This is one of those posts I’ve had rattling around my head for a little while and wanted/needed to expunge to see where the writing down of it all might take me. Wanton self-gratification, in other words.
One of the recent threads about Nirvana got me thinking. I know they’re a marmite band, and a lot of people on here don’t greatly care for them. I know that I very much did and do. A lot of that’s because of the records they made, the noise they created. But – quite unusually for me – part of it is also about one of the people who made that noise.
A million words have been spilled by now on Kurt Cobain, rest his soul. Death has frozen him in carbonite, and made him far more a cartoon than an actual human being. There probably isn’t much more one can usefully say about the man. And yet, here I am with a head full of things I want to say, and half an hour to write them down.
I was 13 when Nevermind was released, and I remember vividly my first true contact with Nirvana. I hadn’t yet discovered the music press, and I was trapped in a commuter belt town to which news travelled exceedingly slowly, so it was via MTV, sat alone in the front room of my parents’ house.
I’d heard of Nirvana, and I knew they were the coming thing. A few weeks earlier one of my father’s old university friends had dropped in. The one who’d never grown up and gone straight, who made Dad tense up when he arrived on the doorstep. The guy who talked to me about comics and Robert Crumb and once memorably informed me “you Southerners are so soft you get out of the bath to take a piss. Up North we don’t get out of the bath to take a shit”. Words (horrendous, awful words) that have always stuck with me. On this particular visit, he asked what I was listening to. I can’t recall what I replied, but I do remember that he told me that he loved Nirvana, because – and I quote – “they just dial it up to ten and just crank it out”. I nodded along, sagely. I had never heard Nirvana. What was I doing with my life? How could I put this right?
As the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit cued up, I recall thinking “so here it is then – the band of my generation, the one I’m going to have to find a way to like”. Such a Gen X thought to have had. Four minutes later, I knew that finding a way to like them wasn’t going to be a problem; “here we are now, entertain us” – the very thought I’d just had, spat right back at me, challenge met and returned.
I saved up and bought the records, or copied them off mates at school. Slowly but surely, a wave of Nirvana passed through the building. Everyone surfed it a little while, but most people moved on pretty quickly; they were too weird, too arty to really capture the spirit of the place for long. In my case, something about the experience stuck with me, and looking back I can put a name on what that something was: it was Kurt.
It’s a little embarrassing to write this. I’m not someone who’s ever really had heroes in my life. Not real life ones anyway; they always let you down in the end. As a great, but fictional, man once said: “A person should not believe in “isms”, he should believe in himself”. That was my take then, and – really – it still is today. Be your own hero. I certainly wasn’t looking to rock stars for guidance. I mean; Jesus Christ.
At the time of that great wave of Nirvana, I was in the early stages of a war with my surroundings. War with the racism and homophobia. War with the misogyny. But most of all, war with the messages I was being sent on a daily basis about what it was to be a man. Messages we were all being sent, and that men have continued to be sent ever since. Money, power, violence, women. Money, power, violence, women. Winning, always. Acquisition, always. All the important life skills one needed to cultivate in order to meet that oh so important bar of true manhood. All the stuff I’ve seen crush so many men in one way or another down the years. A pan-generational bear trap for us all, yawning wide at every school assembly and in every classroom confrontation.
I had thought about the kind of man I wanted to be, and I knew I wanted something entirely different, although I was still having a tough time articulating what that something looked like. I certainly didn’t feel I could look around me and see a bunch of examples of it, at school or in the wider culture.
Looking back, Kurt Cobain was one of the first, and still sadly few, public figures I looked at and drew strength from. He wasn’t the first rock star to eschew that picture postcard masculinity, but he was certainly the first one I saw, and maybe one of the first who seemed like an attainable figure, rather than an alien visiting from a distant universe, or a figure so impossibly glamorous that I could never hope to learn from them. Years later I saw David McAlmont sing Yes on Jools Holland, and thought he was the most beautiful and fascinating looking man I’d ever seen in my life, but not for one moment did I believe there was anything he was doing that I could do too. Likewise, I’d seen quite a few musicians play some of these cards before, but in such a way that it was made obvious that it was OK, because they were doing it to get women. That whole “I might be wearing makeup, but you know I’m getting laid way more than you” thing, that merely ticks the box of manhood left handed.
When I looked at Kurt, I saw so much that I wanted. Not the money, the fame or even the talent. But the weird gentleness without weakness. The unabashed vulnerability. The commitment to the parts of himself that might have been labelled feminine. The way he seemed to retain an aspect of boyhood that liberated him from all the coarse expectations of manhood. The kinship he clearly felt to gay people, and the way he spoke about women; he was certainly the first rockstar I saw who seemed interested in women as people first and foremost, and as sexual objects secondarily. I wanted all of that, very badly indeed. Most of all, I wanted the way he was able to deploy all of those aspects as strengths, rather than weaknesses. The way he fought for those values at all times. I was in a place in my life where I was just starting to have to do a lot of fighting to be who I wanted to be (as perhaps we all do at that age), and watching Cobain taught me that it was OK to be outspoken and not to apologise for being different. That different was good. Maybe even best.
I feel a little juvenile writing all of this; I’ve never been an air guitar in front of the mirror sort of person, and I never in my life wanted to join a band. I didn’t want to be a rock star, but I badly needed at that point a man who could show me, even at a distance of a thousand miles, that there was another way of being a man, and that there might in fact be myriad other ways of being so. I took power from Kurt. Power and vegetarianism, if I’m being really honest. How tragic.
When he refused to tour with Guns N Roses, I loved it. When he wore a dress, I loved it. When he French kissed Dave Grohl, I loved it. When he stood up for gay rights, I loved it. He seemed to be entirely liberated from all the things I was wrestling with; gloriously so. Airborne and resplendent.
I was never under any illusions. I knew that I didn’t know him, and that if I ever met him I’d probably find him awful. When it later transpired that he was a hopeless drug addict who was so out of it he dropped his own baby on her head, I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t Kurt I admired, after all, it was just certain aspects of him. Those aspects that gave me permission to explore parts of myself that were at odds with everything around me, every message I was receiving about who I should be and what actually mattered. Permission to continue to read poetry after a teacher announced to the class that I must be, and I quote, a “gender-bender” for doing so. Permission to articulate my emotions. Permission – and this was the big one in a boys school – to be far more interested in women for companionship than for sex. To be gentle at a moment when gentleness was something that needed to be beaten (figuratively, I’m relieved to say) out of the men of tomorrow.
It’s probably taken me until this age to be willing to admit that an actual rock star influenced me to this extent. My persona is such that the idea of taking life tips from such a person is total anathema, much less publicly admitting to having done so. But sometimes it’s healthy to put your cards on the table and call it like it is.
Every time there’s a discussion on here about Nirvana and whether they were copying Pixies, or whether they were overrated, or whatever, a little voice in my head goes “yeah, maybe, but no other band helped me through adolescence like they did”. I’m sure many of us could say similar of other groups. Nirvana were mine.
And I suppose that brings me to why I’m writing this…. maybe because these thoughts have been in my head a while, but I’ve never actually expressed them to anyone. Maybe because I sometimes think the discussion of Nirvana forgets what a cultural force they were. But mainly, I suppose, because it’s a small, tiny way of saying the thing I’ve never said and probably should have by now: thank you, Kurt Cobain.
Thanks for reading.