What a Difference Twenty Years Makes: Putting Kurt Cobain to Rest

I was a 15-year-old Western Washington high school student when Kurt Cobain died. I heard the news in Computer Applications class, where I was learning the ins and outs of Word Perfect. I remember being upset, or maybe confused is the better word, but I wasn’t devastated. And most of my classmates appeared to be affected, but not devastated. I remember one girl crying inconsolably, and I felt bad for her, but minus a small handful of kids who skipped afternoon classes for an impromptu memorial (I wasn’t one of them), life resumed, and it seemed to resume pretty quickly.

I liked Nirvana. I liked the way they sounded simultaneously ugly and pretty. The condition of being a teenage girl is simultaneously ugly and pretty. And while you don’t necessarily draw those connections when you’re choosing your likes and dislikes, it’s easy to look back and see why some things were especially appealing. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance (which I watched on VHS tape, the YouTube of my youth) was amazing, confounding, weird, and, for some reason, a little scary to me. It stuck with me hard. And when that live Nirvana/Meat Muppets CD came out a year later (I didn’t personally have the CD, but a copy on tape that a friend made me, because in 94-95, I probably owned no more than ten CDs), I wore it out. By then, I had a driver’s license and always seemed to play that tape on the way to church youth group, just one of many demonstrations of the discordance of teendom.

Yes, I liked Nirvana a lot. But it was by no means my only, or even main, obsession. And maybe that’s why I approached Cobain’s death with distance, confusion, and especially anger. I never related to him. He seemed to bring the darkness to the band, and it was its occasional lightness that I liked the most. So when the adults starting opining about how the youth of America would react, namely that in the aftermath there would be a surge in suicides (there wasn’t, by the way, suicide rates actually went down in the Seattle area in the months following Cobain’s death), I began to look around. Were the adults right? Were we all completely destroyed by this? I can’t be the only one who didn’t venerate Cobain’s final self-destructive act, I thought. And I wasn’t. I liked Kurt Cobain, and his death definitely made me feel something, but it didn’t cause me to relate to him, and I certainly didn’t want to emulate him. Mostly, his suicide angered me. Lots of kids seemed angry. Knowing very little about the world, and even less about suicide, many of us jumped to the overly simplistic teen conclusion that only an asshole would let everyone down by committing suicide. And upon concluding that Cobain was a selfish, misguided asshole, I moved on from him and didn’t really look back. My anger toward him didn’t exactly fuel anything, it just made me like him, and by extension his music, less.

I would occasionally listen to old Nirvana albums throughout the remainder of high school and every once in a while in college, mainly for nostalgia (because wizened old college students love their nostalgia), but I more or less forgot about Nirvana, and about Kurt Cobain. When faced with the choice of being angry with him, or not thinking about him at all, forgetting seemed like the better option.

Then I became an adult. I grew to be the age Kurt Cobain was when he made his grand exit, and then I passed it. I worked in mental health court, representing people with mental illness. I lived through suicides of people I actually knew. I became more aware of the kind of pain and disease people live with. And throughout it all, I listened to music that spoke to more of life than just its angst. And I noticed that hearing the odd Nirvana song (Nirvana still gets a fair amount of radio play, at least here in Seattle) brought empathy along with nostalgia. I didn’t hear a misguided asshole in the lyrics, I heard a scrubbed, isolated, and desperate person looking in the wrong places and finding the wrong answers. I no longer felt anger.

As the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death approaches, I wouldn’t say I’ve immersed myself in revisitation, but I’ve read a few articles and tried to examine how I feel about his death now that I’m an adult. I read the transcript of Cobain’s suicide note for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I expected it to be far more maudlin and less…practical. In the end, he wrote a lot about very simple things: envy, fatigue, not being able to do his job well, not being able to parent well, gratefulness/ungratefulness, and physical pain. A lot of the things he wrote make sense…or at least they make sense in the context of clinical depression. But the one piece that stuck out in my mind as being the most incongruous with reality was this, “I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasms I once had as a child.”

I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d read that as a teenager, but as an adult, I felt overwhelming sadness. I might have even gasped or said, “Oh, no!” out loud. He didn’t know and couldn’t see that no one maintains the enthusiasms they had as children. That that isn’t the way life is, or even the way it should be. How can someone so sensitive have missed that? He beat himself up over not being able to find that enthusiasm and felt despair at not having it, and all the while, he didn’t even know that no one has it. And, more than that, that you don’t need it. Childhood enthusiasm is beautiful and wonderful and can’t be appreciated to its full extent while it’s happening, and most of all, it’s fleeting. And that’s exactly as it should be. When the excitement that comes from everything being new fades, we gain other gifts in return. The beauty of seeing things through wiser eyes, the joy of helping others up, the satisfaction of reaching (not all, but hopefully much of) our potential, the peace that comes with understanding more, caring more, and seeing more. He didn’t know that’s the way life can be, and that’s heartbreaking.

I’ve always hated the expression, “Only the good die young.” And it’s been repeated from ancient Greece (“whom the gods love dies young”) to Billy Doggone Joel. But its repetition doesn’t make it any truer. All that’s true is that only the young die young. And when they do, they stay young forever, trapped in what would have been their momentary lack of perspective. Kurt Cobain was twelve years older than I when he died, and now he’s eight years younger. He’s gone from being an adult who angered and disappointed me, to a young man who couldn’t see the best parts of reality. I don’t really know what this post is about; probably growth, change, perspective, and forgiveness. And gratefulness, for the opportunity to exchange the gifts of youth for the gifts of adulthood. Maybe it’s a little bit about letting go, too.

In any case, for what it’s worth, Kurt, I’m not angry anymore.

2 thoughts on “What a Difference Twenty Years Makes: Putting Kurt Cobain to Rest”

  1. “He beat himself up over not being able to find that enthusiasm and felt despair at not having it, and all the while, he didn’t even know that no one has it. And, more than that, that you don’t need it. Childhood enthusiasm is beautiful and wonderful and can’t be appreciated to its full extent while it’s happening, and most of all, it’s fleeting. And that’s exactly as it should be. When the excitement that comes from everything being new fades, we gain other gifts in return. The beauty of seeing things through wiser eyes, the joy of helping others up, the satisfaction of reaching (not all, but hopefully much of) our potential, the peace that comes with understanding more, caring more, and seeing more. He didn’t know that’s the way life can be, and that’s heartbreaking.

    All this is amazing.

  2. Thank you for this. It is a milestone how I divide people up. THose of us born before Kurt’s death and remember him and the kids born after. I might have only been 12 years old at the time of Kurt’s death but I had just discovered music that wasn’t made in the 1960s a year previous and of course my friends were playing Nirvana everywhere.
    I live behind a hotel that Kurt used to score drugs at. It was one of the last places people had seen him alive. I have this weird connection knowing that I walk by it every day, somewhere were Kurt was human.

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