So Long Lives This: Pondering Kurt Cobain (A JIVE Re-Post)

Today. An anniversary deserving of recognition, even if you hold little admiration for the man. Conspiracies abound to the contrary, but seventeen years ago this week, Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Seattle.

The death of Kurt Cobain affected the children of the late 70s / early 80s far more than it did the children of the late 60s / early 70s. I was born in 1972, so I’d had my fill of fallen heroes and dashed dreams. On my watch, we’d lost John Lennon in 1980, the Challenger in 1986. Chernobyl suffered meltdown the same year. Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan in 1981. Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Where was I on April 5, 1994? I was in college. There were daffodils on campus, as there have been every spring. Other than that, I really couldn’t say. At the time, I don’t think I had any room left in my “Where Were You When?” files.

Little did I know that I’d have to make space for the WTC in 2001 and Columbia in 2003.

For years, I just didn’t get it. Display your heroes, certainly. Your Martins, your Malcolms, your Ches. Wear them proudly and boldly. But why Cobain?

Back in 1996, I was working as a youth minister just south of Atlanta. One of my charges had a favorite t-shirt, black and too big for him, emblazoned fully across the front with the face of Kurt Cobain. One of those latter day images. He’s giving the camera a wide-eyed glare surrounded by pools of dark eyeliner. Cobain had been dead for almost three years, yet here he was. The hero of a 12-year old.

I never asked, but I wondered, “What did this seemingly selfish, purposefully tragic, self-destructive poet ever do for you?”

Prior to his celebrity, he was reputably a couch-surfer, slumming from apartment to apartment, borrowing space and time from friends and neighbors, living for his next fix, either of heroin or attention. Stardom caught him completely unaware, sweeping him into the spotlight, giving him a cape and crown he thought he wanted, but never expected.

Imagine it. What do you do when nothing becomes something?

And when that unexpected something is gone, what is left?


But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

– – (William Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII)

So try as I might, I cannot ignore the almost Shakespearean nature of his legacy. I can dismiss so much of the man, but the work refuses to be ignored.

So long lives this.

Cobain’s “this” that lives, it lives through his lyrics. The music of Nirvana might be representative of the genius of David Grohl and Krist Novoselic, but the words were his, broken as they were. His poetry might not last beyond our own lifetime or the next, but it matters now. Maybe he was the accidental voice of his generation, like a Dylan or even a Lennon. We’re too close to tell today. And it doesn’t matter. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that our heroes need no prerequisites and little justification.

His songs will see a long life through rendition and cover, I’m certain. Some of the best versions already come from the talents of others, like Tori Amos’s heart-breaking “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — sung in her concerts during the summer of 1994 right before or after Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Rather fitting, actually.

McLean marked the death of Buddy Holly in 1959 as the day “the music died” knowing that it was hyperbole. Music bruises and stumbles, but it doesn’t die, no matter how loud anyone sounds the knell. The same can be said of Kurt Cobain. His music did not perish on April 5, 1994, just the potential of more. And why? It is very likely that the suffering he was trying to end was something beyond addiction. Too much pain can move anyone to desperation. Grunge was about dealing with life in the morass of the mundane — escape from it or dive beneath — and nobody needed to die for it (though too many did — remember Shannon Hoon? Layne Staley?). His death doesn’t make him remarkable.

Ponder and move on. Leave the death-day mournings to the August pilgrims in Memphis, mourning their King.

Remember words instead, unconstrained by dates and given meaning by your own memories, made to matter by your own life. The words are all.

All in all is all we are.
All in all is all we are.
All in all is all we are.

This article was posted originally on 04/05/2004 at JIVE Magazine, an Atlanta-based print/web magazine.

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  • Anonymous

    This date is time to remember songs and music of Nirvana. Tomorrow, I’m going to download from a documentary movie «Kurt & Courtney» investigating the circumstances surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death. My friends told me it was really intresting to watch it, as it gives unexpected reasons for his death