No I don't have a gun/
No I don't have a gun/
No I don't have a gun...
- Kurt Cobain and Nirvana's lyrics to Come As You Are
Cobain, you goddamn liar...
- Paul Wartenberg, after finding out on April 8 1994 along with everyone else what happened to the guy
Friends, Americans, Culturists, lend me your media feeds. I come to praise Generation X, not to bury it.
And no, I'm not talking about the punk band or the Marvel graphic series. I'm talking about the boys and girls who were born roughly between 1965 - the year Dylan went electric - and 1980 - when Lennon was assassinated - so that they had to be three years old at least when Return of the Jedi was out and Reagan was in the White House. I'm from 1970 - Year of the Dog - so me and the Class of 1988 (Go Spongers) are right in the middle of it.
We were the following generation of the Baby Boomers, the genealogical anomaly of a birthing group (1945 to 1963) that came after the Depression / War generation. Where the War generation was defined by sacrifice, blood sweat and tears, and superhero comics, and where the Baby Boomer set defined by middle class affluence, reactionary rebellion, and rock n roll, the Generation X was defined by the X. A random elusive variable...
Gen Xers were the generation that grew up in the wake of the national malaise post-Vietnam and post-Watergate, when our political and social institutions were beset with scandals. We were the generation that was the first to be mostly self-raised as our parents both went to work (Latchkey kids), where divorce was common compared to previous generations or where single parents were becoming a norm. We had to cope with the consequences of the burgeoning War on Drugs, the spread of sexual diseases in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution, and the disaster that was New Coke.
But it wasn't all bad. Ours was the generation that grew up to Star Wars, a cultural milestone akin to the Beatles. We had the benefit of cable TV bringing us more Sports (ESPN), more news (CNN), more weather. We got our MTV. We gamed to Dungeons & Dragons despite the moral outrage, we danced to Prince and Madonna despite the moral outrage, we permed our hair and wore mullets despite the moral outrage.
We are, were, still will be, a generation rather schizophrenic to the core: both jaded and optimistic, sarcastic and sincere, conspiracy-minded and complacent. We were the generation doomed to barely survive as the Boomers sucked all the oxygen out of the room as they came of age of political and economic power in the Nineties (when they all turned 40 and became CEOs and Presidents).
And we had our heroes and icons, the ones who spoke to us, spoke for us, on the national media stage.
1991 was a major turning point in our culture. The Cold War of the last 25 years was ending as the Soviet Union literally withered on the vine. The Berlin Wall had already fallen and the political threats were no longer coming from Asia but from the Middle East. Movies were about to turn into special-effects behemoths as CGI effects in Terminator II showed that anything was visually possible.
Music was also changing as the decades changed. The video-driven 80s pop and hair metal bands that dominated MTV and radio were getting stale. Rap was still having a problem getting outside of the ghettos of L.A. and New York. Michael Jackson was making a major media campaign to prove himself relevant in the 90s as he had been the previous decade, but was doing so in a heavy-handed, self-defeating way.
But it was a little-heralded band out of Washington state - part of the Seattle music scene that soon became known as "grunge" - called Nirvana that blew the speakers out of every teenager and college student's sound systems that year. A song - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - that was part Ramones up-tempo rock, part metal, part protest - just hit the right damn notes with the Gen X age group. From epic opening riff to the fading scream of singer Kurt Cobain shouting "A denial...", it spoke to a generational apathy of teens and college students who wanted to unplug from a crazy world, couldn't, and just had to cope.
Nirvana went from a garage band that traveled to shows in beat-up vans to a headlining act filling packed arenas and stadiums. Cobain became the iconic grunge rocker: dressing in hand-me-down flannels, with shaggy hair and three-day beard growth, walking about with a dazed look in the eyes and a knowing grin. Everyone thought it was cool.
Except for Cobain. He never asked to be a hero or a rock star. He wanted to be a rocker, sure, but someone who plugged in, played a few chords, moved on. He had his own heroes - other post-punk and college radio bands that he eagerly talked up in interviews, which gave them brief bumps in popularity - but he also had his own demons.
Like a good number of other Gen Xers, Cobain grew up in a broken home in an economically-depressed town. He grew up as an artist (his family had a history of musical talent and his grandmother encouraged his drawing), which made him a target for a good amount of school bullying by the jock clique (it didn't help that Cobain's father tried to get him to play sports). It got worse when Cobain befriended a gay student which made those jocks think Cobain was gay as well (Cobain eventually made many pro-gay gestures around town in order to piss off the homophobes, and later opined he was bisexual despite all the girlfriends he lived with).
After getting thrown out of his mother's home - having dropped out of high school, having problems finding work - Cobain lived the struggling artist life, finding part-time work where he could, going to music shows across the Northwest, starting up his own attempts at music, hooking up with girls in the scene, and making his way onto the stage with one band line-up after another. Teaming up with Krist Novoselic to form Nirvana in 1987, they went through a series of drummers until they tabbed Dave Grohl for the job in 1990. Then they went in to a major studio to record the album Nevermind...
Cobain's work as a musician and lyricist focused on dynamic contrasts: the lyrics themselves would have a stanza of meaningful incoherence followed by a repetitive chorus back to another stanza before closing out with a repetitive chorus that underscored a melancholic dread or a resigned fate. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" worked that way, as did "Come As You Are", "Lithium", "Polly", later songs like "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Rape Me"... The songs were tinged with political rage and social despair, but sung in a light-hearted disconnected tone.
Cobain didn't expect so many people to get into what he was doing, and was dismayed a lot of his work was getting overplayed... or worse played out of context. One of the things that haunted him was finding out his song "Polly" - a disturbing tale of an unconcerned man raping a girl, based on a real-life serial rapist who haunted the Pacific Northwest - was being sung by two rapists assaulting their own victim. Cobain got disgusted finding out that as Nirvana got more popular they were attracting the same jerk jocks and frat-boy bullies that made his teen years a living hell, many of them not even getting the fact that a lot of Cobain's own songs were raging against them.
Not helping matters were Cobain's history of drug use - some of it psychiatric, some of it to cope with a chronic stomach ailment, some of it recreational with the hardest of them being heroin - and getting into a volatile relationship with Courtney Love. Due to the couple's drug use, they temporarily lost custody of their daughter Frances Bean and he continued to live under the fear of losing her again. In this environment, a handful of drug-using moments seem to turn into suicide attempts.
By the end of March 1994, Cobain was confronted with an intervention and convinced to put himself in detox/rehab in Los Angeles. He only stayed for about a day, then hopped the clinic's six-foot wall and fled. By April 2nd, he was spotted in a few places around his stomping ground Seattle. By April 5th, he ended up at his big secluded home. His body was found April 8th, shotgun to the head, body pumped of heroin, a suicide note nearby.
There's been the conspiracy theories, of course: Generation X grew up with Roswell and the Kennedys and King getting shot and the CIA MK/Ultra stories and the FBI Conintelpro scandals. The idea that Courtney Love had Kurt killed for some reason or another. But the sad truth is that everything we know about Kurt Cobain, the pains and the addictions, the fact he fled on his own, that he wandered (wondered) about town his last few days, by himself for the most part, alienated and disconnected... the suicide has all the markings of the bliss of a man who'd decided to unplug for good...
This was all twenty years ago. I was working as a part-time librarian in Clearwater at the time - St. Pete (then Junior) College - and I came home to my mom telling me the kids in her classroom were talking about Kurt. I turned on the news, to MTV, and watched. It was a kick in the gut.
Cobain was 27 when we died. Same age as my older brother. He was three years ahead of me. He could have been my brother, or someone I knew at school. Like him, I had to deal with bullies and not fitting in, and coping with a world that seemed so painful. Still I got some of the lyrics he sang, not all of them, but I got them. I felt the tempo of the music, understood the mood. Like Cobain and millions of other Gen Xers I had depression, but I coped.
And I hated Cobain for what he did. He chickened out. He had more going for him, more to live for (a daughter for God's sake), than I would ever know. Not just the money or the fame. He had friends despite the disconnect that seemed to be there. He had the ability to enjoy the world on his terms - with wry bemusement - that I can only barely do on my own. And still he couldn't cope.
It's 2014. On Facebook recently I saw a shared photo of famous dead artists with the poster asking which of these artists would you like to see perform one more time? For me, that poster isn't asking about whether we'd want to see them perform, it's if we want to see them... meet them, before the moment those talented souls fell to their fate, to drugs or illness or madness or worse. Warn them, save them somehow, so that they'd still be here in the real world rather than in our fading memories.
Generation X are now in our 40s, mostly. We're well within the age of being parents, raising our own kids, coping as always only now we're on the older side of things bearing witness to this new generation - the Millennials - learning to cope on their own with their hopes and fears and cultural touchstones ("Call Me Maybe"? Sigh...). We're about the age of becoming CEOs and Presidents ourselves, although the Boomer generation hasn't ungripped the reins of power just yet and we're suffering - much like our own kids among the Millenial crowd - from the short-sighted Boomer self-indulgences...
Except for Cobain, who fell behind, stuck at 27 forever. Stuck as a reminder that not all of us got out of the Nineties alive. Stuck on the same last repeating lyric.
(bemused grin that quickly disappears as the video ends)