Hey, want to feel old? This year marks twenty years since Kurt Cobain died. What, you don’t know who Kurt Cobain was? Now I do feel old!
Today is Cobain’s birthday, the day upon which, twenty years ago, he turned 27 and began his last two plus months of life. And today’s song is the first song by his band Nirvana that I got to know, not long before he cashed it in.
The album, In Utero, was released in September, 1993, which means it was early in my final year in the Ph.D. program at Princeton. It was dissertation-writing year, in other words, and if I had music on, it tended to be classical or jazz. No words, just moods. If you really want to concentrate, put on Mozart. Or Chopin.
Anyway, I knew of the existence of the band Nirvana ever since the promotion images of the nude kid in the pool with the dollar bill had been plastered all over the CD store for Nevermind in 1991, early in my time in Princeton. But y’know it seemed like it was music aimed at teens and early twenty-somethings and I was already past thirty, so. More than that, I guess, was the fact that I was resolutely turning away from youth culture such as I had known it through most of my life. What had it ever done for me? I suppose I was a bit disillusioned. Now and then I’d still pick up something new but was mostly going through the motions. What’s more, I didn’t get a CD player til Christmas 1991, and without one it was rather prohibitive to get new music. Vinyl was very pricey then when you could find it at all.
None of that has much to do with Nirvana, but I’m saying it by way of explanation of the fact that I missed them. This song got my interest, then — poof! — it was over. But the song was one of the best things from that time. I got In Utero early in the 1994-95 school year, after moving to Hamden, CT.
“Married—buried! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” That was true to life, enough. I’d been at that since 1985, officially, and longer if we count what counts. “I wish I was like you—easily amused / Find my nest of salt / Everything’s my fault.” It’s a mea culpa song, alright. It’s about gritting your teeth and getting through it. For me, there were some glimmers around 1993-94—hell, 1992—that said things might go another way, that there were alternatives to what was already determined. I distracted myself from my less than inspired diss with verses that were anything but free, easy, content. There were profound anxieties in the air, but also a great wealth of thought—I thought.
“Choking on the ashes of her enemy.” Ouch. My own “freezer burn” choking moment occurred near the end of December 1993. “What else can I be? / All apologies.” Yeah. Much to be sorry about, I’ll say. It was a fun run up til then.
Cobain’s vocals have the ability to rip their guts out and still stay focused. It’s a voice with amazing lucidity in the midst of shock waves of sound. That great grunge guitar, all fat and fuzzy and aggressive. The thump thump drums punctuating the “married / buried” rhyme—and what a rhyme! There’s a savviness to the song that made you think Cobain was in control of it all. “All in all is all we are.” A numbing mantra that gets extended til it feels like zombies muttering. And that quip: “What else can I say / Everyone is gay.” That line amused me because, you see, I was reading a lot of Proust at the time, Ashbery too, and it was certainly true in a non-literal way, “gayness” being a condition that had moved from the never spoken of or only spoken as a slur, to a point of pride, to an aggrieved subculture getting hammered by AIDS. To say “everyone is gay” was like saying everyone is susceptible. In the midst of life we are in death, sex machines as we may be.
What Nirvana was to me, briefly, with this song, was a band that channeled some of the melancholy of R.E.M. and even darker dudes, like Bauhaus and Joy Division, into a brashness borrowed from heavy metal by way of punk—Sex Pistols, Stooges, The Clash. Melodically, and with a cello no less, the song could hold its own with almost anyone, well, anyone whose idea of a tune wasn’t akin to jingles. And even there: “all in all is all we are” could be imagined as some tagline for . . . god knows, insurance adverts, the togetherness of major manufacture of cars or computers? Something, anyway, for all of us so easily amused.
Typically, I got the words wrong in my listening: “I’ll take all the blame / I’ll proceed from shame,” instead of the imagistic “Aqua seafoam shame.” And I heard, even more fun: “Somewhere free as a bird / Choking on the ashes of a remedy.” Could that be the lyrical equivalent of a Freudian slip, or of a dream logic of alternatives?
Sorry, Kurt, all apologies. I don’t have the right. And any way, there was no remedy for it, for Cobain. Heroin didn’t kill him, but it was part of the equation. Dying by degrees anyway. “One more man gone,” as Nick Cave might say. The rest of us could do the survivor’s shuffle. In another two and a half years from Cobain's demise, I’d be outliving my own dad. From married—for 47 years—to buried. All we are.
As one with the sun? During this time I was also engaged by a task that I’d started around 1988—composing poems for the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck, and to feel as one in the sun or with The Sun was devoutly to be wished. Like I said, there were glimmers . . . “I see my light come shining,” as the Dylan song says. “Whatever whatever nevermind.”