard to find a light at the end of the tunnel and had he just lived the life of a boy with no high school diploma and worked dead end jobs, his end by self-infliction isn’t entirely unlikely. His mother Wendy wisely observed that he won’t cope well with sudden fame, and he didn’t. He didn’t mind enjoying the spoils of fame, namely the riches that came with it, but again, he failed to man up and realize that one cannot happen without the other. He had resources at his disposal and could have gotten help with his various issues, and he knew he needed help, but he chose to be a junkie. It was a deliberate choice on his part. All the money and energy he spent on doing drugs could have been better spent by helping himself, finding a diagnosis for his stomach ailment, getting therapy or rehab for his substance dependency, living an all around better life. He had a chance to reform himself and he chose not to.

All the stroppy teenagers who listened to ‘Nevermind’ know eventually we have to grow up, we can’t be irresponsible, sullen and stroppy forever, and ‘Nevermind’ captured brilliantly the sentiments of a kid coming of age in the 1990s, I listened to it with devotion and fervor, it was the Gospel truth, held in regard with the absolute certainty that it spoke my truth, the Truth. And it did, for that moment in my life. Every time I hear any Nirvana song come on the radio now, I have happy memories and still know the melodies and the words. But eventually and very reluctantly, I put on my big girl pants, grew up and dealt with this pesky thing called ‘life’. It wasn’t fun all the time, but it wasn’t so bad either. With age and maturity, what seemed unsurmountable at 15 or 16 becomes a minor inconvenience at age 25. Of course the biggest tragedy of his suicide is depriving his little girl Frances Cobain a father. For all his troubles, even in an altered state, with his limitations, he adored his little girl and loved being a father. It was his dream to be a father but he chose to end it all, thinking he was no good for his daughter in his present state. How wrong he was, as the old adage goes, ‘a bad father is better than no father’. And he wasn’t even a bad father, he was just ill and if he cleaned up and got himself sorted, he could have been a great father. But he never got to know that and that’s the real tragedy.

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