Heart-Shaped Noise: The Music and the Legacy of Kurt Cobain
Sometime during the months leading up to the recording sessions for Nirvana’s last album, Kurt Cobain wrote a song called “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” It was a phrase he used a lot at the time — ever since the band’s Australian tour in the winter of 1992 — as a backhanded response to people who kept asking him how he was doing. Cobain thought it was so funny he wanted it to be the title of the album.
“Nothing more than a joke,” Cobain said of the song and sentiment, grinning through a thick haze of cigarette smoke as we talked in a Chicago hotel room last fall. “I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. ‘He isn’t satisfied with anything.’ And I thought it was a funny title.”
Eventually, the gag wore thin. Cobain changed the title of the album first to Verse Chorus Verse (a dig at cookie-cutter songwriting and his own fear of the rut), then to In Utero. He also yanked the original song — a short, dour punker — from the record on the eve of release. As if to prove how little it all mattered by then, he gave “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” to those cartoon boobs Beavis and Butt-head; Cobain’s joke ended up as the opening track on the otherwise witless LP The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience.
It now appears there is more truth in that song than Kurt Cobain ever cared to admit.
Or is there? In the wake of Cobain’s tragic suicide, his Nirvana songbook rings long and loud with the clamor of dark prophecy: “You can’t fire me, because I quit” (“Scentless Apprentice”); “Everything is my fault/I’ll take all the blame” (“All Apologies”); “Monkey see monkey do/I don’t know why I’d rather be dead than cool” (“Stay Away”); “One more special message to go/And then I’m done, then I can go home” (“On a Plain”).
But as a man of riffs and letters, Cobain was a sly dog who rarely stooped to the obvious. He was a master of grim metaphor and droll sarcasm who delighted in shock treatment and false trails and then obliterated his tracks with industrial-strength guitar distortion and a corrosive whine ‘n’ bark that rubbed even his best hook lines raw. Nothing in Cobain’s music was ever quite what it initially seemed; his best-known song was named after a deodorant. And he must have had a damn good laugh over all the critics — including this one — who tripped over that self-mocking opening couplet from “Serve the Servants”: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.”
Because he wasn’t bored. Not by music, anyway. In his suicide note, Cobain despaired that his muse had flown south for good. Yet even during those last black days, he refused to surrender without a fight: trying to record new Nirvana demos, initiating a project with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
The blood, come, phlegm and venom splattered all over Nirvana’s albums, especially In Utero, were hard evidence of a young man torn by extremes — and still finding release, if not exactly sense or salvation, in the verse-chorus-verse fallout. Kurt Cobain made sure that if his life was going to end up on record, you got it as he fucking lived it.
I miss that already. Cobain’s music was a noise of purpose, not just vengeance, and rock & roll voices like his are not easy to replace. It was a noise of inclusion, too; when Cobain became successful, he dragged his peers and heroes — the Melvins, the Breeders, Meat Puppets, Half Japanese, the Raincoats — kicking and screaming into the spotlight. Cobain was also driven to find life beyond the punk-rock gravy train. MTV may have rerun Nirvana’s Unplugged performance into the ground during that first weekend after Cobain’s death, but the heavy rotation did not cheapen the promise and determination implicit in his dramatic acoustic recastings of “Come As You Are” and “Pennyroyal Tea.”
Cobain’s suicide is a defining moment in rock & roll for all the obvious reasons. As loath as he was to admit it, he was the first superstar of both the new punk and the new decade. He was also the first to check out permanently. Like the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and the other members of “that stupid club,” as Cobain’s mother uncharitably put it, his passing marked the end of an innocence — a greater communal euphoria that erupted when Nirvana’s Nevermind tore a hole through the Billboard album chart at the end of 1991 and broke the death grip of mainstream ’80s pomp and bloat on rock & roll. For those three and four minutes apiece, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are” and “Lithium” made commercial-rock radio sound alive, like a weapon again. Hearing those songs now, we can’t help regretting how little Cobain shared in that euphoria. The parallels between Cobain’s life and that of John Lennon — who died when Cobain was only 13 — are downright spooky. Both came from broken homes, fought drug addiction, wrestled with the mixed blessings of success, entered into controversial, sometimes contentious marriages and carried the excess baggage from their troubled childhoods well past adolescence into adulthood. Like Lennon, whom he admired, Cobain spoke and wrote freely about his troubles and dreams without fear of ridicule or censure.
But Lennon was murdered; Cobain took his own life with a violent finality that ensured no turning back. Lennon, even during the most convulsive years of his career with and without the Beatles, reveled in the power of his celebrity, using it to press his own agenda. Cobain never figured out how to make stardom work for him. After years of writing in bedrooms and playing in shitty little punk-rock bars, Cobain was blindsided when his music and his band suddenly became public domain. He saw “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song he’d written in blatant emulation of one of his favorite groups, the Pixies — reduced to a cliché, the sing-along anthem of Flannel Nation. A line he’d written in dry jest, the kind of thing you’d say when you burst into a really boring party, became a slacker totem: “Here we are now, entertain us.” By the start of Nirvana’s 1993 fall tour, Cobain could barely bring himself to play the song with any enthusiasm. On the night of our interview at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, he didn’t play it at all.